NHL

Looks like Kris Letang is back tonight

It looks like the Penguins are getting their best defenseman back. Kris Letang was in full swing with the morning skate, skating the top pair and also working the first power play.

After the skate, Letang said he still need to talk to doctors and trainers to get the final plan to play tonight’s set, but also that his body feels like it’s a turn after being out since Dec. 28 with an undisclosed lower-body injury.

The power play is perhaps the area where Letang’s return is most noticeable. That group ranks 30th in the NHL since the defenseman left the lineup, converting just 12.8% of their chances (six-of-47) since Letang has been out. The Penguins’ power play ranked 10th in the NHL and was nearly twice as efficient (24.4%) from the start of the season through Letang’s injury.

Another area of ​​note is that Letang is paired again with frequent partner Brian Dumoulin. Dumoulin has struggled mightily this season, but as the narrative goes, he’s found a little bit of footing and improved play in recent weeks, working mostly with Ty Smith.

And as Money Puck shows, for expected goal output this season, the way the Penguins set up their defense pairings is about as optimal as it gets.

If you’re going to put Dumoulin somewhere in the lineup in 2023, using him with Letang is probably the best bet, based on the players who will be in the lineup.

The good news is that move triggers a positive consequence – it frees up Pittsburgh to keep the very successful Marcus Pettersson – Jeff Petry combination together. Pettersson and Letang have either been kept apart or rarely found much chemistry and success when playing together, but Pettersson has performed very well with Petry. It’s positive for the team to see them stick together, from what they’ve done so far, they can be a 1B/2A type pair that plays a lot of minutes and produces excellent results.

Of lesser importance, this setup also keeps the highly screened but also effective PO Joseph and Chad Ruhwedel duo intact to play as a third pair. Based on their results, they can also be counted on to do exactly what the team wants and needs with limited usage.

The big key will be if Dumoulin can hold up his end of the bargain and not make costly defensive mistakes in his own zone. If he can, this personnel usage will work very well. If Dumoulin struggles, the team will likely have to adjust.

There are also considerations about the salary cap, which must also be addressed by Letang’s return. Letang is currently on long-term injured reserve, allowing the Pens to spend his full salary on replacement players. That easiest and most simple move would be to change one of Jan Rutta’s or Kasperi Kapanen’s status to the long-term IR to have room to activate Letang for tonight’s game and also keep the rest of the roster as it is right now.

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