Penguins defenseman Letang having best season in new system | TribLIVE.com
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The Penguins' Kris Letang plays against the Flames on Friday, Dec. 12, 2014, at Consol Energy Center.

Paul Coffey’s son, Blake, is a 16-year-old defenseman and doesn’t exactly lack for someone to model his game after.

Still, one of his favorites is Penguins defenseman Kris Letang.

“He’s a risk taker in a good way,” Paul Coffey said. “The good players always are.”

Like his son, Coffey likes Letang, too. A lot. But considering what Letang adds to the Penguins — an element few others in the NHL can provide — that’s pretty much like saying Coffey likes new cars or hitting the lottery.

“I’ve met him a few times, and he’s a very, very respectful young man, which I like,” Coffey said. “Respects the game. Respects the guys before him. That goes a long way in defining your career.”

So does talent, which Letang has in bunches, whether it’s his skating, his puck-moving abilities, his creativity, his shot or his smarts.

And coach Mike Johnston’s system — one that’s predicated on defensemen not only jumping into the play but making an impact — is perfect for someone like Letang, who has three goals in three games since returning from a five-game absence because of a groin injury.

“He’s a key guy on the power play, so that’s important as far as his role goes,” Johnston said. “He’s dangerous when he jumps up ice. He adds a lot to our attack.”

His regular defense partner, Paul Martin, has noticed.

“His game has evolved over the years,” Martin said. “Especially this year, I’ve seen it a lot, where he’s making the simple plays and making it easy on himself and not putting himself in position to get hit. Which, for a guy like that, that’s what opposing teams have to try to do to get him off his game.

“With how much talent he has, once the game comes to him like it has, it becomes almost effortless to him.”

Mental side

Coffey said he watches the Penguins frequently simply to see Letang.

The first thing that sticks out is not Letang’s physical gifts — although Coffey admits there are plenty — but what’s between his ears.

In fact, Coffey, forever old school, thinks all the emphasis on working out and nutrition can be overblown if you can’t get that to translate onto the ice.

“There are guys that work hard in the gym, but they can’t bring it to the ice because they don’t have the mentality up top,” Coffey said. “It looks to me like Letang does.”

Letang’s game starts often with a strong, smart first pass, transitioning the puck from his own zone to the Penguins’ skilled forwards such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin or Patric Hornqvist.

An example would be what he did on Rob Klinkhammer’s third-period goal Friday against Calgary: snatching the puck from Flames defenseman T.J. Brodie and initiating the rush with a smooth outlet pass to Steve Downie.

“I’m a guy who likes to bring a lot of offense from the back end by my skating or passing,” Letang said. “My transition game, I would say, is my biggest asset.

“When you have forwards like we do, it’s always a good thing when you have a guy who can move the puck up, skate, join the rush and be an option for them.”

Diversity counts

Letang, though, is more than an option. He’s got the hands and stick skills of a forward. His shot is a Howitzer. He’s nimble enough to redirect a puck for a goal as he did during Friday’s win over Calgary.

He also can score short-handed on a backhand flip like Saturday at Columbus.

“Offensively he’s a pretty special player back there with the puck, the way he skates and makes plays,” center Brandon Sutter said.

Anticipation is key for anything Letang does, fellow Quebec native and friend Simon Despres said.

Like Coffey, Despres marvels at how Letang can anticipate what others are going to do before they do it.

“He sees the play very well, better than most players,” Despres said. “He’s a step ahead when he has the puck.”

Coffey views Letang like a quarterback in football, as someone who can read a cover 2 defense and find openings before they appear.

“There are some forwards who can run their patterns, so to speak, and Letang already knows where they’re going,” Coffey said. “That’s the key.”

Heavy workload

In his two games back, Letang has averaged 25-plus minutes, like usual, the most on the team.

He has played more than five minutes on the power play each game while averaging more than three minutes a night on the penalty kill.

That’s why the loss of Letang hurt the Penguins when he missed five games between late November and early December with a groin injury and why his return is so pivotal for the team now and down the road.

“When a guy eats up that many minutes on both sides of the puck, it’s difficult to replace,” Crosby said.

Johnston believes Letang, because of his presence and style of play, generates an average of three or four additional scoring chances per game.

Coffey likens Letang’s skills — he’s on pace for 22 goals and 65 points, both career-highs — to what he experienced in Edmonton in the 1980s with Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Jari Kurri.

In short, get the puck to the skilled forwards, take some chances, and usually the results are pretty good.

“That’s what makes a guy like Letang excited to play because he knows if he gets that puck up to Malkin or Crosby, there’s a good chance he’s going to get a goal or an assist,” Coffey said. “And that’s a fun part of the game.”

Jason Mackey is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @Mackey_Trib.

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