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Shameless Trade Speculation: What would it take to get Kris Letang to the Leafs?

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Dreaming is fun!

Columbus Blue Jackets v Pittsburgh Penguins

If you’ve been in holiday mode and spending time with friends and family rather than steeping your brain in NHL trade gossip, you might have missed a particularly juicy morsel from a surprisingly reputable source: Elliotte Friedman mentioned that Kris Letang’s name had “surfaced” in trade talks. Nick Kypreos said something similar. There have been subsequent denials by other sources, but we’re going to ignore those because a) maybe they’re a smokescreen and b) that would ruin our fun.

I’ll emphasize off the top that I don’t think the Penguins are going to, or should, trade Kris Letang; and if they do, they will have plenty of suitors. Still, let’s try and speculate in a moderately responsible fashion and figure out the dimensions here.

Who is Kris Letang?

Kris is a right-shooting defenceman for the Pittsburgh Penguins. He is currently 30 years old (31 in April.) He’s listed at 6’0” and 201 lbs. He is very good.

Letang produces a ton of points; over the last eight seasons, among defencemen who have played at least five games, he’s second only to Erik Karlsson in points per game. While plenty of that is that he’s an extremely talented powerplay defender, he also consistently produces at 5v5, routinely finishing in the top 20 among defencemen in that regard and sometimes better. Of course, the easy rebuttal to that is that he plays on a team that has Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and more recently, Phil Kessel on it. That’ll help your point totals.

Still, Letang produces very good shot differentials and rates out nicely by expected goals. Over the last three years, amongst defencemen who have played 100+ games, Letang ranks 12th in the NHL; ditto expected goals. He plays against top lines a fair bit and has done work on the Pittsburgh PK. Letang is an exceedingly mobile defenceman, even now, and will do your defence proud. He is a 1D by any reasonable definition of the term, even once you discount the Pittsburgh bonus.

As with pretty much everyone on Pittsburgh besides Phil Kessel, though, he has a rough injury history. Letang has missed 110 regular season games since the start of 2013-14, and he was absent for the entirety of last year’s Cup run. His injury woes are listed in this article dating from last January, and hoo boy, they are something. Concussions, broken bones, a stroke—Letang has had a brutal time of it, and any team acquiring him is going to have to think long and hard about that issue. For what it’s worth, Letang has made it into 37 of Pittsburgh’s 40 games this season (at time of writing), but is currently out with a lower-body injury.

Letang is signed for the remainder of this season and for four more after it at $7.25M per year. He has the third-highest cap hit on Pittsburgh (though Phil Kessel’s would be higher if the Leafs hadn’t retained salary on him.) He’s a big ticket.

Why would Pittsburgh want to trade him?

They probably shouldn’t, and they probably don’t. But if they do:

  1. The team won the Stanley Cup without Letang last season, using a defence headlined by Justin Schultz. Letang might be Pittsburgh’s best option to add some scoring depth around its three big forwards, and Pittsburgh is definitely in win-now mode.
  2. Letang’s injury history is disconcerting enough that it may outweigh his considerable benefits. There is a chance that Kris Letang’s contract is going to become an albatross, given it takes him through his age-34 season.
  3. Letang’s boxcars look bad this year, with a glaring -15 jumping out especially. If you’re a veteran hockey nerd, you may wonder “has he suffered a brutal slump in on-ice shooting and save percentages?” And indeed he has. Letang’s PDO is in the toilet, while his underlying stats still look pretty good. I don’t know to what degree this would play a role in Jim Rutherford’s thinking.

All of this said, the Penguins would be giving away their best defenceman from a team that is not deep at that position, and that is a risky proposition. He’s a good piece of their team. As the good bloggers over at Pensburgh put it, “The Penguins won’t get better by trading Kris Letang.” And I suspect the Pens know that, and this is probably hot air.

Why would the Leafs want to acquire him?

We’ve said it to death, but the Leafs’ big weakness is at right defence. I wouldn’t quite say they’re set at every other position, but it is quite possible that in three years the top nine forwards, the top LDs, and the starting goalie will all be names that are already in the organization today. At RD, though, there’s been a carousel of Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Carrick, Martin Marincin, and Roman Polak, which has been a mixed bag, to put it delicately.

Bona fide 1Ds don’t come available very often, because teams generally want to keep those players. It is entirely possible that no RD better than Kris Letang will hit free agency or the trade market in the next five years (though plenty of us are holding out hopes for Drew Doughty, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, or even Erik Karlsson.) If Letang is on the market at all, the Leafs pretty much have to at least kick the tires on him.

What would a trade look like?

Again, Kris Letang probably isn’t on the market. But let’s try to investigate what it would look like if he were.

Let’s assume the Penguins are leery of Letang’s injury history, they want to free up some cap space, and they think they can win this year without him because that’s what they did in 2017.

In exchange for Letang, then, they want scoring depth. Ideally, they want a 3C; Pittsburgh was playing Greg McKegg (!) there earlier this year, and the addition of Riley Sheahan to fill the hole is at best a partial solution. And again, they want to win the Cup this year.

This makes Letang an odd trade candidate, though. It’s a rare team that is in a position to give up a productive middle-six centre, but that is also can take on a considerable cap hit and is itself trying to win in the near future. In other words, the ideal return for Pittsburgh would come from dealing with a team that was competitive, deep at forward, and shallow on defence. Hmm.

There are a few teams that meet those criteria, but only one of them has a centre that scored 55 points last year that they can likely spare. As much as it’s eyeroll-inducing to include Tyler Bozak in trade speculation for the eightieth time, the fact is he would be the start of a useful offensive third line for the Penguins and, if it comes down to it, he has pretty extensive experience playing with Phil Kessel. One hopes that their CF% would be a lot better this time around, now that they’re free of Randy Carlyle.

Obviously Tyler Bozak alone is not in the remotest sense adequate to trade for Kris Letang. James van Riemsdyk is also on an expiring deal, though, and he’s a first-line calibre LW. If the Pens were to add both Bozak and JVR, they would be back to having the best forward depth in the NHL.

For this to be the basis of a deal—my guess is it would be Bozak + JVR + other asset—the Pens would have to really want to gain financial flexibility this summer; Bozak and JVR are expiring, which would raise some risk that the Pens wind up without much to show for this deal in six months, except another $7.25M in cap room to retool their team for the next stage in the Pittsburgh reign of terror. If the Pens are more concerned with securing assets with term, they either want an extension simultaneous with the trade or they don’t make the trade. And if the Pens want assets with term, the Leafs don’t have anything to offer them except Nazem Kadri, which is a complete non-starter for the Leafs.

Where would that leave Toronto?

If somehow this deal were to happen, the Leafs have basically committed to this group as their Cup-winning group. Letang has to be the final piece, and William Nylander has to slot in as 3C, likely, because cap concerns are going to preclude other acquisitions in the near future. This would be an aggressive, win-now move, without question, and if Letang were to be too injured to be useful, it could blow up bad.

At the same time, a top four of Rielly-Letang and Gardiner - xx (probably Zaitsev to start, but who knows longer-term) would be the best top four the Leafs have had since Tomas Kaberle left; pair that with the best centre trio they’ve had in ages, Matthews/Kadri/Nylander, and you may well be looking at a legitimate Cup team. In the best-case scenario, this would be the Leafs’ equivalent to the Hawks adding Marian Hossa; the big move to add a key veteran to the blossoming core that puts the team over the top.

But Pittsburgh probably isn’t going to trade him. Probably.

Poll

Would you trade James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, and a first for Kris Letang?

This poll is closed

  • 39%
    Yes
    (1257 votes)
  • 60%
    No
    (1966 votes)
3223 votes total Vote Now