Mobile two-way defenders from the back end are integral to Stanley Cup championship runs. If you look back over the last 25 years of Cup champions, it is difficult to find a winner who didn’t possess a dominant two-way defender. It is invaluable to have an elite defender who can play up to half the game, defends in all three zones and recovers loose pucks and transitions the play from the defensive zone with controlled zone exits and two-way possession.
Last season’s playoffs were dominated by these individuals as the top two contenders for the Conn Smythe were Victor Hedman and the eventual winner Ducan Keith.
This season, most of the discussion has surrounded the redemption story of Phil Kessel and Joe Thornton, the unexpected rookie performance of Matt Murray and the overall excellence of Sidney Crosby and Joe Pavelski. The attention has shifted away from defenders, even though Kris Letang has put together a dominant two-way performance to rival Hedman and Keith from a year ago.
Letang continually suffers from the stigma of being a one dimensional offensive defenseman, one that also haunts players like Keith Yandle and P.K. Subban. These risk-takers prove to be intolerable when choosing players for World Cup rosters, but extremely tolerable while being sized for Stanley Cup rings.
It is a continual problem for smooth skating players who excel at the offensive end of the ice. I described the importance of mobility in regards to this perception of Keith Yandle.
“Defense has been miscast as grunt work, but it is more about taking away time and space. Elite skating is required to allow you to manage tight gaps, which prevent easy zone entries and allows defenders to angle skaters to spots they can’t generate offense. These skills are the same type of skills that translate to strong offensive performances that can get a player labeled as “soft” or “poor” defender.”
Letang, while labeled risky, continually has delivered elite level performance against each team’s top units throughout the playoffs and has been dominant in the Stanley Cup Final vs. the San Jose Sharks. Through the first four games of the Final, Letang carries a .670 expected goal differential at even strength (expected goals are weighted shots that take into account the location and pre-shot movement like passes, deflections and rebounds).
With help from sportlogiq.com, I have been able to measure the impact of the microstats they track to see how Letang is driving the play so effectively through the first four games of the Stanley Cup Final.
With the puck on his stick, Letang has been an extremely dangerous player for the Sharks to deal with because of his ability to skate with and distribute the puck. Letang leads all Penguins with 7:47 seconds of possession and only trails Evgeni Malkin in successful passes completed per 60 minutes with 67. These skills allow Letang to jump start transition with clean zone exits, a category which he only trails teammate Brian Dumoulin in the Final.
While toughness and physicality are traits that are often poorly applied to good defenders, Letang continually uses his speed to make defensive plays. Letang ranks fourth among all Penguins in successful defensive plays made per 60 minutes and leads all Penguins in loose puck recoveries per 60 with 96.
These microstats continually drive his expected goal totals and when we look at his impact during the entirety of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, we can see why Letang should be considered among the favorites to take home the Conn Smythe should the Penguins win the series.
The way the Penguins have embraced speed on both ends of the ice has really allowed Letang to maximize his skillset. Letang is fourth among the Penguins throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs in expected on-ice goal differential at even strength (weighted shots for vs. weighted shots against), and when we add in the context of minutes played and strength of competition, Letang jumps into the conversation with worthy candidates Phil Kessel and Sidney Crosby.
While Team Canada may not view Letang as an elite two-way defender, a Conn Smythe trophy and second Cup ring may would go a long way to change this perception.