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Penguins' Kris Letang looks for pluses in recent play

Jonathan Bombulie
| Monday, Nov. 13, 2017, 6:57 p.m.
Penguins defenseman Kris Letang (58) collides with Predators right wing Miikka Salomaki in overtime Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn.
Penguins defenseman Kris Letang (58) collides with Predators right wing Miikka Salomaki in overtime Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn.
The Penguins’ Kris Letang (58) speaks to an official during their game against the Panthers at PPG Arena on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
The Penguins’ Kris Letang (58) speaks to an official during their game against the Panthers at PPG Arena on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017.

Come at Kris Letang with the idea the first six weeks of his season have been subpar, and he probably won't disagree.

Come at Letang with his plus-minus rating as evidence of said struggles and be prepared for a verbal backhand.

Yes, Letang and teammate Sidney Crosby are minus-14, tied for the worst rating in the league, but the defenseman's evaluation of his own play is not in any way affected by that number.

“It's a useless stat,” Letang said after practice Monday.

Letang has some good reasons for his dismissal of the rating. First, it's too circumstantial for his tastes.

Take Friday's game at Washington. Letang took a minus for being on the ice for Jakub Vrana's empty netter in the final three minutes of the game. Was that indicative of the quality of Letang's play? It was the only minus he took in three games last week.

“We got a couple of those this year,” Letang noted.

The empty-net situation isn't the only circumstance where Letang has picked up minuses he deems meaningless.

“Like on the power play, we're a power play that's aggressive,” Letang said. “If the PK scores, it's a minus. It's not like it's a poor defensive play. Teams are trying to take advantage, and you're on the ice.”

And another thing, Letang continued. Plus-minus disproportionately punishes blowout losses. He was a minus-5 in a 10-1 loss at Chicago the first week of the season and a minus-3 in 7-1 losses to Tampa Bay and Winnipeg a little later on. He might spend all year trying to dig out from under those 11 minuses.

“We had games where we got pumped. Big numbers,” Letang said. “In a regular game, if you have an off night, you might be minus-1, minus-2, maybe even. Now you look, and it's a minus-5 in Chicago. You get behind the 8-ball pretty quick.”

Once he eviscerated the plus-minus stat as an effective tool for evaluating a player, though, Letang turned circumspect. He isn't satisfied with his play.

He hasn't scored in 15 games. Crosby hasn't scored in 11. It's hard to imagine the Penguins getting where they want to go if those trends continue.

“I think we both have to be better,” Letang said.

During the team's five-game western road trip earlier this month, Letang said he found himself essentially lost in his own head.

With the puck on his stick, he was pondering the right play to make rather than acting on the instincts that made him one of the most dangerous defensemen in the league in the past decade. Without the puck, he hesitated making reads and was lost.

Over the last few games, Letang said he feels like he's starting to get his mental game back on track, and the numbers back that up.

During a win over Arizona, a loss to Washington and a shootout loss to Nashville, when Letang was on the ice in five-on-five situations, the Penguins outshot their opponents 30-17 and outscored them 2-0.

“I think the last two games I've been more on my toes, jumping more, being more instinctive, then read and react,” Letang said. “It's getting there.”

His coach agrees, especially as it relates to Letang getting more pucks to the net.

“We've had discussions with Tanger just about simplifying his game and part of that process is shooting the puck when the opportunity presents itself and not looking for a better play or the next play,” Mike Sullivan said. “Let's just put pucks on the net and see if we can't generate something off of that.

“I think Tanger's making a concerted effort to try to get pucks on net. I think that's good for our team.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.

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