Kris Letang’s potential was obvious when he first entered the league.
Hall of Famer Paul Coffey, a three-time Norris Trophy winner, saw it immediately when he took in a game during Letang’s rookie season. So did Sergei Gonchar, Letang’s teammate for the first three years of his career.
“The potential, you could recognize right away,” Gonchar said. “He was a great player back then.”
Now, in Letang’s ninth NHL season, Gonchar said the 28-year-old has fulfilled that potential and has developed into one of the league’s best defensemen – right there with guys like Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson, Montreal’s P.K. Subban and Los Angeles’ Drew Doughty.
“I think with the years of experience he’s become an even better player,” Gonchar said. “I think all the experience he’s had now playing a lot of minutes, it’s made him what he is right now. He’s doing a great job for us offensively, defensively. He’s there in every situation, and he’s a big part of our team.”
Gonchar said that a lot of times, Letang gets overlooked because of the talent in front of him – which isn’t fair to the defenseman because of just how important he is to the Pens.
“Some of the nights he’s playing great games, but because somebody got five points, people are not really thinking that he got three,” Gonchar said. “They’re not talking about that stuff. So I think that’s one of the reasons he’s been overlooked. And if you look at some of those other guys, they’re playing on teams where they are the team, and it makes such a big difference.”
Head coach Mike Sullivan agrees that Letang’s name isn’t mentioned alongside those players as much as it should be.
“I honestly think that he doesn’t get the recognition in the hockey world that he deserves,” Sullivan said. “I think he’s that good. He’s an elite defenseman. He’s one of the most elite defensemen this league has, in our opinion, as a coaching staff.”
And with the season he’s having, Gonchar believes Letang has become a player worthy of winning the Norris Trophy. It's awarded annually to the "defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position," and that's exactly what Letang has done.
“He became one of those guys that has to be mentioned as a Norris Trophy candidate because he’s doing everything for us – playing offense, defense, every key situation and scoring in shootouts,” Gonchar said. “Everything that kind of a player has to do, he’s doing it.
“In my opinion, he deserves to be a Norris Trophy candidate because of all the numbers that he puts up, because of his workload, because of how much better he’s become as a player.”
We broke down Letang’s Norris Trophy-caliber campaign…
Letang’s biggest asset is his mobility. Gonchar doesn’t feel that Letang is one of the strongest skaters in the game now – he thinks he is one of those strongest skaters ever.
“He’s probably one of the better skaters the game ever knew,” Gonchar said. “If you look at him, the way he skates – I mean, there’s not that many guys over the years, if I think about it, who can do the same thing.
“Nobody else is skating as good as he is.”
There are nights Letang literally plays over half the game, and Gonchar said the primary reason he’s able to do that is because of his ability to cover the ice.
He’s logged over 30 minutes in three of his last seven appearances. And in Pittsburgh’s 5-4 shootout win over Buffalo on March 29, Letang logged a personal-best 35:14 of ice time – the NHL’s third-highest total this season.
Overall, Letang is averaging 26:53 minutes per game – which ranks fourth in the NHL. And the amount of ice time he’s able to handle is what stands out to his coach and teammates.
“You see how many minutes he logs a game and how important those minutes are – he’s playing power play, penalty kill, he does it all,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “I think everybody recognizes when he’s on the ice and what he generates and the way he can control a game.”
One example that stands out came on March 29 against the New York Rangers, where Letang ended up skating a 3:30-minute shift to open the overtime period.
With about a minute left to play, the coaching staff then decided to use their timeout to give Letang a breather so that he could get back out there for one last attempt at netting the game-winner. And sure enough, Letang set up Crosby in front for a goal that gave Pittsburgh two points against their divisional rival.
“His fitness level is off the charts,” Sullivan said. “Sometimes we marvel at what he’s been able to do as far as helping us win at both ends of the rink. Part of it is the amount of minutes he logs on a game-by-game basis. In our mind, he’s just played monster minutes for us for a long time, not just here and there. He does it every night.”
One would think handling such a heavy workload on a regular basis would eventually begin to wear on Letang and tire him out. It’s actually been the opposite.
“I think my body is more in a better conditioning state right now playing all those games over 28, 27, 26 minutes,” he said. “All those minutes, you start building a tolerance to that and you (can) start increasing the workload. I think that’s how I kind of see it.
“The same thing in the summer – when I start working out, I try to go right away as hard as I can. I don’t try to ease my way in, I try to go hard. I build tolerance right away so I can increase it over the summer.”
Letang’s skill is his other biggest attribute, and that manifests in his numbers.
Letang is third in scoring among NHL defensemen and is carrying a season-high six-game point streak into the matchup with Karlsson – who ranks first – on Tuesday in Ottawa. Letang has registered two goals, seven assists and nine points over that stretch.
Overall, Letang’s numbers are the best of his career. In just 64 games, Letang has posted 16 goals (the most by a Pens defenseman since Dick Tarnstrom tallied the same total during the 2003-04 season), 48 assists and 64 points.
He’s been red-hot in the second half, fully recovered from a slow start where he had just one goal in his first 24 games – which makes his incredible totals now even more mind-boggling.
“Those seasons you have career-high points, plus-minus, assists, goals, whatever, it all comes from the fact your team is successful,” Letang said. “We had a slow start, I had a slow start, ‘Sid’ had a slow start but the team picked it up and now we’re rolling.
“We’re playing well and a couple guys are having great years and having success so it’s all about a team game. Everybody’s dialed in and playing the right way, so at some point people will have success.”
What doesn’t necessarily show up in his stat line, but have also been key for the Pens, are Letang’s shootout numbers. He’s scored on three of five attempts, all of those being game-deciding goals – which ties for the NHL lead.
“The natural skill set that he has, you can see him doing things and beating people 1-on-1, and those penalty shots that he’s scoring at the end of the game for us are big,” Gonchar said.
Letang’s numbers are certainly attention-grabbing. But what doesn’t get enough recognition, Gonchar said, is Letang’s defensive play.
“I think he made such a big improvement over the years,” Gonchar said. “I think people kind of still think about him as an offensive guy, not recognizing that he worked on it hard and he became a better player. I think it’s what was missing about him. I think people are not realizing he made a step and he became better.”
It was important to Letang that he became a guy who could play every kind of minute – particularly the ones against other team’s top lines. To do that, he needed to hone certain details of his game – which is part of the reason he stays on the ice so long after practice (more on that below).
“Good gap, gauging speed, having a good stick, it’s all kinds of things you work on in practice,” he said. “I try to be physical, too.”
Letang then started to laugh.
“I have the chance to work with ‘Geno’ and ‘Sid,’” he pointed out. “They’re coming at me every practice so I can work on different things against those guys. Having to face those guys helps a lot.”
Crosby usually matches up with the opponent’s best players, with Letang lining up right behind him to do what he can to shut them down.
“He plays against top lines every night,” Crosby said. “He’s not the most physical guy, but he can be when he needs to be. He uses his speed and his skating ability to get us out of trouble and make sure that we hold onto the puck instead of having to defend. He just uses his strengths well and to be able to play 30 minutes, as hard as those minutes are for him, it’s not easy.”
In addition, Letang sees a lot of time on Pittsburgh's seventh-ranked penalty kill. He averages 2:20 shorthanded minutes per game and his three shorthanded points are tied for the most among NHL defensemen.
In Pittsburgh’s 5-2 win over Nashville on March 31, Letang finished the night with a goal and an assist in almost 29 minutes of ice time – certainly a strong performance from the defenseman.
But the next morning, before practice, Letang met with Gonchar to go over the tape from his game. Because even though he was credited with firing six pucks at the net, Gonchar wasn’t satisfied with what he accomplished in that area – and neither was Letang.
“He thinks I could have gotten more shots off in the game by being less wide, being more in the middle,” Letang explained. “It’s something I have to pay attention to a little bit.”
It says a lot about Letang that he’s constantly looking to improve, even though he’s playing at arguably the highest level of his career. Off the ice, he spends a lot of time with Gonchar in the video room when the defenseman development coach is with the team.
“Now, it’s getting the little details in my game to get more production, to be more efficient, play more minutes at a high pace against top lines,” Letang explained. “I think right now, we’re at a point that I’m working on the skills, details, positioning, stuff like that.”
When they’re not studying Letang’s own game, they look to past and current NHL greats for inspiration.
“'Gonch' brought me clips of (Nicklas) Lidstrom, how he plays defensively,” Letang said. “He’s a guy that was not hitting a lot. He was just always in good position so we looked at that. Offensively, we look at a guy like Karlsson, who shoots the puck every time it goes on his stick and that’s how he creates his offense.
“We look at different players. Everybody brings different things to the table, so we try to pick and choose what to work on.”
On the ice, Letang rarely takes a day off and is usually one of the last guys off following morning skate or practice. With the minutes he logs and his status on the team as a veteran and core leader, Letang could probably skip every session and no one would blame him. If anyone deserves rest and recovery, it’s him.
But Letang said that isn’t going to happen. Instead, he’ll continue to stay out there and keep honing the details of his game.
“That’s how I am,” Letang said. “To change that would be putting doubts in my mind and stuff like that. I’d rather keep increasing those things and push myself as hard as I can.”
Letang was named one of three finalists for the Norris Trophy along with Subban and Ryan Suter back in 2013. When comparing his game now to how it was then, Letang feels the biggest difference is his patience on the ice.
“I don’t throw myself out there too much,” Letang said. “I wait for openings, that’s for sure. I think I’ve been a little bit more in control picking my spots and shooting more, obviously.”
Letang believes that simply comes with maturity.
“When you come out of juniors and you’re in a league that you’re able to do kind of everything on your own and you can skate all the way around and you’re always going to be back, that’s that mindset that you have,” he said.
“When you grow into your game, then you know that out there, it’s not as open and guys are as fast as you and you have to be more careful about joining the rush and be aware of who you’re playing against.”
Letang still has moments where he tries doing too much, and Sullivan doesn’t necessarily fault him for that because it means he’s doing what he can to get his team back into games. But when he lets plays come to him, that’s when he is most successful.
“We try to talk to him about playing within himself and being a little bit more calculated with his decision-making,” Sullivan said. “When he does try to do too much, it’s usually the result of because he’s trying to make a difference. But in some instances, and this has been my constant dialogue with him, sometimes less is more. When he recognizes that, we think he plays an efficient game.”
While it’s not always easy to take that advice and implement it, Letang said the coach is right.
“I like to be dynamic. I like to be on the rush,” Letang admitted. “Sometimes we’re not winning or we’re trailing or I don’t see our game creating chances and stuff like that, so I try to go and I try to do something more and I try to bring a little more to the table, but he’s right.
“You’re not going to beat five guys on your own. You have to play the same way, the same game and things will open up.”