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Penguins' Kris Letang makes best case yet for Norris Trophy

Jonathan Bombulie
| Saturday, Jan. 12, 2019, 5:42 p.m.
TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 18: Kris Letang #58 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates against the Toronto Maple Leafs during an NHL game at Scotiabank Arena on October 18, 2018 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Penguins defeated the Maple Leafs 3-0.(Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 18: Kris Letang #58 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates against the Toronto Maple Leafs during an NHL game at Scotiabank Arena on October 18, 2018 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Penguins defeated the Maple Leafs 3-0.(Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang shoots the puck during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the New York Islanders, Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018, in New York. The Islanders won 3-2. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang shoots the puck during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the New York Islanders, Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018, in New York. The Islanders won 3-2. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Penguins defenseman Kris Letang is fourth in the NHL in ice time, averaging 26 minutes, 5 seconds per game.
Getty Images
Penguins defenseman Kris Letang is fourth in the NHL in ice time, averaging 26 minutes, 5 seconds per game.

The Norris Trophy, given annually to the top defenseman in the NHL, is decided by a vote of hockey writers, not players.

But if Pittsburgh Penguins center Derick Brassard had a ballot, he would have filled it out sometime in the late evening hours Dec. 12.

He had just watched teammate Kris Letang battle with Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin for the better part of the previous three hours. Ovechkin had scored in six straight games coming in. He left with a goose egg on the scoresheet and a 2-1 loss on the scoreboard.

Letang played a staggering 32 minutes, 22 seconds.

“They were going at it,” Brassard said. “They’re hitting each other. He’s getting bumped. His compete level is always there. That’s why he’s such a good player.”

Letang, who was added to the Metropolitan Division roster for the All-Star Game in the results of a fan vote announced Friday, might be in the midst of the finest season of his 13-year NHL career.

He has put April 2017 neck surgery and the up-and-down season that followed it behind him, recording 10 goals, 38 points and a plus-13 rating through 42 games heading into Saturday night’s matchup with the Los Angeles Kings. He is on pace to record career highs in all three categories.

Letang has been in the Norris Trophy picture a few times in his career, finishing in the top five in voting twice and the top 10 three other times, but this could be his strongest case yet.

Led by Calgary’s Mark Giordano, Toronto’s Morgan Rielly and the San Jose duo of Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson, there are plenty of strong candidates for the award, but no clear front-runner has emerged yet.

“I think he should be in the conversation,” Penguins defenseman Jack Johnson said. “He’s a great player. He’s a big part of our team, a big part of our success.”

When teammates reflect on the kind of year Letang is having, they don’t often marvel at his stat line, no matter how gaudy it might be.

What they’re amazed by is his ability to effectively carry a heavy workload in all situations against the top competition opponents have to offer.

Heading into Saturday night, Letang is fourth in the league in ice time, averaging 26:05 per game. Drilling down a little deeper into that stat shows something even more impressive. He’s the only player in the league averaging at least 20 minutes even strength, three minutes on the penalty kill and two minutes on the power play.

“He plays in all situations,” winger Jake Guentzel said. “Just the minutes he logs game-in and game-out, you know it’s tough. But he’s there every night, leading the way back there. He’s really offensively gifted, and he always plays hard.”

A look at the quality of competition Letang has faced this season is eye-opening, as well.

The list of 15 opposing forwards Letang has shared the ice with the most at even strength this season reads like the roster for an All-Star Game.

There’s all three members of Colorado’s spectacular top line, Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog, not to mention the Boston top-line duo of David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand.

Ovechkin and teammates Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie, reigning league MVP Taylor Hall, superstar sniper Patrick Kane … if the Penguins have faced a dominant offensive player this season, it has been Letang’s job to stop him.

“The minutes he plays and the way he plays the game, it’s always at a high level,” Brassard said. “He always competes really hard. That’s another guy that challenges himself to play against top lines and top players every night.”

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

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