Pittsburgh Penguins D-man Kris Letang has matured, but frequent bad penalties proving risky

BySCOTT BURNSIDE via <a href="http://espn.go.com/" title="ESPN" class="espn_sc_byline">ESPN </a>
May 15, 2016, 11:05 AM

&#151; -- PITTSBURGH -- And so it has come to this with Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang.

On the eve of the Eastern Conference finals, Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford reiterated that he would not trade the 29-year-old for any defenseman in the league.

Indeed, Letang has quite arguably been the best player on a very good team this spring. Just as his name was mentioned in Norris Trophy discussion during the latter part of the regular season, it might soon surface in Conn Smythe conversations.

That's providing, of course, that Letang doesn't lose his marbles and take his team on a high dive, only to end up on a bed of rusty nails during the coming days. Letang -- and by direct extension, his team -- has flirted a couple of times this spring with such disaster.

The smooth-skating, surprisingly physical Letang escaped what appeared to be a double-minor penalty at a crucial juncture of Game 3 in the first round when he angrily smacked Viktor Stalberg of the New York Rangers in the face with his stick. The series was tied 1-1 at the time and the Pens went on to win that game and won the series in five.

Letang was suspended for a game after an unnecessarily dangerous high hit on Marcus Johansson of the Washington Capitals in Game 3 of the second round. The Penguins won Game 4 in spite of Letang's absence to take a 3-1 series lead.

In the waning moments of Game 6, after the Pens had blown a 3-0 lead to the Capitals, Letang crunched T.J. Oshie into the boards and was penalized, justly, for interference. It was a hit Letang could not afford to make.

Luckily for Letang and his team, the Penguins killed the penalty and eliminated the Caps in six games to move to the conference finals for the first time since 2013. 

Imagine if the Capitals had scored on that power play and forced a seventh game? What if the Penguins were eliminated as a direct result of that hit? It boggles the mind that a key player on a team bidding to win its first Stanley Cup since 2009 continues to live on the edge like that.

But here's the thing: Would Letang lose his competitive edge if he played any other way?

"One of the things that we love about Tanger is his passion for the game," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "His competitive spirit. What's important for us -- and this is what we continue to reiterate to Kris -- is just making sure he channels it the right way and in a productive manner. When he does that, he's as good as any defenseman in the league."

Former teammate and current national analyst Mike Rupp confirmed that there were ongoing discussions in the past with Penguins defensive coach Todd Reirden and former head coach Dan Bylsma about Letang keeping his emotions in check and not taking bad penalties or fighting too much. Rupp described it as a double-edged sword. "His competitive edge is what makes him, it gives him that extra edge in how he plays," Rupp said. "It's a fine line.

"You don't want to castrate him but at the same time he's got to realize who he is now to this team. ... If you remove him, they're done."

Former NHL goalie and longtime broadcast analyst Glenn Healy said he views the issue slightly differently: He's OK with Letang pushing back, given how he is targeted on a nightly basis by opposing teams. On the Stalberg slash, "he'd been hit like 17 times," Healy said of Letang.

"The edge that he lives on, I like," Healy said. "I don't mind the emotion. I don't mind the passion, I don't mind the living on the edge. I don't mind sending out the message, 'Hey, I'm not a piñata. I'm not the Letang piñata.'"

The last time the Penguins advanced this deep in the playoffs, in 2013, they were swept by the  Boston Bruins. Afterward, there were calls for significant changes to be made, including trading Letang, who had one more year left on his contract. Instead, then-Penguins general manager Ray Shero signed Letang to an eight-year deal worth $58 million.

Many, including former Penguins defenseman and longtime broadcast analyst Phil Bourque, were surprised.

"I was, just because I didn't know if [Letang] would ever figure it out," Bourque said.

For the most part, it seems he has.

"We always knew he had the talent, but it seemed to be at times unbridled," Bourque said. "It seemed to be just like this wild mustang horse that would just run around the pasture all over the place. You knew it was fast, you knew it was a beautiful horse, but you wondered who was going to be able to get a saddle on him and kind of bring it all together."

Bourque has watched Letang wrestle with keeping his emotions in check when it comes to making reckless plays or taking bad penalties.

"I think there are still some flaws that creep into his game," Bourque said. "Because he's so passionate, I think his emotions sometimes ... get the best of him, which is something I think he needs to work on to find that fine balance."

Rupp also called Letang's wildness one of his best qualities, even if it might have cost his team earlier in his career.

"He has matured a lot," Rupp said. "He's got a family; he's a grown man and knows his responsibilities with the team. He's a leader with them. He still has some of that wildness. But that is what makes him so special, now he has found that balance."

During Rutherford's two years with the Penguins, the general manager has come to understand more about both Letang the man and the hockey player and has been suitably impressed.

"I got to see how he prepared for games," Rutherford said. "That's why I made the comment partway through this season that I wouldn't trade Kris Letang for any other defenseman in the league. That's how much I think of him."

Letang, who is averaging 29:27 minutes of ice time per game -- most of it against opposing teams' top offensive players -- smiles when the sentiment is relayed to him. Who wouldn't?

"It feels good," he said. "It's fun when you have the confidence of management and the coaches, and it's fun when they see you as a go-to guy on the ice for them."

So how good is Letang? Or, more to the point, how good can he be?

"I still think there's more," Bourque said. "I think the best is still to come."

Letang has the ability to play 25 minutes or more per night, game in and game out, without any appreciable drop-off in his level of play, Bourque said.

Rupp ranked Letang ahead of two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson of the  Ottawa Senators and the San Jose SharksBrent Burns and close to this year's Norris Trophy favorite, Drew Doughty of the  Los Angeles Kings.

Letang is less concerned with comparisons and lists, and more concerned with results.

"I think it just came with age and experience," Letang said of growing into his role as a leader and difference-maker. "I'm a different type of guy. I'm not a big vocal guy, but I'm a guy that goes on the ice and I want to show an example and work hard and stuff like that. It's not so much about what people say, it's about becoming the best."

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