Scouts: Penguins would have hard time improving by trading Kris Letang
Kris Letang has been on the ice for 38 even-strength goals against this season, tied for the most among NHL defensemen.
Ardent Penguins fans probably could detail every one of them.
That's the nature of fandom, especially for a team struggling to find its form like the Penguins have been most of this season. Each mistake makes an indelible, festering memory.
The 30,000-foot view of Letang's season, however, is very different. A pair of NHL scouts who have watched him play this year, one from each conference, believe he still is among the top defensemen in the league.
“I think he's a very elite defenseman,” a Western Conference scout said. “He does things guys can't do. He's still a great skater. He can still shoot the puck. He's got great offensive instincts and skill. I just think he's pressing right now, and it isn't turning out the way he wants.”
Without a rooting interest, scouts seem more inclined to give Letang a longer grace period to get his game in order coming off major neck surgery in April.
“He could definitely calm his game down a little more and pick his spots a little better, but I think that has to do with the team struggling,” the Western scout said. “They're not where they're used to being. He probably thinks, ‘Well, I gotta do more.' Sometimes, doing less is more. I think he's kind of going as the group's going right now.”
Letang missed his second consecutive game with a lower-body injury as the Penguins fell 2-1 to Carolina on Friday night. His presence on the breakout, especially as the Penguins were hemmed in their own zone for the vast majority of the second period, was missed.
Letang's name has been in the headlines in recent days thanks to his presence in trade rumors. Those rumors were shot down by multiple sources Friday, but even if they hadn't been, scouts think it would be hard for the Penguins to find a deal for Letang that would make the team better.
Letang has a partial no-trade clause that lists 12 teams to which he cannot be dealt. Out of the remaining 18 teams, the Penguins would have to find a trade partner that matches up in specific ways.
There are teams that rightfully might think Letang is the missing piece that instantly would vault them into Stanley Cup contention. Those teams, however, probably don't have the cap space to accommodate Letang's $7.25 million salary or the desire to part with the type of impact players the Penguins would want in return.
Rebuilding teams with cap space, meanwhile, are usually trying to move stars over the age of 30, not add them.
“It would have to be a hockey trade, not a money dump,” the Western scout said.
The acquisition of Jamie Oleksiak from Dallas earlier this month and the emergence of Chad Ruhwedel as a potential lineup regular have given the Penguins more depth on the blue line than they started the season with. Once they get healthy, it's a position general manager Jim Rutherford could deal from to address other issues.
Still, though, it's not like they could trade a player of Letang's caliber without feeling ill effects, even if they did win the Stanley Cup last season without him.
“Where do you get the talent to replace him? That's the bottom line,” an Eastern Conference scout said. “Can a player come in and fill the void in our top four, plus we get this, plus we get this? That's the struggle.”
Add it all up, and for the Penguins, a return to form for Letang probably would be exponentially more valuable than any return the team could get in a trade.
“He's a high-risk player,” the Eastern scout said, “but when he's on and moving the puck, this guy can make as good a play as anybody.”