With the Ottawa Senators coming to town Monday night, Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma revealed that defenseman Kris Letang will miss his third straight game with a mysterious illness.
Letang underwent medical testing to try to determine what’s kept him off the ice recently, but either way the Penguins will miss the presence of one of the more dynamic players in the NHL. It’s also a shame tonight won’t be another matchup of Letang and Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson, two of the most offensively-gifted defensemen in the world.
The 26-year-old Letang has already missed 19 of the Penguins’ 55 games this year with various ailments, although none as potentially concerning as his current condition. The Pens may be accustomed to playing without No. 58 skating all over the ice, but his absence definitely makes them a different team.
Some would say Letang makes Pittsburgh play a higher-risk game, if only by osmosis. Others argue that his smooth-skating positives outweigh his decision-making negatives. I fall in the latter category, but that position is tougher to defend this season, as even though Letang has matched a career high with 10 goals, his eight assists put him well short of his typical pace – and his puck-possession numbers are similarly slacking.
That last aspect is particularly troubling, with opponents scoring 57 percent of the goals and firing 51 percent of the shot attempts when Letang is on the ice this year. For a man of Letang’s immense talents on an overall strong team like the Penguins, those numbers are rather striking.
Nevertheless, with the Penguins getting next to nothing from their bottom two forward lines these days, offense from the blueline is especially welcomed. Even in a down season, Letang can make plays few NHL players are capable of, an ability that comes in handy in tight games like Pittsburgh’s 3-1 loss to Phoenix on Saturday.
Letang’s name is often brought up in trade rumors regarding the Penguins. ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun recently speculated that he could be available if another team is willing to surrender a top-six winger under contract for future seasons. Letang’s own contract situation – his eight-year, $58 million extension begins next season – increases his value because of the long-term cost certainty.
Factor that in, plus the Penguins’ excess of defensive prospects in the pipeline, and one can easily imagine a scenario in which Pens general manager Ray Shero finds an offer to his liking. Still, it might be a mistake to cut ties with a player at one of the lowest points of his career, and I’d wager Letang’s best hockey is ahead of him.
Tonight’s Game: Penguins (38-15-2, 78 points – 1st Metropolitan) vs. Senators (24-21-10, 58 points – 6th Atlantic) at Consol Energy Center. Faceoff is set for 7 p.m. Eastern, with Root Sports Pittsburgh and 105.9 The X handling the game broadcasts.
Bylsma said goalie Marc-Andre Fleury will get his second straight start as the Penguins try to avoid losing back-to-back games for the first time since Nov. 23-25. Pittsburgh hasn’t dropped consecutive tilts in regulation since Nov. 6-13, when it lost three in a row.
Ottawa will likely go with Craig Anderson as it attempts to rebound from Saturday’s 6-3 loss in Toronto. The Senators won their only previous meeting with the Penguins this season, a 5-0 Anderson shutout Dec. 23. However, Pittsburgh has won seven of nine in the all-time series, including last spring’s second-round playoff series.