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Letang's natural ability gives Penguins added boost

| Wednesday, March 13, 2013, 7:54 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins defenseman Kris Letang plays against the Capitals at Verizon Center Fe.b 3, 2013. Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review

In the celebratory moments following the Penguins' comeback victory in Philadelphia last week, coach Dan Bylsma made a beeline for defenseman Kris Letang's locker.

They spoke quietly amid the jovial sounds of a victorious locker room, but the content of the conversation was easily understood. Letang's game has matured, the riverboat gambler is now able to navigate the ice with caution when necessary.

“I appreciate it,” Bylsma said to Letang that night, complimenting his performance while the Penguins held a one-goal lead in the third period.

The hockey world is beginning to appreciate his game as well.

A number of Las Vegas casinos now list Letang as the favorite to claim the Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman.

He isn't interested in individual awards — “You guys think about it. I don't,” he said — but, at 25, is seeing his game blossom.

Letang leads the NHL in points by a defenseman with 27 and is still leading the rush with great frequency. His decision-making, though, has improved dramatically.

“It's always calculated,” Letang said.

Perhaps that wasn't always the case, but many have noticed the change.

“You can tell how he's matured,” said defenseman Mark Eaton, who partnered with Letang during the team's 2009 Stanley Cup run.

“He's better in all aspects. He was always skilled, could always skate, was always strong. He's just that much better.”

For all of Letang's wondrous offensive ability, his skills didn't always translate into offensive production. This is no longer the case as Letang not only leads defensemen in scoring but currently ranks 13th in the NHL. He has produced more points than star forwards Evgeni Malkin, Claude Giroux, Phil Kessel, Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexander Ovechkin and both Sedin brothers.

“It's just a tremendous amount of skill,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “A lot of guys wish they could skate like him. A lot of guys. He takes incredible risks but always gets away with it because of his skating ability. He can always skate himself out of trouble.”

Niskanen acknowledges Letang now takes different risks than a couple of years ago.

“He'll always be able to avoid trouble because of his skating, but he's smarter with the puck now,” Niskanen said. “His game has really matured. Everything he does is with a purpose now.”

It is no coincidence that Letang's six-game scoring streak coincides with his team's six-game winning streak. Center Sidney Crosby has been the biggest catalyst during the streak, but Letang is not far behind.

He has displayed deft touch in the offensive zone — like during a four-assist game in Montreal and when he set up Crosby's game-winning goal last week against Tampa Bay — but also has played a more reliable, structured game in the third period.

“His decision-making has been very good,” Bylsma said. “Even though he's supporting the rush, he's putting pucks (deep) a little more. He certainly has been a factor. I think I noted with him the maturity in his decision-making with the puck and even jumping in, and how his supporting is much better for our team.”

Bylsma, when addressing Letang's recent skating prowess, used the word “noticeable” four times. Letang's skating always has been a cut above the rest. Now it appears the rest of his game has caught up.

“He's just really, really good right now,” Niskanen said.

Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jyohe@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.

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