Penguins A to Z: It won’t be easy to replace Kris Letang

With the Penguins ’2021-22 season coming to a quick ending in the first round of the playoffs, the Tribune-Review will offer Penguins A to Z, a player-by-player look at all 54 individuals signed to an NHL contract – including those whose deals do not begin until the 2022-23 season – with the organization, from mid-level prospect Niclas Almari to top-six winger Jason Zucker.

Kris Letang

Position: Defensively

Shoots: Right

Age: 35

Height: 6-foot

Weight: 201 pounds

2021-22 NHL statistics: 78 games, 68 points (10 goals, 58 assists)

Contract: In the final year of an eight-year contract with a salary cap hit of $ 7.25 million. Pending unrestricted free agent this upcoming offseason.

Acquired: Third-round draft pick (No. 62 overall), July 30, 2005

(Note: According to Cap Friendly, Letang’s contract has a no-movement clause as well as a modified no-trade clause which allows him to submit a list of 18 teams he would accept a trade to.)

Last season: When the Penguins signed Kris Letang to an eight-year contract extension during the 2013 offseason, then-general manager Ray Shero had a succinct way of explaining why it was important to lock up the defenseman to such a long-term deal.

“A 26-year-old defenseman like that is very difficult to replace.”

Nine years and two general managers later, the Penguins could be on the verge of learning how difficult it might be to replace a 35-year-old defenseman like Letang.

During the 2021-22 campaign, Letang came through with a career season in the final year of that contract. Appearing in all but four of the Penguins’ games, Letang also logged a robust 25:47 of average ice time, the fourth-highest figure in the NHL among non-goaltenders.

Letang’s season had relatively few peaks and valleys. The low point was a four-game absence in late October after he tested positive for covid-19.

With star centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin each sidelined to open the season following offseason surgeries, the Penguins leaned heavily on Letang to be a veteran stabilizing force during the early stages of the 2021-22 season. That was never more evident than a 3-2 overtime home win against rival Philadelphia Flyers on Nov. 4 by scoring the winning goal while clocking 28:54 of ice time on 30 shifts.

Working with assistant coach Todd Reirden, Letang largely cut down on the miscues that have pockmarked his play historically while being a prominent component of each special teams unit. A member of the top power-play unit, he logged an average of 3:29 of ice per game and 1:25 with the penalty kill.

In the playoffs, Letang appeared in all seven games of the Penguins’ first-round loss to the New York Rangers. Averaging a massive 29:51 of ice time per game, Letang recorded four points (one goal, three assists).

The future: Negotiations for a potential contract extension between Penguins’ management and Letang’s agent have been ongoing for just under a year and have generated limited progress.

All parties involved seem to be earnest in maintaining a marriage that has been overwhelmingly positive for 16 seasons.

But the realities of the professional hockey business could very well get in the way of those intentions.

From Letang’s perspective, this will be the last time in his career he can land a major contract. Currently, his salary cap hit is the 19th-largest in the NHL among defensemen. When he signed this contract in 2013, it was the third-highest in the league with regards to that position.

(Note: Letang’s current contract began with the 2014-15 season. At the time he signed it, he had one year remaining on his previous contract which was signed in 2010.)

In 2022, right-handed defensemen (who are rarer than lefties) who can move the puck, put up points and play in virtually every situation are very much in demand. And Letang satisfies all of those qualities.

As for Penguins ’management, the biggest hang-up would presumably be with the term of such a contract. Is it prudent to give a 35-year-old a multi-year deal?

(Note: While Letang does have a history of considerable health concerns – such as the stroke he suffered in 2014 – he has been fairly healthy the past three seasons having missed only 13 of a possible 207 regular-season games over that span.)

Were the Penguins to part ways with Letang, it won’t be easy to replace him. In fact, it would be impossible to do so in the immediate sense. There are no in-house options on the right side of the blue line capable of taking on the myriad of duties Letang has, let alone at the level he offers.

And as far as free agency is concerned, the only right-handed defenseman scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent who offers a game even remotely impactful as Letang’s is Dallas Stars defenseman John Klingberg. And there’s no reason to think Klingberg won’t command a hefty contract as well once the NHL’s free agency signing period opens July 13.

Keeping Kris Letang won’t be cheap. But he will likely be worth whatever he commands.

Follow the Penguins all season long.

Seth Rorabaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Seth by email at srorabaugh@triblive.com or via Twitter .

Leave a Comment