Alex Goligoski was traded to Dallas for many reasons, but Penguins general manager Ray Shero was able to orchestrate the move because of one man -- Kris Letang.

Letang has escalated his game this season from quality to something approaching stardom.

As his game blossomed, so did Shero's ability to maneuver.

"Certainly he's taken another step," Shero said after the Goligoski deal. "He was not at the level he is now."

Letang, a Norris Trophy candidate, has matured in all facets of his game. At 23, he has become a Penguins building block, joining Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Marc-Andre Fleury. His combination of dominant play in the offensive and defensive zones, thanks largely to his dynamic skating, is rare in the NHL.

Those who have observed Letang for years -- and others who had barely seen him play until this season -- are taken aback by his performance.

"But I'm not surprised," Penguins defenseman Ben Lovejoy said. "I played with Kris briefly at Wilkes-Barre, and you could just tell he was on another level."

Defenseman Zbynek Michalek only now is fully appreciating Letang's all-around game.

"I really didn't know too much about him before coming here," said Michalek, who signed with the Penguins after spending most of his career with Phoenix. "Now that I see him every day, I see what a great player he is. He's at the top of the league in defensive scoring for a reason."

Letang's 46 points in 64 games are tied for third among NHL defensemen. That despite playing so many games without Crosby and Malkin.

Washington coach Bruce Boudreau, generally not a Penguins fan, was complimentary after the Capitals' 1-0 win at Consol Energy Center hours after the Goligoski trade. Despite so many injured Penguins out of the lineup, Boudreau was impressed at how Letang's game has evolved.

"I thought that was the best game I've seen him play, ever," Boudreau said. "He did everything, rush the puck, held us in check, made great outlet passes. You can see his coming of age, and that offers a luxury of you being able to do other things."