The Pittsburgh Penguins chances of repeating as Stanley Cup champions got a lot slimmer when news broke today that they will head into the playoffs without defenseman Kris Letang.
Letang is scheduled to undergo surgery to repair a herniated disk in his neck and will be out four to six months.
Losing a player like Letang is going to hurt. The three-time All-Star had five goals and 29 assists in 41 games for the Penguins this season. He’s a leader on the blue line and a game-changer any time he’s on the ice.
Just one year ago, his goal in Game 6 of the Cup Final sealed the deal for the Pens to win it all.
Needless to say, his loss will be felt, so the question now is: Can the Pens repeat without Letang?
You can’t replace Kris Letang. He’s an invaluable cog in the Penguins machine. He isn’t their best player, but he is their most irreplaceable. The Pens’ opportunity to repeat stopped the second this news broke that he would be out.
The NHL postseason a is high-paced chess match on meth. The Penguins will miss his production and speed, but they will also have to find a way to cover his 30-plus minutes of ice time every night. The Penguins have some reinforcements — namely Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley — returning soon from injury, but they’re nowhere near the Letang’s caliber. And if they aren’t back in time for Round 1, it’ll be up to the likes of 39-year-old Mark Streit and 36-year-old Ron Hainsey to pick up the slack.
Good luck with that.
Many people had Letang penciled in as the Pens’ Conn Smythe nominee last season, in part because of his three goals and 12 assists in 23 games, but primarily because of the way he was able to elevate their injury-riddled defense corps last season. That same group is in similar need again this year, only this time Letang won’t be around to pick up the pieces.
The answer was already no.
No team in the salary-cap era has been able to repeat back-to-back championships, partly because the immense amount of luck and good fortune with injuries it takes to win at a time in the season when every team you face is going to be good. There is so much parity in the NHL, the margin for error is so small, it would take an incredibly stacked team with all the right circumstances to pull of this feat. The Penguins have had neither luck nor good fortune this year, on their way to an incredible 125 man games lost to injury (fifth most in the league).
Pump the breaks.
The Pens have already played, what, half the season without Letang? Well, not quite. They’re 24-9-5 without him in the lineup this season.
Maybe the sky isn’t completely falling?
The team should be accustomed to not having him around by now. And as mentioned above, help is on the way. Not only will the blue line get a boost when players return from injury, but Evgeni Malkin is waiting in the wings, as well. This team, as currently constructed, is still pretty good. They’re only going to get better once everyone is healthy.
The Pens have two other major factors working for them as they approach the playoffs, even without Letang.
First, they’re getting Columbus in the first round, and they should have home-ice advantage. They proved Tuesday which is the better team, especially when the games are in Pittsburgh. The Pens should take that series, even if they have to dress their AHL defensemen to get through it.
Secondly, all of the pressure is on the Washington Capitals this season. It is their year, after all. They’re in first place again. Their roster is stacked again. They should see Pittsburgh in the second round again. If history tells us anything about how Washington hockey and expectations mesh in the postseason, we know there’s no way they could blow it.
What we know for sure is the road to repeat was already going to be a tough haul. Without Letang, the road just got a lot tougher.