Analysis: Pens' other option with Letang could be best choice
Kris Letang could cause Penguins general manager Ray Shero to disregard conventional thinking.
Shero has spent the last couple of days working with his staff on a contract proposal for Letang, who is set to enter the final year of deal that currently counts $3.5 million annually against the salary cap.
By the most basic measures — age, productivity and role — Letang merits stature as a foundation piece for the Penguins, especially because he has conveyed a desire to stay.
Still, there is hardly a sense of optimism from either side that Letang is a lock to stick with the Penguins.
“I never want to say a player can't be traded or will never be traded — it's hard to do that,” Shero said recently of Letang. “At this point, we'd like to try to sign him and keep him here. He's a very good defenseman, and they're very hard to find.”
They are also hard to keep at an agreeable price or trade for suitable return.
Need for replacement
Negotiations between Shero and Letang's agent, Kent Hughes, began this past week. Notably absent was a firm commitment by Shero to only re-sign or trade Letang.
The third option is keeping Letang for a lame-duck season, chasing the Cup with him, and letting him walk away for nothing as a free agent next summer.
Only a general manager comfortable in his job security would choose that one. Majority co-owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle recently backed Shero's plan to extend for two years a coaching staff that presided over a stunning sweep from the Eastern Conference final, one in which the Penguins produced two goals.
Shero has job security.
He also had the stomach to neither re-sign nor trade center Jordan Staal last summer.
Ultimately, Shero traded Staal to Carolina, but mostly because the Hurricanes offered the replacement for Staal — center Brandon Sutter — that the Penguins lacked within the organization and would have proven costly on the free-agent market.
A replacement for Letang would also not come cheap, but that player might already be in the organization.
Simon Despres, a rookie last season, was recently described by coach Dan Bylsma as “a top-four defenseman” going into training camp.
The Penguins played this past season one short of four top defensemen.
Bylsma relied most heavily — especially during the Stanley Cup playoffs — on Letang, Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin, the latter considered by many within the organization as the best overall defenseman, even though Letang was a Norris Trophy finalist.
Among NHL defensemen who played in at least 30 games, Letang rated sixth at 5-on-5 play in Corsi Relative, which measures how players impact puck possession, with a 16.2. That means the Penguins averaged about 16 more shot attempts than opponents per 60 minutes when he was on the ice.
Martin's Corsi Relative was 7.9, but he also was second among Penguins defensemen with a .816 Corsi Relative Quality of Competition (QoC) rating, which gauges the quality of opponent that a defenseman typically faces. Letang was third at .696.
Players in shutdown roles generally rate best with the Corsi QoC, and that was true for the Penguins' top defensive pairing of Martin and Brooks Orpik, who was first at .891. That pairing was the preferred choice of Bylsma to play against opponent's top scoring lines.
That left Letang to pair with a rotating defense partner.
There was Matt Niskanen, not previously a top-four quality defenseman in the eyes of coaching. There was Mark Eaton, who was signed by Shero during the season after working his way into shape in the minors on a tryout contract.
There was also Despres, who rated 11.0 in Corsi Relative last season. That came with a QoC at minus-0.379 — a clear indicator that Bylsma did not trust playing him against better forwards.
Letang could help mentor Despres, as Sergei Gonchar once mentored Letang.
Letang could do that next season — a last act, in addition to chasing the Cup, for an organization that provided him the opportunity to grow into likely the most coveted unrestricted free agent under the new labor contract.
Gonchar essentially groomed Letang to replace him as the top defenseman in terms of overall ice time, power-play duties and point production.
The Penguins let Gonchar walk away as a free agent in 2010, though he was 36 at the time.
Letang is a decade younger now, and his best years are ahead of him. That is what makes the decision so difficult for Shero.
However, Shero has built an organization best suited to sustain losses of defensemen. He has traded young ones for wingers. He has drafted them early and often.
He also is not guaranteed to get a piece as enticing as Despres — like Sutter affordable and under contract — in any trade of Letang.
The going rate for a top-four defenseman is more than Letang's current salary. To acquire a defenseman with top-four potential who comes with contract security generally costs a lot — see any return Shero has secured for one of his young defensemen over the years.
Shero had great leverage when dealing Staal because the deep-pocketed Rangers wanted to acquire him, throw money at him and sell him on the idea of playing in New York with his brother Marc, a defenseman.
Carolina could not chance that because Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford knew his captain, Eric Staal, wanted to play with his second youngest brother.
The Hurricanes had no choice but to give Sutter to Shero. Had they not, Shero was happy to take one last Cup run with Crosby, Malkin and Staal as his “Big Three.”
Staal told Shero last summer that he wanted to play in Carolina. Shero knew the Hurricanes craved Staal, so he held the hammer in trade talks with Rutherford.
Letang has expressed no preference to play anywhere other than Pittsburgh, leaving Shero — for now — without a hammer in trade talks.
That could change.
So could Shero's “Big Three” now that Crosby and Malkin are locked into long-term contracts with full no-movement clauses.
Letang replaced Staal, and winger James Neal is ready for that No. 3 slot, as Despres is for top-four duty on the backend.
Shero knows all of this better than anybody. It is why conventional thought — sign him or trade him — might not be the only thought Shero has on Letang.