Defenseman Kris Letang understood and agreed with head coach Dan Bylsma’s decision to bench him in the third period of the Penguins’ Game 1 win over Columbus.
Letang made a number of ill-advised plays in the contest, but the one that irked Bylsma the most was his retaliatory slashing penalty on Blue Jackets forward Boone Jenner – which gave Columbus a huge power play late in the second period with the score tied 3-3.
“I didn’t like the response from Kris on the penalty he took on Jenner there,” Bylsma said.
Afterward, Bylsma sat his top defenseman for the beginning of the third period and Letang skated just 3:51 total minutes in the final frame – a noticeable decrease from his usual amount of ice time, as he usually logs upwards of seven or eight minutes a period.
Bylsma was trying to send a message, and it was received.
“I made a mistake,” Letang said after practice on Friday. “I put my team in trouble. (The coaches) have to keep me in check and make sure these mistakes don’t repeat themselves, and it was the right thing to do. … I have to respect my teammates because taking a penalty like that was a lack of respect.”
“He understands that play and maybe the other plays in the game that he would like to have back and weren’t good plays,” Bylsma added, who spoke with Letang regarding the situation today.
It wasn’t the only penalty Letang took in the game, as he was also given an avoidable interference call after the Pens had taken the lead in the third. Letang knows he needs to work on keeping his composure and staying disciplined moving forward, as last year’s Norris Trophy finalist always has a target on his back being the elite player that he is.
“They’re going to finish their check or they’re going to do little things behind the play,” he said. “You just have to keep your emotion in check and make sure you keep it cool.”
When thinking of Letang at his best, a lot of different images can come to mind. He’s an absolutely incredible skater, and the way he glides effortlessly across the ice – almost like he’s floating over it – is truly a thing of beauty. He has outstanding offensive instincts, and can make gorgeous plays with his creativity.
But for Bylsma, Letang is at his best when he’s thinking defense-first and letting the rest of it – especially the offense – flow from there. Bylsma specifically cited his play during the Penguins' 2009 Stanley Cup run – particularly in the Final – as the consummate example of what he wants to see from Letang.
“When I think about Kris Letang at his best, and it’s something we reference very often with Kris, is his play in the ’09 playoffs with Mark Eaton,” Bylsma said. “How he played and the role he played, particularly in the Finals when he was playing a Detroit team whose third line consisted of (Marian) Hossa and that’s what his matchup was.
“He focused on playing defense, defending and defending well. Defense first. I know we’ve heard Brooks Orpik say that: when Kris is playing well, he defends first. And that’s really when he’s at his best and really I go back to that mindset and that mentality of how he played in that series against Hossa.”
It must be kept in mind, however, that Wednesday was only Letang’s fourth game back after missing 10 weeks after suffering a stroke in January. He said while his legs feel fine and his speed is there, timing is still a work in progress.
“I’m four games in, so I keep working and try to get better every game,” he said.