Lacing Up: The Future of 58
In remembrance of the late Ashley Gallant, originator of “Lacing Up,” Matt Paul, Joshua Neal, and, at times, guest writers will hold a
week-long email discussion, which will be published on FF Monday
mornings. If you have any topics you would like to see us discuss, or
if you would like to be a guest in our series, please let us know
through the comments section below or on our Contact page, linked at the top of FF.
Joshua Neal Though Kris Letang was taken in the third round of his NHL Draft season back in 2005, he has been a success story in many ways for the Penguins. His impact is one that borders upon Norris Trophy-level talent. In fact, I don’t think you’d get much argument from anyone in saying 1) that Kris Letang is the Penguins’ best defenseman and 2) that he is a top-10 two-way defenseman in the league today. Letang brings a unique combination of speed, offensive ability, and physicality to the game.
One knock on him, though is his injury problems through the past few years. I like a lot of this to playing a bit too physical at times. However, I won’t undervalue Letang and what he means to the Penguins. But with a contract year approaching, I think it’s only prudent to analyze what he does mean to the team, and what may happen as we work toward the end of this year.
Matt, where do you see Letang’s short- and long-term future with the Penguins heading?
Matt Paul: Ideally, his short- and long-term future would be them same: top-pairing, powerplay quarterback for the Penguins. But what’s ideal and what’s possible — and maybe even probable — to happen aren’t the same thing.
Letang, as you said, has separated himself from the vast majority of
defenders in the NHL and has become a perennial Noris Trophy candidate.
Take a look around the league. Those guys don’t come cheaply. Here’s a few names to take into consideration: Shea Weber, Drew Doughty, Zdeno Chara, and Erik Karlsson. These top-flight defenders are the league’s best and are paid accordingly. $7.857, $7.000, $6.916, and $6.500 respectively.
That’s a lot of loot to offer to a player who, as you said, has found himself injured on a semi-regular basis. Then again, if we’re worried about injuries to star players, Sidney Crosby should be a concern, and he’s not.
So what restricts Letang? His teammates. With high priced centers Crosby and Evgeni Malkin secured as the faces of the franchise and with a plethora of talented young defensemen in the pipeline, Letang could become a cap casualty.
But, as Penguin fans, should we be worried about this, Josh? I mean, would losing him set the team back that much?
Josh: In my mind, yes. Sure, the team has a lot of depth at the defense position as far as young prospects go. The guys like Simon Despres, Joe Morrow, and Scott Harrington (just to name a few) are guys that have perhaps an even better pedigree than Letang, who was surprisingly a third-round pick – whereas the others were first- and second- round selections.
But Letang brings the experience. He plays a bit of a different game than any of the guys I’ve mentioned, and he plays a different game from the entrenched names like Martin and Orpik. Sure, I think Letang’s statistics do benefit from being able to snap outlet passes to guys who score at the rates Crosby and Malkin do, but I think that even in an environment where he is a focal point for the team, he would still be a borderline elite defenseman.
This season, Letang has struggled at times and looked great at others. I was a huge fan of his pairing with Matt Niskanen, who prior to his own injury was playing some outstanding two-way hockey. Without Niskanen, Letang becomes one of the only offensively minded guys on the back end. Sometimes this makes him try to do a bit too much. And the power play has unarguably looked better with Martin at the point in the past several games. But there is the marathon and there is the sprint. I want Letang to stay with me for both the long- and short-term future. Do you see him as someone expendable or replaceable, Matt?
Matt: Well, he’s far from expendable, but he is replaceable. That sounds strange, but what I mean is that he’s not a guy a team would actively look to move. He’s not an extra that can be expended in an effort to strengthen another area. That said, he is replaceable — maybe not by an individual player, but by a committee.
Look, as you’ve said the power play looks fine without Letang on the point. That’s an attribute to the unreal talent on offense the Penguins possess, not necessarily the skills of Martin. Having an elite offensive defender to add to the mix is icing on the cake — but it’s not a necessary ingredient for the recipe.
Listen, I like Letang as much as anyone else and hope he stays in Pittsburgh for the long haul. I’ve watched him develop since his first training camp with the Penguins and would hate to see him wear any other sweater. But if this turns into a Malkin versus Letang ultimatum, I’m going with Malkin every day of the week and twice on Sunday. Is that how you see this shaking out, Josh, as a Malkin vs. Letang showdown for a contract? And, if not, how can the Penguins possibly afford to keep both of them, along with Crosby, Fleury, and Neal?
Josh: I think this is something we agree upon. That’s too many big names on the roster to the point where saying that we can keep all of them is just not realistic. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen, but I do think it means other guys will have to take “discount deals” to keep the core guys we’ve come to know in town. I, like you, tend to see it as a Malkin or Letang choice that we will have to make. I, like you, say that you’ve got to go with the guy who has got the hardware.
The depth of the defensive prospects of the Penguins has got to be tested at some point, and I think that Letang’s possible departure gives some of those guys opportunities to stay within the Penguins’ system. If Letang stays, you may be looking at Morrow or Harrington or Pouliot in different uniforms although they were drafted as Penguins.
So here’s my last question – if Letang does plan on testing the market, or if Shero simply elects to let him do so, do you try to move on a trade? Or do you make this a big run with him on board and risk losing him for nothing?
Matt: That’s a good question, and one I’m not sure of. I will say this, though: Shero has done a good job managing his most valuable assets over the years. Take, for example, Jordan Staal. He was a year away from becoming a free agent, but Shero learned of his asking price and his intentions and became proactive in trading him while his value was high.
Letang has just one year left on his contract beyond this season, meaning this could be our last season with him patrolling the blueline. Then again, he might well be re-signed on July 1, along with Malkin. My point is, I feel like we’ll know what’s going on with Letang one way or another this summer. So, to answer your question directly: Letang will not be left to become an unrestricted free agent. There’s just too much to lose.
Make no mistake about it, Letang is a world-class, elite defender with a unique skillset that seems to grow with each passing season. He’s extremely valuable to the Penguins, but he just might not be a commodity they can afford.