NASHVILLE – Kris Letang has gone through a lot in the last couple of years.
In the 2013-14 season, Letang missed 26 games after suffering a stroke. In the 2014-15 season, he missed the final seven regular-season games and all of the playoffs after being diagnosed with a concussion.
This year, the 28-year-old defenseman has dealt with various injuries after a relatively slow start. But he’s since worked his way back to an elite level and is playing tremendous hockey for his team.
As a result, Letang was selected to participate in the 2016 NHL All-Star festivities this weekend in Nashville. And while that in itself means a lot, it’s even more special considering what he’s overcome to get here.
“Every time you get named to the All-Star Game it’s an honor, honestly,” Letang said. “You like to see your name next to theirs. Going through all of that in the last few years, it’s fun to see that I went through it and I’m still able to play at that level.”
Entering this year, Letang was hopeful he would be able to put those rough two seasons behind him. And while he had a decent first part of the season – collecting points on a regular basis and skating a ton of minutes in all situations, as per usual – it wasn’t up to his high standards.
“Too many ups and downs at the beginning of the year,” Letang said. “I had one good game, one average game.”
Letang was then sidelined for nine of 10 games from Dec. 5-21 due to injury, and during that time the Penguins made a coaching change, replacing Mike Johnston with Mike Sullivan.
While Letang has missed a couple of games with injuries since returning to the lineup on Dec. 26 at Minnesota, overall the defenseman has absolutely thrived in the last month-plus since.
Letang leads NHL defensemen with 19 points (5G-14A) since Dec. 26. Overall, his assist in Pittsburgh’s last game before the break — a 2-0 win over New Jersey on Tuesday — gives him points in 27 of his last 29 games (5G-24A). Overall, he ranks first among Pens defensemen with 33 points and leads the team with 27 assists.
“Consistently, right now it’s been the best all year,” he said.
When asked what part Sullivan has played in helping him find his game, Letang said the structure has helped.
“The structure is something we’ve worked on,” he said. “And making sure everybody is on the same page. Just the fact that you have a new face coming in, a new coach, you kind of put urgency in your game. You want to prove yourself. You want to show what you’re capable of doing.”
To Sullivan, Letang has done that.
“Kris is a passionate player,” Sullivan said. “He’s a real good player. He and I have had a lot of conversations about how we’d like him to play, and what our expectations are. We’re trying to put him in a position to be successful. To his credit, he has played extremely well for us, and he is an important part of this team. You can see the impact that he has on the games when he is in our lineup versus when he is not in our lineup (NOTE: the Pens are 2-7-1 without Letang). When he plays the way he has played for the last month or so, he certainly is a difference maker for us, and I credit him.
“He is a guy that wants to win. He is a very fit guy. He takes care of himself. He works extremely hard, and his practice habits are great. So he puts himself in a position to be successful because he puts the time in and he pays the price. I think those are the types of players that we want to have on our team and in our organization because those are the types of guys that are going to help us win.”