With Pittsburgh holding a 2-1 lead early in the third period of the Penguins’ fourth game of the season against the New York Islanders on Oct. 18, speedy winger Cory Conacher got behind defenseman Kris Letang and went in on a breakaway. Letang was forced to take a hooking penalty in order to prevent the potential tying goal.
Fortunately for Letang, his teammates were able to kill off the minor and he returned to the bench with his proverbial tail between his legs, knowing he’d misread the play.
As he took a seat, assistant coach Gary Agnew, who deals with the defensemen, leaned over Letang and joked of Conacher, “He looks like a young Agnew flying down the ice!”
Agnew’s remark made Letang laugh, which helped him put the breakdown behind him and move on.
“One thing I’ve improved this year is say I make a mistake. While Gary minds mistakes, he’s going to make sure my brain is not stuck on it,” Letang explained. “He’s going to make sure I forget about it. So either he’s going to tell me a joke, or he’s going to make me think of something else. But he allows me to move on, forget about the mistake and go on to the next shift and make a better play.”
And ever since, mistakes like that have been few and far between for Letang this season.
Sure, Letang still makes the occasional mishap. There’s still shifts where he looks more like a fourth forward instead of a defenseman. The 27-year-old has always been an effortless skater with tremendous movement, acceleration and conditioning, and that paired with his elite vision, creativity and hands allows him to feel comfortable joining the rush, pinching in and jumping into any open seams he may see.
But the biggest difference this year is that Letang doesn’t try to force anything that’s not there or make any unnecessary high-risk plays from the blue line or in the defensive zone.
“I’m playing with a different system, so it allows me to hold on to the puck a little bit more and make sure I don’t rush myself into plays I’m not comfortable with,” Letang said. “I think it’s improved my game so I don’t make as many turnovers trying to get it up the wall or get it up the middle. That’s something we’ve been working on for quite a while.”
Letang loves the way the Penguins’ first-year coaching staff – Agnew, fellow assistant Rick Tocchet and head coach Mike Johnston – have the team playing.
“If you look through our lineup, obviously we all know that (Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby) are the force up there for us,” Letang said. “But when you want to be successful, you have to work with your assets. And I think Mike tried to establish that our assets are the offense. Those guys need the puck, they need to keep having the puck on their tape to be dangerous and that’s what we do. We are a puck possession team right now, and that’s allowed us to have the puck more often and give them a better chance to have success too.
“At the end of the day, you’re either buying in or not. Obviously I love the way we’re doing regroups and the way we play with the puck. We control the puck. A lot of aspects of it bring us to do less turnovers and be more in control.”
Letang’s certainly been doing his part as well to create offense while being responsible defensively. Playing in this system has allowed him to find the balance between being creative while filling a shutdown role. He’s been noticeable for all the right reasons.
For example, in just his second game back after missing seven straight with a groin injury, Letang was absolutely dominant in the Penguins' 4-3 shootout loss to Columbus on Saturday. He scored twice, including the game-tying goal with 10.9 seconds left in regulation, while finishing with a plus-3 rating and logging a team-high 25:44 minutes against a physically punishing, smothering Blue Jackets team.
Letang currently leads all Penguins defensemen with seven goals (five more than the next-highest player), 14 assists (seven more), 21 points (11 more), 11 power-play points (nine more) and 84 shots (18 more). He also ranks first on the team with 25:15 minutes per game and 3:54 of power-play time on ice per game.
“The possession, it means hanging onto the puck, making sure you don’t force plays when it’s not there or when you don’t feel like you’re going be able to make a play right,” Letang said. “So right now, we rely on our skill, we have a system to follow, but sometimes, you can’t always do the same play over and over. You have to read. I think that’s the biggest change for me especially, and it allows me to be more patient and have the puck longer on my stick.”
Last season was a difficult one for Letang. He dealt with an incredible health scare after suffering a stroke on Jan. 29 at just 26 years old. And while Letang eventually returned to the ice on April 9 after a 10-week absence, overall it was a season filled with more lows than highs for the defenseman as he played just 37 games because of the stroke and various other injuries.
“It was a tough year obviously, but I think with the doctors – especially (head team physician) Dharmesh (Vyas) – I made sure I was I was going into the offseason with a clear mind, and we were working on really hard to make sure I had no problem going back and playing,” Letang said.
Letang came to training camp in September looking forward to a fresh start. And so far, he's having what’s shaping up to be the best season of his career. Which is saying a lot, considering he already has a Stanley Cup, was a Norris Trophy finalist in 2013 and is a two-time NHL All-Star.
“I’m still adjusting a little bit to the new system, but I think the way that the coaches and the new guys are adjusting to me or to other players, it’s been nice,” Letang said. “The coaches make us really comfortable (with) the new system. Every adjustment, they’re going to come to you, they’re going to explain it to you. It’s been a good transition for me, and obviously with the style of play that we’re trying to get, I’m just happy to be in that.”