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Is Penguins’ Thin Blue Line About to Get Thinner?

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Pittsburgh Penguins, Jan Rutta

The Pittsburgh Penguins’ franchise defenseman is injured and grieving and apparently won’t resume playing anytime soon.

The guy directly behind him on the depth chart hasn’t played in the past dozen games and still hasn’t gotten medical clearance to resume practicing with his teammates.

And the Penguins’ No. 3 right-side defenseman — at least, that was the niche Jan Rutta filled in those long-ago days when the Penguins’ defense corps was reasonably intact — was excused from practice Thursday, for unspecified reasons. Given a “maintenance day,” in the vernacular.

It’s safe to assume that Kris Letang, who remains with his family in Montreal in the wake of his father’s death late last year, and Jeff Petry, still recovering from the unspecified “upper-body injury” that landed him on the Long-Term Injured list, won’t be in the lineup when the Penguins face Winnipeg Friday at 7:08 p.m. at PPG Paints Arena.

Rutta’s status for the Jets game is far less certain, because a player can have a “maintenance day” for almost anything from sundry bumps and bruises to a minor illness to a multiple-organ transplant.

If Rutta can’t play, his spot in the lineup presumably would be taken by Taylor Fedun, who was recalled from the Penguins’ farm team in Wilkes-Barre today,

Fedun, 34, is experienced and defensively responsible, but asking him to seamlessly take on Rutta’s workload might not be realistic.

With Letang, who has not played since Dec. 28, and Petry out of the mix, Rutta has been manning the right side on the No. 1 pairing, with Marcus Pettersson as his partner.

And while Rutta and Petry are tied for the team lead in goals by a defenseman with three each, Rutta’s primary value is his defensive work, especially on the penalty-klll. He averages two minutes, 44 seconds of shorthanded work per game, just 12 seconds fewer than team leader Brian Dumoulin.

“He’s steady,” Dumoulin said. “He makes simple plays. He plays hard. Ends cycles. Blocks shots. He just does a lot of little things for a team.”

Coincidentally enough, that’s what Fedun has a reputation for providing his team. Although he’s never skated a shift with the Pittsburgh Penguins since joining them as a free agent in the summer of 2021, he has 127 NHL games on his resume, to go with 430 in the American Hockey League.

“I’ve actually played against him a lot over the years, in the minors,” Chad Ruhwedel said. “He’s a sound, steady defenseman. Plays a real steady game. He’s a good skater, too. … I’m sure he’ll fit in just fine here if his number gets called.”

The Penguins often have had to rely on defensemen summoned from Wilkes-Barre to do that in recent years, generally with satisfactory results.

“It’s something we’ve had to do in the past,” Dumoulin said. “I remember that, when I was first coming up, we had three, four, five guys from Wilkes-Barre. It seems like it’s that way every year.”

Because Fedun had yet to arrive, only five defensemen participated in the Penguins’ practice at PPG Paints Arena Thursday. Consequently, it was not clear how their defense pairings might be configured against Winnipeg if Rutta isn’t in uniform.

Sullivan sounded as if he’d be reluctant to tamper with the Ty Smith-Dumoulin tandem — “It’s been a good pair for us,” he said — but if Ruhwedel and Fedun are the only right-shot defensemen available to play, he might have to reconsider.

The long-term solution, of course, is to get Letang and Petry (and, if necessary, Rutta) back, but it’s hard to predict when that might happen.

Petry has been skating, but has yet to practice, and there’s no way to know how much of Letang’s continued absence is due to his injury and how much can be attributed to family issues surrounding his father’s death, let alone when he can be expected back in uniform.

“I can’t give you a definitive answer on when Kris is going to return to the team,” Sullivan said. “He’s obviously going through a difficult circumstance right now and we’re all trying to offer him the space that’s necessary, but also be supportive.”

So the only thing that’s certain is that the Pittsburgh Penguins again will be without their top two right-handed defensemen when they take on the Jets. And there’s no guarantee their No. 3 will be playing, either.

“We’ve got some big-minute guys who aren’t in the lineup,” Sullivan said. “And we’re looking for guys to step up and help us.”

Perhaps including one who wasn’t on the major-league payroll 24 hours ago.