Grove: Letang Earned His Place In Penguins History

Bob Grove
November 27, 2018 - 11:11 am
Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang

Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

Kris Letang hits the Penguins’ record book again tonight in Winnipeg, where he’ll play his 704th regular season game – most in team history by a defenseman.

Letang is only 31, so there’s no chalking this one up to age. Letang has missed 173 games, more than Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, so there’s no way to credit good fortune for this one. Sure, he joined the right team at the right time, but that doesn’t explain it, either.

Letang has obviously had great support from family, friends, teammates and the Penguins’ organization, but this is a distinction he has earned largely through his determination, dedication and obvious love of the game.

The only defenseman to win three Stanley Cups with this franchise, Letang has already carved out his place in team lore, as he tops all Pittsburgh defensemen in assists (355), points (456), game-winning goals (20) and overtime goals (5), and he’ll soon catch Hall of Famer Paul Coffey for the goals and power-play goals marks.

But in the simple act of just showing up on the Bell MTS Place ice tonight he’ll set a record that says something about him that none of the other records can approach. He’s reached 704 games despite, in addition to other injuries:

  • Two concussions in the 2011-12 season, the first after returning to the ice on Nov. 26 to score the game-winning overtime goal at Montreal after a hit by Max Pacioretty broke his nose, earning Pacioretty a suspension.
  • A stroke suffered on January 29, 2014 at the age of 26. It came after a season already plagued by elbow and knee injuries.
  • Surgery on a herniated disk in his neck in April, 2017. That condition was one of several that cost him exactly half the season and a chance to help the Penguins successfully defend their Cup championship.

It’s a cruel hockey irony that Letang is arguably the most athletic, best-conditioned defenseman in team history and yet has missed so much time due to health issues. If there was any doubt about the way his off-season training regimen fueled his on-ice success, it was laid to rest when he played 79 games at a level below his usual proficiency last season, before which he had been unable to train the same way while recovering from his neck surgery.

He said last spring he believed a typical off-season in the summer of 2018 would bring his game back into shape, and he enters tonight’s game on pace for 19 goals, 54 assists, 73 points, 31 PP points and 278 shots. Every one of those marks would be a career high.

Since the NHL began tracking ice time in 1997, only Crosby has spent more time on the ice in a Pittsburgh sweater than Letang, who’s played nearly 16,700 minutes. His average ice time per game climbed in each of his first seven seasons as coaches found invaluable his skating, stamina, strength and ability to play both the penalty kill and the power play, the latter where he’s been a good complement to Crosby and Malkin.

As he heads toward his 32nd birthday in April, Letang is now averaging 25:58 per night, third in the NHL and the second-highest figure of his career.

Related: Grove: Are The Penguins Ready To Help Their Inexperienced Goaltenders

Drafted the same year as Crosby, Letang has played more games than any third-round pick in team history. He’s had an unmistakable understanding on the ice with Crosby, who has assisted on 38 of Letang’s 101 regular season goals (37.6%) and has had Letang earn an assist on 77 of his 420 goals (18.3%). Never was that more apparent than on the night of June 12, 2016, when Letang turned a Crosby pass into the Cup-winning goal in San Jose.

The Penguins’ franchise has had a strong lineage of Quebec-born stars running through its 51-year history, from Michel Briere to Jean Pronovost, from Pierre Larouche to Mario Lemieux and Marc-Andre Fleury. Let’s add Kris Letang to that list.

He’s earned it.

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