What’s the first thing that strikes you when you think of the Pittsburgh Penguins? Sidney Crosby? Other talented forwards like Jordan Staal and Evgeni Malkin? What about backstop Marc-Andre Fleury?
One thing that doesn’t hit you immediately is their sneakily good defensive corps, which is playing at a very high level and flying under the radar at the same time.
Led by Kris Letang, Pittsburgh’s blueline is a key reason why they are challenging for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. The Penguins led the league in offensive production from its defense at one point earlier this year, and currently rank third with 111 points.
Without any go-to forwards to speak of, outside of the aforementioned Crosby, Malkin and Staal, the defense has picking up some of the offensive slack.
Letang has been very impressive this year, which has seemingly turned into his breakout campaign. He’s rapidly becoming one of the best blueliners in the league and, with 40 points in 46 games, is tied for third in the NHL for points from defensemen.
Letang is also getting it done in his own end, logging a team-high 23:45 of ice-time and seeing regular time on the penalty kill – proving his all-around capabilities.
The 23-year-old Quebec native has impressed new teammate Zbynek Michalek this season.
“He’s such a talented player,” Michalek said earlier this month. “Honestly I didn’t know much about him since I was playing out west for a few years. He’s a really skilled player. The way he skates, it’s amazing. He gets out of trouble by his skating. He’s definitely a big part of our team.”
I think we all knew what kind of potential Letang had, especially when he was a key piece of the 2009 team that went on to win the Cup; he scored some big goals during that playoff run and tallied 13 points in 23 games.
Now he’s filling the shoes of the departed Sergei Gonchar better than expected, and turning into a Norris Trophy candidate, too.
“When I grew up, I was watching all the best defensemen and they were winning those trophies,” Letang said, who looked up to Paul Coffey and Scott Niedermayer as a kid. “Obviously I’d like to try one day to win one of those.” It looks like that day will be here sooner rather than later, don’t you think?
Letang isn’t the only Pens defenseman raising the bar with his performance. The back end also features youngster Alex Goligoski and off-season acquisition Paul Martin, who have also contributed offensively (26 and 16 points, respectively).
Overall, this blueline does more than just help out on offense; they get their hands dirty on the other end of the ice as well. They are second in the league in goals-against per game (2.33), possess an NHL-best penalty kill and dish out a lot more hits than they take. Brooks Orpik and Michalek are two of the best shut-down defensemen in the league and make for a solid pairing on the penalty kill.
Orpik was recently rated as the top defensive defenseman by the Globe and Mail at the midway point. He’s logging over 21 minutes a night and leading the team with 116 hits. Michalek, who was signed on July 1 by Penguins GM Ray Shero, is starting to feel comfortable in the Steel City.
“Lately it’s been getting better,” Michalek said of his adjustment to Pittsburgh. “It was a tough start to the season – I got hurt in the third game of the season. But it’s fun now that we’re winning more and I’m feeling better about the system and more comfortable with my teammates as well.”
Ever since Michalek returned from his shoulder injury in early November, all this team has done is win games (22-9-3 to be exact). When everyone is healthy, it gives the Pens as good and versatile of a top-five on defense as any team in the league.
“We had new guys at the beginning of the season and things were not perfect,” Letang said. “Now that we’re healthy and playing with each other on the back end, we know each other and everybody’s reading everybody really well.”
Though everyone likes to look at the success of Crosby as the reason why the Penguins are fifth in the league in points and a strong Cup contender, it’s the defense that glues everything together for this team.
Fleury has been outstanding in recent months and the offense can obviously strike at anytime. But it’s time for the Penguins’ blueline to get the respect it deserves.
Our podcast 'RLD Hockey Talk' is LIVE every Wednesday afternoon at 1:00 ET/Noon CT. Some of our notable guests in past episodes have been Dustin Brown, Doc Emrick, John Buccigross, Dave Strader, E.J. Hradek, Elliotte Friedman and Jay Grossman.