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Penguins

Penguins Prediction Rewind: Inconsistency keeps Kris Letang from returning to elite status

Jonathan Bombulie
| Friday, Aug. 17, 2018, 5:06 a.m.
Penguins defenseman Kris Letang out on the ice after morning skate before 6 of the Stanley Cup Final Sunday, June 11 , 2017 at Bridgestone Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins defenseman Kris Letang out on the ice after morning skate before 6 of the Stanley Cup Final Sunday, June 11 , 2017 at Bridgestone Arena.

Note: Last summer, beat writer Jonathan Bombulie made a series of predictions leading up to the start of the 2017-18 season. Some of them were hilariously off the mark. In this series, Bombulie will explain what he was thinking and where his logic went off course.

THE PREDICTION

Kris Letang will not finish in the top five in Norris Trophy voting.

THE RATIONALE

— Even if Letang’s neck is no longer a concern, it’s entirely possible some other ailment strikes. Letang plays a dynamic, physical game. He doesn’t take it easy. Perhaps as a result, he’s played as many as 70 games only once in the last six seasons. It’s tough to keep him on the ice.

— It’s safe to bet that Letang will remain the team’s top offensive option on the blue line, but the gap is closing. If Letang and Justin Schultz have to share the offensive production, they’ll probably have to share Norris votes as well.

— This is a bit of a golden age for NHL defensemen. With Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns putting up huge numbers and Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty and Victor Hedman displaying two-way greatness, not to mention the guys down in the Nashville, it’s harder than ever to crack the Norris voting.

READER REACTION

A sample of Facebook comments:

— “The team just got better without even making any acquisitions in the offseason. The addition of Letang is all they need. Pure and simple! A top five defenseman in the league!”

— “This guy is a bum. If you don’t believe me, just watch for yourselves. He is constantly beat on the corners and does nothing in front of the net. He does nothing for this team except eat up a lot of cash.”

WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED

The memory of Letang on the ice for pivotal goals against in the Washington Capitals series is probably fresh in the mind of many fans, but looking back objectively, it was a complicated season for Letang.

In one sense, his recovery from neck surgery went extraordinarily well. He played 79 games, his highest total since 2011-12, and averaged 25 minutes of ice time per game.

In another sense, it didn’t go well. Letang admitted his stamina didn’t come back as quickly as he expected, and perhaps as a result, the first half of his season was not good. In 37 games before New Year’s Day, the Penguins were outscored 38-14 when he was on the ice at even strength.

In one sense, he recovered from those early season struggled remarkably. After New Year’s Day, he was on the ice for more goals for than goals against and his 56.5 shot-attempt percentage was in the top five among NHL defensemen.

In another sense, glaring errors in the Capitals series washed away all the progress he made at the tail end of the regular season.

There’s plenty in there to focus on for both the optimist and pessimist. On balance, though, Letang wasn’t anywhere near consistent enough to merit Norris consideration.

THE FLAWS IN THE LOGIC

The prediction was correct in that Letang wasn’t a Norris contender, but there were plenty of flaws in the rationale.

Most notably, it wasn’t external factors that prevented Letang from reaching his previous heights. His struggles had nothing to do with the emergence of Schultz or the competition he faces from the other elite defensemen in the league.

His struggles were internal, as he made mistakes at critical times down the stretch.

LESSONS LEARNED

There is no topic more polarizing among Penguins fans than the play of the team’s top offensive defenseman.

Keep up with the Pittsburgh Penguins all season long.

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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