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Pens' Letang aims to prove he's a pro

KITCHENER, Ontario -- A banner paying tribute to former Kitchener Ranger Paul Coffey hangs from the roof inside the Memorial Auditorium.

Coffey, a Hall of Famer, starred in this quaint Canadian town for most of a final, dominant junior season in the then-Ontario Hockey Association before turning professional with the Edmonton Oilers in 1980. That launched a stellar 21-year career that included four-plus seasons in Pittsburgh from 1987-1992.

Coffey was 18 when he scored 71 points in 52 games for the Kitchener Rangers during the 1979-80 season. Prior to joining Kitchener that season, he recorded 31 points in 23 games with Sault Ste. Marie.

Last season, for Val-d'Or of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Kristopher Letang had 52 points in 40 games as a 19-year-old.

Letang was busy last season, starting in the NHL and eventually playing in an AHL playoff game. He also led Team Canada to its third consecutive gold medal at the World Junior Championships as a captain.

This season, Letang wants to cement his professional status in the same building where Coffey once flashed his skating skill.

"My confidence is high," Letang said. "I am ready."

The Penguins certainly hope Letang makes good on that proclamation.

A player of his talent could elevate an offensive attack that last season produced the third-most goals in the league.

Penguins scouts describe Letang as a smooth-skating defenseman with a quick, hard and sure shot and enviable hockey sense. He hasn't made a liar of them in the early days of this rookie camp.

Letang scored a goal and assisted on a tying tally that capped a Penguins' third-period comeback in their 6-5, shootout victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs in both clubs' rookie tournament opener Friday.

Perhaps more important than his considerable skill, Letang is right-handed -- a rare trait among NHL-ready defenseman in the organization.

The question is whether Letang, with only eight NHL games to his credit, is ready enough to help the Penguins return to the playoffs.

"He was ready to move beyond junior (last season)," general manager Ray Shero said. "I do believe he is a player that can play this year -- not just play, but help our team at the NHL level.

"If it doesn't happen, then it is not fatal. I believe this kid will be a good player in the NHL for a long period of time, whether it happens now or somewhere down the line. ... But we made some changes during the summertime, and there is hole there. We will see if he can fill it."

With a spot among the top six defensemen perhaps his to lose, Letang spent the summer working on the defensive aspects of his game and training with would-be teammate Maxime Talbot.

Letang entered rookie camp attempting to look the part of a professional, with a robust 5-foot-11 frame and a short hair cut that came about because "maybe some people told (him) it was a good idea."

Looking like a pro will not make him one, though.

"Young defensemen are thrown into the fire in this league," new director of player development and 17-season NHL veteran Tom Fitzgerald said. "With a kid like him, he has to be patient. Less is more.

"His poise is incredible. I have watched a couple of drills here, and with all these kids, it is kind of chaotic because nobody knows the system. In the NHL, everybody knows the system. Things kind of take care of themselves. Kris, though, has the poise to be an NHL defenseman.

"Watching this guy, the best advice I can give him is to be patient because it will all come to him. He is that good."

Note : Forwards Angelo Esposito and Keven Veilleux didn't attend rookie camp because of injuries. Esposito, the 20th overall pick in June's entry draft, is nursing a sore groin. Team officials hope that Esposito could participate in veteran camp, which opens Thursday in Pittsburgh. Veilleux is recovering from a sports hernia surgery.

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