Heavier load for Letang
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A late-September training camp practice had long since wrapped. Few players remained in the Penguins' dressing-room stalls at Mellon Arena. One, soaked in a sweat matting his long black hair against his forehead and neck, was comfortably seated, sporting an open-mouth smile as a teammate mocked his mannerisms.
"I don't say it like that," defenseman Kris Letang said. "Do I?"
"Pretty close," right wing Pascal Dupuis responded.
"No, you totally do," center Sidney Crosby added. "He's got you down exactly."
Dragging a surgically repaired left foot across the carpet, injured defenseman Ryan Whitney continued the assault - a spot-on impersonation of Letang, a second-year defenseman with hockey skill to match Whitney's theatrical flair.
"Hey, Sid," Whitney said in a hushed voice as he eyed Crosby. "You remember when I scored that goal against Roberto Luongo to win the shootout?
"Was that good?"
"Oh my, God," Crosby said, not attempting to hold back heavy laughter. "That's you, 'Tanger. It's so good. That's so you."
It was, anyway.
"But a lot has changed," Letang said.
It seems impossible, but it's true.
The Penguins, blessed with Crosby, center Evgeni Malkin and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury - heralded and paid like three of the best players at their positions - are counting upon a soft-spoken, right-handed shooting defenseman whose rookie season ended with a Stanley Cup final benching to help guide them through tumultuous times.
Injuries to Whitney and Sergei Gonchar - the former out until at least December, the latter expected to return in March - have transformed a deep defense corps into a thin shell of its formerly sturdy form.
The burden of responsibility without those defensemen - the team leaders in average ice-time last season - has fallen on Letang's shoulders.
"He has all the potential in the world," Gonchar said of Letang, a dominant offensive player at the junior level with 152 points in 170 games.
"He sees the ice very well, great hands. The only part he's missing is experience, and obviously he's not going to gain it in a year."
Letang, 21, is not even the least experienced player still standing. That tag belongs to rookie Alex Goligoski. His five NHL regular-season games are dwarfed by Letang's 73, let alone veteran Hal Gill's 792.
But Letang has replaced Gonchar as Brooks Orpik's partner on the top defense pairing, averaging 24 minutes and 22 seconds through three games.
Letang averaged 18:09 last season.
"That's a big difference, especially for a young player," assistant coach Andre Savard said. "You're talking about playing against the opponent's top line, which we asked Gonchar's unit to do. You're talking about playing on the power play, which Letang will do because of his offensive skill, and on the penalty kill, which we didn't ask him to do very much last year.
"It's a lot, physically. It's a lot more, mentally. You learn a lot about a player's makeup in this situation."
Letang arrived at training camp last month "in the best shape I've ever seen him in," coach Michel Therrien said.
His stature and stamina were not the only noticeable changes since late May, when over a span of mere days the disappointment of being yanked from the Cup final was dulled by the pain of his best friend's death due to a motorcycle accident.
"It's not something he talks about a lot," Fleury said of the motorcycle accident that killed former Vancouver Canucks prospect Luc Bourdon on May 29.
"Maybe once or twice during the summer he would say anything when I'd ask how he was doing. He always tried to change the subject, talk about his training or something else, anything else.
"But you can see he's different than he was last year."
Letang's reaction to Whitney's training-camp teasing proved an indication of that.
"Last year, he was a young kid, wasn't used to it, and he'd get kind of rattled," Whitney said. "This year, he's giving it back and laughing it off. I guess maybe he's realized we really like him. I used to tell him last year, 'Be worried if we're not giving it to you.'"
Fleury, whose house Letang shared last month as he searched for permanent in-season Pittsburgh lodging, said his lone summer advice to Letang was "lighten up."
"He did," Fleury said. "I think everything that happened gave him some perspective."
Thinking too much about the opinions of others, Letang admitted, is a problem.
"I've always wanted people to say, 'You're a good team player,'" Letang said. "I'm always asking somebody if I could do something better. The guys tease me about it. I guess it's funny. But that's how I've always learned."
To learn is to change. The lessons that have impacted Letang sparked a newfound confidence he'll need over the coming months.
"I can do this," Letang said. "Maybe I worried too much before that everybody would think I was too confident, cocky. But I know I can do this.
"I can't waste my time thinking anything else. Life is too short."
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