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Kris Letang’s rocky start: Just a bad stretch or a bad sign?

Tampa Bay Lightning v Pittsburgh Penguins
Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

The Penguins’ top defenseman has not been great to start the season.

When it comes to struggles on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ defense this season it is Brian Dumoulin that has taken most of the heat.

Given the way his 2021-22 season played out and ended, his struggles are not a huge surprise. Maybe disappointing if you were hoping for a big bounce back, but I think we had a sense he might be on this path at this stage of his career.

He is also not the only key veteran defender off to a rocky start.

Kris Letang’s early play is a pretty big elephant in the room that we should probably discuss a little bit.

When the Penguins set out on their 2022 offseason there was a pretty strong belief among most team observers that Letang should have been the priority (that was my belief), not only because he played the most crucial role and would be the most difficult to replace, but also because he was still a pretty elite player. Getting him re-signed on a long-term deal was a huge score. He takes tremendous care of himself, he can still skate extremely well, and he was coming off one of the best seasons of his career even at the age of 34. He has still be a Norris-caliber defender. There was little reason to believe his career was on the precipice of falling off of a cliff.

And I still do not think we are at that point.

But we also need to address the fact that he has not played well so far this season.

Or at least has not produced strong results.

Entering play on Tuesday, Letang is still searching for his first goal of the season, has jsut eight assists, and ranks last — LAST! — among all Penguins defenders in pretty much every underlying possession category during 5-on-5 play.

Shot attempt share? Last.

Expected goal share? Last.

Scoring chance share? Last.

High-danger scoring chance share? Fifth out of seven.

Goal share? Sixth out of seven, ahead of only Dumoulin.

He is under 50 percent in all of those categories, with the exception of the high-danger chances where he is exactly at a 50 percent share. All of that has happened while also getting the highest share of offensive zone starts on the team.

By the eye test, he has made some poor puck decisions and just has not looked like the player we have been accustomed to seeing, even as recently as last season.

The popular narrative here would be to place the blame on having a struggling and rapidly declining Dumoulin as a partner. But even that is not fair to Dumoulin. Letang has spent as much time away from Dumoulin this season as he has with him, and his numbers away from Dumoulin have actually been worse than they have been with Dumoulin.

For as bad as those two were together from a goals for and against perspective, they both actually had their best underlying numbers in terms of chances and expected goals when they were together.

Despite his consistent success and overall importance, there has always been a segment of the fan-base that has chose to make Letang their public enemy No. 1 in terms of criticism, and it’s never matched up with any meaningful metric (or eye test). But so far through the first 15 games of the season, he has sort of played the way his critics always think he plays.

And it is a little concerning.

I am not ready to say this is the beginning of the end for Letang as a top-pairing defender and impact player, but it is something to keep an eye on as the season progresses. Even the best players eventually hit their wall.

If the Penguins are going to end up back in the playoffs and make any sort of a meaningful run, they are going to need Letang play like the player he was a year ago. Because they do not have anybody else that can play that role anywhere close to that level.

For as great as he has been, we have seen Letang have the occasional rough stretch throughout his career and he always bounces back and returns to his normal form. The thing about bad stretches early in the season is we tend to notice them a lot more because there is not a large body of work sandwiched around them to hide it. The bad numbers just punch you in the face and you can not avoid them.

Hopefully for the Penguins’ sake that is all this is.

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