Why Kris Letang is better than you think

The 24-year-old Pittsburgh Penguins star had the perfect decoy in place as he mounted his second comeback from concussion symptoms this season: another, much more visible 24-year-old Pittsburgh Penguins star who was mounting his second comeback from concussion symptoms this season.

Kristopher Letang’s return from injured reserve to face the Rangers in New York City on the Ides of March (beware, Blueshirts) was confirmed on game day, making the all-star defenceman’s recovery a buried middle paragraph to his face-of-the-league teammate’s second start to the 2011-12 NHL season.

Sidney Crosby’s re-return was announced two days before Thursday’s game, allowing ample time for analysis, national TV re-jiggering, and the “Sid Cam” (watch Sid on the bench prepare for his next shift!) to be properly focused on the man of the hour. Fifty-eight, the numeral on Letang’s back, is a big digit, but 87 easily trumps it.

But as pregame and post-game commentary zeroed in on Crosby, some guy from Montreal with a pageboy’s haircut had one of the best games of his award-filled career.

“He’s an elite defenceman. He has the ability to skate, defend and play with the puck,” says Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma. “He can play against other teams’ best players; he can skate with them, he can play physical with them. And his play with the puck is exceptional, and that’s what he brings every night. That’s something you continue to see from him. Disappointingly for us, he was out for many games.”

Letang assisted on a third-period goal and was on the ice for all of the other four Penguins goals against the Rangers, playing over 24 minutes and registering a career-best plus-5 rating on the night, helping his team extend its win streak to 10 games. Not too shabby considering he hadn’t pulled on the jersey since February.

They say what happens on Leap Day doesn’t count. They probably don’t say it to Letang, though.

On Feb. 29 versus the Dallas Stars the defenceman reached to chip a loose puck, lowering his head for a split second — long enough for the Stars’ Eric Nystrom to swerve in and rock an exposed Letang with a shoulder to the head. Letang’s stick went flying, his body hit the deck, and he buried his face in the gloves before skating off to the dressing room.

Nystrom received a two-minute roughing minor; Letang received 15 days out of the lineup with concussion symptoms.

Letang’s second unscheduled midseason hiatus was not as long, nor as dramatic, as his first. But what happened to him in November made the Nystrom hit scarier.

An early contender for his first Norris Trophy — Letang leads the Pens in average ice time with 25:03 and has 32 points and three game-winners in just 41 games played — his 2011 homecoming in Montreal was a memorable one for several reasons.

Nov. 26 marked Crosby’s return to Canada, his first game on native ice since a concussion chopped his 2010-11 season in half. Again, it was Letang who had the better performance.

First, there was a laser shot so hard that it snapped the handle of Canadiens goaltender Carey Price’s stick right off. On any regular night, it would be the highlight.

This was no regular night.

With about three minutes remaining in the third period, Letang’s face was splattered with his own blood. Habs forward Max Pacioretty laid an open-ice bodycheck on Letang that the league would later deem illegal, suspending the Montreal forward for three games.

His nose busted, Letang left the ice for a concussion test, but returned in overtime to bury the game’s winning goal, writing another chapter in hockey’s rub-some-dirt-on-it lore.

“I was very happy for him, everybody was. Especially being in Montreal, where he’s from. For him to take such a big hit and come back right after and get a big goal, it was fun to watch,” says Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who wasn’t surprised to see Letang play through injury. “That’s his style. He always works hard. I wasn’t shocked that he came back.”

After the game, Letang said he passed the tests under the NHL’s head-shot protocol. He also had something else to do before heading back onto the ice.

“Obviously, my nose (was) broken, so the doc put it in place and I was ready to go,” Letang told reporters. “He put a pin in it — and pop. It’s not perfect yet because I want to be a model after my career.”

Further testing, however, revealed that Letang did indeed suffer a concussion. He sat out for the next 21 games.

Letang’s first comeback was on Jan. 19, also at Madison Square Garden, alongside stay-at-home defensive partner Brooks Orpik. He recorded four points in three games after sitting a quarter of the season, including a two-point performance in a rematch with the Canadiens. That first return was also in the midst of a then league-high winning streak of eight games by the Pens (Pittsburgh had won three prior to their best defenceman’s return).

On Jan. 23, Letang was invited to the 2012 All-Star Game as Dustin Byfuglien’s injury replacement despite only playing 26 games at that point, joining teammates Evgeni Malkin and James Neal in Ottawa.

“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. He gives a big boost back to the lineup. The way he uses his shot on our power-play, he’s such a great player. The way he defends guys might be unnoticed, and the way he passes the puck helps us out as forwards,” Neal explains. “Letang’s skill level, the way he can pass and shoot, he’s a threat all over the ice. That’s something we missed. Give him a little bit of time, and it’s in the back of the net.”

Fleury points out that because Letang’s offensive contribution is so abundant — taking over the No. 1 defenceman role from Sergei Gonchar in 2010-11, Letang was the Pens’ second-leading scorer (to Crosby) with 50 points — his defensive game gets overlooked.

“He takes the puck out of the zone very quickly, often by himself. He’s quick on offence but works hard to get back and help out in our zone. Every year he seems like he’s improving and maturing, so it’s fun to watch him go,” the goaltender says. “He’s a French guy, and there’s not too many of us around. Since he came in, we’ve gotten along very good. He fits in very easily and likes to have a good time with the guys.”

Even the opposition has good things to say about the QMJHL graduate.

All-star co-captains Daniel Alfredsson and Henrik Lundqvist drafted the speedy Letang early in February’s fantasy draft.

“Why not? He’s so skilled. Both me and Alfie like the way he plays the game. He’s very talented, a great skater,” Lundqvist says.

If the Penguins — easily the hottest team in the league — mount a run to the Stanley Cup, Letang will need to be as integral to their success as Malkin and Crosby.

And cheaper. Signed through 2013-14 with an annual salary averaging $3.5 million, Letang is a steal.

Already a Cup champion (2008-09), twice an all-star, and twice a gold medalist at the world juniors (2006, ’07), it could be argued that the 62nd pick of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft deserves his own “Kris Cam.”

Through the untelevised lens that is this reporter’s eyes, Letang’s every play is zeroed in on during the Pens’ Feb. 26 game in Toronto.

After being cut with Leafs forward Phil Kessel’s errant high stick, drawing blood below his visor, Letang plays the rest of the game with a chip on his shoulder, finishing the period with a big open-ice hit on the hottest Leafs player, Mikhail Grabovski.

Letang has his helmet popped off in a collision in the second period, and takes a frustrated slashing penalty in the third.

His game is a flurry of takeaways, reverse spin moves, blocked shots, and desperate, successful efforts to keep puck in the offensive zone during the Pens’ power-play. It is at once visceral and graceful, poised and impulsive. Fun to watch. He sets up Malkin beautifully for a pair one-timers that go unconverted, and the Leafs hand Pittsburgh a rare loss.

But even in defeat, even without a tick mark to add to his stat line, Letang stands out from the shadows.

There’s a tenacity to his spirit, an arsenal of skill in this player that makes one hope — for the sake of the league more so than the Penguins — that no more comeback games are necessary.

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