Penguins defenseman Kris Letang has missed the last 26 games after suffering a stroke Jan. 29. While Letang isn’t concerned about his health in his return to the lineup tonight against the Detroit Red Wings, he is worried about rust from the lengthy absence.
“I’m nervous because it’s been a long time without playing,” he said. “But about my (health) situation, not at all.”
The Penguins will be inserting into their lineup a gifted talent and former Norris Trophy candidate as the NHL’s best defenseman.
While the Penguins know the elite player that Letang, 26, can be – and the reason the team re-signed him to an eight-year, $58-million contract – the team is cautious with their expectations in his return.
“We’ll take this a game at a time,” general manager Ray Shero said. “We do know that a healthy Kris Letang is a huge part of our hockey team and makes us better. … I don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves and have any expectation for him and our team at this point. We’ll see where he is after this game and go from there.”
Letang is also trying to ease himself back into the lineup.
“I’m just going to play a simple game,” Letang said. “It’s been two months and a half without playing a game. I’ll play simple and try to build confidence.”
Letang will be paired with defenseman Rob Scuderi and will see action on the team’s second power-play unit. While the team will be cognizant of his health situation, they won’t be closely monitoring him.
“Some of the monitoring of Kris will be self-monitoring,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “I’m not going to ask him after every shift, good pass or bad pass or hit he takes how he’s feeling in the game.”
The Penguins are just happy to have their teammate and friend back on the ice.
“He’s our most talented defenseman,” Matt Niskanen said. “His strengths fit right in to how we want to play. Immediately it’s going to help.”
But the most promising aspect to take from Letang’s return isn’t how well he plays or his impact on the Penguins. It’s just the simple fact that Letang was able to return.
“For him to be able to come back and play, there are emotions coming into this game,” Bylsma said. “There will definitely be some emotions seeing him play out there tonight. I won’t be holding my breath, but I’ll be real happy to see him out there competing and being able to play tonight.”
“Kris has been through something that is a traumatic event,” Shero said. “To be in this position to come back and play hockey again is great news.”