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Letang out for the playoffs, but don’t count out the Penguins

Kris Letang is out for four-to-six months with a herniated disk in his neck and will miss the entire post-season. Don’t go thinking his injury means the Penguins can’t win it all again, though.

No team has repeated as Stanley Cup champions since the Detroit Red Wings won back-to-back titles in 1996-97 and 1997-98. And it might be another year before we see it happen again because the Pittsburgh Penguins’ hopes of becoming the first team to repeat in the past 19 years took a major blow Wednesday when it was announced Kris Letang would miss the next four-to-six months following surgery to repair a herniated disk in his neck.

Letang, 29, is undoubtedly the Penguins’ top guy on the back end, an offensive star and steady defensive presence that has been the cornerstone of the Pittsburgh blueline for much of his career. There needs to be no discussion of his importance to the Penguins beyond mention of the fact he has averaged upwards of 24 minutes per game in each of the past seven seasons, finishing in the top 10 in Norris Trophy voting in five of those campaigns. He’s a bonafide star and, beyond that, a proven playoff performer.

Take the 2015-16 post-season, for instance. Letang wasn’t just a standout on the Penguins’ blueline, one could go as far to say he was the Penguins’ blueline during the Stanley Cup run. Say what you will for Trevor Daley, Brian Dumoulin or Ben Lovejoy, each of whom stepped up in the playoffs, but it was Letang who averaged nearly 29 minutes of ice time in the post-season. It was Letang who led all Pittsburgh defensemen with three goals and 15 points. And it was Letang who was in the conversation for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, an honor which went to captain and all-world star Sidney Crosby.

So, the impact of losing Letang can’t be understated. However, the regular season has proven the Penguins can win without him in the lineup.

Leading up to Wednesday’s announcement, Letang had already missed 38 games this season with a variety of injuries. Early in the campaign, he was sidelined for five games with an upper-body injury, followed shortly thereafter by a seven-game absence due to a lower-body ailment. What followed was yet another six-game absence due to a lower-body injury, and, by Feb. 25, Letang hit the shelf for good. His current absence has spanned the past 20 games.

Now, while it’s a fact the Penguins have had to deal with other injuries during those times beyond the knocks to Letang, the truth is that the shorthanded Pittsburgh squad hasn’t really stumbled much along the way. During his first absence, the Penguins went 4-1, followed by a 4-1-2 record during Letang’s second stint on the sideline. Pittsburgh then went 4-2 the third time Letang was out and they’ve gone 12-5-3 over their past 20 games. 

Statistically, the Penguins have also managed to perform roughly as well offensively and defensively without Letang. Pittsburgh has scored 125 goals for in the 38 games they’ve played without Letang, an average of 3.29 per game, and that’s only slightly lower than the 3.44 goals per game with Letang in the lineup. At the same time, Pittsburgh’s goals against per game has been slightly better without Letang, 2.68, than the 2.80 mark the team has posted in the contests with their star defender. 

The power play and penalty kill have also happened to perform better without Letang than with him. Pittsburgh has gone 29 for 112 with the man advantage in games without Letang — good for a 25.9 percent clip — whereas the power play sits at 28 for 143, or 19.6 percent, with Letang manning the point. There’s also a nearly five percent increase in the penalty kill without Letang, as the Penguins have killed all but 19 of 112 penalties, 83 percent, without him, but have boasted a 78.3 percent rate with Letang taking his usual shift on the penalty kill.

None of this is to say the Penguins are better without Letang — flatly, they are not — and there are areas where the Penguins have been very clearly worse off without him. In terms of puck possession at 5-on-5, the Penguins have had a Corsi for percentage slightly below 50 percent without Letang in the lineup. In the 41 games he has dressed, though, Pittsburgh has averaged a Corsi for percentage of 51.5. Also, in terms of producing legitimate scoring opportunities at 5-on-5, it's clear Letang's presence has helped tip the scales in the Penguins' favor. In the 38 games he hasn't played, Pittsburgh boasted 50 percent of the scoring chances. When Letang has been in the lineup, though, that percentage has leapt all the way up to 56.2.

What also has to be taken into consideration in all of this is that the Penguins aren’t exactly playing top competition night in and night out without Letang in action. Matter of fact, despite Pittsburgh boasting a win-loss record of 24-14 without Letang, the Penguins’ record against playoff-bound teams isn’t so pretty. In the 15 games the Letang-less Penguins have played against post-season quality competition, Pittsburgh’s record is 6-9. In match-ups where stars are playing stars, having a stud defenseman to play big minutes is never going to hurt, so finding a way past top teams without Letang is something the Penguins will need to figure out in a hurry.

The bad news is Letang isn’t coming back anytime soon. The good news, though, is that there is hope Evgeni Malkin, Carl Hagelin, Chris Kunitz, Bryan Rust, Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley will all be back in action by the time the post-season starts. And the move to bring in veteran Mark Streit at the trade deadline seems all the more savvy by GM Jim Rutherford now. Of course, no one else brings exactly what Letang can, but, as a whole, this Penguins roster is as strong as almost any in the playoffs. The Eastern Conference isn’t as wide open as years prior, but a roster with Crosby and Malkin up front will always have a chance to make some noise.

Would having Letang make the Penguins’ path to repeating as Stanley Cup champions that much easier? Without a doubt. But don’t go thinking losing Letang means Pittsburgh’s shot at becoming the first back-to-back champion in two decades has gone up in smoke.

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