Jan Rutta quickly emerges as one of Blackhawks’ top defensemen

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Jan Rutta (right) celebrates his goal with teammates John Hayden and Jonathan Toews last Monday in Toronto. (AP Photo)

It takes a little less than six hours for a bus to wind its way through the Czech countryside from Chomutov on the German border to Trinec, nestled out east near Poland and Slovakia. It’s a crushingly boring drive, passing by Prague and Brno and not much else along the way.

Jan Rutta made that trek, and many others like it, twice a year for the last five years as a player in the Czech Extraliga. A six-game playoff series between Rutta’s Pirati Chomutov squad and Trinec in 2016 was particularly brutal.

So the first time he stepped onto the tarmac at O’Hare and walked up the stairs of the Blackhawks’ posh charter plane — all first-class seats and restaurant-quality meals — for a preseason game, Rutta couldn’t help but smile.

“It’s pretty sweet,” he said. “The food’s pretty good, too. I mean, it’s not like we don’t have good food in the Czech Republic, but eating good food on a good plane? Yeah, it’s really nice.”

That Rutta will be on that plane again Tuesday afternoon to fly to St. Louis is still pretty remarkable. When the Hawks signed him as a free agent in June, there was a logical progression his career would take. He’d need to spend some time in the American Hockey League to adapt to the smaller rinks in North America. Jumping from what is probably the sixth-best league in the world to the NHL would take time, and he’d need to learn how to play against bigger, faster, more skilled players. Maybe he’d eventually crack the lineup as a rotation guy, playing every now and then as he got his feet wet.

Heck, at 27, he was hardly a guarantee to ever play in the NHL at all.

Yet six games into the season, Rutta is arguably the Hawks’ No. 2 defenseman, behind only two-time Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith. He had two goals and two assists in the first four games, he’s getting major minutes on the penalty kill and he has spent time on the second power-play unit. Most impressively, he has won over the notoriously demanding Joel Quenneville, who raves about Rutta every chance he gets.

“He’s been really good,” Quenneville said. “I don’t know if we were expecting that level of play. It’s been fun watching him play. His gap is tremendous, and his thinking process out there complements the gap. Puck movement, reliability, dependability — he’s been excellent.”

Rutta might be the only guy who isn’t surprised by his instant success.

“I mean, I don’t know what to tell you,” he said with a smile and a shrug. “I came here, and I really believed in myself, that I could be a part of this team. It’s definitely really nice, but I’m not really sure if it’s a surprise.”

Connor Murphy was supposed to be the Hawks’ de facto No. 2 defenseman after being traded for Niklas Hjalmarsson. But Murphy has been a healthy scratch in two of the last three games. Cody Franson (signed well after Rutta) was supposed to be the Hawks’ third right-handed shot behind Murphy and Brent Seabrook, but Franson only has played in two games, despite playing well in both.

It’s all Rutta’s fault. His quick rise has clogged up the right side of the defense, turning the Hawks’ biggest question mark into a position of relative strength. So he can go ahead and get used to the first-class travel arrangement. The bus appears to be in his rearview mirror for good.

“When [Franson] came in, it was definitely a challenge,” Rutta said. “But I think you can elevate yourself and your play if you take the challenge the right way. I think that’s what we all did, and we’re all playing good. [Franson’s] a great guy, and he’s been around the league a lot of years, so he helps me a lot. It’s a good situation.”

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

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