Kris Letang: 8 goals, 6 assists in 28 games
The playoffs are a lock. Not winning the Metropolitan Division seems unthinkable. Home ice throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs seems very likely.
So what motivates the Penguins as the Olympic break approaches?
All the wrong things, perhaps.
Stats. Artistry. Puttin’ on the Ritz. The sort of thing that led defenseman Rob Scuderi to say his piece after Friday’s 4-3 overtime loss at Edmonton: “If you’re going to try and play hockey like the Harlem Globetrotters, you’re going to get burned. We continue to make the same mistakes, go for the same highlight-reel plays. That might look good on the highlight reels every now and then, but it’s not a formula for winning.”
Amen. The Penguins apparently took Scuderi’s words to heart and tightened up by way of winning 2-1 Saturday at Calgary.
Edmonton and Calgary inhabit the bottom of the Pacific Division. But the Penguins got five out of a possible six points on their swing through western Canada. How upset could they be? How upset should they be?
But doubt lingers, for us if not them: Are the Penguins just a good regular-season team? Could they beat Boston in a best-of-seven? Could a physical, gritty team like (gulp) Philadelphia engineer a playoff upset?
The Penguins have problems up front. They have four nailed-on stars among their forwards, but not much else.
Effective and productive third- and fourth-line play often wins in the postseason. Third- and fourth-line players often score big goals. Max Talbot scored eight goals in the 2009 playoffs, including two in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final at Detroit.
Who among the Penguins’ current bottom six is remotely capable of something like that?
Brandon Sutter has eight goals on the season, but none in his last 10 games. Joe Vitale has one goal in 44 games. Craig Adams has zero goals in his last 43 games. Zach Sill has no goals in 18 games. Taylor Pyatt has no goals in five games since joining the Penguins. It’s enough to make you nostalgic for Jayson Megna.
The Penguins don’t just need more grit up front. They need productive grit.
What they don’t need to do is trade Kris Letang. Nobody with a clue espouses that, but the idea is gaining traction among the hoi polloi.
There’s no chance of Letang being dealt. With the NHL salary cap set to rise steadily, it won’t be long before Letang’s eight-year, $58 million contract is a bargain.
Letang isn’t having his best season, and he’s missed 19 games via injury. But Letang is just one year removed from being a Norris Trophy finalist. His skating provides cover for many deficiencies, not just his own. Letang is an offensive force: Not as good on the power play as he could be, but his eight goals rank him tied for sixth among NHL defensemen. Five of those did come on the PP.
Letang is like Troy Polamalu, and not just because they both have great hair. It’s the risk/reward factor.
As with Polamalu, a Letang gamble occasionally blows up. But, much more frequently, Letang makes a play that helps the Penguins have a better chance to win.
Letang is the X factor. He’s the Penguins’ best defenseman. He consumes staggering amounts of ice. The Penguins have a lot of promising defensive prospects in the pipeline, but none who can replace what Letang does. His skill set upgrades what Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin can do.
Letang is absolutely integral to what the Penguins do. He stays.
The Penguins need to listen to Scuderi. Forget about stats, and forget about fun. Play hockey the right way, and make it a habit before the playoffs.
If the Penguins need motivation, think about being swept by Boston last spring. About being ousted by Philadelphia in 2012. About the prospect of this group being remembered as underachievers. That should be motivation enough.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).