In the first two full seasons of Kris Letang's NHL career, he was primarily teamed with veteran Mark Eaton as a defensive partner. That grouping played a significant role in helping the team advance to Stanley Cup Finals in 2008 and 2009 (above, with Marc-Andre Fleury and Detroit's Tomas Holmstrom).
Eaton left the team as a free agent in 2010. Since then, Letang worked with a variety of partners such as Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin, Matt Niskanen and others to varying levels of success.
The penguins brought Eaton back as a free agent last month. After a handful of practices and a few games on the team's bottom defensive pairing, the coaching staff has reunited the offensively-gifted Letang with the defensive-minded Eaton the past two games, a convincing 6-1 rout of the Islanders Sunday and last night's thrilling 3-2 comeback victory against the Bruins.
Recently, Letang and Eaton talked about their reunion.
Is there anything different in playing with Eaton now compared to earlier in your career?
"He’s got the same style. He can play both ends of the ice. He can skate with the puck. He’s really good defensively. Really reliable. Sometime you’ll see him jump in the play and skate with the puck. I think it’s the same. He’s an experienced player. It’s been good playing with him."
What's it like being a player who takes offensive chances having a partner who tends to stay at home behind the play?
"It’s always good to have that on your mind that you have somebody that’s going to back you up and make good decisions. I played last year with [Brooks Orpik]. I knew ‘Brooksy’ would be back all the time and making sure he could back me up. It’s always good when you want to be a guy that jumps in the play and brings some offense to have a partner that is really reliable."
What's different for you playing with him compared to earlier in your career?
"I think I changed a lot. He’s got more experience. He’s a veteran guy that makes good decisions on the ice with the puck. Without the puck, he’s a great defensive player. He blocks shots."
That comfort level is still there?
"Yeah. Really comfortable. I know I can make a play and not worry [with him]."
What's it like playing with Letang again?
"The familiarity is there. We played together a lot three or four years ago. The way things go with the special teams, you kind of play with everybody anyways. From one guy to the next, we all know the systems pretty well. It’s not too much of a change. But obviously, he’s an easy guy to play with. He moves the puck so well. Such a good skater. So strong in his own zone. Obviously a joy for me."
What's different with Letang now compared to his first few seasons in the NHL?
"Definitely more mature. That comes with the experience. He could always skate. He always had a great shot. He was always skilled. He was always pretty strong defensively too. The more experience you get, the stronger you get in your own zone."
What's it like being a stay-at-home defender playing with a partner who likes to take chances?
"Nothing changes for me regardless of who I play with. I’m always going to be back there as a safety valve. If you see him jumping in, you just make sure you’re staying back and not jumping in as well. I’m not going to try and race him up the ice."
Is there anything different to his physcial game compared to his first few seasons?
"I think he was just as physical. Now, the experience and maturity of knowing when you can go for a big hit or contain a guy … he’s figured that out. It’s just another dimension to his game."
(Photos: First-Jim McIsaac/Getty Images; Second-Claus Andersen/Getty Images; Third-Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)