Kris Letang had a very mediocre first part of the 2015-2016 season. But, much like Sidney Crosby, he has turned it around since December when the team got a new coach while he rehabbed from injury.
When the Penguins erased a two-goal deficit in Florida with less than six minutes to go in regulation, he was right in the middle of it scoring one of the goals and setting up the other to force overtime. Then, he scored the game winning goal in overtime. When the team went to a shootout against the Islanders, he scored the only goal in that shootout while Fleury stoned all three of New York’s shooters.
So, despite his tepid start it’s time to put Letang back where he belongs – in the Norris Trophy discussion. And, all due respect to Drew Doughty, it will be a disservice to the entire league if he isn’t one of the three finalists.
Letang was a Norris finalist once before, in May of 2013 following the lockout shortened season. That season, he had 38 points in 35 games including eight goals and 30 assists. Those numbers tied him with Montreal Canadiens’ defenseman (and that year’s Norris Trophy winner) P.K. Subban for most points by a defenseman. That season, he also appeared in 15 playoff games when his team made it all the way to the Conference Final, where he amassed 16 points, (3 goals and 13 assists) which were best among all blueliners offensively that playoffs despite the fact his team did not make the final.
This year so far, Letang has missed 10 games due to an upper body injury but in the remaining 62 games, as of the writing of this story, he’s amassed a career-high 14 goals and 41 assists for a career-high 55 points. His 14 goals are second all-time in franchise history for goals by a defenseman in one season. He is also one of the most prolific and timely shootout performers on the team. He has 20 shootout goals, most for all NHL defensemen. When he scores the team is 15-5 and they have a flawless 4-0 record at home when he scores.
Now of course we all know who the Norris favorite is — Erik Karlsson. And we all know Karlsson’s numbers this season. Karlsson is on pace to become the first defenseman to finish in the top-3 in scoring since Paul Coffey. At 74 games played so far this season, Karlsson has 74 points on the Ottawa Senators. These 74 points include 13 goals and 61 assists. These numbers are absolutely impressive and include a point per game average and more than a 10% shooting percentage.
However, Letang who both started slow and missed 10 games (in addition to the fact his team has played two less games on the season) has more goals than Karlsson. Also, Letang has more goals on the man advantage, 3 to Karlsson’s 1, and is just behind on power play assists in 12 less games. Additionally, Letang rarely plays more than 30 minutes in a game that does not go to overtime, while Karlsson regularly logs 30 minutes. This means that Karlsson between his additional ice time and games played has been on the ice in competition for 2,039 minutes or so while Letang has logged just 1,580 minutes of ice time.
Now, let’s do some math. Prior to last weekend’s games, Kris Letang had amassed 53 points in 1,580 minutes of icetime, that’s approximately 26 hours. Erik Karlsson had amassed his 73 points in 2,039 minutes of icetime to that point, which is approximately 34 hours. If we take these numbers and divide their point totals prior to last weekend by their hours played that gives you a points per 60 minutes played at all strengths. Karlsson was producing at a 2.15 points per 60 rate while Letang was producing at a 2.04 points per 60 rate. If you put Letang out on the ice as much as Karlsson he would have 69 points on the season, just four behind Karlsson despite the mediocre start.
However points actually aren’t all the Norris is awarded for. In fact, it’s not supposed to be awarded for points at all! The Norris Trophy is supposed to be awarded to the “defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position.” So yes, that means points produced but it also means defense played. And while Erik Karlsson scores a mean goal, he doesn’t really defend them all that well.
At even strength, Erik Karlsson boasts a shots-for percentage of 49%. That means that about half of the time, shots that take place while he is on the ice are going towards the opposition’s net as opposed to his own net. Meanwhile, Kris Letang’s shots-for percentage is a 53%. That above average stat means that more of the time the shots that occur while he is on ice are going towards the opposition, instead of towards the net he is defending.
Using Corsi For percentage, meaning the percentage of shots while a player is on the ice including blocked and missed shots that go to the opposing net instead of the defending net, both players boast high numbers. But again, Letang beats Karlsson. Letang, has a Corsi For percentage of 53% again while Karlsson’s Corsi For percentage is 51%.
In short, Karlsson has had a monster offensive season and anyone with eyes sees that. However, he has had more time to rack up offensive numbers while proving to be less solid defensively than Letang on a team that seems to lack a cohesive style and plays fast and loose most of the time . Both players serve as their team’s top defenseman but Karlsson, as a defender of which there are already less of than forwards on the ice at any time, doesn’t kill penalties. Letang plays all three phases and still puts up stellar offensive numbers. Letang plays offense without sacrificing defense entirely. And while Karlsson will probably walk away with the trophy just because he has good offensive numbers, Letang (and Brent Burns for that matter) boasts a better overall body of work and should be a Norris finalist in 2016. It’s not all that difficult for us to see that Letang is one of the NHL’s top 3 defensemen, hopefully the voters see that too.