ShareThis Page

Heavier load for Letang

| Monday, Oct. 13, 2008

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.

New role

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."

New outlook

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."

New confidence

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."

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.