Blog Entry

Kris Letang: the missing piece for the Penguins

Posted on: March 7, 2012 2:53 pm
Edited on: March 7, 2012 3:18 pm

By: Adam Gretz

Pucks and Numbers: a weekly statistical look at what's happening around the NHL. This week: A look at the importance of Kris Letang to the Penguins' postseason chances.

When it was announced on Tuesday afternoon that Sidney Crosby has been cleared for contact, the next major step in his latest attempt return to the lineup, it sent a wave of excitement and optimism through the Penguins fan base.

It's not hard to see why. He is, after all, their captain, their best player, and the best player in the league when he's healthy.  With him in the lineup the Penguins should go from being a Stanley Cup contender to, perhaps, one of the top two or three favorites -- if not the favorite -- in the NHL ... if their lineup remains intact.

His return, whenever it happens (it apparently won't be before Sunday's game against Boston) will certainly have a significant impact on their chances. But, and as crazy as this may sound, there is still another player they are currently without that may be even more important for any sort of Stanley Cup run in Pittsburgh -- defenseman Kris Letang, who is currently out of the lineup after being hit by Eric Nystrom of the Dallas Stars at the end of February.

It's the second time this year he's missed time with a head injury, missing over 20 games with a concussion earlier this season after he was hit by Montreal's Max Pacioretty.

The Penguins have been without Crosby, minus the eight games he played earlier this season, since the beginning of last January, which is over a full calendar year and nearly a season-and-a-half worth of games, and they have still managed to be one of the top teams in the NHL.

In 65 games this season they are the third-highest scoring team in the league (in terms of goals per game) and have the second most points in the Eastern Conference, trailing only the Atlantic Division-leading New York Rangers. It's a testament to the depth they've acquired over the years and the 1-2 punch they still have down the middle at center with Evgeni Malkin (arguably the best player in hockey right now) and Jordan Staal, a duo that few teams in the NHL can match up with.

Even without Crosby they still have another No. 1 center, a darn good No. 2 center, and a pretty potent offense overall. One of the best in the league.

What they don't have without Letang is another No. 1 defenseman, and that's a pretty glaring weakness to have on a potential Stanley Cup team. Their blue line takes on an entirely different look without him, and it simply isn't anywhere near as effective. Just looking at the raw numbers this season: with Letang in the lineup the Penguins are 25-10-5, average over 3.2 goals per game, only allow 2.4 and have a total goal-differential of plus-31.

Without him those numbers drop down to a 14-11-0 record, 2.68 goals for per game, 2.56 against and a total goal differential of just plus-3.

Is Letang by himself worth that entire difference? Well, not exactly, because the Penguins have had other players out of the lineup at various times, but his absence is still huge given the number of roles he's asked to play, and the way he's able to perform within them.

He plays over 25 minutes a night, he is their power play quarterback, a regular on the penalty kill, and during even-strength situations he takes on some of toughest assignments on the Penguins defense, as the scatterplot below, which uses Corsi Relative Quality of Competition and Offensive Zone starts, helps to illustrate. The closer to the top left (meaning tougher opponents and fewer offensive zone starts) the more difficult the assignments, and the closer to the bottom right the "softer" the assignments.


As you can see, the Penguins have a pretty set group of top-four defensemen that stand out from the pack when it comes to their 5-on-5 assignments with Letang, Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik and Zbynek Michalek. Everybody else that's played on their blue line this season has been relatively protected. And when Letang is out of the lineup, as he's been for 25 games and counting this season, one of those other players has to step into a top-four role, and the results aren't always pretty.

Letang not only draws some of the toughest assignments on their blue line, he also outperforms everybody else. He has a positive Relative Corsi rating (a sign that when he's on the ice the Penguins are controlling the puck far more than they are when he's not on the ice) and he is by far their leading scorer on the blue line despite appearing in just 40 games. Orpik is a great physical presence on the blue line, and Martin hasn't been anywhere near as bad as his many critics in Pittsburgh want you to believe that he's been, but none of them are as valuable to the Penguins blue line as Letang.

His ability to get the puck out of danger, lead the rush and control the game is unmatched by any other player on their defense.

Crosby's return will be huge news, and it will give the Penguins pretty obscene depth down the middle. But the return of Letang is what would potentially put the the Penguins over the top, on paper anyway.

I'm still convinced they could win without Crosby due to the presence of Malkin and Staal at center. I'm not convinced they can win without Letang (even with Crosby) because they have nobody else that can fill his skates on defense.

(Corsi, Quality of Competition and Zone Start Data all via

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Since: Jan 25, 2008
Posted on: March 9, 2012 1:31 pm

Kris Letang: the missing piece for the Penguins

dude. it is a done deal! there is no comp out there. pens in 4 each series. they can't lose. this junk is wrapped up.

That is completely stupid... everyone knows Pitt will win each series in three not four! Four's for quakers...

Since: Jan 5, 2009
Posted on: March 8, 2012 5:48 pm

Kris Letang: the missing piece for the Penguins

Without looking at numbers, and just going by the naked eye, the Pens seem no worse for wear without Letang on the PK.  They are marginally worse even strength without Letang.  But they completely suck on the PP without Letang, the whole team seems lost without him.

I think the Pens can still win the Cup without Letang, but I think they are going to have to do it on the back of their PK and even strength dominance.  I don't think they will get anything out of the PP in the playoffs without Letang in the lineup.  As we saw in the Tampa series last year, without the PP, there is very little margin for error.  It can be done, but is an extremely hard way to go...

Since: Sep 20, 2006
Posted on: March 8, 2012 2:10 pm

Kris Letang: the missing piece for the Penguins

When the Pens traded Alex Goligowski last year they put all their eggs in Kris Letang's basket with regards to having an offensive defenseman,and while that trade has been good for both teams i agree mostly with this article on the importance of Letang,with that said,Stanley Cups are won with goaltending,depth down the middle and strong special teams,i beleive the Pens can win a cup without Letang,but not both Crosby and Letang

Since: Apr 21, 2009
Posted on: March 8, 2012 1:56 pm

Kris Letang: the missing piece for the Penguins

crosby or no crosby. Letang or no Letang, Staal and Malkin will win the cup

dude. it is a done deal! there is no comp out there. pens in 4 each series. they can't lose. this junk is wrapped up. 

Since: Mar 2, 2012
Posted on: March 8, 2012 10:54 am

Kris Letang: the missing piece for the Penguins

I don't know what games you have been watching, but Paul martin's play has been abysmal this year.  His shot is very very weak.  he turns the puck over in the defensive end on a regular basis, he gets beat one on one constantly, and he shies away from physical play at every opportunity.  When he pinches in the offensive zone, he can't finish and is caught out of position.

Since: Apr 20, 2009
Posted on: March 8, 2012 9:33 am

Kris Letang: the missing piece for the Penguins

I absolutely agree with everything in this article. I don't think the Pens will win a Cup w/o Letang. He is such a key piece to this team. Just look at the power play alone since he's been out. Pens can beat the Leafs of the league w/o him, but beating the Bruins or Rangers in a 7 game series is another story.

Since: Apr 18, 2009
Posted on: March 7, 2012 11:24 pm

Kris Letang: the missing piece for the Penguins

   I just thought it'd be appropriate to add here that Boston won last year without its best player ( Savard ), and without one of its remaining best players, Nathan Horton, both sat out the finals with concussions. Savard may be out for the rest of his life. Horton is hurt, yet again. The jist here is that it can be done without the above said players, its just others have to step in, and still others, or everyone has to step up. What Boston achieved last year was historical, and significant in its wake. A monumental achievement not recognized too far ,or too wide, because not too many in this world like the Boston Bruins. Ah, but I get ahead of myself. It is only here, and now that I stress the biggest thing to happen last year was Boston winning the cup, against a heavy, no, overwhelming favorite in every department. This after losing Savard for the year, then Horton. Horton to that point had three game winners in the playoffs, and was a Conn Smythe candidate, and a huge part of Boston's system. If Boston is to do it again they will have to do it undert duress, yet again, because of major injuries in the line-up.

Since: May 7, 2008
Posted on: March 7, 2012 10:52 pm

Kris Letang: the missing piece for the Penguins

I've watched almost every game this year and Martin has been far from horrible.  Pittsburgh fans can be so hard on their players.  All it takes is one bad game or an announcer saying that a player is struggling and the fans just jump on that player.  Martin hasn't had the best year of his career, but he has been far from horrible.

Since: May 7, 2008
Posted on: March 7, 2012 10:29 pm

Kris Letang: the missing piece for the Penguins

Harrison, watch the Pens play a little more often and understand hockey before making comments like that.  Sid is great and I hope he tears it up when he comes back, but Letang is a key part of the team.  Having Letang is a huge part of their success and they will miss him dearly if he remains out for any extended period of time.

Since: Feb 3, 2011
Posted on: March 7, 2012 10:22 pm

Kris Letang: the missing piece for the Penguins

"Martin hasn't been anywhere near as bad as his many critics in Pittsburgh want you to believe that he's been"
Have you actually watched any Pens games? He has been horrible.

Letang is the key for a deep run in the playoffs.

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