If Letang’s out, hole he’ll leave is large


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Kris Letang. -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

NEWARK, N.J. -- Kris Letang leads the Penguins in average ice time, precisely 25 minutes per game.

He's third on the team in scoring with 12 points, nearly twice as many as any other defenseman.

He's a fixture on the power play and the penalty-kill and frequently is deployed against opponents' top lines.

OK, other than that, he really doesn't mean much to this team.

Oh, except for the part where he's also an alternate captain and one of the few players who was part of the franchise's three most recent Stanley Cups.

So, yeah, if Letang, who left the Penguins' 6-4 loss in Boston Monday because of an unspecified "lower-body" injury, is unable to play when they face the Islanders Thursday at 7:08 p.m. at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, his absence probably won't go unnoticed.

The real question is, where will he be missed the most?

There is no shortage of possibilities.

For while Letang is capable of some glaring gaffes at times -- his giveaway to Jake DeBrusk triggered a sequence that culminated in the Bruins' first goal Monday, for example -- he is the undisputed linchpin of their defense corps.

"I don't think you can pick one part," Justin Schultz said. "He does everything well."

Letang did not participate in the Penguins' half-hour workout today at the the New Jersey Devils' practice facility, which is adjacent to the Prudential Center, in Newark, N.J.

Mike Sullivan said Letang is "continuing to be evaluated" and did not offer an update on his status.

A few minutes earlier, Letang had walked through the Penguins' locker room with no apparent difficulty and did not appear to be wearing any sort of wrap, sleeve or brace.

One of the issues Sullivan and his staff will face if Letang can't play on Thursday will be whether to reconfigure their defensive pairings or simply to plug Chad Ruhwedel or Juuso Riikola into Letang's spot alongside Brian Dumoulin.

"I'm not sure," Sullivan said. "That's something we're discussing right now, in the event that (Letang is scratched.)"

If he has any particular inclination about which option to exercise, it didn't show during the practice because Dumoulin didn't take part, either. His wife gave birth to the couple's first child earlier this week, and Dumoulin returned to Pittsburgh to be with them.

Consequently, the other two pairings the Penguins have been using of late -- Marcus Pettersson-Schultz and Jack Johnson-John Marino -- remained intact, while depth defensemen Juuso Riikola and Chad Ruhwedel made up a third pairing.

Riikola probably is a notch ahead of Ruhwedel on the depth chart, but Ruhwedel, like Letang, shoots right-handed, a factor that could work in his favor when the lineup is being constructed.

"If called upon, I'll be ready to go," said Ruhwedel, who has not been in a game this season.

For their part, the guys who make up the Nos. 2 and 3 pairings don't seem to have a preference for whether Sullivan just plugs a replacement into Letang's spot or overhauls the makeup of all the pairings.

"Whatever ends up happening, I think we'll be OK with," Marino said.

Although the current pairings have been functioning effectively in recent weeks, Johnson noted that stability in partnerships on the blue line isn't especially common in today's NHL.

"I think I've only had one season where I played with the same guy the whole year," he said. "I think it's always a luxury when you can get set pairings, but I'm more accustomed to having the pairings be shuffled around."

Regardless of the solution the coaching staff settles on, however, Letang's absence will be felt throughout the game if he is unable to play.

"Good players are always missed in every situation," Johnson said, "so I don't think there's one situation where he wouldn't be missed."

Also today:

Evgeni Malkin was given a "maintenance day" and did not practice. Because Malkin is one of just 12 healthy forwards on the major-league roster, assistant coach Mark Recchi -- who got into the Hockey Hall of Fame for his work as a right winger -- filled in between Alex Galchenyuk and Bryan Rust on the No. 2 line when the unit was together for drills. "If he works on his footspeed a little bit, I think he'll be right back in the game," Rust said, fighting to suppress a chuckle. Sullivan offered a somewhat different take: "(Recchi) was a pretty cerebral guy. I think that's why he played until he was 50."

• Sullivan praised the performance of the fourth line, which has Teddy Blueger between Zach Aston-Reese and Brandon Tanev. "Since we put that line together, we think that line has played consistently well, at both ends of the ice," Sullivan said. "They've chipped in on the offense, they're hard to play against. We put them in defensive circumstances all the time, and they've embraced that role and done a real good job at it."

• In addition to the Galchenyuk-Recchi-Rust line, the Penguins used these personnel combinations during practice:

Jake Guentzel -- Sidney Crosby -- Dominik Simon
Jared McCann -- Nick Bjugstad -- Dominik Kahun
Zach Aston-Reese -- Teddy Blueger -- Brandon Tanev

Marcus Pettersson -- Justin Schultz
Jack Johnson -- John Marino
Juuso Riikola -- Chad Ruhwedel

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