It was an emotional season for Pens defenseman Kris Letang
. To prepare for the year he underwent a rigorous training program in the summer, under the guidance of doctors and trainers, to help him adapt to his post-stroke career. The program was closely monitored and uniquely tailored to help Letang not only deal with his condition, but to return to his All-Star caliber level of play.
Letang, 28, put together his finest NHL season in 2014-15. The team’s Defensive Player of the Year averaged 25:29 minutes of ice time and never seemed to tire. Letang also set personal highs in every offensive category en route to being named as an NHL Masterton Trophy finalist – given to the player who “best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.”
There is no doubt that Letang would have been also been an NHL finalist for the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defensemen until his season came to a halt on March 28. Letang suffered a concussion after hitting his head off the end boards following a hit from Arizona’s Shane Doan. He did not play again following the incident.
It was a tough way to end the season for a player that worked so diligently and tirelessly to return to top form. The Pens missed his presence, skating and break out ability on the back end in the postseason. Though his season came to a premature end, there is no denying that Letang has grown into a top-tier blueliner at this juncture of his career.
THE NUMBERS: Letang established career highs in goals (11), assists (43) and points (54) in 2014-15. His 43 helpers tied for fourth among all NHL D-men, and his .78 points-per-game average ranked fourth as well. Letang was just one of three NHL defensemen to rank in the top 20 in points and unblocked shot attempts in close games (SAT% Close). He was also the only NHL defender to record a five-assist game on Jan. 27 against Winnipeg.
INSIDE THE NUMBERS: The most incredible number for Letang isn’t on the offensive scoresheet. It’s his ice time minutes (25:29 per game). Since suffering a stroke in January of 2014, Letang has had to deal with its effects everyday. He feels dizziness and often becomes physically exhausted and tired. To be able to power through those issues and still lead the team in ice time is remarkable. To be play at such a high level in those minutes is improbable. And with his incredible conditioning, Letang doesn’t even look fatigued during those long stretches.
Letang is a blessing to any coaching staff. They know entering every game that Letang is in the lineup that they’ll get 25-plus minutes of high quality play from one of the toughest positions in hockey. Letang is so fluid and well conditioned that he doesn’t even look like he’s breaking a sweat. That fact, when considering the stroke fallout, is a testament to his conditioning, work ethic and passion for the game.
LOOKING AHEAD: Letang is still working his way back from the concussion. He was cleared to begin working out, a good sign of his progress. The team will be cautious with his return, especially considering that it is the offseason and there is no need to rush. Letang has all summer to recover and prepare for next season.
If Letang was able to overcome a stroke – the effects of which he still deals with on a daily basis – and return to be one of the NHL’s best defensemen, it’s highly likely that once he fully recovers from the concussion he will once again return stronger than ever.