Monday, June 24, 2013

Are Letang's Days in Pittsburgh Over?

kris letang penguins trade
Heading into the final year of his contract, Kris Letang might be pricing himself out of Pittsburgh.

The Penguins are working on extending Letang, but are hesitant to offer much more than $6 million a season. Pierre LeBrun doesn't think Letang will sign for any less than $7 million a season.

The Penguins have the cap space to offer Letang a contract worth $7 million a season, but thanks to massive contract extensions for Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, more than $34 million is already committed to six players in 2014-15, and adding Letang's big ticket would put them in a cap squeeze.

The Penguins are also concerned about whether Letang is worth elite defenceman money. According to Rob Rossi, "Letang is not the consensus best defenseman on the Penguins, at least in the eyes of management and coaches."

And with the bevy of young defence prospects in the Penguins' system, Rossi believes Letang has become a "must-move player" for GM Ray Shero. The Penguins could decide to keep Letang next season and go for a cup, return be damned, but a trade seems likelier, with CBC's Elliotte Friedman reporting teams are preparing offers in case the two sides fail to reach an agreement.

If the Penguins do decide to trade Letang, there will be plenty of suitors, despite the high cost to acquire the Norris Trophy finalist. More concerning, however, is Letang's desire to be paid like an elite defencemen. Sure, he's scored 190 points over the last five years, tied for 11th among defencemen, but are there enough holes in his defensive game to cause teams to look elsewhere for defensive help?

Is Letang worth $7 million or more over 5-8 years, or is this a case of buyer beware?

First we must consider the type of competition Letang plays against, and how well he has fared. Below is a table of Letang's puck possession stats since breaking into the league in 2007-08.

YearOZ% Quality of Comp. Corsi Rel. Corsi% SAon/60 SAoff/60
2007-0851.1 -0.256 1.7 46.0 29.2 28.6
2008-0952.7 0.507 7.1 50.8 26.2 27.7
2009-1055.4 0.573 12.1 55.2 26.3 25.0
2010-1153.7 0.765 9.3 55.225.4 26.3
2011-1252.2 0.583 6.4 54.3 26.4 25.2
2012-1348.3 0.696 16.2 54% 26.4 27.3
OZ% = Percentage of shifts starting in the offensive zone
Quality of Comp. = How good are the players Letang plays against as measured by Corsi Rel.
Corsi Rel. = Letang's Corsi relative to his teammates (the Penguins' shot differential when Letang is on the ice minus their shot differential when he is off the ice)
Corsi% = The percentage of shot attempts for the Penguins when Letang is on the ice
SAon/60 = Shots against per 60 minutes when Letang is on the ice
SAoff/60 = Shots against per 60 minutes when Letang is off the ice

Apart from Letang's first season in the league, when the Penguins smartly gave him sheltered minutes against weak competition, Letang has primarily been matched up against top-six forwards (Quality of Competition of 0.5 and above generally reflects top-six forwards). And while he hasn't been used as the team's primary shutdown defender (that duty has gone to Brooks Orpik, and in 2012-13, Paul Martin as well), Letang has seen an increasing amount of shifts starting in the defensive zone. Last year, specifically, Dan Bylsma deployed Letang in a similar manner as Josh Gorges, Rob Scuderi, and Luke Schenn—three defencemen considered defence-first players.

Letang has crushed those minutes as well, being the team's best puck possession defender. He has had a positive Corsi rel. in every year with the Pens, indicating that the Penguins outshoot their opponent at even strength when Letang is on the ice more so than they do when Letang is off the ice. Looked at another way, over the last five years the Penguins have controlled 54% of all shot attempts at even strength when Letang is on the ice. That's tied for 12th best in the league for defencemen over that period of time with Erik Karlsson and Alex Pietrangelo, and just below Brent Seabrook.

Letang doesn't boost the Penguins' shot differential just because he is offensively gifted either. Over the last five years Letang has helped limit the opposition to 26.1 shots against per 60 minutes when he is on the ice, while the Penguins allow slightly more when he is off the ice (26.3). The league average for shots against per 60 minutes is 28.5.

In comparison, Rob Scuderi, one of the league's more highly respected defensive defencemen, was able to limit a similar amount of shots as Letang this season (26.5 per 60 minutes). The big difference between the two defencemen is that Scuderi doesn't have the transitional game that Letang possess, so he wasn't able to move the puck out of the zone as effectively (25.9 shots for/60 compared to Letang's 29.3 mark).

That transitional game has earned praise from Letang's teammates and helps pace their prolific offense, which has the added benefit of keeping the puck out of the defensive zone.

“He’s known for his offensive ability, but he’s so good defensively. It was tough playing without him for that long stretch when he was out with the concussion," James Neal told Sportsnet last year. "The way he defends guys might be unnoticed, and the way he passes the puck helps us out as forwards."

“He takes the puck out of the zone very quickly, often by himself," Marc-Andre Fleury added. "He’s quick on offence but works hard to get back and help out in our zone."

Letang manages the puck as effectively as some of the game's top defencemen as well. He gave the puck away 34 times this year, as much as Zdeno Chara, and less than defensive stalwarts like Shea Weber, Drew Doughty, and Brent Seabrook.

These numbers show that despite being considered an offensively-gifted, puck-moving defenceman, Letang is still solid defensively.

There is more than one way to play defence. Paul Coffey was a great defenceman because he could skate the puck out of trouble, whereas Scott Stevens was great because he was a punishing hitter who dominated physically. Both Hall of Fame defencemen, two wildly different styles of play. Both effective.

But being paid north of $7 million a season is a lot of money, especially for someone who isn't tasked with the hardest defensive assignments. Most of the league's big money defencemen are given shutdown responsibility. There are 11 defencemen making over $6 million a season right now, and 7 play a shutdown role for their team (Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Drew Doughty, Zdeno Chara, Jay Bouwmeester, Dion Phaneuf, and Kimmo Timonen). Only Brian Campbell, Erik Karlsson, Mike Green, and Dan Boyle play against second line competition (although Boyle was used in a shutdown role last season).

Right now Letang falls into the second camp, and although he has proved more than capable of dominating those minutes, he might be given more difficult assignments for a team that doesn't have someone like Brooks Orpik to take the heavy defensive duties.

It isn't unheard of for someone with Letang's skill set to be used in a shutdown role; Duncan Keith has been primarily used as the Blackhawks' shutdown defender and he won a Norris Trophy. The only issue is Letang is completely untested in that role. Aside from Dion Phaneuf, most of the big money defencemen playing in shutdown roles had experience, and success, in that role before signing their major deals.

Over his career Letang has been a very good defenceman, both offensively and defensively. Good enough that he's put himself in a position to earn a major pay day. It just may not come from the Penguins.


Anonymous said...

Letang is definitely gifted but how well would he do when he doesn't have the offense of the penguins to work with?

Matt Horner said...

It's a valid question, although I think Letang can be legitimately considered one of the reasons why the Penguins have a good offense, more so than Letang looks good because the Penguins' offense is so good.

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