The Penguins Kris Letang plays against the Sharks during game one of the Stanley Cup Final Monday, May 30, 2016 at Consol Energy Center. (Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review)
A Spartan-style piece of headgear known as the Penguins' “warrior helmet,” which one teammate awards to another for his contribution to a winning performance, has ended up in the hands of almost every regular in the lineup during this postseason, a credit to roster depth and role players' timeliness.
No matter how the Stanley Cup Final ends between San Jose and the Penguins, who lead the series 3-1 and can clinch Thursday night at Consol Energy Center, defenseman Kris Letang might get to keep the helmet for the summer.
Most discussions about Penguins candidates for the Conn Smythe Trophy, which goes to the most valuable player in the postseason, center on high-scoring winger Phil Kessel, rookie netminder Matt Murray, captain Sidney Crosby and HBK line linchpin Nick Bonino. If the Penguins clinch the series in Game 5, the award winner will be announced minutes afterward.
Regardless of the outcome, Letang will leave the arena with a playoff workload in his wake that dwarfs any recent performances by any other Penguin.
Since the NHL began tracking and releasing ice time for the 1997-98 season, just 35 players have exceeded 600 minutes in the playoffs. Only four, including Letang, did so in 21 games or fewer. Sergei Gonchar's 506:55 in 22 games during the Penguins' 2009 Stanley Cup run served as the franchise high until Letang this postseason. The 29-year-old defenseman, handling the Penguins' most demanding matchups and driving their high-paced style from the back end for 21 of their 22 games, topped the 600-minute mark with his 28:59 in Monday's 3-1 win over the Sharks.
“We're so spoiled by him,” said Gonchar, now the team's defenseman development coach. “Not just the fans but teammates and coaches. Playing that many minutes and at such a high level, night after night, we expect that and take him for granted. But on the other hand, that's what those (top) guys are doing. It's their job.”
That job belonged to Gonchar during the Penguins' two most previous Stanley Cup Final appearances. His familiarity with the role went back years, including 1998, when he logged 630:39 in 21 games with Washington.
Letang, meanwhile, watched and learned.
He appeared in just 16 games and received just 274 minutes in 2008. In 2009, he made 23 game appearances but averaged only slightly more playing time than what he garnered a season earlier (19:18 per game versus 17:07).
“Everything is different,” Letang said, comparing 2009 to this season. “There's nothing similar. ... I live day by day, so it's another journey. It's another experience in my bag.”
In between the runs to the Cup Final, Letang ended up in the thick of some of the team's most frustrating postseasons. He became the figurehead of the Penguins' volatile collective temperament. Then he missed the playoffs in 2015 because of concussion symptoms.
Fears of a playoff-less 2015-16 campaign subsided for the Penguins after coach Mike Sullivan arrived and installed a speed-based system that turned Letang and Sidney Crosby into point-generating machines.
Despite tallying more points (48) than any other NHL defenseman from Jan. 1 to the end of the regular season and finishing with the fifth-highest average ice time in that span, Letang fell short of earning a finalist nod for the James Norris Memorial Trophy.
His performance still provided the blue print for the rest of the Penguins' puck-moving blue-liners. All of the elements vital to puck possession — crisp passing, controlled zone exits and entries, awareness of when to join the rush — existed within his game.
“He's not only playing the most minutes, he's doing the right things for us, and people follow,” Gonchar said. “Since Day 1, we knew he had all the skills and he was a great skater.
“He's done a wonderful job to learn how to play those minutes because sometimes when you're younger, you have the physical ability and sometimes you try to do too much, and you expose yourself. But I think he's been better and better with it every year, improving his defensive game, and his decision-making is better.”
Defensemen who might've eased the burden on Letang this season crossed paths with their former team in the playoffs. Washington's Matt Niskanen, one of the Capitals' puck-movers, left the Penguins via free agency in 2014. San Jose's Paul Martin, a muse of sorts for Norris finalist Brent Burns, departed the same way in 2015.
Fortunately for the Penguins, Brian Dumoulin emerged as a stellar blue-liner in his first full NHL season and, along trade acquisitions Trevor Daley and Justin Schultz, made the absence of Martin and Niskanen immaterial.
But even Dumoulin, whose 468:48 of ice time in the playoffs rank second among the Penguins, realizes how heavy the crown sits on a top defenseman's head at this stage of the season.
He laughed when asked if he anticipated regular 28-minute performances for himself in the years to come.
“That's a long year, and that's a lot of minutes,” Dumoulin said. “Hats off to (Letang) to be able to go out there every night and play 27, 28 minutes, and half the time he's the best player out there on the ice. It's awesome to see, and it's a tribute to him.”