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Penguins Predictions: Will Kris Letang be a plus player?

September 23, 2018

The Penguins’ Kris Letang skates away after leveling the Capitals’ Marcus Johansson during first period action Monday, May 2, 2016. Letang received a one-game suspension for the hit.

Editor’s note: Beat writer Jonathan Bombulie will make a series of Penguins predictions leading up to the start of training camp Sept. 14.

THE QUESTION

Will Kris Letang be a plus player or a minus player this season?

MULTIPLE CHOICE

A. Minus

Coming off major neck surgery, Letang’s minus-9 rating last season was the worst figure of his career. In the playoffs against Washington, he was right in the middle of a couple of key goals against. It paints the picture of a defenseman in decline. Letang recovered physically from the neck injury, playing in 79 games last season, but he also turned 31 in April. The combination of age and wear and tear might force Letang to change his explosive style of play. The burst of speed that helped him make up for mistakes in the past might be endangered. Totals like last year’s minus-9 could be his new normal.

B. Plus

In between some early season struggles (a minus-14 rating in 13 games in October) and his playoff woes, Letang was very good. In January and February, for instance, he had three goals, 13 points and a plus-9 rating in 24 games. That doesn’t indicate that age and injuries are catching up with Letang. It indicates that, last season anyway, his play went as the team went. The Penguins, as a whole, had a miserable October, getting outscored 37-18 at five on five. As the team got it together later in the season, so did Letang. In fact, from Jan. 1 on, he had the sixth-best shot-attempt percentage of all NHL defensemen. He’s an elite player when it comes to driving possession, which is a big reason why he’s been a plus player seven of the past nine seasons.

C. About even

There’s a chance Letang’s puck luck is simply due to even out. Last season, when Letang was on the ice five on five, Penguins goalies had an .888 save percentage. That was the worst figure in the league among regular defensemen. It’s possible that was Letang’s fault. Maybe he took too many risks and left his goalies in bad positions over and over again. More likely, though, he was the victim of some bad luck. Over the previous four seasons, his on-ice save percentage was never worse than .915. Take the same Letang who went minus-9 last season, warts and all, and normalize his puck luck, he’s probably right around a break-even player.

THE PREDICTION

B. Plus

If it hadn’t been for the playoffs, this would be an easy prediction. Last season, Letang a plus-5 after a slow start. With a full summer to rest and train, of course he’ll be a plus player again. The memory of Evgeny Kuznetsov and Jakub Vrana leaving Letang in their dust during a second-round series against the Capitals, however, makes it hard to be so certain. In general, it’s better to make predictions based on a six-month sample than a two-week sample, which is why optimism about Letang’s game is well founded.

Keep up with the Pittsburgh Penguins all season long.

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