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Penguins Expect Letang To Thrive Following Contract Extension

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins have been the envy of the National Hockey League for several seasons. They are the defending Stanley Cup champs, have been to the last two Cup Finals and have arguably the best core of young talent in the league.

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That stability of that core grew by one on Tuesday when the Penguins announced defenseman Kris Letang signed a four-year contract extension. Letang’s deal begins with the 2010-11 season and will run through the ’13-14 campaign.

“I’m just going to focus on playing hockey and giving my best to my teammates,” Letang said. “I think that the most exciting things are coming, so I can’t wait to be here again.”

Letang has every reason to feel excited about spending the next four seasons in the black-and-gold. His signing further strengthens the Penguins’ depth down the middle of the ice.

In addition to Letang, general manager Ray Shero, the architect in charge of maintaining and supplementing the foundation already built, has the following players locked up for at least the next three seasons following this one: Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal (signed thru 2012-13), Evgeni Malkin and Brooks Orpik (’13-14) and Marc-Andre Fleury (’14-15).

“It’s great,” captain Sidney Crosby added. “We have a lot of guys who are locked up for a long time. We’re building and moving forward here.”

Like many of the players listed above said when they inked their new deals, Letang credited the brotherhood which exists inside the Penguins dressing room and the best fan-base in professional sports as reasons he wanted to remain a Penguin well into the foreseeable future.

“You always want to be in a town where you want to play,” Letang said. “I think that I’d rather stay here and have fun. I fit in great with these guys, and I think that we are a family now. We’re all young and growing together. It’s a really important part of any team.”

And an important part of the equation moving forward will be the 22-year-old defenseman from Montreal, Quebec who is still a couple years away from reaching his prime, yet is already every bit as good a player in his defensive end as he is in the offensive zone.

“I think that he is one of the better young defensemen in the league,” Shero said. “He's going to get better as a defenseman, and he shows leadership capabilities on and off the ice. We'll see what happens.”

“He is learning when to use his passing ability and when to make the safe or smart play, especially when playing against other team’s top players,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “He still has a long way to go so I still think you will see much different, much more mature Kris Letang a couple years from now.”

That’s the scary part about Letang – he is still going to get better.

At a time when most young blueliners are just getting their feet wet at the this level and learning all the nuances that come with being a professional, Letang already has three NHL seasons and part of another on his resume. As of Tuesday he has appeared in 211 regular-season games, a gaudy total that jumps to 250 if you count postseason play.

There are obviously still aspects of Letang’s game which he needs to improve, but judging by his body of work thus far, getting better shouldn’t be much of a problem for Letang, whose 24 assists this season represent a career high.

“You always want to be in a town where you want to play. I think that I’d rather stay here and have fun. I fit in great with these guys, and I think that we are a family now. We’re all young and growing together. It’s a really important part of any team.” - Kris Letang
“He can improve in terms of his consistency and being able to match up and play against other team’s best players and do that night in and night out,” Bylsma said. “His skating and his puck-moving ability are outstanding. The consistency in that is something he can improve. That is something he has been working on since Day 1.”

“He can continue to improve by finishing those (scoring) chances he does have,” veteran Sergei Gonchar said. “He does a great job playing defense and is always in great position. It’s only when he jumps into offensive chances he has to work on finishing them.”

As Letang continues to prove capable of accepting more and more responsibilities onto his plate, the Penguins have thrust more roles his way. As Bylsma mentioned above, Letang has recently begun teaming with Brooks Orpik in a shutdown role against opposing team’s top offensive threats.

In a March 23 contest against the Washington Capitals, Letang and Orpik matched up against Alex Ovechkin, who enters Tuesday night ranked second in the NHL with 100 points. Ovechkin had burned the Penguins for seven points in two previous meetings, but on that night Letang helped hold him to just one assist.

While Letang has improved exponentially as a defensive player during his brief career, his forte still resides in the offensive zone, where over the past few games he has shown a better ability to get pucks on net, as evidenced by his career-high nine shots against Toronto on Sunday.

“I’m trying to shoot as often as I can,” Letang said. “I think in the few last games, I have 14 shots in two games. I just try to get my shot to the net.”

Letang’s chances to get shots on goal only figure to improve over the next few seasons as he begins to see more time on the power play. Almost everyone surveyed in the Penguins locker room believes he has the skill set to serve as the quarterback on the man-advantage.

“He has gotten some opportunities, especially last year,” Crosby said. “He was in the unit there with Gonch a lot. He has played a little bit this year as well. He is getting a good feel for it. I think as we move on, I’m sure that he’ll get more and more opportunities.”

Whether that becomes the case or not, Shero says the Penguins are fortunate to have such a well-rounded defender under wraps during a period when Letang’s game will experience the most growth. Having a young player of Letang’s caliber is a unique advantage for the Penguins in today’s salary cap world.

“It’s going to be hard to look around the league as a young defenseman to find guys who can skate like him and have very good hands,” Shero said. “He can defend well. We can match him up against better players, because he’s strong, and he can skate.

“His offense production will come. With time, that will grow. I’m more concerned with his defensive game. His offensive game will come eventually. I think that once he does that, he will become a better player.”

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