Star defender Kris Letang was injured during the Pittsburgh Penguins recent 3-2 win over the Arizona Coyotes. He was concussed on a vicious hit from Coyotes’ veteran forward Shane Doan.
Coming off of a season riddled with health problems—including a stroke—and a massive contract extension, Letang was out to prove his doubters wrong. In 2014-15 he has done just that and many people believe he is a legitimate candidate for the Norris Trophy. In 69 games played he has scored 11 goals, assisted on 43 more and been a plus 12 skater. However, the one thing that has been shown by Letang’s absence is how badly the Pens need him for a playoff run.
Diving into advanced metrics you can really see how important he is to Pittsburgh. Per sixty minutes of play, the Penguins score 2.54 goals and allow 2.04 goals with Letang on the ice. Without him their scoring differential is much better as they score 2.38 goals and allow 1.50 per sixty minutes played.
When you look at the Pens performance when Letang and Paul Martin are paired together, they are just about unstoppable. The Penguins score 2.75 goals per sixty minutes played and allow just 1.60 goals when they are on the ice together. Yet the most surprising statistic is when Letang is on the ice without Martin the Penguins only score 2.27 goals and allow 2.61 in sixty minutes of play.
The underlying factor in this is that Letang is phenomenal talent and aids the Penguins significantly when he is on the ice. Pairing him with Martin gives Pittsburgh, probably, the best pairing in the entire league right now. That’s why Letang will be the driving factor in the Penguins upcoming playoff run.
However, Letang needs to get back on the ice before this playoff run can occur. Reports coming out of Pittsburgh have been positive pertaining to Kris Letang’s recovery, but with the Penguins fighting to maintain a playoff spot they need him back.
Pittsburgh is missing more than Letang, but he might be the most dynamic player missing. You can argue that fellow superstar Evgeni Malkin is even more valuable, but the reality is that the Penguins have captain Sidney Crosby to pick up slack for him. Presently, Letang and Christian Ehrhoff are both out of the lineup. Those two names represent the best puck movers on the roster and there is not much depth behind them because of Olli Maatta‘s absence.
The best healthy offensive defender right now is the 21-year-old rookie Derrick Pouliot. He has done the best job he can, but Pouliot only has 31 games of experience under his belt and relying on him to replace Letang is not logical. Further, Pouliot has been struggling with an expanded role since Ehrhoff and Letang left the lineup. In his last 6 games played, he has been a minus 6 skater while averaging more than 20 minutes per contest.
Martin, Ian Cole, Ben Lovejoy, Rob Scuderi and recent call-up Taylor Chorney are the only other healthy defensemen. The one skill that all of those players (sans Martin) lack is effective puck movement and transitional ability. Cole and Lovejoy were effective in their roles within a healthy lineup.
Without skilled defensemen, head coach Mike Johnston’s system is not effective and it has been showing. The Penguins’ were exposed in their 4-1 loss to the rival Philadelphia Flyers and I fear this poor play will continue until Letang and/or Ehrhoff return to the lineup.
The worst part about this situation is that Pittsburgh has virtually no salary cap space. They just played the Flyers with only 17 skaters and finally made an emergency call-up (Chorney) and he can only remain with the team until one of the injured players return.
Pittsburgh is out of options, they have to simply ride this out and pray that Letang can return for the playoffs. Without Letang there will be no glorious hoisting of the Stanley Cup this year, instead it will be replaced with another offseason of speculation, doubt and potentially additional roster changes. The Pens have the talent and a fairly deep roster, all they need to do is get their injured bodies healthy and resume playing team oriented hockey. Only then could we see a deep playoff run.