When Penguins defenseman Christian Ehrhoff was a late scratch in Saturday’s 3-1 victory against Arizona, Pittsburgh was forced to play with only five blueliners for an entire game.
So the team did what it has done all season – leaned heavily on Kris Letang.
Letang set a new season high with 31:09 minutes of ice time, chipped in with his career-high 43rd assist and helped the Pens snap a four-game losing streak.
In other words, it was just another game in the 2014-15 season for Letang.
The Pens coaching staff has relied on Letang all season, and with good reason. He’s not only been the team’s best defenseman, he may be the best defenseman in the entire National Hockey League.
Letang, 27, ranks second among all NHL defensemen with 54 points and tops all league blueliners with 43 helpers. He also ranks eighth in the NHL with 25:34 minutes played per game. Letang may find himself in Las Vegas this summer for the league’s annual awards as a Norris Trophy nominee as best NHL Defenseman.
With everything he’s done so far, it’s amazing to think that just over a year ago Letang suffered a stroke and his hockey future was clouded with uncertainty.
“I feel really good about this year, especially after last year with everything that happened,” Letang said. “All the work I put in this summer and the work the doctors did for me, it turned out that way. I was not expecting to have a year like that, but it all came together.”
Due to Letang’s ability not only to return from the stroke, but to also become one of the most elite players at his position, he was nominated by the Pittsburgh Chapter of Professional Hockey Writers Association as the team’s Masterton Trophy nominee.
The Masterton Trophy is given out yearly by the NHL to the player who “best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.”
“It’s huge for me. Last year I was just trying to come back and play hockey. This year I want to be back to the level I was playing before and be a guy that will make an impact on my team,” Letang said. “That’s why I worked really hard this summer with the doctors, with trainers, just to get back to what I’m capable of doing.”
Letang no doubt fits that bill. In fact, after doctors diagnosed him with a stroke, the first thing he asked them was, “When will I be able to play hockey again?” It took Letang only 10 weeks to return to the ice after his stroke. And he instantly played as if nothing had ever happened.
But despite his play on the ice, Letang is still dealing with issues from the stroke every day. And it’s something he will deal with for the rest of his life.
“I’ll stay on medication and make sure my blood stays thin so I don’t have a chance for another clot,” said Letang, who also has had a small hole in his heart since birth. “I get tired faster. There are a lot of little details that people can’t really see. You know your body so well and you’re used to something and then it changes. You see differently. You get dizzy. It’s just getting used to the new me, with the help of doctors making it all possible.”
Letang was only 26 years old and among the best conditioned athletes in his profession when he suffered the stroke in January 2014. He has used his situation to help raise heart awareness. He was the co-chair of the 2014 Pittsburgh Heart Walk this past November and helped raise over $6,500 for the event.
Over the summer Letang worked closely with doctors to change his routine, particularly getting more rest, to help him return to form on the ice. Letang isn’t just the player he was before the stroke. He’s better.
“It is crazy,” Letang said. “Last year I would talk with my family and my wife and thinking I just want to play hockey. Hockey is my life. Now I’ve changed perspective. This summer I wanted to be back to where I was. I don’t want to just be a hockey player. I want to be the best that I can be.”
Michelle Crechiolo contributed to this report.