Kris Letang is a great player. He's one of the best skating defensemen in the league and possesses a great outlet pass. And it takes a lot of offensive skill to average a point per game in the current NHL, as Letang did this past season. Possibly the only thing that surpasses Letang's skill is his value. Teams are placing increasing value on mobile puckmoving defensemen, and very rarely do these types of players become available, especially as young as Letang. On the free agent market, Kris Letang could get an enormous contract, at possibly the largest cap hit in the league. However, Kris Letang won't be hitting free agency, at least not while exiting out of Pittsburgh. The 1st round of the NHL draft begins on June 30th, and expect to hear news of either an extension or a trade before then. Based on the situation, fully expect to see Ray Shero announcing another blockbuster deal.
Letang is currently one of the better value contracts in the league at a cap hit of only $3.5 million, and that's a number he could realistically expect to see double when he signs his next contract. It's not out of the question to imagine Letang being able to get a contract in the neighborhood of Crosby and Malkin if he was a free agent, which means conversations that revolve around Letang staying in Pittsburgh need to center on how much money he's willing to leave on the table. Ray Shero also needs to determine how high he's willing to go to keep Letang, and there are several factors that will most likely keep the sides too far apart to make a deal.
One of the factors that helps offensive defensemen like Letang get paid is the ability to quarterback the powerplay, but this is an area that Letang has struggled with and appears unlikely to improve at. Letang lacks the vision to make plays when he gets the puck on his stick, far too often hesitating and faking shots instead of getting the puck through to the net or passing it on to keep the defense off balance. Playing on the point he needs to be able to track the action and know what his next move is when he receives the puck, and it's no surprise that the powerplay ran more smoothly with Paul Martin on the point.
While Letang has improved his game in the defensive zone since first coming to Pittsburgh, he's taken a step back at times the past couple seasons. He's been caught out of position, puck watching, chasing the puck behind the net, and forcing breakout passes through the center of the ice that get intercepted and turn into great scoring chances for the other team. While Letang has shown himself to be a capable defender, these type of mistakes seem to come from the desire to force offense, and it's fair to question whether or not Letang can scale back that desire and focus on making sure he doesn't become a liability in his own end.
Another fair question to ask is how much do the Pittsburgh Penguins really need Kris Letang? Paul Martin has bounced back this season to provide similar offensive production while being a shutdown defender as well. Simon Despres has shown great mobility and offensive potential, and at 6'4" has the size Letang lacks to be a more physical presence in the defensive zone. Further down the pipeline, Derrick Pouliot and Olli Maata have shown the same fluid skating and top end offensive skills, with Pouliot especially being mentioned as a future standout powerplay quarterback. With the cap situation as tight as it is, Kris Letang might not only be a luxury the Penguins probably can't afford, but one they probably don't need as well.
It's never easy to get rid of a star player, especially one as popular as Kris Letang. Unfortunately that's the reality of having a salary cap, but the good news is should Shero decide to make a trade, the interest in Letang will be absolutely massive. A similar situation unfolded last offseason, and despite everyone in the league knowing Jordan Staal was only going to sign a contract extension with Carolina, Shero managed to get a good, young roster player (Brandon Sutter), a very good prospect (Brian Dumoulin), and a 1st round draft pick, 8th overall. It appears very likely that Letang could bring a better return, maybe even substantially better. A potential deal could see a young roster player, highly regarded prospect, and a 3rd player, whether a player or a prospect, come back to Pittsburgh in addition to draft pick compensation. Ray Shero can pretty much auction off Kris Letang to the other 29 teams, and while the ones who make it furthest in talks are going to be those that realistically believe they can sign him long term, expect to see most teams at least kick the tires on a deal.
The return in any potential Kris Letang trade would give Pittsburgh the ability to get younger as a team, but it would also provide something of crucial importance: cost certainty. Entry-level contracts cannot exceed $925k in base salary per NHL rules, and even accounting for bonuses the top rookie contracts are around the $3.5 million range in terms of cap hits. Plus once those contracts expire, players remain restricted free agents until they've played 7 seasons or have reached 27 years old. With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and James Neal taking up such a large portion of the salary cap, it's critical for Ray Shero to be able to add talent that can exceed its cap hit, and young players are one of the best ways to do so. Look at the past Stanley Cup champions: LA had Jonathan Quick under contract at $1.8 million when it won the Cup. Brad Marchand was only making $822k for Boston, and David Krejci was signed for a very reasonable second contract of $3.75 million. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Antti Niemi, Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Andrew Ladd among others were all on Entry Level Contracts when Chicago won the Stanley Cup. Malkin and Staal were on ELCs when the Penguins won the Cup in 2009, and Crosby was as well the year before when they made the SCF. Having young talent that is only making pennies on the dollar gives teams the ability to use the savings elsewhere to further bolster the lineup. With big money tied up in so few players, the more Ray Shero can get discounts from young players on cheap contracts, the more he can spend elsewhere and make Pittsburgh that much better.
Bottom line is that Kris Letang is a very good hockey player, and none of the comments finding fault in his play are arguments against that, but the truth is that in a salary cap league, it's not as simple just to say sign a player to an extension because he's very talented. It's a tight situation in Pittsburgh, and taking everything into account, both big and small, it looks like it's time for the Penguins to move on from Kris Letang barring a last minute change of heart that sees him leave a massive amount of money on the table. He's not irreplaceable to Pittsburgh, and the value that can be obtained in return will go a long way towards helping ensure the Penguins remain among the league's elite for years to come. That has to be Ray Shero's main goal, to best position this team to win the Stanley Cup for not only next season but the years to follow, even if that means sending another popular star on his way out of town.