The Penguins’ blueline underwent a radical transformation last July 1 as Sergei Gonchar departed for Ottawa and Pittsburgh signed free agents Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin. That was also the day two young defensemen who came up through the Penguins’ system received an unspoken vote of confidence from management, and Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski have responded in a big way.
Since stepping into the big minutes formerly filled by Gonchar, the 23-year-old Letang and 25-year-old Goligoski have started to mature into the players the Penguins expected them to become.
“We had Sergei as kind of a mentor here before, so I was learning from him,” Letang said. “He was taking a big part of the ice time, and I’m stepping in this year and taking my chance.”
Indeed. On a team where the defense contributes significantly to the offense, Letang and Goligoski lead the Pittsburgh blueline with 26 and 16 points, respectively. Letang’s 26 points and 21 assists are good for second among all NHL defensemen in those categories, and his plus-18 ranking ties him for first among all skaters.
Goligoski, meanwhile, isn’t far behind at plus-16, and his scoring has been clutch. He leads the club with four game-winning goals and needs just one more to stand alone in Penguins history as the defenseman with the most game-winners in a season. And that’s on a franchise that has boasted such names as Paul Coffey, Larry Murphy and Gonchar.
Head coach Dan Bylsma regularly deploys the pairing of Letang and Brooks Orpik against the opposition’s top players, and views Letang as a different type of shutdown defenseman than that term might traditionally imply. It’s a role that plays into Letang’s offensive capabilities and fits perfectly into the kind of puck-control game the Penguins want to play.
“There have been times when the shutdown pair was not as gifted with puck-moving skills and passing ability as Kris, and that has maybe led to some frustration for our skilled players,” Bylsma said. “And having a guy like Kris who is a shutdown guy, who’s playing against other teams’ top lines, who has the ability to pass the puck … having that kind of ability gives our offensive players the ability to make plays as well.”
By way of example, Bylsma pointed to a recent play against the Calgary Flames: “He goes and makes a physical play in the corner in the D zone, turns right around and snaps the puck up, we go on a rush and it turns into a goal for us.”
And observers around the league are taking notice, as Letang leads all defensemen on the NHL All Star ballot – as a write-in candidate, at that.
“I think it’s the fan base in Pittsburgh that we have; they’re always supporting their players,” Letang said. “And around the league, I think I’m playing better than I used to play and maybe some people start to see it.”
Goligoski credited how well things have been going to an overall team commitment to the system.
“[The forwards] are doing a great job,” he said. “They’re really concentrating on coming back in the defensive zone coverage, and everybody’s stopping instead of swinging. It seems to settle things down in the D zone. It’s amazing how, when you just do little things like that, you don’t have to work as hard as when you’re chasing people around; you let your positioning do the work.
“Everybody’s doing a great job of buying into the way we want to play right now.”
Few are doing it better than Letang and Goligoski. And Letang, in particular, may only be at the start of tapping into his offensive potential.
“I’ve been talking with the coaches and I think I can do more of that, bring more,” Letang said. “I’m getting used to playing more with Sid [Crosby] and Geno [Malkin] and those guys.”