In his career, Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman, Kris Letang has developed into one of the best defensemen in the NHL. At least one of those seasons, especially 2015-16, could have resulted in a Norris Trophy. However, luck was not on his side. Again. Letang suffered a concussion that prevented him from finishing the regular season and lowered his Norris Trophy chances, eventually finishing 4th in voting.
Through the ups and downs, the 2015-16 season was symptomatic of Letang’s career: whenever he reaches the top of his game, injury strikes. Health-wise the Penguins’ No. 58 has been through a lot. At age 33, he has already suffered a number of concussions, fractures, and even a stroke.
Despite being the defenseman on which the Penguins relied the most in 2019-20, Letang struggled and his seemingly effortless and elegant game was nowhere to be found. He has exceeded expectations by coming back from serious injuries before, but given his age, it’s uncertain if he can do it again.
However, in September, general manager Jim Rutherford hired Todd Reirden to be an assistant coach. Even though Reirden was fired as head coach of the Washington Capitals after their unsuccessful 2019-20 campaign, his tremendous work with defensemen to help them find their game is indisputable.
On top of that, Letang and Reirden have known each other for a number of years now as they spent 4 seasons together in Pittsburgh under the head coach Dan Bylsma. During that span, the right-handed blueliner reached the top of his game, being a finalist in Norris Trophy voting in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.
The Reirden Effect
Before taking over as the Capitals’ head coach, Reirden spent 4 seasons as the team’s assistant coach and his main responsibilities included power play and defense. Thus, he had a lot of time to work with the team’s to-be number one blueliner, John Carlson. And it paid off.
“Reirden’s work with defensemen and the subsequent success of those players has earned him the nickname of Defensemen Guru,”
Michael Fleetwood, Nova Caps.
Carlson was entering his prime, around the age of 28, and he fully put that on display in the 2017-18 season, registering 15 goals and 53 assists in 82 games – all career highs at the time. In the same season, the Capitals claimed the division title, finally beating the Penguins in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and completed that impressive run with a Cup championship. Carlson helped the team tremendously in the postseason with 5 goals and 20 points in 24 games and was a contender for the Conn Smythe Trophy.
The Capitals have not been able to win a postseason series since, but Carlson’s best was yet to come. In 2018-19 and 2019-20, he continued to grow in all aspects of the game. Reirden stepped in after the Caps’ Cup-winning season and managed to elevate Carlson’s defensive game while not giving up on his main strength – offensive awareness.
Through 2018-19, Carlson registered 52 fewer shots than in the previous season, yet was able to put the puck in the net 13 times. Not to mention, he notched a career-high 57 assists and earned his first top-5 finish in Norris Trophy voting. He also tipped over the 50% mark in both Corsi for and Fenwick, from 49.2 to 51.1 and from 47.9 to 51.4, respectively.
“His ability to defend, especially this year, is going a little bit unnoticed just because of the crazy offensive numbers.”
Todd Reirden, The Point Hockey, 12/11/2019
Related: Penguins With 100-Point Seasons
He kept the momentum going in 2019-20. He got better in all of the aforementioned categories, tying his career-high in goals with 15 and setting new personal records with 60 assists and 75 points in 69 games. The big-bodied blueliner even reduced his number of giveaways. To the surprise of many, he did not win the Norris Trophy, finishing second to Roman Josi.
Reirden managed what might have seemed a little too difficult just a couple of years ago: to help Carlson become an all-around defenseman who can be relied on in all areas of the game. Together, the duo worked on eliminating the holes in Carlson’s game. Specifically, on the way, he shoots the puck, joins the rush, and plays with the puck in the offensive zone.
During the first couple of seasons together Reirden showed his devotion to elevating Carlson’s game by talking to him almost every day, going over a number of clips of different shifts. According to Karl Alzner, Reirden’s ability to identify which player needs to be nurtured and how to do it is what separates him from the pack.
“I thought he was crucial for my career, and just changed kind of a few things how I looked at the game, changed a few things with the D that I think really benefited everyone on D and made it pretty clear what he expected of us and allowed us to go out there and do the rest.”
John Carlson, NHL.com
Even though the Capitals’ undisputed No. 1 blueliner will always be an offensive-minded player, his place among the Capitals’ greatest, thanks to Reirden, is already assured.
A Change in the Penguins‘ Tides?
Letang’s 2019-20 campaign wasn’t the smoothest. Most of his numbers dipped and he registered his worst Corsi and Fenwick season in years. He also only totaled 31 takeaways, half of the previous season’s, and led the team with 80 giveaways – his second-worst career total. Overall, he fell off his game.
Now that Reirden is coming back to where it all began for him at the NHL level, there are certain parallels to be drawn between Carlson and Letang. Both are offensive-minded and right-handed skaters and both are the No. 1 defensemen for their respective teams and, perhaps most importantly, both blossomed under Reirden’s lead.
According to Reirden, he even used similar methods to approach both of the star blueliners. At the very beginning of their relationships, he asked them where they felt they were in the Pantheon of NHL defensemen. “I think the toughest thing for the player is to first evaluate where they really are in the game,” the coach said. (from ‘How the Capitals’ John Carlson became the best defenseman in the NHL,’ The Athletic, 01/09/2020)
And that is what we might expect these two to do together again. To break down Letang’s game, identify the main issues, and then work on eliminating them. All of that according to a well-prepared plan. Thus a coaching change might be the answer to his recent struggles.
“He was really good at being an assistant, a details guy. His real strength was helping individuals get better, and that still brings a little bit of that.
Matt Niskanen, ESPN
Letang and Reirden know what to expect from each other and now have more experience. If the Penguins want to win another Stanley Cup before their window closes, they need Letang where he belongs – at the top of his game among the best blueliners in the NHL.
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