Declaring your team's most important player is not a simple thing. It's not always the most valuable guy or the highest points producer. It is the player who makes your team go; the one you can't afford to lose, even if all he contributes can't be measured by fancy stats.
Most Important Player: Kris Letang, Defenseman
Let’s start with this: For our money, Sidney Crosby is still one of the top two or three best hockey players, if not the best player on the planet. That is a given. And it will not shock us at all that if Crosby wins another scoring title playing with Phil Kessel.
But if the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team strangely adrift since back-to-back trips to the Stanley Cup finals in 2008 and 2009, are going to get back to relevance -- never mind seriously contending for a championship -- then the key is the blue line. And the blue line begins and ends right now with Kris Letang.
For most of last season, Letang and the now departed Paul Martin were the top pairing on a defense that for most of the season was a top six or seven team in goals allowed per game. A late-season swoon that coincided with injuries to their top defensemen saw the Pens finish 10th in goals allowed per game. All in all, not too shabby. Still, the Penguins were ousted in five games in the first round by the New York Rangers, losing all four games by a 2-1 count.
The loss of Letang (concussion) was especially crucial to the Pens’ chances, as his ability to spark the transition game was a glaring absence. Were it not for his injury, it would have been interesting to see where Letang, who had 54 points in 69 games, might have figured into the Norris Trophy discussion.
It takes a long time to change a player’s reputation. And some still regard Letang as the riverboat gambler type of player that skates like the wind but is a defensive liability. There was some debate about whether the team should move on in terms of defensive structure after the Penguins were swept by Boston Bruins in the 2013 Eastern Conference finals, but instead the team signed Letang to an eight-year contract extension. And since some rough moments early in the 2014 playoffs against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Letang has committed himself to becoming more of a leader on and off the ice. His ability to rebound from a stroke suffered in late January 2014 earned him a nomination for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy this June.
Now the 28-year-old defenseman will be asked to shoulder even more of a burden, as Martin signed with the San Jose Sharks as a free agent and Christian Ehrhoff left for the Los Angeles Kings. Letang’s ability to return to his level of play a year ago could put him in line for a spot on Canada’s World Cup of Hockey squad next fall, garner even more significant Norris Trophy talk and return the Penguins to Cup contender status.
If he can’t? Well, let’s just say relevance will be extremely difficult to come by in Pittsburgh.