Penguins Prediction Rewind: Kris Letang piled up pluses during bounce-back season
Last summer, beat writer Jonathan Bombulie made a series of predictions leading up to the start of the 2018-19 season. Some were OK. Some were hilariously off the mark. In this series, Bombulie will explain what he was thinking and where his logic went off course.
Will Kris Letang be a plus player or a minus player this season?
C. About even
THE RIGHT ANSWER
• At this time last year, there was ample reason to think Letang, who had just turned 31, was in the middle of a decline. He was coming off a season that saw him post a career-worst minus-9 rating. He had also just recently made a couple of high-profile mistakes that hurt the Penguins’ chances in a second-round series loss to the Washington Capitals.
• It wasn’t popular to predict a rebound, but it was wise for a couple of reasons. First, in 2017-18, Letang was a few months removed from major neck surgery. A full offseason of training would make a world of difference. Also, the save percentage for Penguins goalies when he was on the ice five on five in 2017-18 was .888. That’s extraordinarily low. He was in line for some better puck luck.
A sample of Facebook comments:
• “I can see Rutherford trading Kris Letang this season. I believe some team’s GM will give some good offers to him that he can’t resist and move on from Letang. If not, Letang needs to be on second pairing with 15-18 minutes a night.”
• “Letang’s issues are mainly in his head. I thought Gonchar became an even better defensemen after age 30. Gonchar aside from that wicked shot was a very cerebral player and that helped him adapt. Letang? I have yet to see him capable of that. He could almost live up to that contract with some emotional maturity and smarts. He still has the physical gifts despite losing a step.”
WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED
• Letang wasn’t anywhere close to beginning a decline. In fact, he had an all-star season. His plus-9 rating was his best since 2012-13. Plus-minus is a stat that requires context, of course, so here’s some: When Letang was on the ice five on five, the Penguins outscored their opponents, 74-47. His rating was hurt by the fact that he was on the ice for 11 shorthanded goals against and nine empty-net goals against. He actually played a lot better than his plus-9 indicated.
• His puck luck improved, too. When Letang was on the ice five on five, his goalies had a .927 save percentage.
THE FLAWS IN THE LOGIC
• Not a whole lot of flaws, for once. Letang bounced back to have a stellar season.
• To nitpick, the prediction didn’t make much mention of Letang’s injury history, and it probably should have. He did miss 17 games with an upper-body injury late in the year. His brilliant regular-season performance showed Letang has definitely not begun an age-related decline. An injury-related decline might be a different story, however.
• Make projections based on the six-month sample of the regular season rather than the two-week sample of a playoff series. After a few critical mistakes in a first-round loss to the Islanders in April, that applies to Letang as much now as it did 12 months ago.
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review assistant sports editor. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .