Pittsburgh Penguins: Kris Letang, Concussions, and Accountability


Kris Letang is the best defenseman on the Pittsburgh Penguins. He also gets injured (sometimes severely) fairly often. What can the Penguins do to protect one of their core players

It’s become a familiar refrain for Pittsburgh Penguins fans to hear: “Bad hit on Kris Letang, he’s down on the ice; he’s heading down the tunnel.”

This calendar year has been especially unlucky for Letang. In the prior season, Zac Rinaldo almost murdered him and proceeded to joke about it in January, then he suffered a season- ending concussion in March.

This season, Letang missed two games with an undisclosed injury, returned in Colorado and was promptly injured again. He then missed several more games with an upper-body injury, returned against the Minnesota Wild, missed the next game in Winnipeg, and has taken serious hits in nearly every game since. Most of those hits are up high or into the boards. 

“Yeah, I changed the whole game, man. Who knows what the game would have been like if I didn’t do what I did?” – Zac Rinaldo about his dangerous hit on Letang

When and how is this going to stop? Is it going to stop?

Letang is one of the core players for the Penguins’ franchise, their best defenseman, and a talented offensive presence who eats up major ice time and powerplay minutes. His success is shared with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and when those three are all in sync, the Penguins are a force to be reckoned with.

Malkin is undoubtedly the most physical of the three, with the biggest body and his fierce “Russian bear” personality. Most teams have come to understand that if they do poke the bear, they’ll meet the claws. Geno is not a target.

Crosby is, though. He’s improved with age, like a fine wine, and has been far more willing in recent seasons to fight back against those who try to take advantage of his old “whiner” reputation. He’s always been targeted because of his skill and he’s used to it. Hopefully his streak of bad injuries has run its course and nothing else major will happen to him.

Letang is targted as well. Is he intentionally targeted, like a poor kid in middle school with a “kick me” sign on his back? Is he somehow just unaware enough to move out of the way of the players who intend to check him? It’s probably a combination of these things, realistically, but it has to end.

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Many Pens fans claim at varying levels of seriousness that CONSOL Energy Center is cursed. That’s probably ridiculous, but the poor Penguins have had more than their share of serious injuries in the past few years, including strokes, blood clots, broken bones, and concussions galore.

On the bright side, our concussed players have immediate access to one of the leading brain trauma centers in the nation at The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC). Head injuries are serious, serious business – and I would know. I’ve had four documented concussions and probably four more that went undiagnosed.

Recent studies have shown how much damage can happen in an athlete’s brain, particularly in regards to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

From hard-hitting physical sports like football and hockey to contact-free sports like equestrian or baseball, the helmets are often insufficient to protect the brain fully. CTE can change personalities drastically, predisposing people to addictions and depression. Many athletes who suffered serious brain damage during their careers committed suicide, including but not limited to Junior Seau, Rick Rypien, and Wade Belak.

This cannot happen anymore.

The league has taken steps to stop targeting of players’ heads, but it still happens. Guys know that the most that will happen for a dirty hit to the head is a few games and a few thousand dollars, so they still do it. Jarret Stoll’s hit on Letang just weeks ago knocked him out of that game and the next, but Stoll didn’t even get a penalty for it, let alone any discipline from the league.

Oct 17, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang (top) is tripped by Toronto Maple Leafs right wing P.A. Parenteau (15) during the third period at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Penguins won 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 17, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang (top) is tripped by Toronto Maple Leafs right wing P.A. Parenteau (15) during the third period at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Penguins won 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

So, while league intervention seems like the most ideal solution, the measures they’ve taken so far are clearly ineffective and there truthfully may not be much more they can do.

The inter-sports emphasis on keeping your head up while playing, especially from a very young age, can certainly help, but it will take a while for that generation to fully phase into pro leagues. Of course, if most of Letang’s problem is just being unaware while he has the puck, he may as well give this a shot too.

Let’s pretend that funding isn’t an issue for a second and imagine that UPMC might be able to develop helmets that are better at protecting the brains inside them. Major League Baseball is apparently attempting to develop technology that would allow baseball hats to be lined with Kevlar and increase protection.

Anti-concussion collars are in development, as well.

That doesn’t solve the league problem, though. While these technological advances are awesome and will surely eliminate many concussions down the road, they can’t change the attitude of players.

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There is one last solution, but it only exacerbates the problem down the road. The Penguins trade for an enforcer. Not a goon – please, keep Rinaldo and anyone like him far, far away from this team – but a physical fourth-line guy who will stand up for his teammates and can occasionally chip in offensively.

How about Tom Wilson? Brandon Bollig? Antoine Roussel? They’re all gifted pugilists, but Roussel has a wicked shot and Wilson’s having a career season (not that that’s saying much, but still…).

There is really no one on the Penguins now who can serve that role. We have scoring depth and I love it, but the most physicality we ever have now is from either Geno or Patric Hornqvist. I mean, even Bobby Farnham was more effective.

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That doesn’t fix the attitude problem in the league. That doesn’t fix the prevalent issue of targeting the stars. That doesn’t fix the overwhelming problem of head injuries in sports.

Ideally, the Penguins could find some sweet spot between physicality and accountability and scoring. If the league can’t protect its stars, someone on the team is going to have to step up and do it themselves.