Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are obviously key to the success of the Pittsburgh Penguins, but a healthy Kris Letang may mean even more to the Pens chances of lifting the Cup. After losing Thursday night to Islanders, the Penguins have lost three of their last four, and it's no coincidence that Letang has been MIA for those games. Head Coach Dan Bylsma has lately been preaching to his players about the importance of keeping the puck out of their own net. It seems the Pens have gotten goal-happy and shifted their focus away from protecting Marc-Andre Fleury's cage.
A healthy Letang is critical to the Pens because he provides much more than stats. His value to the team is more than goals, assists, and plus/minus. Letang provides his partners a security blanket. Letang's speed and skating ability allow for his partners to be more comfortable pinching for pucks and keeping possession. His skating also allows for quicker puck movement, neutral zone rushes, and, subsequently, easier puck retrieval in the offensive zone. In Bylsma-speak, he allows the Pens to get to their game. And for all of his offensive abilities, Letang has turned into a great two-way defenseman. Letang is solid on the wall, strong on his skates, and can deliver a body blow with the best of them.
It is obvious to me that the Pens miss Letang immensely. As good as Simon Despres (who I think is the next coming of Letang, and possibly even better) and Ben Lovejoy have been in spot starts, they do not allow for the same comfort level among teammates. Familiarity is key for a hockey club. The skills that Letang brings to the Pens are unique and greatly missed. If they want to go far in the playoffs, the Penguins need a healthy Kris Letang.