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Reading over Rob Rossi’s excellent reporting over the past few days, it’s really not too difficult to make out the writing on the wall. Kris Letang and the Pittsburgh Penguins have fundamental differences regarding Letang’s value and with Letang rejecting an eight year, fifty-four million dollar contract extension offer from the Penguins on Thursday night, a separation seems nigh.
According to Rossi the Penguins would prefer to send Kris Letang to the Western Conference and are particularly enamored by "prospects with Anaheim and Vancouver" according to Rossi’s sources. Wha?
The Canucks are dealing with a critical scarcity of salary cap-space at the moment, and would need to essentially move heaven and earth to fit Kris Letang under the cap (and then do so again to fit his theoretically lucrative extension, which would kick in a season from now). Is acquiring Letang worth the cost in treasure and cap-space? Would he represent enough of an upgrade over the likes of Edler, Garrison, Bieksa and Hamhuis to warrant the Canucks blowing up their hard won "internal cap" for defenceman?
Let’s look into it.
Why Kris Letang Makes Sense in Vancouver…
Kris Letang was a Norris nominee this past season, and richly deserved it. While Letang doesn’t face the "toughest competition" in Pittsburgh according to our preferred "quality of competition" metrics, he does play in all situations and led all Pittsburgh blue-liners in time-on-ice per game a year ago (and for the last three seasons).
Most importantly, when Letang is on the ice the Penguins are significantly better than they are without him. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that "without Letang Pittsburgh will cease to be an elite offensive team," but I would probably describe Letang’s presence as the nitrous which boosts the Penguins offensive engine into overdrive.
Consider Letang’s large sample with or without you numbers, for example. Since 2008-09, Kris Letang has spent 1272 even-strength minutes on the ice with Sidney Crosby and close to 1291 minutes with Evgeni Malkin. In Letang’s 1272 minutes with Sid, the Penguins have outscored opponents by nearly two goals per sixty minutes while controling north of 56% of all attempted shots. When Sidney Crosby is on the ice without Letang the Penguins score nearly a goal fewer per sixty minutes, outscore their opponents by 1.4 goals per sixty minutes, and control 52% of shot attempts.
In other, simpler words: the Penguins are still an elite team with Crosby on the ice without Letang, but the Penguins are completely dominant when they’re playing together. Letang, I’d mention, has a similar impact on Evgeni Malkin’s production and possession numbers.
Looking over the relationship between Henrik Sedin’s production and the ice-time he’s spent with specific defenceman over the past five seasons, the only player who comes close to impacting his numbers similarly is Christian Ehrhoff. That fact should not particularly surprising.
In close to 1000 even-strength minutes between 2008-2013, the Canucks outscored their opponents by 2.66 goals per sixty minutes with both Ehrhoff and Henrik on the ice together (a ridiculous number) and controlled 58% of all shot attempts (also ridiculous, albeit zone-start inflated). With Henrik on the ice without Ehrhoff over that span (a larger sample that nears 4500 minutes) the Canucks have out-scored opponents by less than half of that, while controling 56% of all shot attempts.
So Ehrhoff’s impact on the Canucks offense from 2009-2011 was similar to Letang’s in Pittsburgh over the past five seasons, except that Letang’s numbers without Crosby are stronger than Ehrhoff’s without Henrik (in part that’s due to team effects and Ehrhoff playing on an awful Sabres club for two season accounted for by our sample). In other words, Kris Letang is a high-end version of Christian Ehrhoff who also excels in the shootout and has a right-handed shot for the power-play. Sounds pretty neat, eh?
Kris Letang is an elite offensive defenceman in the National Hockey League, and pairing him with a player like Jason Garrison, Alex Edler or Dan Hamhuis would be a tantalizing prospect. He’d also immediately fix Vancouver’s right-handed shooters on the power-play issue, and arguably give the Canucks their first elite 1A defenceman in franchise history.
Stats in this section taken from stats.hockeyanalysis.com.
Why Kris Letang Makes No Sense in Vancouver…
Vancouver’s top-four group of Bieksa, Garrison, Hamhuis and Edler is rock solid, and all of those players are on deals worth five million or less against the salary cap. Adding Letang for upwards of seven million per season just doesn’t seem like an efficient allocation of resources unless you’re moving one of those four players in a trade.
Kris Letang is a pretty clear upgrade on Alex Edler, in my view, but in terms of marginal utility Edler is 90% of the player that Letang is and has way more physical upside. Oh yeah, and by the time Letang’s contract extension is signed Edler will cost the Canucks only 66% as much against the salary cap. The marginal value just isn’t there for the Canucks, especially when you factor in the cost in assets that it will take to outbid the likes of Edmonton and Anaheim for Letang’s services (probably a player, a prospect and a first rounder).
As good as Kris Letang is – and I think he’s exceptionally good – he’s not a third-line centre or a scoring winger. Those remain the club’s two biggest areas of need this summer, and that’s where the Canucks need to focus their scant resources.
Letang is an elite offensive defenceman, and his presence could certainly hurt the Canucks if he’s shipped out to a conference rival like Edmonton or Anaheim. However, with the way this Canucks team is built currently, Kris Letang would be, I don’t want to say redundant because Letang is a unique player, but somewhat superfluous.
The Canucks don’t appear to have the cap-space necessary to swing a mega deal for a Kris Letang-type (unless Pittsburgh’s buying on Luongo, which, yeah right). Anyway even if they did, they have more pressing concerns than adding another top-four defenceman – even one as dynamic as Kris Letang.