Kovacevic: Keeping faith in Letang is simple
There's nothing wrong with Kris Letang. Not much, anyway.
“My game? My game is fine,” he came back to my opening question Thursday. This was at his stall a few hours before the Penguins' 5-1 pinprick of the Sharks at Consol Energy Center and, candidly, the young man sounded as if he would need a shot of Novocaine to get through any talk about his performance to date.
“Yes, there's less production. But my game right now is fine defensively. I'm watching a lot of video, every clip … and there's nothing, really, I'd change.”
“Like I said, the defensive part is good. I don't get beat one-on-one. My game is based on physical play down low, making it hard on the opposing team. Right now, that's all fine.”
He paused, lowered his head and ruffled his right hand through that spaghetti mane as if searching for that missing part of his response.
“Maybe I'm less patient with the puck than I was before. ... Maybe I am.”
Yeah, maybe he is.
It's hard not to like Letang. It's impossible not to respect him. He's still the last man off the ice after every skate, every practice, even outlasting the latest arrivals from Wilkes-Barre. And while others drive home to nap between the skate and a game, he'll hole up in assistant coach Todd Reirden's office to consume more video.
But wow, no, Letang's game has not been fine.
You don't need detailed breakdown of all the breakdowns here. You don't need a recanting of his 11 points through 21 games, his minus-3 rating, his 63 shots on goal compared to his 47 shots blocked or wide, his countless giveaways, his being embarrassingly lifted off the top power play. It's all exposed nightly.
But if you want to understand it, well, go back up and reread those quotes.
It's a great hockey irony that, as beautiful as it can be, any struggling team or individual will stress going ugly, like banking the puck off the glass, shooting from anywhere, etc. Not for Letang. He wasn't born with simple DNA. When times get tough, he strives to compensate for all that's gone wrong by making his next shift some magical mix of Bobby Orr, Paul Coffey and Rob Blake.
It's brilliance or bust.
And therein lies the real rub: Letang is capable of brilliance. Ray Shero and the Penguins know that, or they wouldn't have committed an eight-year, $58 million contract to No. 58 this past offseason. They're expecting — and it's fair — that he should contend for the Norris Trophy annually.
So how to swing that pendulum back away from bust?
Here are three thoroughly unsolicited suggestions:
1. Focus on defense
Brooks Orpik has told me for years — and repeated Thursday — that the foundation of Letang's game, even his offense, is his defense. Everything starts back there, not on the rush. Orpik cited Letang's sharp neutral-zone pass to spring a Chris Kunitz goal last week in Tampa as “how you'll see Tanger get most of his points.”
He's right. So don't worry about “less production,” as Letang was lamenting. There's so much skill in place that something as basic as taking some sting out of his shot — kind of like that floater he flicked behind San Jose's Alex Stalock in the third period — and the points will come.
“You know, I think I am staying back,” Letang said, citing a recent video review that shows he averaged 13 rushes per game up ice last season compare to just three this season. “That's always been my goal.”
2. Go all Despres on him
When Simon Despres opened this season in Wilkes-Barre, an organizational decision was made to have him focus on nothing but defense and the simplest possible play. So far, it's worked. Despres has been solid, not spectacular. That'll keep him here.
Letang can't and shouldn't go to the minors, of course, but the same thought process can be applied. And yes, that includes getting him off the power play. Make him one-dimensional, at least, before making him whole.
Did you notice Letang much against the Sharks?
Nope, me neither. And that's good.
I don't want to hear how the extension was a mistake, and I can't even fathom a trade. Not yet.
Remember how Letang buried the Ottawa Senators in the playoffs last season?
Know how many players can do that?
The talent's there.
The will's there.
Now it's about the way. And that might be simple, too.
I asked Letang if maybe the contract had been a factor in his start.
“You mean pressure?” he replied. “I've had those expectations from my first shift here. That hasn't changed. I just need to get that confidence back. And I will.”