Riding the Trade Letang Train, Redux

Waiting for the other shoe to fall. That’s where Penguins fans (and probably many of the players as well) are stuck, still, even weeks after the team’s acrimonious fall from the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

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There is an anticipation of change, but the two easiest scapegoats: Marc-Andre Fleury and Head Coach Dan Bylsma have both been saved for next season by reassurances from General Manager Ray Shero. With Evgeni Malkin set to sign an 8-year contract extension, complete with a full no-movement clause the masses have congregated around one last sacrificial offering: Kris Letang. But they’re right, because the Penguins biggest responsibility this offseason is to get smarter.

Allow me to break the fourth wall, last week I wrote a piece on why the Penguins should trade Kris Letang and to which team they should trade him to in order to address their existing organizational needs. I don’t point this out to draw traffic to my blog, it is only to express that there is more than one way that the Penguins can improve their team by distancing themselves from Kris Letang.

The Concept of Hockey IQ

It’s a cliche to say that you have to be “smart” to succeed at the highest level of sport. It’s also an inaccuracy (see Aaron Hernandez for an example or any of the other 26 NFL players who have been arrested in the last four months). What all athletes need to possess is the ability to make decisions faster than their competitor and most importantly, to make the RIGHT decision. What it all means is that you don’t have to “outsmart” you have to “outquick” your opponent, the player needs to anticipate his options and make the best decision available to him.

With that said, you should be able to start to see that Kris Letang is not a player that this author or many others would categorize as particularly strong in hockey IQ. He’s prone to mental mistakes: he pinches at the wrong time, he doesn’t react to turnovers with any particular swiftness, and he often gets burned on his positioning.

Telestrating Hocey IQ

Take for example this goal from Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals:

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Letang is the lone black jersey at the top of the screen. Although he starts off in good position he somehow reads that he should close on the puck carrier Horton despite the fact that Lucic has clearly made the play into a 2-on-1 and Letang has no defense partner in position to cover Lucic (let alone Krejci, who Murray planned to cover).

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Although Letang did manage to get a piece of Horton he quickly abandoned his check (for completely inexplicable reasons) to pursue Lucic. Although Douglas Murray’s foot speed is a major issue on this play, he seemingly correctly deduced to go to the greatest threat, which was Lucic. For the first time all play Letang seems to notice Murray’s existence and turns off from pursuing Lucic. As if it couldn’t be worse Letang takes a lazy, circuitous path back to the actual puck carrier, but the damage was done and Horton and Krejci stood in front of the net with only Jarome Iginla to provide any defense at all.

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That is a play not becoming of a number one, franchise marquee defenseman seeking a new contract that is rumored to pay him $7 million per season. Especially on a team that is predicated on smart, quick transition hockey.

Getting Smarter

Kris Letang is not the only player who lacks the decision making needed to improve this Penguins team. Think about how the Penguins magically lost the ability to crash the net against Boston: you can blame coaching but it is not a coaching point to convince players to get to the net (at least not after Peewees). It’s about possessing a hockey sense, finding soft areas in the opponents defense and capitalizing on that. Although Letang is not the only player at fault in this, he is the only player that can be moved and fetch the kind of return that the Penguins need in order to make an organizational effort to be brighter.

In the salary cap era the Penguins have to move from a position of depth (puck moving defensemen) to fix their problems. What better than to trade their biggest pawn and receive a king’s ransom of an established stay at home defenseman and young prospects that can be molded and educated into the Penguins system.


Riding the Trade Letang Train

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In the first days after the Penguins were eliminated from the playoffs Mike and I set out to evaluate players and determine whether the Penguins should hold onto them or if they should at least be entertained as tradeable (or simply not brought back if they are pending free agents). At this time it seems unlikely that we’ll get that post finished (for a myriad of reasons) but here is what we had to say about Letang (Mike’s thoughts are first, mine are in the part that is cleverly titled “Andrew’s addendum”:

Kris Letang – I’ve had my suspicions about 58 since the Pens so ungracefully bowed out of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs in the first round against Philadelphia. Offensively, he’s a stud. He’s constantly in the conversation about top-producing defensemen in the NHL which is great. But here’s a question that I’ll be asking a lot (and so should you): is that what the Pens need? He logs a ton of minutes every night; he nearly matched Chara in Game 3 in terms of minutes logged. The difference is the shutdown. Zdeno Chara shuts people down (as evidenced by Crosby and Malkin combining for 0 points this series). Letang gives up what seems like a breakaway every other game. Sure he can “recover” because of his speed and conditioning, but I’d rather see defenseman who doesn’t give up that break and just retreats and forces that defender to dump and chase into a corner like Bylsma’s system calls for. He did a piss poor job of quarterbacking the powerplay most of the season. It was covered by the unreal play of the Pens’ forwards, but was brutally exposed by Boston. He’s going to ask for a ton of money this offseason (keeping in mind that his comparative counterpart Erik Karlsson earned a contract for 6.5 mil a season. Think about it.)

Andrew’s addendum: if you aren’t a woman do you actually like Kris Letang? And if you are a woman do you actually like him as a hockey player? Be honest. He’s infuriating in the defensive zone, he’s scary in the offensive zone, and he isn’t what the Penguins need on the power play. As such the Penguins should do the right thing and sell high on the guy. I don’t think the Penguins could even get so lucky as to convince Letang to think about a $6.5 million/year deal (he’ll want at least $7mil), there’s too much talent built up behind him that is atrophying each day (ahem, Simon Despres), and he doesn’t have the composure necessary to ever be a truly all-time great defender. As such, in my book he’s just another hockey player, the Pens need to move him or else they can at best hope to see him walk away for nothing after next year (the worst case is he signs long-term and fails to live up to his contract).

He’s one of probably only three defensemen in the whole NHL who can bear the mantle of being “the face of a franchise” (along with Erik Karlsson and PK Subban), and he’s the only one of those three that is likely to hit the open market anytime soon (admittedly Subban will be an RFA after next season again, but he is on what is known as his “bridge contract” similar to what Letang will be ending next year, to bridge between his entry-level deal and the big money he would expect to make as an elite veteran of the league). Whether you like Kris Letang or not, he carries a level of panache that his “better” contemporaries like Shea Weber, Zdeno Chara, Ryan Suter and even teammate Paul Martin don’t have. And that makes him more valuable to teams in need of an identity than he is to the Penguins, who are still identified by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and all the other explosive offensive players and outputs. So with that said, the time is right to trade Kris Letang.

We know that the best venue to do that would be at the draft. For one, the Penguins SHOULD make it a priority to earn a first (or at the very least a second round pick, more on that later) back in this so-called legendary draft. Secondly, they’ll never be able to sell AS HIGH on Letang if they don’t trade him at the draft. Waiting for the trade deadline could be problematic: some teams would only offer on Letang as a “rental” which would obviously be a low return for the Penguins. And few teams that would be willing to pay the full price for his services tend to be buyers at the trade deadline (although I can think of one exception to that, which will be discussed later, like in a separate post).

So we know who the trade target is, we know when the trade should go down, the question that seems really important to us though, is what can the Penguins actually get in return?

The single most important thing for the Penguins to get in exchange for Kris Letang would be a stay-at-home Top 4 defenseman (and if he happens to shoot right-handed that’s a big plus). One of the biggest holes in the Penguins last year was that they only had three “Top 4” defensemen: Letang, Martin, and Brooks Orpik, and assuming that HCDB sticks to his word about utilizing Simon Despres in that role next year, the Penguins will still need one more player to fill out the Top 4. Given that Martin, Despres, and Orpik are all left-handed shots, a righty would be good to fill out the pairings.

With that said, one team stands above all the others to fit that need: the Colorado Avalanche, specifically, they would need to give up Erik Johnson. He’s a hulking 6’4” 236 lbs, he shoots right, he has understated offensive skills, he was part of the US Olympic team that won silver in 2010, he’s signed for another 3-years at a very agreeable $3.75 million and he’s younger than Letang. In the same way that Brandon Sutter was essential to the Jordan Staal trade, the same can be said of Erik Johnson in this trade, he fills the need and there are only so many teams that can offer the same return.

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Of course the treat with the Avalanche is that they have the first overall pick, and they are very unlikely to exchange that AND Johnson for Kris Letang. Instead, the Penguins would likely need to settle for the first pick of the second round, which most people contend will still be a great, potential all-star pick. From there the Avs would likely need to include include a second roster player. Certainly our preference would be for a guy who has long been discussed as an ideal fit in the Penguins system: David Jones. He’s very much in the vain of Chris Kunitz or Pascal Dupuis except younger, and bigger. That’s about all you need to know.

An interesting variable could be Seymon Varlamov. He’s only 2 years removed from being exchanged from Washington to Colorado for a first round pick, but he’s also coming off of his worst season in the NHL, and he still hasn’t quite proven if he is a cornerstone piece for an NHL team. Nonetheless, if he were to come to Pittsburgh he could make Marc-Andre Fleury expendable, or at least eligible for a contract buyout. Of course, if MAF becomes available, why not trade HIM to the Colorado Avalanche where he would have the opportunity to be the pet project of his childhood hero Patrick Roy (the new coach of the Avs). Of course, if you’re talking about the Penguins trading a franchise goalie and a franchise defenseman then it doesn’t seem so unreasonable to ask for that first overall pick now does it?

Sure, there are dozens of teams that would be interested in Letang if he went to market, but the Avalanche seem like a good fit because the Penguins have the ability to address their biggest needs in a trade with them. To this point we have no idea if Letang is headed to market, if he is though expect that Ray Shero and the rest of the Penguins upper management will reap a healthy bounty in exchange for him.

For some other detailed analyses by people who are smarter than me check out Mike Colligan: Part 1 and Part 2. And Andrew Rothey at faceoff-factor.com.


Stud of the Week 04/22/13

The Penguins are coming off another undefeated week of hockey with back to back wins over the teams with the second and third best records in the Eastern Conference. They’re still doing it without the two best players on the planet, an elite goal scorer, and one of the most underrated defensemen in the league this year. In doing so they locked up the top seed in the East with more than 10% of their games still remaining.

There’s a lot of acclaim that can go around but most of the biggest contributors continued to be the new guys that we featured last week: Brenden Morrow stepped up with an awesome Gordie Howe Hat Trick against the Habs and Jarome Iginla silenced the boo birds in Boston with a lethal PP goal. Beyond that the “New JJ” chipped in on all 3 goals against the Bruins and Tomas Vokoun showed just how good he could be with 38 10-bell saves in the same effort. But our rules are clear, no back to back winners, so let’s look at who else has been taking care of business.

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Is Beau Bennett Completely Remapping the Penguins’ Future Personnel Decisions

Excluding the obvious (Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz) you would have a hard time naming a better Penguin last night than Beau Bennett. All he does is hustle for loose pucks, make crisp passes, and find spots from which he can launch a puck, or at the very least force a team to abandon a double team on Geno and or Nealer, the league’s reigning MVP and perhaps its second best pure sniper. That’s awesome.

He’s got points in 4 of his last 5, and his minutes have been steadily increasing. He played over 15 and a half minutes last night, probably the ideal figure for a #6 forward, and the Pens will have 2 more full years with him on his current rookie salary figure after this one. That’s also awesome.

And perhaps even more important, the Pens almost don’t even need that much scoring, they’re miles ahead of pretty much every other team in scoring so far this year, so if you ask me, they don’t need to give up a few defensive prospects to bring in a veteran scorer on the back swing of his career (Jarome Iginla).

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Stud of the Week 02/20/13

We created this award to recognize the best player for the Penguins in the past week. This doesn’t have to be the leading scorer or anything like that, this is the guy who contributes the most to victory–it could go to a guy who was dominant in the faceoff circle, who drew a bunch of penalties that resulted in goals, or laid some game changing hits.

Pens went 3-0 this week and, generally speaking, they won three games they should have won. Admittedly none of these were that simple: Ottawa, especially before losing their two best players, were occasionally dominant, and still ought to be considered a playoff contender. Playing the Jets in Winnipeg is never easy and coming from behind with less than 10 minutes left in the game is no mean feat.

With that said there does not seem to be one guy who stood above all others this week, so what follows are several strong candidates.

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Penguins Season Preview: D-Men

t’s finally here, we are actually previewing the actual guys who will be donning the Pittsburgh Penguins sweater this year. Yesterday we previewed the goalies, today we move onto defense, and yet to come are wingers, and then the centers, before finally making our BOLD predictions for the year. We’ve attempted to look at each player from a point/counterpoint perspective–that’s not to say that we are going to totally disagree on each player, far from it, we want to examine both the statistical expectations for each guy AND express our “feel” or read of the player. We hope you enjoy and we would love for you to get back to us with your thoughts and feelings. If you haven’t read them yet, please check out our series on Advanced Hockey Statistics: Goals Versus ThresholdPoints per 60 Minutes, and Player Usage Charts (including Corsi numbers). Get the business after the jump. Read the rest of this entry »


Matt Niskanen: The Ultimate Equalizer

Okay, so a somewhat scary trend is starting to emerge. The Pens have gotten lit up in three of their last 4 games. I don’t know if they’re starting to grow idle a little bit, their only win came against the team that is actually the 4th best in the East (Devils), compared to their losses against the 7th ranked Senators and 13th ranked Islanders. Again I’m not necessarily worried about the Pens, but this isn’t how you expected a team this good to deal with the possibility of still possibly capturing first in the conference and maybe even the President’s Trophy. Read the rest of this entry »