Looking Back At Letang
The Penguins have a lot to write-home about in their recent stretch of 10 straight wins. With all the storylines located in the midst of this string of success, the most compelling might be the emergence of defenseman Kris Letang as an elite threat both offensively and defensively.
His 26 points puts him 7 off of his NHL-high with 45 more games to catch the mark he established in 2008-09, recent polling results from the NHL website has pegged him the highest vote-getter among NHL defenseman as a write-in candidate that wasn’t even on the initial ballot prompt, and his penchant for missing the net has been replaced by a more controlled, patient shot.
All in all, it’s been quite a turnaround.
However, this isn’t the first time Kris Letang has looked like such a dominant force on the ice. After all, any good success story like this has to have a good beginning. For Letang, that beginning started at the 2005 NHL entry draft.
In a draft that would be remembered for the Crosby sweepstakes, it’s largely forgotten that the NHL was licking its wounds having spent the entire previous season frozen in a bitter labor battle. With new rule changes ushered in by our current collective bargaining agreement, it wasn’t exactly known which direction the game would be headed.
In previous seasons, under the clutch-and-grab rules of the “old NHL” – drafting a small, 5’11 defenseman might not have been the most accepted idea in the league. Big pylons like Derian Hatcher patrolled blue-lines across the NHL, clutching and grabbing their way to a boring, slow, and uneventful defensive presence.
Consider Craig Patrick ahead of the game in the foresight department.
It wasn’t talent that prevented Letang from being ranked in the top 30 among NHL prospects that year, it was size. No one knew what the “new NHL” would look like. There wasn’t a prevailing school of thought that pegged small, mobile defenseman as a commodity. It was Patrick that took the gamble on Letang.
Boy has it ever paid off.
The small mining town of Val d’Or in Northern Quebec is the home of the Foreurs, the QMJHL team that would produce not only Kris Letang, but his highly touted defensive partner, Luc Bourdon.
Bourdon was taken #10 overall that draft by the Vancouver Canucks. Letang slipped 50 spots past that into the third round, where the Penguins would eventually nab him.
The 2005/06 season saw Bourdon depart from the Foreurs in favor of the Moncton Wildcats. Letang took Bourdon’s spotlight and ran with it. He registered 68 points (25+43) in 60 games. Although the Foreurs would be eliminated in the first round of the playoffs that year, Letang had laid the ground work for what would be one of the most impressive performances in junior hockey.
The start of the 2006/07 campaign was ushered in with Letang earning a 7 game tryout at the NHL level. He netted two goals in that brief debut before being re-assigned to the QMJHL, a move that impacted the youngster in a major way.
Letang took that demotion as motivation en route to 52 points (14+38) in 40 games that season.
Val d’Or entered the playoffs as the number one seed in the East, and dominated their first two series in an amazing fashion. They met Cape Breton in the Eastern finals, the team that Luc Bourdon had come to call home. It was, essentially, a dream match. Letang vs. Bourdon, two talented teams fighting for a spot in the President’s cup final.
The Foreurs quickly fell behind in the series 3-1. With game 5 in Cape Breton, all appeared lost. Letang would almost single-handedly change that. If you ever see current Thrashers’ goaltender Ondrej Pavelec seem nervous before a game against the Penguins, it’s most likely because he remembers what Kris Letang did to him in the following three games.
We documented this series right at the inception of Faceoff-Factor. In fact, you can still view the recap’s on our old blogspot template.
In Game 5 it appeared to be the end of the road for the Foreurs, they were able to stave off elimination with the help of Letang and take the series back to Val d’Or for game 6.
In Game 6, Letang was decked by James Sheppard at center ice, but was still able to find his way onto the scoresheet twice as the Foreurs forced a deciding game 7. The consensus was that Letang had a separated shoulder.
The deciding Game7 brought a victory that saw Letang notch a goal and an assist en route to a 4-2 victory that completed the improbable comeback for the Foreurs. Letang was dominant, rushing the puck up ice single-handedly, playing a strong, physical style game defensively, and playing the entire contest with a bum shoulder.
Anyone who saw Letang dominate during that time shouldn’t be surprised at what he’s doing today. Here are some stats that should paint that picture for you: Letang averaged nearly 12 shots on goal per game during that run; he registered 31 points (12+19) in 19 games, and played nearly every second of special teams play through that playoff year.
Within this scope of Letang’s development, we learn a lot about the growth of a young defensemen. Not every player that steps on the ice at the onset of their career is as competent and dominant as a Crosby or Malkin. Patience is often a requirement with the development of young players.
It certainly seems as if Letang is returning to the form he exhibited during that time in Quebec. And that forecasts nothing but good news for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
If you’re like me, you’re starting to hear the word “Norris” thrown around in conversations about Letang. At this point, looking at where Letang is and where he has come from, it wouldn’t be a surprise if we traveled down that road one day.