Kris Letang makes playing hockey look effortless, especially with the way he skates. “I think the hair has something to do with it,” coach Dan Bylsma joked.
And Letang has been an instrumental part of the Penguins’ six-game winning streak. He has an assist streak that coincides with it, which is a new career-high for the Penguins defenseman. He’s totaled a staggering 12 assists during that stretch and overall, he leads all defensemen in points (27) and assists (24).
|Kris Letang leads all NHL defensemen in points (27) and assists (24).|
“I’m trying to do my best to bring offense to the team,” he said. “Obviously joining the rush, making plays, putting the puck on net like last night. It just happened to be like that, but it’s fun to have a streak going with the team.”
It’s easy to think a player like Letang, with the sheer athletic ability and talent he possesses and the amount of time he’s been in the league, could just show up to the rink to practice and play games and he’d be just fine.
But what’s truly special about Letang, 25 years old and in his sixth full NHL season, is his continued dedication to strengthening his game and the sheer amount of work he puts in to be the player that we see being involved offensively while still being strong defensively. He works at it. Every single day.
“He’s really welcomed the challenge of getting better and doing more things,” forward Chris Kunitz said. “I know he spends a lot of time watching video and trying to get better and learn the game. That’s an accomplishment to him and the maturity he’s getting. (Playing with him) makes it a lot easier on us forwards.”
“He’s better in all aspects,” said current D partner Mark Eaton, who was with the Penguins when Letang broke into the league full-time in 2006 and has seen him grow as a player. “He was always skilled, he was always strong. The last two, three years of experience, you can tell how he’s matured on the ice and that’s only made him that much better.”
Bylsma told me they want the players to do individual video study about every third game, but Letang does it every day. He sits down with assistant coach Todd Reirden, who works primarily with the defense, to study tape of himself or players he wants to emulate – like seven-time Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom – to figure out ways to add to and improve his game.
“It’s either about my game or a collective game,” Letang explained. “Sometimes we watch other defensemen, the way they play. We try to pick different abilities that other defensemen have. Last year it was Nicklas Lidstrom, watching him, the way he walks the blue line. There’s so many different things you can learn. I think with doing a lot of video and practicing on the ice with the coach, it’s been pretty good.”
Though Letang is a frontrunner for the Norris Trophy, he would rather talk about team goals than individual ones. But when asked to evaluate what makes a defenseman a Norris Trophy winner, Letang again pointed to Lidstrom as the perfect model.
“He was a really good power-play guy, really good PK guy, 5-on-5 he was really calm with the puck,” Letang said. “He was passing the puck really well, waiting for opportunities to come to him. That’s the thing that we were looking at, the way he moves his feet, never got caught out of position. I think that’s what you have to look at on video to learn from those guys.”
Reirden said they do a lot of extra work in practice on different skills, like batting pucks out of the air or working on reaction time. One area of noticeable improvement that’s manifested itself in Letang’s game is his decision-making. It’s something he had to adjust factoring in the sheer amount of ice time he gets each game. Letang averages 26:13 minutes a night, which ranks sixth among all NHL players, so he has to be smart about picking his spots to get involved on the rush.
“It’s always calculated,” he said. “I think obviously with the time I spend on the ice, I can get tired out there. I think it was something that we talked about, jumping in at the right moment and making sure I don’t get caught tired out there. It happened to be a good improvement from the previous years.”
And the coaches are pleased with what he’s been doing, with Bylsma singling out that unparalled skating ability as a big factor.
“I thought his decision-making with the puck has been very good,” Bylsma said. “He’s shooting the puck a little bit more. Even though he’s supporting the rush and getting in, he’s putting pucks in a little bit more. He certainly has been a factor. I think I noted with him the maturity in his decision-making with the puck and even jumping in and how he’s supporting is much better for our team. But the skating is real noticeable. He’s such a strong skater that when you see him up in the play, it’s real noticeable and it’s been a factor for us.”
Overall, Letang is pleased with how far he’s come over the years, maturing into a player effective in all situations.
“At the beginning of my career I didn’t have the PK,” he said. “Obviously I worked on it. It’s something that I wanted to be better at and have more ice time on it. For the rest, it was just understanding the game better, make better reads. I don’t think my ability is changed much really. I got stronger in the summer. I work out really hard to get stronger and faster. But I think it’s just understanding the game better, playing defensively against better players. I think what has improved in my game the most.”
Evgeni Malkin and Tyler Kennedy were the only players not present at Wednesday’s practice at CONSOL Energy Center before the team left for Toronto. “Malkin again skated this morning on his own and Tyler Kennedy was just a maintenance day. Little under the weather,” Bylsma said.
ORPIK WEARS A VISOR
The discussion over wearing visors heated up after Rangers defenseman Marc Staal suffered a scary injury in a game versus Philadelphia March 5 when a puck deflected up and struck him right in the eye. Though the Rangers announced that “the injury has improved significantly and both doctors are optimistic that Marc will make a full recovery,” it’s made a lot of players think long and hard about adding visors to their helmets.
Veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik made the choice to wear one, debuting it on Wednesday. Here’s what he had to say about his decision…
“I thought about it last year over the summer and during the lockout, my college coach asked me every single day. And one of the guys I was skating with, Mike Mottau, he used to play in Jersey and Long Island – he’s in Toronto now – he still doesn’t have full vision from taking a puck in (the eye) in Atlanta a couple of years ago. I think it just got to the point where people were asking me, and it’s one thing if you have a good excuse or reason not to wear one. But when you don’t have a good excuse or reason and people are asking you, you feel pretty stupid. And then I put one on, I wore one in the Olympics and I played fine in the Olympics. Obviously it doesn’t affect you. And then you couple that with most nights, you’re not playing on very good ice. So the pucks are bouncing everywhere; guys take slapshots by your head. The other thing is how you defend now, everyone defends stick on puck, so you even do it to yourself sometimes. I did one in practice the other day. I put my stick out and hit myself right in the helmet. Two inches lower and it’s hitting me right in the eye. We’ll see. It’s not for everyone. Maybe it’ll push other guys to do it. We’ll see.”