Monday, May 18, 2009

Young promise on the blueline


One reason why Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero was willing to trade offensive-minded defenseman Ryan Whitney was the belief that the Penguins had capable replacements either in the NHL already or about to break through from the AHL.

One of those players is 22-year-old Kris Letang, a 2005 third-round draft choice.

While Letang had 10 goals and 33 points in 74 regular-season games, and has netted three goals with nine points in the postseason so far, it's my opinion that he has barely scraped the surface of his offensive potential.

The talent is there, of course. Letang appeared in 63 games last season as a rookie and registered 17 points, including six goals.

For much of the season, Letang seemed hesitant or even unwilling to get involved in the offense. By choice or by instruction, he seemed to focus more on the defensive side of things, which is by no means a bad thing. He emerged as the Penguins' second-best hitter among defensemen and has shown no fear stickhandling the puck in his own end, even in front of the goal. Often he's successful at a breakout, though still occasionally turns the puck over.

Something happened to him at the all-star break. Letang scored nine of his 10 goals this season in the second half. His three postseason goals came in the last five games of the second-round series with Washington, which included the overtime winner in Game 3.

That goal came on a one-timer, which is encouraging, because that is one area I think Letang needs to improve upon.

Letang still seems hesitant to shoot, despite now being on the top power play unit, particularly when he has a one-time opportunity. There was a glaring example of that in Monday night's Game 1 against Carolina. Sidney Crosby won a faceoff after Pittsburgh was awarded a power play and slipped around a defenseman. He threw the puck across the ice to Letang, who with an accurate one-timer likely scores. Instead, Letang settled the puck, allowing Cam Ward time to re-position himself.

Letang's subsequent shot was, naturally, saved easily. It was the latest of a string of circumstances where a well-placed one-timer would have served much better than settling the puck. One would assume Letang will improve on that facet of his game. Sometimes, Letang even has trouble with receiving the pass. But, again, he's only 22.

When Letang does decide to one-time a puck, more often than not he fires the puck well wide of the target. Unless his target is a specific pane of glass behind the goal, in which case he's dead-on accurate.

Which segues into the next facet he needs to work on, which is his accuracy. He has already shown he has a goal-scoring touch and has often been used in shootouts. The trick is knowing when to fire a one-timer and the little detail of aim.

He's worked on his willingness to shoot. He registered twice as many shots on goal this regular season compared to last and is averaging almost three shots per game this postseason, nearly three times as many as in last year's playoff run.

According to one report I've seen, Philippe Boucher has become something of a mentor to Letang, and there is no one better suited to that role on the Penguins roster. Just two years ago, Boucher, who is also a right-handed shooter, scored 19 goals with 51 points, and the prior season - 2005-06 - he had 16 goals and 43 points.

Now that Boucher is in the lineup for Pittsburgh - a byproduct of the Sergei Gonchar injury from Game 4 against Washington - I'd prefer Dan Bylsma to use Boucher on the No. 1 power play unit instead of Letang, so that Letang could watch and learn from Boucher in a game setting. But, maybe that's why I'm writing on here and not behind the bench. OK, maybe it's just one reason.

But Boucher scored what proved to be the game-winning goal in Game 1 Monday on the power play, albeit not on a one-timer.

Hopefully he's teaching Letang how to score goals, and hopefully Letang is listening. Each of Letang's postseason goals had something of a pretty characteristic to them. In fact, two were one-timers, the Washington Game 3 winner and what at the time was a go-ahead goal in Game 6 of that series.

Scoring goals isn't the only part of hockey, of course, and Letang's defensive play also needs work. But it's more ahead of the game considering his age and projected role as an offensive player.

Letang is one bright spot on the Penguins and, based on some reports, was considered an untouchable at the trade deadline. He's already displayed signs of being a valuable defenseman, on both ends - to the point that one friend said the Penguins should sign him to a 10-year contract. Mastering the one-timer and hitting the target will be key factors in his growing further as a player.

Then he needs to teach Alex Goligoski the same things.


BReynolds said...

So. He has some offensive talent huh? Must be time to move him up to wing for a few weeks.

Oh, and did you see that MY Penguins won? Yep. Up 1-0 on Carolina. That's MY Penguins.

KiPA - Kevin in PA said...