Todays SlapShot

March 17 2016: Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang (58) skates during the first period in the NHL game between the Carolina Hurricanes and Pittsburgh Penguins at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (Photo by Justin Berl/Icon Sportswire)
Pittsburgh Penguins

Kris Letang is the Penguins’ most important player

(Justin Berl/Icon Sportswire)

One of the more surprising developments for the Pittsburgh Penguins during their run to a Stanley Cup in 2016 was the play of their defense.

It was surprising because outside of Kris Letang it was a group that was mostly a mix of younger, unknown players, and some veterans that had pretty much been tossed aside by other teams around the league. The Penguins were able to piece them together into a functional unit that exceeded all expectations and played at a championship level.

Their best performance was probably in that Cup-clinching game in San Jose when they held the San Jose Sharks, a desperate team fighting for their season, to just two shots on goal in the third period of Game 6.

Other than Ben Lovejoy, who signed with the New Jersey Devils in free agency over the summer, that entire defense is returning this season.

Plus, while most of the defense isn’t made up of players that are considered household names across the NHL, there is one very notable exception. That exception, of course, is Letang, currently one of the best defensemen in the entire NHL and coming off of a 2015-16 season that saw him finish in fourth place in the Norris Trophy voting. He could have easily — and probably should have — been higher, and he should open 2016-17 as one of the early contenders to win it this year.

Not only is he one of the best players in the NHL at his position, he is probably the most important player for the Penguins when it comes to their quest to repeat as champions.

Even more than Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. More than either one of the goalies. More than the HBK line.

When looking at his individual performance, it’s easy to see how much he stands out among not only his own teammates, but among all defensemen in the NHL. Among active defenders, his 0.79 points-per-game average since the start of the 2010 season is the second best in the league (trailing only Erik Karlsson), while he is also in the top-five in goals per game, shots per game and Corsi percentage.

But it is not just the individual production that stands out. It is the impact he has on the Penguins when he is in the lineup, which brings us to the one big concern: He misses some time.

Over the same six-year stretch mentioned above, he has played more than 70 games in a season only twice. A lot of that is due to the wear and tear that comes from playing the type of minutes he plays, both in terms of the number of them and how physically demanding they are. He also had a stroke a couple of years ago that knocked him out of the lineup.

Keeping him in the lineup is the most important thing for the Penguins’ success because they are a completely different team when he is on the ice. This is probably why it is a good thing for the Penguins that he was not selected for Canada’s World Cup team, giving him an extra break before the season begins and eliminating risk of injury in a game that’s not for them.

Consider the Penguins’ performance over the past six years.

 

Situation Games Goals For/Game Goals Against/Game Win %
With Letang 345 3.16 2.52 64%
Without Letang 113 2.73 2.57 54%

 

Those are some massive differences, especially when it comes to the offensive output.

Over 82 games the difference in those goal-per-game averages is around 36 goals. Add in the goals against difference (which is probably only four or five) and you’re looking at what might be a 40-goal swing over the course of a season.

That seems like a lot for one player to make. But when it’s a player that logs more than 25 minutes per game and is the second most productive defenseman in the NHL, it should be understandable.

Let’s look at this another way just to get another example as to how much he impacts the success of the team more than almost any other player, including the NHL’s best player.

Again, using the past six years, only this time we are looking at the Penguins’ performance with Letang in the lineup and no Crosby, versus how they play with Crosby and no Letang.

 

Situation Games Goals For/Game Goals Against/Game Win %
Letang/No Crosby 90 2.98 2.60 61%
Crosby/No Letang 81 2.64 2.59 53%

 

With Letang and no Crosby, they are still a three-goal-per-game team. They lose nearly half a goal with Crosby and no Letang.

What makes Letang so much more important to the Penguins’ success than any of their other superstar players is the simple fact they have other superstar-level players at those positions.

If they lose Crosby for a game (or a stretch of games), they still have players like Malkin and Phil Kessel up front. If they lose one of Malkin or Kessel, they still have Crosby.

If they lose Letang, even though the rest of their defense has proven to be underrated and perhaps better than anybody expected them to be when they were assembled, there is nobody that can do the things Letang does. He is a special player at a position of massive importance. There are only a small handful of defensemen in the league that can play the number of minutes he plays, produce the way he does, and dictate the pace of the game.

The other factor is those superstar forwards require defensemen like Letang to get them the puck and start the play offensively. If you have a team of talented forwards that is struggling to score and create offense, there is a good chance the problem is starting with the defensemen behind them and their inability to get them the puck.

Offense starts with your defensemen and their ability to retrieve the puck, get it out of the zone, and transition the play to offense. That was a huge issue for the Penguins in the first half of the 2015-16 season, just as it was during the 2015 playoffs when Letang missed their entire first round series against the New York Rangers (where the Penguins only scored eight goals in five games).

A lot of the things that went wrong for the Penguins in previous postseason appearances that resulted in early exits started to turn in their favor a year ago — from the goaltending coming through, to having all of their key players healthy and in the lineup at the same time. Having a healthy Letang playing at the top of his game was perhaps the most important factor of them all.

It will be again in 2016-17.

[Data for this post via Hockey-Reference and Hockey Analysis]

Kris Letang is the Penguins’ most important player

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