Monday, February 01, 2016

Letang's lead is for Penguins to follow

January 30, 2016

Only a few days before the NHL's All-Star break, Kris Letang called out to the Penguins' top prospect, the one some refer to as the next Kris Letang.
Practice had finished, but pucks remained. And if there were pucks, there were passes to make, shots to bury, drills to do and skate blades to dull.
“It really makes you open your eyes,” Derrick Pouliot said. “He obviously has unbelievable skill. But he didn't get here by relying on that.
“It's a real lesson.”
It's also proof that leaders need not always wear a letter on the shoulder of their hockey jersey.
The real truth about these Penguins is they're not an NHL leader anymore, rather only among the playoff contenders.
They're faster because of some sharp, recent additions by general manager Jim Rutherford. Their energy has improved because of new coach Mike Sullivan's willingness to trust younger players he relied upon in the AHL. The superstars are looking super because ... oh, does it matter if it's finally happening?
And does any of it matter with the defense corps as it currently is composed?
No. 58 is a clear No. 1 in a group otherwise lacking ability, dependability or believability as a Stanley Cup back end. To polish this group into something silver may be too much to ask of even Letang.
He's the only one for the job, though.
Maybe more than the team's defensemen need to look to him.
For years, former coach Dan Bylsma urged Letang to limit his post-practice time spent on stickhandling, starts and stops, whatever. Eventually, Bylsma gave up — as did Michel Therrien before him, Mike Johnston after, as well as Sullivan.
The work is what hockey is about for Letang. The work isn't fun, but putting it in allows hockey to become fun.
The work always was something somebody wanted him to scale back on, as if it were that easy for somebody who is a disciple of discipline.
Maybe had he not lost Luc in that motorcycle accident?
Maybe had he not nearly lost his career to that small hole in his heart?
Maybe had the concussions not piled up?
The things Letang, 28, doesn't like talking about (for instance, the untimely death of his close friend, Luc Bourdon, in 2008) reveal no more than the stuff he'll go on about for hours (his son, Alexander) because the conversation always comes back to the work.
Or the work that needs to be done.
It was that way Tuesday morning when we discussed his scoring surge that began after Sullivan replaced Johnston.
Under Sullivan, the Penguins are 8-3-4 when Letang plays, though “plays” probably isn't the best way to phrase it.
“Kicks (butt)?” goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. “He's been kind of ridiculous, you know.”
Letang's 19 points in those 15 contests are more than any other Penguins defenseman — and all but 48 in the NHL — have amassed all season.
Clearly something has changed.
“No, you're wrong,” Letang said. “I'm playing like I did at the start of the season. It's just now the points are coming.”
Were Letang not the type to always speak so honestly, I would have doubted his assessment. His production (one goal, 13 assists) as the Penguins plodded to a 15-10-3 record under Johnston suggests doubt might be the way to go.
But Letang watches more of the Penguins than do I, or anybody.
“Every game, a couple of times, and more if you count the clips I watch,” he said. “I'm not playing better. That's not what I see.”
But the Penguins are playing better under Sullivan, so maybe his influence explains Letang's return to dominance as a scoring defenseman?
“We're playing faster,” Letang said. “So that's good.
“We still have holes in our game. We were shooting ourselves in the foot a lot, and there was no urgency to fix it. We have more urgency now.
“But we need a lot more.”
“I'm not answering that,” Letang said. “Maybe you'll figure it out. Or maybe we will before you do.”
And with that delicious challenge — or was it a message delivered? — the man on whose shoulders the Penguins' not-good-enough defense rests headed for the room where he stretches at Consol Energy Center. A few hours later, that man set up one of the Penguins' two goals in a victory over New Jersey.
The win over New Jersey pushed the Penguins into a tie for the second and final wild-card playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. After it, his closest friend among teammates said he was not surprised Letang had spoken harshly of their team.
“He's hard on coaches, the guys, the refs, everybody,” Fleury said. “He's hardest on himself. It's why he works so hard.
“If we don't do good, or if he doesn't, ‘Tanger' works harder. I think it's a good way to be. I think it's good if some of our younger guys see that.
“It's good if we all do.”
Back in training camp, a dripping-with-sweat, gasping-for-air Olli Maatta staggered off the ice at the Penguins practice facility. The promising third-year defenseman's legs wobbled as he squirted cold water from a bottle onto the back of his neck.
“That guy is amazing,” he said, motioning toward the ice where Letang was sprinting from one blue line to the other.
“I couldn't keep up with him anymore. We were out there for 20, 25 minutes, at least. I had to come off. He's still going.
“I don't know what he's trying to do.”
To get back into the playoff field, the Penguins have needed an awful lot from their top defenseman. To stay there, they'll need even more.
To win there, they might need him to channel Bobby Orr.
But nobody should mistake what Letang is, has been or will keep trying to do for the Penguins.
He's trying to show them how to make it work.
Rob Rossi is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at or via Twitter@RobRossi_Trib.

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