Kris Letang And The Edmonton Oilers

The Pittsburgh Penguins seem on the verge of shaking things up after yet another playoff disappointment. Having a lack of depth has hurt them in recent years. Some of the changes will likely come from the top of the organization, Head Coach Dan Byslma and GM Ray Shero have both had their positions questioned recently. But what about the players themselves? The Penguins likely don’t want to trade Evgeni Malkin, and they absolutely would never trade Crosby. However one name that jumps out which could shake loose…Kris Letang. If he does become a chip to be traded, Edmonton Oilers GM Craig Mactavish has to be on the phone day and night trying to work a deal to bring Letang to Edmonton.

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Why Would He Be Available?

Letang is currently signed to an 8 year deal at $7.25 million/year. That is a hefty price tag for a team that has only seven forwards from their current roster locked up for next season. Letangs availability comes up because of the prospect depth in Pittsburgh. Olli Maata has become a real great option on the Pittsburgh backend. He finished the season with a CF% Rel of +3.0% in 78 games. On top of this the penguins have Simon Despres rising as well as Derrick Pouliot and Scott Harrington.

With both Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik as upcoming costless agents, the Penguins might be better served to put the money they are spending on Letang into the contracts for those two players. Niskanen had a fantastic year, and has emerged as a real all-around option in Pittsburgh. Losing Letangs PP specialty would be less harsh then many would think. Niskanen played very well on the PP, Paul Martin is a great puck-mover and Olli Maata will likely see more time on the PP next season. When Letang went down to injury, Niskanen really took his game to a whole new level and has shown that he is a legitimate top 2 defenseman for Pittsburgh.

It has never been so obvious that Pittsburgh needs some complementary forwards up front for Malkin and Crosby. These Playoffs highlighted just how thin they are up front. Crosby had trouble scoring, which resulted in Malkin being moved to his line. Crosby’s struggles continued, but with Malkin on his line the rest of Pittsburgh’s forward lines became an afterthought. James Neal was no longer a threat, and the only guy who was offering anything offensively on a consistent basis was Jussi Jokinen. The fact of the matter is the Penguins need to add to their forward group.

They are far deeper on the backend then they are up front, which is why sending Letang out for some forward depth might be the best decision. This would not only bring in some instant offensive support, it would also costless up cap space on the defense for Pittsburgh to make a run at some potential costless-agents. They have about $15 million in cap space for next season, but that is with only 14 guys currently under contract. If they want to improve their forward group they will need more than $15 million in cap space. This is why moving Letang’s $7.25 million for some help up front might be the smartest move.

Where does he fit?

In Edmonton he would instantly slot in as the top defenseman. He would bring the ability to quarterback a stagnant powerplay, while also playing some significant minutes on the PK. He has an incredible ability to carry the puck, jump in the play, and distribute the puck in an effective and efficient manner. He does lack size, which in Edmonton is a real issue. However he plays the position so effectively that his size doesn’t hurt him. He makes smart plays with the puck and could stabilize the Oiler blue line moving forward.

The verbal from the Oilers brass has been about moving into the mobility and puck possession style of hockey and farther away from big bodies who bang and crash but bring little else to the table. Less Mark Frasers, more Martin Marincins. Letang fits the bill, he brings incredible skating, an incredible first pass, and the know-how of when to jump into the play offensively. He has the ability to hit players in full stride with the perfect tape to tape pass. This opens the ice up for a team that has speed, and would make Taylor Hall even more of a threat. He is also a guy that brings Stanley Cup experience, and the knowledge of what the best player in the world puts into his game daily. This knowledge cannot be discounted, especially in Edmonton where there is a lack of identity and experience.

Possession Metrics from
Player GP G A P TOI/60 CF% CF% Rel FF% Rel QoC TOI%
Letang 37 11 11 22 23.9 48.8% -1.5% -2.2% 28.9%
Marincin 44 0 6 6 18.9 47.5% +7.0% +4.9% 28.7%
Petry 80 7 10 17 21.3 46.7% +3.7% +2.5% 29.0%
Ference 71 3 15 18 20.8 42.9% -3.1% -4.1% 28.9%
Schultz 74 11 22 33 23.0 42.9% -2.6% -2.3% 28.8%

This chart summarizes just how Letang would slot in. He would take some of the minutes away from everyone else as he can handle more TOI than the rest of the team. He brings the ability to play against the toughest competition. His CF% Rel could be better, but Letang had a shortened season due to a stroke he suffered, and it is unknown just how much of an impact that had on his numbers. If he had played an entire season he would likely have better numbers (in previous seasons he was always a plus CF% Rel player). He basically pushes every Oiler defender down the line in terms of TOI and QoC, which would take some of the pressure of these players.

Another aspect to consider is how valuable Letang could be as a mentor for a player like Justin Schultz. Both play similar styles (albeit Letang is elite, Schultz is all potential). One area where Schultz has struggled immensely is balancing the offensive and defensive sides of the game. Letang would be someone that could help Schultz understand the importance of balancing these aspects. As a puck-moving defenseman, Letang also plays the PK and can be counted on defensively. He understands that jumping in offensively is all about timing. Schultz doesn’t have this knowledge, and he struggled all season long to display a sense of defensive awareness.

Letang would also allow Edmonton to be patient with Nurse, Klefbom and Marincin. Patience is key for young defenders, rushing them to the NHL is a mistake 99.9% of the time. It takes time to adjust to the speed and strength of NHL players, so any stop-gap would be beneficial.

What would he cost?

Letang would likely cost more than someone like Phaneuf, simply because he brings more of a flair with him that Phaneuf lacks. It would likely involve Gagner and one of Klefbom, Nurse or Marincin. On top of that Nail Yakupov becomes a name that would probably be in the conversation and/or the third overall pick.

So basically it would be something along the lines of Letang for Gagner, Marincin and Yakupov/3rd overall pick. That is a hefty price for one player. Would Pittsburgh add their first round pick? That becomes infinitely more attractive if they do.

So what is the smarter move…paying a heavier price for an elite guy in Kris Letang, or paying less for a guy like Dion Phaneuf who would still be the best defender in Edmonton?