Back-to-back wins build momentum
A season ago, while coming off of serious neck surgery, the Penguins coaching staff asked Kris Letang to adjust his game, to play a more conservative style.
Instead of making so many high-risk plays, the Penguins wanted Letang to grow comfortable living to fight another day, in part to preserve his health but also to minimize risk.
It didn’t have the desired effect, as Letang struggled for much of 2017-18. He was hesitant. He thought entirely too much. Confidence became an issue, both offensively and defensively. Then, there was the neck.
With a clean bill of health this season, a different alteration has had a profound impact on Letang’s game: He’s shooting more. A lot more.
Through 26 games, Letang leads the Penguins in shots on goal with 87. Amazingly, that’s 10 more than the secondplace Penguin (Patric Hornqvist, 77) and 13 more than Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel, who are tied for third.
Letang is on pace for a career-high 271 shots on goal, and only four defensemen in the entire NHL had more before the games Friday.
“Probably a different mindset going into it,” Letang said after the 6-2 win Thursday against the New York Islanders, which turned out to be the ninth two-goal game of his career and second this season.
“I have the chance to play with [Sidney Crosby], [Evgeni Malkin], those kinds of guys, I tried to get them the puck as much as I could before. This year, I’m trying to shoot the puck more and create offense that way.”
Letang has certainly done that, enough to thrust himself into the Norris Trophy conversation in a big way.
Letang has seven goals and 24 points in 26 games. Only two defensemen in the NHL have more than his seven goals. Only six have eclipsed Letang’s point total.
The Penguins’ No. 1 defenseman is on pace for 22 goals, 53 assists and 75 points, all of which would be career-best marks for him. He remains third in the NHL in average ice time per game at 25:54.
Letang’s shooting percentage (8.0) is the third-highest of his career. That tells us this isn’t necessarily a freak thing. It might actually be somewhat sustainable.
Five-on-five, Letang’s individual shot attempts per 60 minutes is at a career-best level (14.03). Ditto for his five-on-five shots on goal per 60 (8.03).
“It’s pretty balanced across the board for me throughout the year,” said Letang, who has three goals, 12 points and 37 shots on goal over his past 12 games. “I had a great start, also. There’s nothing special. Just try and play my game and work that way.”
No matter how you slice it, traditional or advanced, Letang’s willingness to shoot the puck has been blindingly obvious. He’s more confident, and his offensive talent has been hard to miss.
Take Thursday, for example. On Letang’s first goal, he executed a terrific passing play with Derick Brassard. Credit Brassard with finding Letang, but, when Letang has had an open lane, there’s been zero hesitation when it comes to drilling one.
The same for his shot from 55 feet that seemed to have a little bit of English on it. Goalie Thomas Greiss certainly couldn’t find it.
Letang isn’t hesitating, isn’t thinking about finding his teammates, isn’t thinking about getting creamed, Instead, he’s figuring out places to put the puck and ways to beat goalies.
“First couple of times, I had lanes to shoot,” Letang said of his performance Thursday. “I can’t force it too much. Sometimes it’s going to be there, sometimes it’s not. I just have to take what they give me.”
That Letang is getting anything right now is fairly surprising.
Earlier this week, Bovada released its latest Norris Trophy odds, and only San Jose’s Brent Burns, John Carlson in Washington and Los Angeles’ Drew Doughty were above Letang.
While Letang’s current pace is probably unsustainable — those 22 goals and 75 points would have led all defensemen last year — Letang’s shoot-first mindset is not.
And on a team that’s hugely capable of scoring goals in bunches, where this goes for Letang should be plenty interesting.
“Tanger really assesses his own game,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “He’s a student of the game himself. We’re certainly trying to offer our players any insights that we see.
“We’ve tried to encourage our whole team to shoot the puck more. As a group, we tend to look for the next play a lot. Part of that is the types of players that we have. We have a lot of skilled guys, but sometimes the best play is to just put the puck on the net.
“I think Tanger is doing a better job of that, and some of them have gone in.”
Alexander Wennberg, left, of the Columbus Blue Jackets shoots as Kris Letang, center, eyes the rebound on Nov. 24 at PPG Paints Arena. Letang is on pace for a career-high 271 shots on goal this season, complementing his typical staunch defending.