After his Penguins teammates cleared the ice following last Friday's practice, the NHL's most improved player remained, rejecting a pass he received on the tape of his stick. "No good," Kris Letang told Todd Reirden, the assistant coach who oversees Pittsburgh's defense. "Too perfect." Reirden made sure the next hundred or so passes were bouncing, rolling, at Letang's skates or too far behind him. "Kris never stops working or learning," Reirden says. An hour later Letang, 23, gazed at a video screen, watching each of his shifts from the previous game and also separate clips of Nicklas Lidstrom to see how the Red Wings' star backliner handled an oncoming forecheck. "He's a great example," Letang says. "Eyes everywhere."
For the Penguins, Letang's ascent has been perfectly timed. Since Pittsburgh let four-time All-Star Sergei Gonchar escape via free agency last summer, Letang has thrived as the anchor of the club's top defensive pair (along with Brooks Orpik) and the quarterback of the power play. His stepped-up performance has been crucial in the absence of Sidney Crosby, who has been out since Jan. 5 with a concussion. The Pens lost their first three games without their captain but won their next two, in which Letang had three points. The league's fans have rewarded him by giving him the most All-Star votes of any NHL defenseman.
"He's a guy I tell my kid to watch all the time," says Hall of Fame blueliner Paul Coffey. "He's strong, smart, tough. He can shoot the puck. He doesn't look big, but he's strong on his feet and he's very heads-up." Through Saturday, Letang led all NHL defensemen with 33 assists, his +21 rating is third best in the league and he is, along with Orpik, one of the reasons the Penguins lead the NHL in penalty killing, at 87.6%.
Says Reirden, "Last year, he'd settle the puck, blast away, miss the net, get shots blocked. Now he moves his feet to find a lane before the puck arrives and one-times it more accurately."
Another reason for Letang's improved play is that the congenital migraines he suffered as a teen have subsided. "When I had them," he recalls, "I couldn't see the puck or guys coming to hit me." He experienced only mild discomfort during the off-season, but a throbbing pain often flared up throughout the winter. Letang would take injections that made him nauseated. If he threw up, he had to scramble to try to rehydrate before skating. Amazingly, he's never missed an NHL game with a migraine. "I was dying to play, so I didn't complain about headaches," he says.
Letang began taking a new medication last year but still had one bad episode before opening night when he ran out of pills. Afraid to drive home, he slept at the rink after the morning skate. "I need the room completely dark," he says. "Otherwise when I wake up, it's like someone is pressing on my eyeball and I see blurry colors that move around." He still undergoes brain scans twice a year.
These days, with his condition controlled and his game on the rise, Letang is the one giving headaches to the rest of the league.
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FRED VUICH (LETANG)
HEADY PLAY With his migraines under control, Letang has become one of the NHL's most efficient defensemen.