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Letang's rise means another high-flying Penguin

When Kris Letang(notes) was a kid, he liked to watch Paul Coffey, the sweet-skating, high-scoring defenseman who won three Norris Trophies and four Stanley Cups on his way to the Hall of Fame.

And now …

“He’s the guy I tell my kid to watch all the time,” Coffey said.

No one is comparing him to Coffey. But Letang, still only 23, is blossoming as a sweet-skating, high-scoring defenseman himself. He already has one Cup, and he already has become a Norris candidate.

Playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins, one of Coffey’s (many) former teams, Letang ranks fourth in scoring among NHL defensemen this season with 33 points. He ranks third among all defensemen in plus-minus rating, at plus-20. No one else among the top 30 scoring D-men boasts a rating better than plus-13.

“He’s strong,” Coffey said. “He’s smart. He’s tough. He can shoot a puck. He doesn’t look big, but he’s strong on his feet and he’s very heads-up. I think he’s got it all.”

Letang laughed when he heard about those comments, almost in disbelief. Coffey said that? About him?

“That means a lot,” Letang said. “That’s incredible. It’s flattering, coming from a Hall of Famer like that.”

But it’s coming from everywhere now. Though the NHL left Letang off the fan ballot for the All-Star Game, a write-in campaign by, um, politically active Pens fans – and perhaps some other savvy observers – gave him more votes than any other defenseman.

Look at the company Letang is keeping as one of the six players voted into the All-Star Game, Jan. 30 in Raleigh, N.C. He joins the Chicago BlackhawksJonathan Toews(notes) (the reigning winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player) and Duncan Keith(notes) (the reigning Norris winner). He joins Penguins teammates Sidney Crosby(notes) (the NHL scoring leader, a past league MVP and the all-around BPITW – Best Player In The World), Evgeni Malkin(notes) (a former scoring leader and playoff MVP) and Marc Andre-Fleury (well, the Pens goalie).

There is certainly an inflation factor with Letang’s totals – from points to plus/minus to all-star votes – because he plays with the likes of Crosby and Malkin. Still, it isn’t as if he hasn’t earned his numbers, and after never allowing himself to dream about the Norris, he can’t help it anymore.

“I think about it now more than ever,” Letang said. “I mean, it’s something special. It’s something that when I grew up, I was watching all the best defensemen, and they were winning those trophies, and obviously I want to try one day to win one of those.”

The Norris is supposed to go to the defenseman who demonstrates the “greatest all-around ability.” Letang has long had the tools to hit, skate, shoot and produce. In junior, he put up 68 points in 60 games in 2005-06 and 52 points in 40 games in ’06-07. But in the NHL, he had to solidify his play in his own end and seize a greater role before his offense could flourish.

The potential was obvious.

“The first shift, I could tell that kid could play,” Coffey said.

But there was a need for growth.

“He’s not doing anything you shouldn’t be doing,” Coffey said, raising his hand up, then up, then up, illustrating the steps on a ladder. “That’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to get better every year.”

Young defensemen rarely make a steady upward climb, however, no matter how talented, because the position demands so much at both ends of the ice. The Buffalo SabresTyler Myers(notes), 20, struggled in the first half of the season after winning the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year in 2009-10. The Los Angeles KingsDrew Doughty(notes), 21, hasn’t lived up to his preseason Norris hype. The New York Rangers just demoted the promising Michael Del Zotto(notes), 20, to the minors.

Letang has had to take his own path, too.

“I think he’s a skilled player, and he’s playing with a skilled group,” Philadelphia Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said. “He’s probably getting a little more comfortable in the league. Once you get comfortable and you have the talent that he has, I think it really can shine.”

Letang scored two goals in a seven-game stint with the Penguins as a 19-year-old in 2006-07, but he was minus-3. The next season: 63 games, six goals, 17 points, minus-1. The season after that: 74 games, 10 goals, 33 points, minus-7.

He stood out during the Penguins’ run to the Stanley Cup in 2009, posting 13 points in 23 playoff games. But more importantly, in the final against the Detroit Red Wings, he helped shut down Marian Hossa’s(notes) line. Coach Dan Bylsma called him a “stalwart.”

But his numbers weren’t overwhelming last season: 73 games, three goals, 27 points, plus-1. Although he signed a four-year, $14 million extension in early April and then scored five goals in 13 playoff games, he gave away the puck too often in a second-round loss to the Montreal Canadiens.

“I think I would say that I was probably a little disappointed with his year last year,” Bylsma said. “I thought you’d see this in greater colors last year. … There was a contract in there and some other things that may have affected his year.”

With 36-year-old power play quarterback Sergei Gonchar(notes) at the end of his contract, the Penguins took a hard look at their roster in the off-season. In 2008-09, they ranked sixth in goals per game but 17th in goals against. In ’09-10, they ranked fifth in goals per game but 20th in goals against.

The Penguins felt they could score with Crosby, Malkin and company, so they set out to improve defensively, even if it meant sacrificing a little offensively. The Penguins let Gonchar leave as a free agent. They signed UFAs Paul Martin(notes) ($25 million) and Zbynek Michalek(notes) ($20 million) to five-year deals.

You could say it has worked out OK. Letang, once reined in by the coaches, has been let loose in a system that stresses getting the puck up ice and keeping it in the offensive zone. Gonchar is the exact opposite of Letang – minus-20 – with the struggling Ottawa Senators. Martin and Michalek have become a solid second pairing. The Penguins still rank fifth in goals per game, but they have risen all the way to second in goals against.

“I think those first years were, like, just to learn how to play defense,” Letang said, “and now I can express myself offensively like I always did in the past.”

Letang is more consistent in his own end, still working on his defense in video sessions with assistant coach Todd Reirden. He is more mature in his physical play, not allowing opponents to goad him into mistakes. He is more confident coming up ice, with the speed to recover as well as stay-at-home partner Brooks Orpik(notes) backing him up. He is more accurate with his shot, averaging three shots on goal per game, a career-high rate. With Gonchar gone, he has seized the opportunity to be more involved offensively, and his teammates have started looking for him on the ice.

“Once he gets the confidence in it and guys know he needs to do that kind of thing, it makes it easier for a player to take that responsibility and shoot and do things that you normally wouldn’t do with a guy like Gonchar in the lineup,” Martin said. “You’ve got to feed him a little bit and say, ‘You’re the guy. You’ve got to go.’

“And he has been doing well. It’s tough when you’ve got talented guys who need the puck. Crosby needs touches. Obviously Malkin and everyone needs touches. Sometimes he probably feels, ‘Hey, we’ve got so many other guys out there, you’ve got to give them the puck.’ Now he’s one of those guys.”

Letang’s challenge is to sustain his play over the course of a full season and build upon it, to show he can be a go-to guy and handle opponents’ adjustments.

Coffey and his kid will be watching.

“You get 27, 28 (years old), and your mind’s there,” Coffey said. “You see things a lot clearer. You become a real good player.”