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Drive to the Net: High-risk, high-reward Letang ☕


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Kris Letang. -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

Kris Letang received his share of criticism following the Islanders' sweep of the Penguins in the first round.

Was his giveaway count in the regular season really that concerning? Should he be looking to make major adjustments to his game? Not quite.

I’ll take a look at the bad and the good in Letang’s 2018-19 season, and look at where things go from here.


I've said it before, I'll say it again. Giveaways are to be expected with strong playmakers. Playmaking is inherently risky. High-risk, high-reward. You're not going to find a player who makes those near incredible plays but miraculously rarely fumbles the puck. Heck, Sidney Crosby has arguably the best 200-foot game in the league and he still finished fourth on the team in giveaways with 67.

So it shouldn't come as a surprise that Letang finished third on the Penguins in giveaways in the regular season, with 76.

The postseason, however, is the time to tighten up. The room for error is much more slim. That was especially true against a team like the Islanders, who didn't give the Penguins much room to work with.

“To win in the playoffs, you can’t be a high-risk team," Mike Sullivan said in his final press conference of the season. "You’ve got to have a certain discipline to your game on both sides of the puck. It’s not always about scoring goals.”

Letang had a number of miscues in the playoffs that led to a team-high 11 giveaways in four games. Four games is an incredibly small sample size, but his rate of 6.1 giveaways per 60 minutes played was the highest rate of his career in the postseason.

There's no reason Letang should be attempting a risky toe drag on a one-on-three in overtime in the playoffs:

Josh Bailey easily picked Letang's pocket and sent the puck heading back in the other direction, scoring the Game 1 overtime goal seconds later.

That's one moment, and an extreme example, but it was a microcosm of the Penguins' short-lived playoff run.


The good news is that Letang's plays, albeit risky at times, were worth it in the regular season.

Letang missed 17 games due to injury, but still ranked fifth among all NHL defensemen in goals (16) and eighth in points (56) in his 65 games.

When you look at Letang's rate of production, this was one of the most successful seasons of his career. He averaged .57 goals per 60 minutes played, the second-highest average of his career behind 2013-14. His total rate of assists was average relative to the rest of his career, but his rate of primary assists was high. Letang averaged .89 primary assists per 60 minutes played, the second-highest average of his career behind 2012-13.

That offensive success in the regular season can in part be attributed to Letang simply shooting the puck more. He averaged 7.33 shots on goal per 60 minutes played, the highest rate of his career. That number isn't inflated by power play time, either. During five-on-five play he averaged 7.91 shots on goal per 60 minutes, which is also the highest rate of his career in five-on-five.

Letang also finished No. 2 on the Penguins in takeaways in the regular season with 63, one shy of Evgeni Malkin for the team lead. One of those takeaways was this play in New Jersey in February, breaking up a two-on-one in a one-goal game:

... or this poke check against the Wild in December:


Letang isn't going anywhere, as Dejan wrote in a recent Friday Insider.

Letang only has a modified no-trade, no-movement clause in his contract. If asked, he submits a list of 18 teams to which he would accept a trade. So it's not that it's impossible to move him, it's just not likely.

Ownership believes in the core, and Jim Rutherford expressed confidence in the defense on cleanout day.

“I think our defense is probably the best now than it’s been since I’ve been here, as a group,” said Rutherford. “You always like mobile defensemen. You like guys who can move the puck. We have at least one guy on each pairing who can move the puck.”

So, what, does Letang just need to change his game? He doesn't think so, as he said on cleanout day.

“You don’t want me to make mistakes? I’ll try that,” he told a reporter. “Next year, I’ll try to make no mistakes at all. Maybe next year you’re going to say, ‘We have Kris in our lineup. He doesn’t do anything offensively.’ Now you’re going to rip me apart because I don’t produce anything. ... I don’t think the answer is change my whole game. I’m not going to change the type of game I play over three plays.”

He's right. When he had one of the best seasons production-wise of his entire career, he shouldn't be making any drastic changes.

Could he have taken fewer risks in those four playoff games? Sure. But when the Islanders were so effective at preventing the Penguins from attempting many quality chances, Letang alone can't shoulder too much of the blame.

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