But all those people who want offense, offense and more offense from Letang have a misconception about the way he plays the game. In addition to what he can do with the puck on his blade, Letang has begun developing into a pretty fair shutdown defender – one the Penguins can use to match up against some of the top stars in the game.
“I think Kris Letang
is a different guy because I think he possesses the ability to play against the other team’s best player skating wise and physical wise,” head coach Dan Bylsma said.
When the Penguins took on the Washington Capitals at Verizon Center on Sunday afternoon Bylsma called on Letang to pair up with defensive-minded Brooks Orpik
against one of the top forward units in the game – Washington’s top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Knuble.
Orpik, who also spent time partnering with Letang earlier in the season when the Penguins had a rash of injuries on the blue line, believes that Letang’s offensive game actually benefits from the increased responsibilities defensively.
“I think when he plays well defensively like he has the past couple of weeks, that is when he starts to get other chances offensively,” Orpik said. “He is a guy who is very talented. I think he is a really good transition defenseman.
“I think a lot of fans and the media try to make him out to be an offensive guy, which I don’t think he is. If you watch (Sergei) Gonchar and (Alex) Goligoski, they are pure offensive guys. Tanger can chip in offensively but I don’t think he is ever going to pick up a ton of points.”
While his forte will always be his ability to add offense from the back line, and Letang himself will tell you that is the No. 1 strength in his game, he also adds that he has taken a lot of pride improving his play in his own zone.
“I think I have focused more on playing a good defensive game,” Letang said. “That is something that is really important to me. As soon as you get out of the zone then you can create scoring chances offensively.”
The numbers on Letang this season certainly back the claim that he is playing arguably the best defense of his career.
Through his first 50 games of the season, Letang has posted a plus-3 rating, the best mark of his career. Even more impressive, Letang has only been minus-2 or worse twice this season, compared to eight such instances last year, which shows he is starting to add more consistency to his game.
“When he is playing well he plays well defensively, whether it is off the rush or in the D-zone,” Bylsma said. “He is quick and physical. He is then quick in transitioning into the offensive mode – making a play out of the defensive zone and then transitioning offensively. I think that’s where he is different.”
Perhaps Letang’s best performance of the season came on Feb. 1 when the Penguins hosted the Buffalo Sabres. On that night Letang twice turned good defensive plays into transition offense, allowing him to pick up a pair of helpers, as he finished the game with a season-best plus-3 rating.
In the first period Letang backhanded a Buffalo centering pass out of midair to spring Tyler Kennedy
the other way on a rush which ended with Mark Letestu’s first career NHL goal.
“A lot of his physical, skating and defensive abilities complement what he can do with the puck because he can turn it quickly into offense,” Bylsma said. “I think that is one of his strengths – can quickly transition the other way and create opportunities for our forwards.”
Later that game, Letang cleared a rebound away from Marc-Andre Fleury
and instead of shooting the puck back up the boards where the Sabres were pinching, he simply used his wheels to circle behind the Penguins net before throwing a perfect tape-to-tape pass onto the stick of Crosby in the neutral zone, who eventually ripped a shot past Ryan Miller to complete his hat trick.
Orpik says plays like those, when Letang showcases his defense, quick feet and precision passing, are what makes him different than some of the Penguins’ other offensive blueliners.
“He is a guy who when he puts a lot of pressure on himself to get points and generate offense, that is when he doesn’t get a lot of points,” Orpik said. I think when he concentrates on playing well defensively, that other stuff comes and plays happen for him.”
Most impressively when it comes to Letang is how his improving defensive play has not taken much from his offensive numbers. Although his points per game figure is down slightly from 0.45 last season, when he picked up 33 points (10G-23A) in 74 games, to 0.42 this season, a recent stretch where he has picked up six points (1G-5A) over his previous nine games puts him in position to surpass last season’s total if he can continue such strong play over the final 23 games of the season.
Through Letang’s first 50 games of the season he has picked up 21 points (3G-18A).
If you are looking for a reason why Letang’s numbers should continue their ascension upwards, take a look at how many more pucks he has been getting to the net over the past few weeks.
During his first 41 games Letang recorded three or more shots 13 times, or an average of once every 3.2 games. Over these past nine games Letang has registered three or more shots seven times, including five on Sunday against Washington and a season-high six on Jan. 31 against the Detroit Red Wings.
“I would say it’s a comfort thing with him,” Gonchar said. “He is a guy who has always had the talent and has always been able to skate well. Now he is getting more comfortable and it’s allowing him to play better and shoot the puck more.”
“I think I am just being able to get open on the blue line and everybody is confident that I am going to be able to get my shot on net,” Letang said. “I feel like I’m doing a good job of getting open and I credit the forwards for doing a great job of getting the puck back to us.”