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Penguins position breakdown: Kris Letang's resurgence is key to team's fortunes

Jonathan Bombulie
| Friday, June 15, 2018, 7:33 p.m.
The Penguins' Brian Dumoulin holds down the Capitals' T.J. Oshie as Kris Letang gets to the puck in the second period during Game 3 of the second round in the Stanley Cup playoffs Tuesday, May 1, 2018, at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Brian Dumoulin holds down the Capitals' T.J. Oshie as Kris Letang gets to the puck in the second period during Game 3 of the second round in the Stanley Cup playoffs Tuesday, May 1, 2018, at PPG Paints Arena.
The Penguins’ Justin Schultz (4) moves the puck against the Panthers at PPG Arena on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
The Penguins’ Justin Schultz (4) moves the puck against the Panthers at PPG Arena on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017.

Editor's note: Heading into the NHL draft June 22-23 and the opening of the free-agent signing period July 1, staff writer Jonathan Bombulie will conduct a six-part, position-by-position examination of the team's organizational depth chart.

Starting at the left point, Kris Letang spun around Joe Pavelski, toe-dragged past Joe Thornton, shuffled a pass into the blue paint and swooped around the net to the right faceoff circle. He quickly took a return pass from Sidney Crosby and banked in a shot off goalie Martin Jones.

That was the winning goal of Game 6 of the 2016 Stanley Cup Final, one of the most memorable moments of the Penguins' run to the franchise's fourth championship.

Two years later, Letang was on the ice as Washington Capitals forwards Evgeny Kuznetsov and Jakub Vrana scored the third-period goals that led their team to a Game 5 win over the Penguins last month.

They were two of the most memorable moments from the series that ended the Penguins' bid for a three-peat.

More than any trade, free-agent signing or draft pick, the single development that could improve the fortunes of the Penguins most once next season starts in October just might be the return of 2016 vintage Letang.

Many statistical signs point to a likely return to form for the 31-year-old cornerstone of the right side of the Penguins blue line.

The more time he had to recover from serious April 2017 neck surgery, the better he played. Before Jan. 1, the Penguins were outscored 38-14 in five-on-five play when Letang was on the ice. After Jan. 1, the Penguins outscored their opponents, 41-39.

Letang remains one of the best defensemen in the league at fueling the transition game and driving possession. His 55.1 shot-attempt percentage was best among Penguins defensemen and top 20 in the league.

When Letang was on the ice at even strength last season, his goaltenders had an .888 save percentage, the worst such figure among qualifying defensemen in the league. Statistical analysis has shown that a defenseman's on-ice save percentage tends to regress to the mean over time.

If the numbers hold true and Letang has a resurgence, he probably will be right in the middle of the team's success. If they don't and he doesn't, he will probably be in the middle of their failure, too.

In the NHL

Kris Letang

Last year: 9-42—51, -9. Age: 31. Years left on contract: 4

Justin Schultz

Last year: 4-23—27, +22.Age: 27. Years left on contract: 2

Chad Ruhwedel

Last year: 2-3—5, -8. Age: 28. Years left on contract: 1

There was some debate last season about whether Letang or Schultz was a more effective point man on the Penguins' top power-play unit. The numbers favor Letang. When he was on the ice, the Penguins scored 11.6 goals per 60 minutes of power-play ice time. With Schultz, the Penguins scored 8.3 goals per 60. … Schultz is coming off an interesting season. His offensive numbers were way down, dropping from 51 points two years ago to 27. His goals fell from 12 to four. His defensive game, however, was better than ever. His plus-22 rating led the team and was 12th-best among NHL defensemen. … Ruhwedel has become a valuable, mobile third-pair defenseman.

ON THE VERGE

Frankie Corrado

Height, weight: 6-0, 205. Age: 25

Ethan Prow

Height, weight: 5-11, 180. Age: 25

Corrado's season ended in February because of a lower-body injury. Given their lack of depth on the right side, the Penguins probably would be wise to re-sign the restricted free agent. He has proven to be a capable injury fill-in. … Prow is still trying to establish himself at the AHL level.

DOWN THE ROAD

Dane Birks

Height, weight: 6-2, 200. Age: 22

Will Reilly

Height, weight: 6-2, 192. Age: 20

Like most teams, the Penguins could use some more right-handed depth in their defensive prospect pool.

THE BIG MOVE

Putting aside the headline-grabbing rumors about Phil Kessel or John Tavares, the most practical move the Penguins could make this summer is shoring up the right side of their defense, whether such an addition is made via free agency or by trading away a winger.

THE SMALL MOVE

With Lukas Bengtsson returning to Europe and Zach Trotman hitting unrestricted free agency, the Penguins will need to add some right-handed bodies to their defensive depth after July 1.

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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