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Kevin Gorman: Indispensable Kris Letang has earned benefit of doubt from Penguins

Kevin Gorman
| Wednesday, May 9, 2018, 6:18 p.m.
The Penguins' Kris Letang celebrates scoring on the Capitals in the second period during Game 6 on Monday, May 7, 2018, at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Kris Letang celebrates scoring on the Capitals in the second period during Game 6 on Monday, May 7, 2018, at PPG Paints Arena.
The Penguins' Kris Letang moves the puck up ice during their game against the Capitals inside of PPG Paints Arena on May 3, 2018.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Kris Letang moves the puck up ice during their game against the Capitals inside of PPG Paints Arena on May 3, 2018.

Kris Letang laughed at the question, preposterous as it was that it had to be asked, let alone answered.

Was Letang confident he would be back with the Penguins next season?

"I sacrifice everything for this team, so my only goal is to spend the rest of my career here," Letang said Wednesday morning as the Penguins cleared out their lockers at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry.

"That's all I can say."

That should say it all.

It was a fair question, given the talk around town that Letang is to blame for the Penguins' early exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs.

And an absurd one, that the Penguins' top defenseman is the subject of such talk after an up-and-down season following a career-threatening injury.

Letang has come back from concussions, from a stroke and from neck surgery. There shouldn't be any reservations whatsoever that Letang can come back from his Game 5 blunders against the Washington Capitals.

Letang has earned the benefit of the doubt, as one of three remaining players from the 2009 Cup champions.

So let's end this silly scuttlebutt about trading Letang before it begins. He's one of their most indispensable players, just behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the Penguins' pecking order.

Two years ago, Letang scored the winning goal to clinch the fourth Cup in franchise history. That the Penguins won it again last year without Letang doesn't diminish his value.

"I can just tell you from a teammate, no matter the situation or how big the game is, regardless of what happened the game before, there's no doubt in my mind that you can depend and rely on him," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said.

"Everyone has good games and bad games, but as a teammate, you couldn't have a more dependable, reliable guy that competes the way he does."

Letang didn't just own up to his gaffes in Game 5 at Washington — "I made a mistake, and it cost us the game," he said — but he tried to make up for them by scoring the tying goal in Game 6.

If anything, these playoffs were proof the Penguins relied too much upon their best players and didn't get enough contributions from their supporting cast.

"It's easy to have all those things magnified in the course of the playoffs, and when you lose, that just comes with it," Crosby said. "But he's proven for a long time that he's a big part of our team."

Defense partner Brian Dumoulin said he couldn't imagine enduring an eight-month layoff and returning to play 25-plus minutes a game this season. No wonder he talked about the honor of playing alongside Letang.

"He's such a terrific player," Dumoulin said. "When he has the puck on the stick, you know he's always going to try to do the right thing. You could see how hard he was trying."

Try as he might, Letang didn't come to close to being the player he was in 2015-16, when he had 16 goals and 67 points in 71 regular-season games. He had nine goals and 51 points in 79 games, going from plus-9 to minus-9.

Worse yet, Letang's giveaways went from 69 to 89 and his goals-for percentage from 50.9 percent to 41.67, a sign fatigue was factoring into his mental mistakes.

Letang's glaring gaffes had to be frustrating for Penguins coach Mike Sullivan and his "Play the Right Way" mantra. Yet, Sullivan talked about the challenges Letang faced following major surgery and rehabilitation, and he said it shouldn't diminish his status as "an elite defenseman in the league."

Letang is certainly one of the best in Penguins' history, one whose No. 58 should hang from the rafters at PPG Paints Arena someday.

If that's going to happen, critics say, Letang has to learn how to play to his strengths without exposing his weaknesses.

At 31, Letang is still an elite skater but no longer one who can use his speed to make up for his mistakes. He knows as much as anyone that he has to play smarter.

"I don't even have to hear about it," Letang said. "I know when I play well, I know when I don't and when I make mistakes.

"That's the reason I'm able to tell you that Game 5 is still on my mind. I made a costly mistake. It's always going to be the case. I'm always going to put pressure on myself, and I'm always going to try to get better."

Pin the blame on Letang for Game 5, if you will, but the Penguins didn't lose the Capitals series because of him. But that game should give Letang all the motivation in the world.

Will he work to improve?

That's not just a sacrifice Letang is willing to make but a question he can answer with confidence.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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