The Pittsburgh Penguins have a winning record of 14-10-2, but their performance is not cutting it. After losing to the Anaheim Ducks on Sunday, the Penguins find themselves on the outside looking in for playoff position. They have fallen behind the New Jersey Devils, a team that has surprised many. Much of their worst play has been in recent games.
Their struggles have been hard to pinpoint, but their lack of puck-movers on the blue line and their offensive system stand out as problems. One of the biggest culprits of poor play is former All-Star defender Kris Letang.
The Penguins invested a lot of money into Letang, signing him to an eight-year/$58M contract that carries an annual cap hit of $7.25M. When he’s on his game he’s one of the best in the league. But, he’s being asked to carry the lino’s share of load on the blue line and he is not capable of doing that.
Pittsburgh spends $16.88M on defenders and Letang’s $7.25M accounts for roughly 43 percent of that total. It’s the 13th lowest amount spent on defense in the league, but the problem is that the Penguins don’t have another legitimate top-pairing defender to play alongside Letang.
Through 24 games, Letang has one goal, 13 assists, with a plus/minus of -14 and has accumulated 16 penalty minutes. It’s hardly the production the Penguins need from their former Norris trophy finalist.
His best partner this season has been Olli Maatta, and while the talented young player has looked brilliant at times, he’s already suffered an injury and his play was shaky at the start of the season. If Maatta can stay in the lineup, Letang must play alongside him. This chart shows Letang’s play with and without every other defender, and the results are clear.
Letang is a game-changing, offensive defenseman, but he’s not a true number one defender.
Pittsburgh decided to go “young and cheap” on the blue line this season to dedicate more money to their forward corps, but it’s backfiring. Two years ago when the team lost Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen, their blue line took a hit. The Washington Capitals gave both more term and money than the Penguins could afford, but Pittsburgh was able to withstand this loss.
And yet, it was this past offseason that truly doomed the Penguins blue line. We’ve discussed Paul Martin’s importance to the Penguins blue line and even made the argument to re-sign him, but it’s only now that we see the full effect of his departure.
Without Martin, Letang has struggled and it shouldn’t be a surprise. Letang has stated he has never felt more comfortable playing with anyone than with Martin. He is a jack-of-all-trades defender who was equally capable of shutting down opposing power plays and quarterbacking the Penguins power play.
Letang’s struggles correlate directly to the loss of Martin and without his steady presence, his play shows it. In 426:32 minutes played this season, Letang has a Corsi For of 48.3 percent, while the team has scored 0.7 goals per-sixty and allowed 2.53 against.
Compare that to Letang’s 2014-15 season where he had a Corsi For of 55.7 percent and the team scored 2.54 goals per-sixty and allowed 2.04. At that time, his numbers were better when playing alongside Martin.
In 676:07 minutes together with Martin, Letang had a Corsi For of 55.2 percent. But the goal differential was markedly improved, as the team scored 2.75 goals per-sixty and only allowed 1.60.
While Maatta is a great young player, and improving with more ice time, he’s not Martin yet. Letang isn’t a shut-down defender and the Penguins are relying on him to be one. That’s a misuse of Letang and his abilities.
Throughout his career, Letang has been at his best when he’s allowed to roam free in the offensive zone and utilize his offensive talent. But recently, he’s been playing alongside Rob Scuderi who has been an anchor on his performance. Advanced statistics tell you much about the play of certain skaters, but they’re not fool-proof. The extreme variances in goal differential show which players actually play well together and who excels at breaking up quality chances against. Oftentimes, individuals look at Corsi For percentages without considering the goal differentials that accompany them, leading to incomplete analysis.
Olli Maatta and Kris Letang are the Penguins best two defenders. When Maatta returns from injury, this pairing needs to be united as soon as possible. Letang can’t carry the blue line by himself, as the only player that has proven to play well alongside him is Maatta. Let the reunion commence.