Kris Letang is a special defenseman. With rare offensive instincts, he’s at No. 31 on the NHL’s all-time scoring list at his position. Only two active blueliners have more points (145G, 517A, 662P), and only four – including Bobby Orr – rank higher with fewer games played than Letang’s 962.
The Penguins feel confident Letang will play more NHL games. As of Wednesday, though, when that might happen is a question mark.
After Letang missed the Penguins’ Tuesday contest against the Carolina Hurricanes with what was initially described as an illness, the team announced Wednesday that their franchise defenseman would be out indefinitely after suffering a stroke Monday.
“Letang is not experiencing any lasting effects of the stroke and will continue to undergo to undergo a series of tests over the next week,” the Penguins said.
This is the second stroke for Letang, 35, who went for testing Monday after calling head athletic trainer Chris Stewart to say he was experiencing a migraine and not feeling right. At the time of his first stroke in 2014, Letang was found to have a tiny hole in the wall of his heart.
“We’re all concerned for Kris, because we care about him. Stroke is a scary word,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “After the game last night, I informed the players of Kris’s circumstance, and Tanger was at the game [and] in the locker room with me when I did. I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and see that he’s doing well.
“At this point, everything we’ve got back from a testing standpoint has been very encouraging, so we’re grateful for that. But certainly, we’re all concerned for him. We’re all hopeful he’s going to be OK and that he can continue to be OK and help us win.”
“I spoke with him Monday night on the phone and spent the second period with him yesterday and, I’ve got to the be honest, I’m shocked at how well he seems to be doing and taking it,” said GM Ron Hextall. “He understands; he’s been through this before.
“This was much less severe than what happened to him eight years ago, so I think there’s a lot of comfort in that for him, [and he] has a lot of confidence in our medical staff. We’re going to continue to do as many tests as we need to do, second opinions, whatever needs to be done.”
Letang has only played for the Pittsburgh Penguins, the team that drafted him in 2005, and his skill set is irreplaceable enough that the team re-signed him to a six-year, $36.6 million contract this summer to ensure he’d remain a Penguin for the rest of his career. A six-time NHL All-Star with three Stanley Cups, Letang has likely done enough to punch his ticket to the Hall of Fame if he retires tomorrow.
He’s not planning on that, however.
“The biggest challenge for me today was to try to find a way to keep him off the ice,” Sullivan said. “He wanted to skate today.” Letang echoed that in a statement, saying “I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”
For Letang and the Penguins, however, hockey will simply have to take a back seat for however long it takes.
“I think when something like this arises, it certainly puts it into perspective for all of us,” Sullivan said. “He’s played with some of these guys for a long time; they’re close friends off the ice. He has a family. We love the game, we compete hard. We live and die with winning and losing every night. But at the end of the day we care about people, and he’s a guy who means a lot to our team.”
“First and foremost, this is about the person,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father, the family guy. The hockey player and Pittsburgh Penguin, that’s secondary. We’re going to do everything in our power to make sure Kris’s health is first and foremost, and then the other part of it will come as it comes.”
There is still hockey to be played, however, and the Penguins will have to navigate that as best they can. Tuesday, they reshuffled the defensive pairings, bringing Jeff Petry to the top pair alongside Letang’s usual partner Brian Dumoulin, and slotting in depth defenseman Chad Ruhwedel. Ty Smith, acquired over the summer but playing for the AHL’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins due to a lack of cap space, could be an option down the road.
“[Letang’s] not easy to replace; he’s an elite player,” Sullivan said. “We rely on him in so many situations. But it isn’t anything that we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is, we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out. I think it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you lose a player of that stature.
“We have a very capable group, and the expectation here is that we’re going to find ways to win, and try to put players in positions to be successful and play to their strengths.”
“We truly don’t know a timeline right now; I couldn’t even guess,” Hextall said. “But we’ve got a good team; we’ve got a deep team. We like our defense; we’ve got a couple guys in the minors. We feel good about where we’re at as a team, and I think the guys will be playing for Tanger a little bit right now, too.”