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Starkey: Letang exit would weaken Penguins

Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins defenseman Kris Letang playing against the Canadiens on Tuesday, April 5, 2013, at Consol Energy Center.

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Freelance Columnist
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Joe is a freelance sports columnist for the Tribune-Review.
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By Joe Starkey

Published: Wednesday, June 26, 2013, 11:03 p.m.

Kris Letang isn't the kind of hockey player a team discards without regret.

Kind of like Jordan Staal, you know?

Ray Shero, under the circumstances, made an amazing trade with Carolina last summer. But that doesn't mean the Penguins were better for it when the big games arrived.

Do you think Staal's size, strength and playoff pedigree might have helped against the Bruins?

There's a reason Shero once said he would never trade Staal. And remember, his preference was to retain Staal. That's why the Penguins offered him nearly $60 million to stay.

Staal wanted out, leaving Shero little choice but to move him.

Here's hoping the Penguins are just as serious about keeping Letang. Not at any cost, mind you, but with all these high-priced forwards around, you better have an elite triggerman on your blue line.

Listening to some of the prattle around town, you'd think Letang was perfectly expendable. Easily replaceable. We've even heard that some inside the organization believe Paul Martin is the team's best defenseman.

Really? I'd love to test that theory.

I'd love to ask the other 29 GMs who they'd rather graft onto the roster — Kris Letang or Paul Martin. I'm fairly certain all 29, after they asked me 58 times to repeat the question, would choose Letang. And recommend counseling.

I still remember Scotty Bowman raving about Letang before the '08 Cup Final, before most people knew what kind of player he was. Scotty could see it. So can Paul Coffey, who makes that clear whenever he's in town.

As bad as Letang was against Boston, he is a rare, dynamic defenseman. He is a player who could win multiple Norris Trophies.

So, please, trot out your advanced metrics and theories about Letang being an offense-obsessed, out-of-control, injury riddled head case.

He's not the crazy one.

I'll stick with this: In his past 86 games over two seasons, Letang has 80 points and a plus-37 rating. He is a unique combination of skill, toughness, speed and off-the-charts stamina.

Letang is constantly challenged, consistently targeted and holds up to the tune of 27-plus minutes per game. He also does things like return concussed at Montreal to score the winning goal.

He is coachable, too. The staff — which never settled on a partner for Letang this season — asked him to tone down his act so he cut his penalty minutes to eight.

Eight?

Yes, Letang has missed too many games of late. He could improve on the power play. So could Sidney Crosby. He could stand to grow up a bit and not so easily succumb to frustration and mindless turnovers. So could Evgeni Malkin.

Which brings us to the key question: What is a fair offer?

Upwards of $7 million a year, I'd say. A five-year, $35 million deal would be perfectly reasonable and would leave Letang with one more big contract ahead.

Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Brian Campbell and Drew Doughty are the NHL's $7 million defenseman, in terms of annual cap hits. Five more, including Ottawa's Erik Karlsson, are at $6.5 million-plus.

Letang's next deal could set the bar for post-lockout defensemen. If early indications mean anything, the bar will be ridiculously high. Mark Streit, 35, just signed a four-year, $21 million deal with Philly. Sergei Gonchar, 39, got $10 million over two years in Dallas.

So what's a 26-year-old Norris finalist worth?

Letang might be tempted to find out after next season, and nobody should blame him. He is not obliged to follow the paths of Malkin, Crosby and others by taking a hometown discount.

The Penguins could always try to trade Letang at next year's deadline or keep him until his contract expires. But where's the sense in allowing him to leave without proper compensation?

In the meantime, there's only so much room in the budget. The Penguins wisely prioritized Malkin over Letang. The good news is that if Letang prices himself out of town, he could command a nice return, and the Penguins already are stocked with talented young defense prospects, starting with Simon Despres.

Let's be clear, though: None of the young guys are Letang — and there's no guarantee any would be.

The Penguins would absolutely be a lesser team without him.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

 

 

 
 


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