Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins MVP (Trending Topics)

Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins MVP (Trending Topics)

The Pittsburgh Penguins have been extremely lucky in this series against the Washington Capitals in two respects. 

First and foremost, given the politicking (see also: whining and gamesmanship) involved, they were in many ways fortunate to only see Kris Letang suspended one game by the NHL Department of Player Safety. The penalty theoretically could have been harsher given Marcus Johansson's status at the time the decision was made; he didn't skate the day after, but made a miraculous recovery in time to participate in Game 3.

More to the point, though, the Penguins were lucky to pick up the W in overtime of Game 4, and go up 3-1 in the series as a consequence. This is true insofar as anyone is lucky to win an overtime playoff game, but also because winning in Letang's absence has long proven difficult for Pittsburgh. This year alone, Letang missed 11 games, and the Pens rescued just three points of a possible 22. That's beyond abysmal.

Now, anything can happen in a single game. When elite NHL teams meet, the results are often no easier to predict that a single coin flip. But the Penguins sans Letang maybe aren't exactly what you'd call worrisome for a club as good as Washington. Let's not forget: Coming into the year a lot of people were looking at Pittsburgh's defense and tugging their collars a bit. So young, so not-very-deep. Letang was obviously going to have his work cut out for him.

Fortunately, the coaching change, the addition-by-subtraction of losing Rob Scuderi, the actual-addition of Trevor Daley, and Letang being a solid top-five Norris candidate really helped shore things up defensively. While one might hesitate to call the Pittsburgh blue line a “strength,” at this point it is also clearly not really a weakness either. But again, that's With Letang. Without Letang probably remains a dicey proposition, especially as the playoffs go on and the games get tougher.

To put things lightly, Letang was heavily used in the regular season, racking up nearly 27 minutes a night. No real surprise there, because he's always been a workhorse. In the playoffs, he's well past that, up at 29:14. That significantly exceeds his usage in any postseason in which he's ever participated, and more to the point he's trending into “Used Like Pronger” territory: Out of a possible 189:33 in the first three games of this series, Letang has played 97:21. That's more than half of all available minutes. Maybe you say it's a combination of Mike Sullivan not totally trusting his depth defenders and Letang being one of the best defensemen alive. Whatever the reason, though, you have to say it's gone incredibly well.

When adjusting for score, venue, and zone starts, Letang entered Thursday night's games at 24th in possession among all defensemen to have played at least 50 minutes at 5-on-5 in the postseason. That may not sound especially impressive. However, besides himself and D partner Brian Dumoulin, no other Pittsburgh defender breaks the top 70. This despite the fact that Letang and Dumoulin are, not surprisingly, facing the most difficult minutes of any Penguins defender 

Frankly, the average quality of competition he faces would likely be higher if he weren't playing so many damn minutes in the first place, because you're going to get a lot of time against just about everyone when you're clearing 30 a night.

But here's the thing about Letang that should really already be warranting him consideration as the Pens' most valuable player in this postseason: The rest of the team is really quite bad when he's off the ice.

In this postseason, the Pens chug along happily at 53 percent — a solid number — for the roughly 27 minutes out of every 60 for which he's on the ice at 5-on-5. The other 33, they get shelled to the tune of a 46 percent possession share. His shots-for percentage is close to 55, the team's when he's off the ice is also in the 46 percent range.

You can go on like this for quite a while, but the overall impact of his on-ice presence is clear. He's basically doing to the Penguins what Erik Karlsson did to the Senators in the regular season: Dragging them to better results than they probably deserve.


Now, this is also true of the goaltending the Penguins have received in general, from both Matt Murray and Jeff Zatkoff (the former to a greater extent than the latter). As a team, the Penguins have allowed just 14 goals at 5-on-5 in this postseason, and just three when Letang has been on. That outperforms even his expected goals against per 60, meaning that he has been pretty lucky, with a .964 save percentage when he's on the ice. But even when he's been off, the Pens are still at .935, which is an extremely high number as well. Then, too, the team outperform expected goals-against numbers.

This doesn't even get into the fact that the Penguins score on the power play due in large part to Kris Letang being out there, making things happen. They've scored just once when they've been on the power play without him (5.2 goals per 60 minutes), but six times when he's been on (9.9 per 60, a 90 percent improvement). 

This all, of course, comes with the caveat that Letang isn't exactly out there killing a ton of penalties. Sullivan, like any good coach, understands that even if you're playing a guy 30-plus minutes a night, his minutes need to be allocated in a way that maximizes his value to the team. Every minute Letang is killing penalties — a situation in which goals against are largely expected anyway — is one he is not playing on the power play or at 5-on-5. Not to say he hasn't killed penalties (he's third on the team in shorthanded minutes, and might be higher if not for the missed game), but there are better uses of his talents.

Another caveat: He plays a big chunk of his minutes with Sidney Crosby, obviously, and Crosby is likewise one to drive play at a high level. But again, because he plays so many minutes, it should be noted that fewer than half in this series have been with ol' No. 87. So he's still lugging other teammates around quite effectively overall regardless.

It's tough to quantify the exact added value Letang has brought to the Penguins in so short a time. But one can rest assured things might have gone sideways very quickly if the suspension had somehow been longer than a single game, or if Nicklas Backstrom's largely unnoticed “accidental” knee to the back of Letang's head had put him out of commission for any length of time. This is a guy who turns a deep-underwater possession team into one that pummels opponents. This is a guy who outscores the opposition significantly at 5-on-5 and special teams while the rest of his club needs a lot of good luck to mostly break even.

Obviously you don't vote on Conn Smythe in early May. But if you did, Letang is probably the best candidate in the league. And the farther the Penguins go, the more important the defender becomes to his team's ability to both shut down the opposition and put pucks in the back of the net at the other end.

There is a limit to what a man can be asked to do. I think the 30-to-35 minute range in which Letang has occasionally been playing in this postseason is the outer limit. But as long as he's doing that anywhere near this effectively, the performances Sullivan has received from his other defenders probably mean he's going to be redlining Letang the rest of the way.

Tough to blame him, honestly.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.


All stats via War on Ice unless otherwise stated.