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Penguins' Kris Letang ready to finish what he started

When you think of Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang, how many of you think riverboat gambler?

Hands up.

How many think high-risk, high-reward but mostly high-risk?

How many think one-dimensional?

That's a lot of hands.

OK, now who thinks Norris Trophy when they think of Kris Letang?

Who thinks two-way force?

Who thinks leadership?

Hmmm. Not so many hands now.

But that is the curse of mixing perception with reality. Because whatever Letang was in the past as a player and a figure on the Penguins, the reality is that he is much, much more now and the perception, at least outwardly, is so distorted.

"Underrated" is an easy term to throw around because in some ways it damns with faint praise. But ask two-time Stanley Cup champion Bob Errey, who has watched almost all of Letang's 491 regular-season games, and he sees a player who is in the top handful of defensemen in the game.

Errey sees a defenseman who has elite ability to move forward and backward, from side to side, like few defenders can in the game. He sees a defenseman who makes a significant impact in all three zones.

"He's like a hummingbird," Errey said during a recent Penguins training camp workout.

"His physical attributes are incredible. He's so elusive on the ice. Defensively, I think that's where he's most underrated."

This is a big season for the Penguins, who once again made a big offseason splash trying to regain their mantel as one of the NHL's elite teams. They have had a string of postseason disappointments since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009.

Phil Kessel was brought in ostensibly to play with Sidney Crosby. The bottom half of the forward unit was remade to have more skill and depth. But no single element of this team is as important as the blue-line corps -- led by Letang and his young defensive partner, Olli Maatta.

Both are coming off serious injuries and medical issues. Both have high-end skill.

But if they can stay healthy, they have the potential to evolve into a dominating top pairing.

If they can't, well, the Penguins will be in trouble once again.

Maatta, the 22nd overall pick in 2012, played only 20 games last season before requiring shoulder surgery, this after a tumor was removed from his neck to prevent the possibility of the onset of thyroid cancer.

Letang was felled with a concussion late in the regular season and it was his loss -- along with that of Maatta and Christian Ehrhoff -- that proved devastating as the Penguins were dumped by the New York Rangers in five games in the first round of the playoffs.

The feeling around the team is, had Letang been healthy, the Penguins might have won the series given that they lost all four games by identical 2-1 scores.

It's a moot point really, just as it's a moot point to wonder what would have happened in terms of the Norris Trophy voting had Letang stayed healthy.

Playing with Paul Martin, Letang was the leader of the Penguins not just in terms of producing offense from the back end, finishing seventh among all defenders with 54 points in 69 games in spite of the fact he and Martin regularly lined up against opposing team's top lines. Until injuries crippled the blue line late in the season, the Penguins were a solid top-10 defensive team, while Letang was eighth among all defensemen in the advanced statistic SAT, which measures shots for and against during even-strength play.

Letang admitted it was disappointing not to be able to put a proper cap on such a strong season.

"It was tough because, to be honest, I felt great about my entire year and I was on the verge of playing another 80 games-plus," said Letang, 28.

"It's really disappointing. It's not the fact how many goals or points; I was playing a really consistent game throughout the whole year, was playing big minutes against top teams. Obviously, that kind of got me disappointed that I couldn't finish off what I started."

Is he anxious to get back to that form?

Uhm. Yes.

"Big time," said the Montreal native.

"It's a system I love to play in. We're a puck-possession team. We got a lot of depth up front now with all the acquisitions we did this summer. It's going to be fun. It's going to be fun to be here again and starting on a fresh plate."

It wasn't that long ago that it was fair to wonder about Letang's future with the team. After the Penguins were swept in the 2013 Eastern Conference finals by the Boston Bruins, a series that saw the high-powered Pens limited to two goals, there was speculation Letang would be traded as part of an overhaul.

Instead, Letang signed an eight-year deal that summer.

He has worked hard at his conditioning and he has challenged himself to become a go-to guy on the ice and in the dressing room.

"I think it's not only putting up points and being an offensive guy," explained Letang, who suffered a stroke during the 2013-14 season and missed 10 weeks before returning to action.

"I think what I want is to make sure the coach behind me is never going to have a question mark in his head [about playing me in any situation]. ... I want to be the guy that he knows that I'm going to do the job and I'm going to do it right."

With Martin signing as a free agent with the San Jose Sharks and Ehrhoff now in Los Angeles, the Pens' blue line is in a state of flux. Youngsters Brian Dumoulin and Derrick Pouliot look to be slotting in somewhere in the top six. There's veteran Rob Scuderi, Adam Clendening and 41-year-old Sergei Gonchar, who's on a tryout.

General manager Jim Rutherford acknowledged they will have to keep an eye on the blue line and the implication is that he might look to add depth via the trade market. But it's better, obviously, if he doesn't have to. And how this plays out will be determined in large part by how Letang and Maatta shoulder the burden of leadership.

As for Letang, Rutherford shook his head when asked if anyone outside of the Pens' room knows how good Letang was for the Pens last season.

"Nobody knows," Rutherford said.

Head coach Mike Johnston said people will look to the duo's offensive skills but their value to the Penguins begins 200 feet away.

"A lot of people look at the other end of the ice and say they're dynamic offensively. But for me they escape the [defensive] zone quickly," Johnston said.

They're quick to retrieve pucks in their own zone and to move pucks to the forward group, the coach said.

"And then can activate into the breakout to give our forwards options," Johnston said. "They help us get it out of our zone fast, get out of our zone clean."

Nothing is more important for a team as explosive as the Penguins.

Letang said that even though Maatta is young -- the lanky Finn is 21 -- he plays with the poise of a veteran.

"Maturity," Letang said. "I think for his age, the way he plays the game, he's not reckless. He does every little detail the right way and I mean inside the room he's doing his job, he's not a young kid that just wants to have fun. He's a true pro and it's fun to work with a guy like that."

Ask Maatta about playing with Letang and he simply beams.

"Yeah, he's pretty good player," he said.

A show of hands should tell us that.