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New Penguins coach a 'big fan' of Letang

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Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2009

To blame second-year defenseman Kris Letang for the Penguins' 17-22-3 record since Dec. 3, 2008, is unfair.

Then again, Letang has registered a minus-10 rating over that span, including a minus-16 in the games the Penguins haven't won.

Still, if he is so deserving of a spot in the press box — the place from where a suit-wearing Letang has watched the past three games as a healthy scratch — why have several of general manager Ray Shero's NHL peers inquired about Letang's availability during trade talks?

"It's just, like, I don't know," Letang said Monday after the Penguins practiced at Southpointe. "I don't really know, actually."

Interim coach Dan Bylsma has said since Friday, a day after Letang was a healthy scratch for the first time this season, that he knows what Letang must provide to regain a lineup spot.

Consistent work toward improvement has proven Bylsma's mantra concerning Letang, and he reiterated that belief yesterday — though not before praising the highest scoring defenseman on the Penguins' current roster.

"I'm a real big fan of (his) talent and skill, what he can bring to this team, and I think he can be a really effective player in this league," Bylsma said of Letang, who has scored five goals and recorded 19 points in 58 games. "I don't think there's a bigger fan of Kris Letang than me in that regard."

Actually, Shero values Letang a lot — a point he made to Letang during a brief post-practice conversation yesterday.

In fact, Letang is among a group of players many opposing general managers believe Shero is unwilling to deal as the trade deadline approaches. Centers Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury join Letang in that class.

Through the team media relations staff, Shero said yesterday he and Bylsma are "on the same page" about Letang.

"It's just a matter of application and bringing the urgency every day, applying the advice (from coaches) and being able to apply that day in and day out," Bylsma said of Letang's current status.

"I think he completely knows what we expect and he made an effort to do that today in practice."

Letang left little doubt about that last part.

"Work harder," Letang said of the message Byslma delivered. "Obviously I can be a better player than I am right now. He wants me to ... be confident all the time when I go on the ice."

After Letang scored twice Feb. 6 in a home win against Columbus, Crosby said Letang has "never lacked confidence." That opinion is shared by many of Letang's teammates.

However, he has scored only 11 goals over 116 games the past two seasons -- hardly ideal output from a player touted as a right-handed sharp shooter with immense offensive upside. Letang, 21, tallied 52 goals in 171 junior games from 2004-07, and his professional progress limited his minor-league time to 10 games last season.

Letang opened last season at Wilkes-Barre Scranton, where Bylsma was an assistant coach.

Letang acknowledged yesterday a "good" relationship with Bylsma, whose preference for aggressive play Bylsma stopped short of agreeing was a perfect fit for Letang's skill.

Letang did not stop short — hence his confusion as to why he is not in the lineup.

"It's the perfect fit for me in his system," Letang said. "He wants us to be aggressive, jumping into the play — that's exactly my game. It's like (assistant) coach (Mike) Yeo told me, it's tailor-made for me."

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