Letang still playing important role for Pensby Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter
Back in April, Kris Letang stood at the podium at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex and said he believed his teammates could get back to the Stanley Cup Final without him and had what it took to repeat.
Not many shared that belief, as Letang - who underwent surgery to repair a herniated disc in his neck and was given a timeline of 4-6 months - is Pittsburgh's most important player, averaging 28:52 of ice time per game during last year's playoffs.
But now, almost two months later, Letang has been proven right - pointing out that while the Pens may not have him, they still have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
"I'm really proud," Letang said. "I think a month and a half ago I was sitting here and I was really convinced that the team could go all the way and win it again because when you have a leader like Sid, you have Geno, the core group, they're just unbelievable players. They care for each other. When you have those types of guys on your team, you know we have a chance."
That first time Letang addressed reporters, he was devastated, and understandably so - saying this setback was hard to swallow. But this time, he was in good spirits, laughing, smiling and joking with the media.
While it's been an adjustment for him to watch instead of play - "When I'm sitting in the (press) box up there the people next to me don't really like me, I'm screaming," Letang grinned - he's completely embraced his new role and is doing everything he can to contribute. It may be off the ice instead of on the ice, but it's still been a huge help.
"He really cares about this group," head coach Mike Sullivan said. "Even though he hasn't played in a playoff game this year, he's still every bit invested in this team and helping them win as he is when he's in the lineup."
The coaching staff has asked Letang for his assistance in different aspects of the game. For example, they have him watch how the defensemen work on the power play. He and defense coach Sergei Gonchar spend a lot of time putting their collective thoughts together and help the coaches with adjustments they need to make or situations to bring to the team's attention.
"He's a great set of eyes for us," Sullivan said. "I think the fact that he's still a player and sees the game from a player's vantage point, I think he can help our coaching staff in that regard and that is what we asked him to do. He sits in on some of our coaches' meetings that we have. Not all of them, but some of them. We certainly value his input."
While it's not always easy to watch, Letang is choosing to see the silver lining in his situation - feeling like he's becoming a better player from having to watch from the press box.
"It's a lot slower when you're on top," Letang said. "You kind of realize things you don't really see on the ice level and I think as a player I'm going to learn a lot, too, watching in different situations. It's easy now to go down and tell those guys 'hey, this is open, you might not feel like it but this is open.' It's a different aspect but I always try to think that when you're watching a game or you're getting healthy scratched and you're up there you're actually getting better. You're learning more."
The coaches value Letang's input, as well as his relationships with his teammates.
We've seen Letang in the locker room after both home and road games, sitting with his close friend Marc-Andre Fleury after their Game 7 win against Washington and deep in conversation with Crosby moments after their Game 6 loss to Ottawa.
As Sullivan said, Letang has the ability to have informal 1-on-1 conversations or group conversations with defense pairs, the entire blue line or the power play to offer his insights or perspectives from what he sees in a game from a different vantage point.
"He's been really supportive," Crosby said. "I'm sure it's not easy for him watching, but it's been great to have him around and around the guys. You can see his spirits are high. He feels good, so that is the best thing we can see."
Sullivan couldn't agree more.
"Tanger, he loves hockey," he said. "He loves being at the rink. He loves being around his teammates-he is all in. We want him to be around. We encourage it. I think it's good for our team. He announces our starting lineup every night. His personality is contagious with our group."
Letang is making progress in his recovery, saying that it's going really well.
"I've been starting to work out, doing a lot of things off the ice so everything is good," he said, adding that he has another doctor's appointment in a couple of weeks and believes he'll get cleared for everything then.
In the meantime, he's going to keep cheering on his teammates as they continue on in the Cup Final.
"I'm really happy for those guys," Letang said. "They worked really hard. They're caring for each other. To see them at this level, at this stage, it's fun to watch. I'm happy to watch."