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Monday, November 10, 2014

Kris Letang Contract Looking Better and Better by @griffTHW

It wasn't long ago that Kris Letang found himself drawing the ire of an army of critics.  Because, when the defenseman signed his eight-year, $58 million contract extension last year, hoards of doubters surfaced, screaming about how the deal would handcuff the Penguins for as long as the former-Norris candidate remained in Pittsburgh.  They insisted Letang wasn't worth a $7.25 million cap hit, pointing to a propensity for turnovers and a perceived inability to quarterback the power play.

But, when Dion Phaneuf later signed a $49 million extension in Toronto and P.K. Subban inked an eight year, $72 million deal in Montreal, the harsh views regarding Letang softened in some people's eyes.  After all, with both the cap and pending salaries likely to swell in the coming years, maybe $7.25 million per year wouldn't look so bad as time marched on.

If the economic climate of the league hasn't served to change critics' minds, though, perhaps Letang's actual play on the ice will help sway any remaining detractors.  After all, a new philosophy under Mike Johnston has allowed the star blue liner to catapult out of the gate, helping the Pens to a sparkling 10-2-1 record.

With the days of the stretch pass and firing the puck out of the defensive zone like a grenade fading in the rearview mirror, Letang will continue to benefit as much as anyone from a system that emphasizes skating and breaking out of the Pittsburgh end with more of a pack mentality. 

That new approach has worked wonders for Letang, allowing the defender to cut down on the maddening turnovers that sometimes overshadowed his dynamic talent.
"It's all decision-making. He's keeping it simple and making better decisions." - Bill Guerin, on Letang's play to this point this season
Perhaps that's why the coaching staff rewards Letang with significantly more ice time than anyone else on the roster.  Because, regardless of the situation, the staff trusts its highest paid defenseman to find success more often than not.

While on the man advantage, some may argue that the sole defenseman on the Pens' top unit doesn't act as a true power play quarterback.  What's more, it would certainly be nice to see Letang rifling the puck on net more frequently.  But, he does provide the group (along with Patric Hornqvist) with a right handed option, a luxury the team hasn't always enjoyed.  As a result, the power play possesses an ability to keep opponents more off-balance than in the past, to attack with ferocity from any angle.

The results have proven staggering.  Pittsburgh's power play paces the circuit, clicking at an astounding 37.5%. 

For his part, Letang has been right in the middle of it, posting nine points (good for fifth in the league) while on the man advantage.  So, whether he is lugging the puck up ice, teeing up an Evgeni Malkin bomb or setting the table for a Chris Kunitz tip in front of the net, the blue liner has and will continue to play a significant role on the NHL's top power play.

But, while most recognize Letang for his skating and his offensive skill set, he's been no slouch in his own end this year.  He may not hulk over opponents in the same manner as, say, Shea Weber but "Tanger" possesses an underrated nasty streak that can make life uncomfortable for opponents. Of course, that otherworldly speed comes in handy in the Penguins' end, too, allowing Letang to disrupt would-be opportunities, to negate odd-man opportunities that threaten the Pittsburgh net.

And it certainly doesn't hurt that, with Johnston's new system in place and the exodus of the aforementioned stretch pass, Letang can use his greatest strengths to jumpstart the Pens' transition game once he retrieves the puck in his own end. 

Throw in the fact that Letang serves as a staple on a penalty killing unit that hasn't surrendered a tally in ten contests and you're left with a blue liner who can eat up the tough minutes in any situation, night in and night out. 

Add it all up and it's clear what the Penguins envisioned when they offered Letang that extension last year.  And, if he can sustain his current level of play, there won't be many critics or doubters left to question that decision.

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