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Penguins must prepare for Letang's absence

| Friday, Feb. 7, 2014, 12:03 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins defenseman Kris Letang Letang was diagnosed with a small hole between his heart’s upper chambers, the team said. The Penguins on Friday announced that Letang suffered a stroke, perhaps as early as Jan. 30.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Kris Letang plays against the Canadiens on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014, at Consol Energy Center.

Kris Letang will miss at least six weeks because of a stroke. His condition is treatable by blood thinners and not believed to be career threatening, the Penguins said Friday.

Letang, per club policy on injured or ill players, was not available for comment.

No longer fearing a grave illness — a concern within the organization and Letang's camp last weekend — the Penguins must prepare for the short- and long-term ramifications of his absence.

Letang will not be re-evaluated for at least six weeks. Management is expects Letang will return before next season. How he recovers could impact the Penguins this season and beyond given his standing as their top defenseman.

Short term

Letang, 26, is the only defenseman among the current top four in minutes played who is younger than 32. Rob Scuderi, 35, is the oldest. Paul Martin, 32, and Brooks Orpik, 33, are scheduled to play in the upcoming Winter Olympics.

Coaches planned to have rookie Olli Maatta, 19, and Matt Niskanen, the NHL leader with a plus-28 rating, form a third paring. Niskanen is the logical candidate to move into the top four, but coaches believe he is best suited to play about 20 minutes.

Letang was second among defensemen at 24 minutes, 13 seconds of average ice time.

Shero could add a veteran defenseman before the trade deadline (3 p.m. March 5), but the Penguins are not blessed with a lot of salary-cap space, and they have other needs:

• Pascal Dupuis, the regular top-line right winger, likely is out for the season. He is scheduled for right ACL surgery Feb. 12.

• Center Brandon Sutter has played with 14 wingers on the third line, which had produced 14 goals before Friday.

The Penguins are deep with young defensemen at the prospect level. Shero has moved a defenseman — a prospect or from the NHL level — to land a winger at or before the trade deadline in five of seven previous seasons.

Simon Despres, a 2009 first-round pick, has spent most of this season in the AHL. Listed at 6-foot-4 and 214 pounds, he projects by club scouts as a top-four defenseman with shutdown and puck-moving attributes.

Despres, 22, had emerged as the Penguins' top bargaining chip, but he also is the defensive prospect best prepared to assume a top-six role because he has played in 69 regular-season and six playoff games in the NHL.

Near term

Letang signed a new contract last summer that will make him the Penguins' third highest-paid player behind centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin starting next season. Letang's annual salary-cap hit will increase from $3.5 million to $7.25 million, and the deal contains a clause that allows him to identify 15 teams to which he would accept a trade.

It is likely, though not confirmed, the Penguins have insurance on Letang's next contract as clubs often try to protect themselves with policies on their six highest-paid players.

Teams were given two compliance buyouts to use upon the league's return from a lockout last season. The Penguins have not used either of their buyouts, which are available only before the start of next season.

Coaches viewed Letang and Maatta as their top defense pairing beginning next season. Management believed Letang — a Norris Trophy finalist last season — could mentor a defense corps that was going to get younger starting next season.

Orpik, Niskanen and Deryk Engelland are impending unrestricted free agents, and Martin will be in the final year of his contract next season.

Shero's resistance to entertaining trade offers for Letang in recent weeks was a signal that Letang remains part of the big plan. Letang would be easiest to move before July 1, when his limited-trade clause kicks in.

Long term

Letang, an elite skater and passer, is a great fit for Bylsma's system, which favors quick puck movement among defensemen. Even during a down season, he had scored 10 goals in 34 games.

The Penguins believe he is maturing — albeit slower this season in a defensive system that favors neutral-zone congestion — into a top-level, two-way defenseman.

He has missed at least 13 games each of the past three seasons, and his injuries have included various lower-body issues, concussions and an infected elbow that required a medical procedure.

Add the stroke, and Letang's health is becoming a concern.

When healthy, though, the Penguins view him as a building-block defenseman with nearly unrivaled offensive skill.

A young father and soon-to-be-husband, Letang already has overcome the death of his best friend, late Vancouver defensemen Luc Bourdon, who died in a motorcycle crash during the 2008 Stanley Cup Final

“You can't take anything in life for granted,” Letang once said. “But you have to be strong to get through the hard times.”

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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