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Kris Letang is entering his eight NHL season and one could argue when he lines up with Christian Ehrhoff this year that it will be his best partner to date. Kris Letang is one of the best defenseman in the NHL at driving possession. It helps playing on the same ice surface as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but that is a two way street, he also helps them.
You can use Kris Letang in one of two ways. You can try and pair him up with another solid partner and expect domination or you can pair him up with a weaker player and hope that he lifts them up to an acceptable level. Over the years the Penguins have tried both. One method was always successful and the other one had success to varying degrees.
has a new feature on their website which allows you to go back and sort statistics based on line combos or defense pairings. I have done just that for Kris Letang. Each year I have taken the two players he played the most minutes with at even strength.
This was the Penguins championship season. Letang predominately played bottom pairing minutes with Mark Eaton. Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill were the shutdown line while Sergei Gonchar and Brooks Orpik were the other main pairing. Even with the bottom pairing assignment Letang was a pretty young player at this time (second year in the league) and was unable to get things going with Eaton. Although it deserves mentioning that the numbers are probably lower due to Michael Therrien’s impact on the team for much of the regular season. The Penguins were a bad possession team under Therrien. When Dan Bylsma took over the numbers started turning around for everybody.
Two things at play here. This was the first season in which Dan Bylsma was the head coach for the entire year and Kris Letang is also starting to come into his own. I wouldn’t consider Brooks Orpik or Mark Eaton puck skilled players but you can’t argue with the numbers, they look great. This was obviously way before Orpik fell off a cliff.
Sergei Gonchar's two most common partners were also Orpik and Eaton. Letang’s number with both players are higher than what Gonchar did with them. The baton for most effective puck skilled defender is now being passed from Gonchar to Letang.
Here is where you can start to see the contrast of what Letang is capable of with no restrictions and what he can do when he is asked to prop somebody else up. Letang and Orpik are still an acceptable pairing, but Letang Martin is elite.
Once again Letang/Martin is way better than Letang/Orpik. This time the minutes are more evenly split. The 2011-12 Penguins led the NHL in Fenclose this year at 55.2%. This was their best roster in the years since winning the Stanley Cup.
You can see Brooks Orpik has started his drastic decline. Letang/Niskanen pairing is putting up great numbers. Those numbers certainly helped Kris Letang earn his first and only appearance as a Norris finalist. Orpik is also dragging down Paul Martin at this time.
It was a rough season for Letang with his normal hockey related injuries as well as the stroke and it wasn’t made any easier by playing him with Scuderi. Letang and Maatta did well but you aren’t seeing those impressive possession percentages that we are accustomed to seeing in the mid 50’s when he is playing with a guy who has some puck skill.
Fast forward to this year and it appears Kris Letang will be skating with Christian Ehrhoff. Ehrhoff is just as good as Paul Martin and is also younger. This could be the Penguins #1 pairing for years to come. If it is it will be one of the best defensive duos in the entire NHL. Combine them with either a Crosby or Malkin line and you can assume domination will follow. Every single time Letang and Martin played together they put up huge possession numbers. It won't be any different with Ehrhoff.
I think if you are going to invest heavily into a guy like Letang let him achieve his own personal ceiling by playing him with a competent partner. Don’t drag Letang’s potential ceiling down in an effort to prop up somebody else’s below average ceiling. You are paying Letang to be elite, allow him to be just that. He has shown he can with the proper lineup decisions.
The combination of Christian Ehrhoff and Mike Johnston’s system should have Letang knocking on the door of another Norris Trophy nomination. Health will be the only potential factor holding Letang back.
Thanks for reading!
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