Mark Madden: Penguins’ Kris Letang should be Norris finalist lock |
Mark Madden, Columnist

Mark Madden: Penguins’ Kris Letang should be Norris finalist lock

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Penguins defenseman Kris Letang gets past the Sharks’ Erik Karlsson on Jan. 15, 2019 in San Jose, Calif.
Penguins defenseman Kris Letang skates during a game against the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday, Jan 12, 2019, in Los Angeles. The Kings won 5-2.

The Penguins haven’t been cheated when it comes to individual awards. That especially goes for the awards you can’t get cheated out of, like the Art Ross Trophy. That goes to the NHL scoring champion. The Penguins have 15.

That’s not to say the Penguins never have been cheated.

Like in 1988-89, when Mario Lemieux had 199 points — 31 more points than Wayne Gretzky and 31 more goals, too. But Gretzky somehow got NHL MVP.

That’s not cheating. That’s grand larceny. It embarrasses to this day.

But the Penguins have seven MVPs, five playoff MVPs, two best rookies and one best defenseman. That’s a good haul.

But Kris Letang still doesn’t have a Norris Trophy for being the NHL’s best defenseman. He’s only been a finalist once, in 2013 when he finished third in the voting conducted annually by the Professional Hockey Writers Association.

This season, Letang should be a lock to be a finalist.

Letang’s impact on the Penguins has been profound. His value is proven even more so when he’s injured. He’s got 16 goals, 40 assists and a plus-13 mark in 63 games. Letang’s advanced metrics show he creates more offense than all but a few defensemen.

But Letang is a long shot to be a finalist and likely has zero chance to win.

Injuries have worked against him and still do: Letang has missed 14 games this season, including last night’s at New York (upper-body injury). Front-runners Brent Burns of San Jose and Toronto’s Morgan Rielly have missed no games, Calgary’s Mark Giordano just two.

Letang plays on a team with hockey’s very biggest star and another who’s not far behind. That shouldn’t seep into the Norris reckoning, but it does.

At this point, ignoring Letang is habitual. Not only does he get short shrift for the Norris, but leaving him off Canada’s national team is practically a tradition.

But this season, Norris voters will look foolish if they disregard Letang.

Letang’s productivity, skating and physicality can’t be argued. He gambles offensively, but it rarely costs him defensively because of his speed. Some of the Norris favorites never hit. Letang does it regularly. He plays both ends with equal fanaticism.

If Letang has added any significant component to his game, it’s patience. When appropriate, Letang lets the game come to him and allows options to develop. That makes his style more precise and eliminates most mistakes.

At 31, Letang has matured into a defenseman who is steady, yet extremely impactful at both ends of the rink. Brian Dumoulin is a perfect partner for Letang given his sublime defensive instincts and general accountability.

Dumoulin would be worthy of a modicum of Norris consideration if the award had much to do with defense. But it mostly awards offensively capabilities — so much so that we occasionally get talk about a new award for “best defensive defenseman.”

Eight-time Norris winner Bobby Orr is the greatest defenseman ever. He changed hockey. But he also warped his position’s priorities.

Giordano seems the current favorite to win the Norris, and he should be. He’s got 72 points in 73 games and is a mammoth plus-37, second in the NHL. “Most valuable” isn’t necessarily supposed to enter into Norris voting, but Giordano’s performance has helped Calgary exceed the preseason expectations of most.

If Giordano doesn’t win, Rielly (68 points, plus-28 in 75 games) might get the nod because Toronto is hockey’s capital city — or so we’re told, again and again, whether it’s true or not.

The Penguins’ lone Norris winner is Randy Carlyle (1980-81).

In that season, Carlyle had 16 goals and 67 assists in 76 games. Carlyle was also minus-16. But the Penguins finished 30-37-13, so what do you expect? Carlyle quarterbacked Coach Eddie Johnston’s revolutionary “pick and roll” power play, which finished second in the NHL with 92 goals.

Carlyle is somehow not on the Penguins’ All-Time Team despite being the club’s only Norris recipient and a big contributor for six seasons. That should be rectified.

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