Let’s get this out of the way: I’m anything but a Kris Letang basher. There’s no bigger admirer of his skill set, his unparalleled combination of speed and stamina and, maybe above all, his dedication to the Penguins.
When I asked Wednesday morning if the flank of French-Canadian reporters surrounding his stall hours before faceoff against Montreal had made him a little homesick, if he had ever want to play anywhere else, he responded unflinchingly: “I’m a guy who affords a lot of respect to people when it’s due. Pittsburgh is the city that gave me the chance to play in the NHL at 19 years old. The ownership takes care of us like no other. For me, it would be important to finish my career here.”
He means it, too. He’s a great kid. Occasionally a great defenseman, too.
And that’s precisely why it’s time to trade him.
Or at least think a whole heck of a lot about it.
To repeat, this isn’t negative. It’s not about Letang’s maddening tendencies, his misfires or giveaways. It’s certainly not about any one game — and Letang was quite good, for the record, in the 5-1 flogging of the Canadiens, including a sweet assist on a Sidney Crosby goal — nor is it about his injury-plagued season, nor even his star-crossed career.
Rather, it’s quite the opposite. It’s that Letang remains so valuable that he can get you a mint. And if that mint happens to involve pieces that work better with the Penguins’ broader puzzle, all the more reason a trade merits robust consideration.
For all the heists Ray Shero has pulled off, he still hasn’t had that one trade where he has sent away a legitimately prized piece. I’m not talking on the Ryan Whitney/Alex Goligoski scale. I’m talking about Craig Patrick shipping a young Mark Recchi to Philadelphia in 1992 because he knew that particular roster was in greater need of what Rick Tocchet, Kjell Samuelsson and Ken Wregget would bring. He knew that particular roster was positioned to win a second championship in as many years. And he was right.
It’s about being honest about what you have, bold about what you seek.
And if that time isn’t now for these Penguins, fresh off four consecutive playoff flameouts, with Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in their absolute prime, with the Eastern Conference being so down that even the Blue Jackets can look like bullies … then when?
Shero has been adamant all winter he doesn’t want to go down the rental route again. He has had enough of sending away first-round picks for Brenden Morrows. He wants to make what he calls “pure hockey trades.” And that’s a great start to the thought process. No team can give up prospects and picks in perpetuity without some lasting returns.
This team needs more than a two-month fix or the brittle Beau Bennett at first-line right wing to replace Pascal Dupuis. It needs an impact performer, one who could stick around. It also needs more than a handful of AHL call-ups killing time on the third and fourth lines around poor Brandon Sutter.
Letang can draw all that. I don’t know who or where, but I know there are 29 teams that would listen. Don’t lose sight of that because of all those fist-shaking shortcomings. There remains a premium on offensive defensemen, especially those who are 26, have been a Norris Trophy finalist and come with cost certainty. This past July, the Penguins signed Letang to an eight-year, $58 million contract. That creates a long-term cap hassle here, but it might not elsewhere.
Here’s more about that contract: He’ll count $3.5 million toward the cap hit this season, but that jumps to $7.25 million next season. He’ll have a limited no-trade clause kick in next season – 15 teams of his choice, but there’s no such thing between now and July 1.
You get the picture.
Not suggesting it’s a no-brainer. Far from it. It’s absolutely imperative that Shero upgrades the Penguins at positions of need for years to come. And by that, I don’t mean winning the actual exchange. Rare is the trade in which the team receiving the best single player doesn’t win the exchange. And make no mistake, that’s what Letang likely will be.
But, at least to this view, it’s a risk worth taking.
Worried about the defense?
Not sure why, given that stirring show of Wilkes-Barre depth earlier this season.
Worried about offense from the blue line?
Short-term, Matt Niskanen, Paul Martin and Olli Maatta offer plenty, and they’re reliable. Long-term, there’s Derrick Pouliot, who by all accounts has power-play pedigree that Letang still doesn’t display.
Worried about losing the trade?
Hey, Patrick might have lost that exchange in ’92 and, as he has told me many times since, he’s OK with that.