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Letang and the Gang: The New Age of Defense

The Pittsburgh Penguins lock Kris Letang up for eight more years.

 

Recently, Norris nominated Kris Letang signed an 8 year, $58 million dollar contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins. For the math challenged such as myself, that's $7.25 million per season. That sum places him firmly in the stratosphere of NHL players in general and in the more rarefied mesosphere of defensemen. In short: that's big bucks for a guy who plays on the "wrong side" of the blue line on an offense-first team. In real (not cap) dollars, it puts him just below the Blackhawk's Duncan Keith at $7.65 and just above the Panther's Brian Campbell at $7.14 and will make him the fifth highest paid defenseman in the NHL at present numbers. It bears keeping in mind that things can change a lot in a single season as new contracts are signed and his relative position could change dramatically by this time next year.

Whatever happens to alter the salary landscape of the NHL between now and the time that contract takes effect, Letang's signing means this: the Penguins value Letang very highly. Paul Martin has a $5 million  per year contract and after that the defensive corps fall dramatically into the $3.75 million and below range. After calling Letang "one of the better defensemen in the league," Pens General Manager Ray Shero went on to say, "Kris is a tremendous player and his best days are ahead of him." 

At least eight years of them, one hopes.

And this comment came while they were still negotiating, leading one to assume it was both toned down for bargaining purposes as well as intended to send a warning message to eagerly watching fans, most of whom were still in a state of shock over the Bruins sweep of the Pens in the ECF. Those who weren't still shocked were, by and large, for lack of a better word, angry. They wanted at least one important head to roll. 

One understands that Crosby, except from a few of the disenchanted, is never a part of the "heads must roll" discussions. In a way, because of this hands-off status, it is particularly important to find someone else to blame and after Bylsma was extended and went on to give a formal endorsement of Marc Andre Fleury as his go-to goal tender and then Malkin was re-signed, erstwhile fan favourite Letang, predictably, became the favoured scapegoat.

And the Fans Erupt

Like a long dormant volcano. 

To give you an idea, if you are not a Pens fan and were not scurrying around the internet reading all the chatboards and news comments, if we all lived in a big village and there was a village square in front of the Pens' stronghold, there would have been a pitch-fork wielding, torch carrying mob at the gates of the castle, screaming for his head. On a pike or a platter or a broken hockey stick ... as long as it was delivered. Do I exaggerate? Well, writers make a living from hyperbole, to be sure, but in this case I believe that is an apt comparison.

Fan response seemed to settle into three distinct categories:

  1. That's a ridiculous amount to pay a defenseman who doesn't even play defense. Letang is greedy and selfish and thinks too much of himself. Why doesn't he take a hometown discount like Crosby and Malkin?   
  2. Can the Penguins afford Letang - or any elite defenseman - they're already hard up against the cap?
  3. After the Boston series,can we really call Letang elite and pay him elite dollars?

This article will attempt to respond to all three of those primary issues. 

Background Music

I'll start by stating some important boilerplate points:

  1. With the extension of Bylsma it is apparent that the Pens are not contemplating any sort of significant change to the style of game they play. They are going to stick with an offensive, run and gun style characterized by a high level of puck possession, a large number of goals and a heavy reliance on special teams to pad offensive performance.

  2. The Pens are deep in defensive talent and prospects, having drafted defensive talent heavily in the past few years as well as having completed trades which brought defensive talent to the team.The signing of Scuderi is more indicative of the relative readiness of the home-grown talent than it is of the depth at that position. He should be ready to retire by the time the new guys are ready to make a bona fide contribution at the NHL level. Contrary to first-glance perception, the Pens are most shallow in offensive talent. Hard to believe from a team that boasts the one-two punch of Crosby and Malkin and the highest goals-for in the league but it is, in fact, the case. That said, there is no defensemen on the roster who is ready to play in the NHL who comes close to Letang's abilities.

The First Witness for the Defense

The first fan issue, pinned by the notion that Letang, who "does not even play defense",  was being greedy and selfish, multi-layered as it is, is the most complex to explain. It involves getting to the type of defenseman that Letang is, the type of game the Pens put on the ice (and Letang's importance to it) and, finally, the market value of a player of Letang's skills and caliber inside of the first two issues. They are interconnected and cannot be separated. There are no vacuums in sports analysis.

In 2010, Nathanael Prosser, a student of Economics and Business, presented an excellent thesis (which I highly recommend if you care to understand the issues with offensive and defensive defensemen) in which he concluded, after rigorous study, that offensive defensemen were paid salaries that were roughly double the salaries of defensive defensemen.

For the sake of this argument, let's call Letang an offensive defenseman. According to Prosser: 

An offensive defensemen is one who gets involved in the offensive rushes and plays on the power play. They are also very gifted skaters and have smooth strides that take them up and down the ice surface. These specific defensemen also control the pace of the game with no sense of urgency when an opposing player pressures them. They normally have bigger statistics in the areas of points and shots. Offensive defensemen, for the most part, are smaller in stature and do not hit as often. Finally, in their defensive zone they are vulnerable and can get pushed around in the comers and in front of their goalie. The statistics used to evaluate offensive defensemen are goals, assists, points, shots, and time on ice during the power play.

Sounds exactly like Kris Letang, doesn't it? Right down to the power play minutes. To provide a stable comparison, we will use team mate Brooks Orpik who is absolutely a defensive defenseman and whose annual salary is 3.75 million, Prosser defines this type of player as:

Defensive defensemen are the ones in charge of shutting down the opposing teams best forwards; they always play on the penalty-kill and normally don't get involved in the offensive zone. They are usually bigger in size (height and weight) than offensive defensemen. For the most part do not handle the puck for longer than a second or two because in the NHL you want to maximize the amount of time that skilled players handle the puck. These defensemen typically do not have a smooth skating stride, mainly because they are bigger and takes their body more energy to get around the ice surface. On the other hand, these players do not get pushed around in the comers or around their own net in their defensive zone and will fight if needed. The big statistical categories for these defensemen are hits, blocked shots, and penalty minutes.

And that sounds like Orpik. Again, to a very precise degree. 

The two of them play the same position for the same team. Brooks Orpik is 11th in the league in hits while Letang is buried deep in the hundred somethings. Orpik is 9th in blocked shots and Letang, while higher in the pack than he is in hits, is much further down than Orpik. Orpik does not figure particularly prominently in penalty minutes in NHL terms but again, Letang is much lower yet and the Penguins as a team are in the top-middle of the pack. Oprik scored no goals and had 8 assists and had a 17+/- to Letang's 38 points and 16+/-. Orpik makes very few, if any appearances on the power play and runs the penalty kill while Letang runs the power play and makes very few, if any appearances on the penalty kill.

Textbook, if you will pardon the pun, examples, it seems. Either Shero and Letang's agent read the same thesis or the thesis is just that accurate.

To reply to the first part of the fan concern, that "Letang does not even play defense" - it would appear that he does. Much like not all forwards are the same - the center and wing positions being quite different from one another - not all defensive players are there to play the same style of game or fulfill the same function. There are two types of defensemen, every team needs both and Letang is one while Oprik, as an example, is another.

The Pens, in particular need offensive defenseman because the defense provides the all important first stage of an offensive play. They control the transition game. In fact, one could say that Letang is in charge of the transition game for the top lines. Based on evidence, of the goal scoring kind, he does that job very well. If you believe that the Pens are not going to make any significant changes to their style then it becomes easy to understand why he is an important piece in their game plan. Simply, there is no current player on the roster or in the prospect field who can replace him and only three or four others in the entire NHL who could - and all of them are locked up tightly.

Apparently locking up players like Letang is important to more General Managers than Ray Shero.

Yes, boys and girls of  Pens' fandom, Letang does indeed "play defense". He is that most sought after of all defensemen, if recent drafting trends are any indication: a puck moving, slick skating offensive defenseman who can quarterback the power play and drive the transition game. He's expected to lose a few battles on the boards, get pushed out of the crease and make a turn over here or there; it's part of the position style he plays and those are the risks inherent to it. He knows it, the coaches and management knows it.

This Little Piggy Goes to Market

Next in the three pronged first complaint of fans, is the matter of the dollar figure.

Letang will make roughly double what Orpik makes. According to Prosser, that is a league trend and an established norm. So, in a relative way, relative to the team on which he plays, the Letang contract is, at least, not ridiculous.

But how does that stack up to the market?

Using the top five paid defensemen as a very rough and tumble test of the market, let's see how Letang measures up. I have used cap hit versus actual salary because navigating the quagmire of cap dollars and real dollars is an exercise in frustration and muddies the waters. Bottom line is, in terms of evaluating market values, using cap dollars makes the most sense and provides the most level field possible. I have added Subban because, as the Norris Trophy winner, his stats, if not his salary, are important in the evaluation. His salary could be considered a "wait and see" compromise between himself and the Canadiens and it is expected that it will rise dramatically when he renegotiates in 2014.

If a plus/minus statistic (averaged over the four years I have used) and points are any indication, Letang is, in fact, the best bang, Subban aside, for an offensive defenseman in the bunch. He combines a very impressive points total with a very respectable plus/minus. To put it in very simple, very broad brush terms, Letang earns less per goal than any other of the players and shares the highest plus/minus of the bunch (excepting Chara, see below). 

Player         Cap Hit     Points         Points         Points         Points   +/-
               2012

2011

2010 

2009 

Avg

Subban
2.88 38 (65) 36 38 - 4
Campbell  7.14 27 (46) 53 27 38 4
Letang  7.25 38 (65) 42 50 27  13
Keith  5.54 27 (46) 40 45 69 13
Chara   6.90 19 (32) 52  44  44 21
Suter  7.54 32 (55) 46 39 37 10
Weber  7.86 29 (50) 49  48  43  7

 

A note about Chara:  Chara plays on a defense first team, logs more minutes than anyone else and his recent plus/minus is not spectacular and was lower than Letang's in this past season. In fact, Chara is the only defenseman on the list of highest paid who was not in the top 20 in terms of scoring this season (although this is one of very few years where he was not in the top ten).  Letang tied for first with Subban, Suter was 2nd, Weber 8th, Campbell was12th and Keith 15th.

So, let's put the second prong to bed, shall we? Letang's contract is a very good reflection of the market as it currently stands and he is not, in fact, overpaid in any, way, shape or form.

The third prong is the easiest. Why, the fans wondered, did Letang not take a "hometown discount" as it is perceived that both Crosby and Malkin did? The answer is simple: he did.

Given the average age and expiry of the above contracts, the desire for players like Letang by other teams not as offensively gifted, Letang's age and skill level, the belief that the salary cap will rise significantly in the next two years and the close proximity many teams are to being contenders except for that "one last piece",  I believe Letang could have commanded as much as $8 or $9 million per season on the open market.  Possibly more, given his prominence in this very specialized position. In fact, his salary seems to be about the same level under market value as are both Crosby's and Malkin's.

Letang was not being greedy or selfish.  A player has every right to be paid his market value and to expect the team for which he plays to treat him fairly. Just because he earns more than virtually every fan on the planet does not make him greedy or selfish, it simply makes him richer, which seems, to tell the truth, to be the actual problem. Not many people will be willingly underpaid and not many agents will stand for those who will. It's a business. Don't hate Letang for doing it the way everyone else does it.

The second most prominent fan objection to the Letang signing seemed to be the fear that the Pens would somehow fail to conform to the cap. That with so many dollars tied up in Crosby and Malkin, signing Letang was cap suicide. That he was not, simply, affordable. Forget whether he was good or not, whether he was worth it or not, where was the money going to come from?

But the Cap! They'll Blow the Cap!

No, they won't. Shero can do math and is in possession of all the information which we can only guess at. He has a plan, you must absolutely count on this fact. 

Putting Crosby and Malkin on the ice without a player like Letang to lead the transition game would be like buying a Rolls Royce and then putting in the cheap gas. Clearly Shero understands this and decided to work downward from the "must haves" instead of upwards from the "can affords". He will make some trades during the summer, tweak the roster ... he will find the cap space because that is his job and one must presume that he knows how to do it.

Because Shero is right - if the Pens want to stick to their style, remain a contender, Letang is as important as Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin and all the other pieces have to be slotted in around them. I love Dupuis and Kunitz but there are a lot more of those types of players available than there are the Letang types and if you have one, you try and keep it.

The cap is expected to rise by a significant margin the year after next, the year Letang's and Malkin's contracts kick in. If Fleury fails again he can be bought out before then. Neal, Dupuis and Kunitz aren't going to get any more expensive and Bennett is still cheap. Relax. As mad as fans might be at the way the Pens ended their season and as much as Shero seems tainted with the stink of that failure, it is not doom and gloom for the Pens. Actually, it is pretty much business as usual and Shero is still the same genius most people thought he was when he was voted GM of the year this year.

It reads a lot like a child's lament that "Because I said so" is not a real answer. But that's the way of it. Shero said, by signing the contract, that he could do it. And so he can. Why? Because he said so. If you don't believe this you'd have to believe that Shero (a) can't do even basic math or (b) that he is acting out a diabolical plan to ruin the Penguins from within or (c) Letang had some incriminating photos of Shero or a smoking gun. 

None of those seem possible, do they? In the immortal words of Sherlock Holmes, once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

Yeah, But Did You Even See Letang in the Boston Series? 

Uh huh. I did. Those were sad days in hockeyland, weren't they? The mighty Pens struck down by the low scoring Bruins. It wasn't just you. Everyone with any stake or interest in the hockey world was stunned, mortified, aghast, stupefied, disappointed or angry. Or all those things. No one saw that coming. No one. Not a single expert predicted anything remotely like a sweep where Boston was doing the sweeping.

And Letang was not good. In fact, by the last game, Letang looked like everyone else: a shell shocked survivor of a natural disaster. Except the natural part. More like a war. One you expected to win. 

He took risks he shouldn't have, tried pinches in the most unlikely of scenarios, had more turnovers than the Pillsbury factory, fell victim to the game of hot potato that the rest of the team was playing. He tried to win it himself and like it was for Crosby and Malkin when they tried it, it was the worst possible solution.

This is not the place for it, I have already vented on the coaching in my first three posts, but if we are to believe, based on the Boston series, that Kris Letang is not elite then we have to strip Crosby and Malkin of the title as well. And anyone else on the team who might be considered so. He played no worse than they did. It was just noticed more because he is the gear on which the transition game turns and without that part of the Pens game, the rest fell flat. Flatter than flat. Was it Letang's fault. Not by any sort of margin, wide or narrow. Not one bit.

It is a well accepted fact in the scientific community that allowing one anomalous piece of data, one that is so extreme that it will skew the rest of the results, into an analysis pretty much ruins any conclusions one makes. In school this was known as grading on the curve so that the kid who never came to class and got a 4 as a final mark in math or the other kid who never did anything but study and got a 99.9 did not unduly disturb the true average of the class performance.

As much as it grates, as much as we don't want to stop being angry or wanting heads to roll, we have to put the Boston series in the same place as the kid with the 4. Off the chart. Out of the analysis for such things as determining player worth. A player plays the system he is told to play. And they did not really have individual failures in that series ... they had a systemic one. 

Here's a very interesting article at Hockey Buzz titled The Letang Effect  which provides an extraordinary window into understanding Kris Letang's importance to the Pens.

The Inevitable Conclusion

Yes Letang is elite, yes he is being paid a fair price for who he is and what he does, no he is not greedy or selfish, yes the Pens can afford him, yes he is necessary, no they won't have to sign the stick-boy and the bus driver to play wing to offset these elite player contracts.

It's the new reality - defensemen of his style and skill earn the big bucks now. It's not enough to find some fancy forwards and sign them to megadeals. Teams need high end skill at both ends of the ice and a defenseman is not just a defenseman anymore. They're of two breeds now and one costs a lot more than the other.

I'm no different than anyone else ... I wanted heads to roll, too. I still, in a way, do. But I suspect the Pens management is playing the cautious wait and see game with regards to both Bylsma and Fleury. The move to extend Bylsma was a tactical one and makes a lot of sense. They are trying to establish stability, tell their players and the league, their fans and the rest of the world they think this was a blip. Expressing faith in the general is a big part of winning the war, military lore tells us. Right up until they handed McArthur his ass on a platter, they were telling everyone he had their complete confidence.

And maybe he does. But I suspect all the trials are over and the next error will be the fatal one.

Let's hope Shero was right, that Letang's best days are ahead of him. Let's hope that Shero knows, as I suspect he does, that it's more important to protect the core assets that wear skates to games than it is to protect the one that wears a suit and tie.

Verdict: the Letang signing falls into the "good move" category.

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