Evgeni Malkin's season-ending knee injury in 2011.
Of all of the oft-repeated cliches in sports, few carry the same feeling of disappointment as the phrase "what might have been."
While Pittsburgh Penguins teams of both the past and present have been blessed with great players, that nagging feeling still surrounds some of the most promising and talented players to ever wear the Penguins uniform. With this in mind, I present my list of the five most injury-prone players in team history.
Gary Roberts in the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals
Although he arrived in Pittsburgh late in his career, Gary Roberts makes the Honorable Mention list by virtue of his immediate and long lasting impact with the Penguins despite missing most of the 2007-08 season.
Acquired from the Florida Panthers in exchange for defenceman Noah Welch in 2007, Roberts brought much needed veteran leadership and grit to a team long on talent but short on playoff experience. After suffering a broken leg in December of 2007 against the Buffalo Sabres, he missed more than half the season but returned in time for the playoffs where he became the oldest player in NHL history to record a multi-goal playoff game against the Ottawa Senators.
Although his relatively short stay in Pittsburgh ended in the summer of 2008, Roberts holds a special place in the hearts of Penguins' fans who are left to wonder what Roberts would have done were it not for a broken leg.
Perhaps one of the most infamous players in Penguins' history, Alek Stojanov will always be remembered not only as a bust due to injuries but also as part of one of the most lopsided trades in NHL history.
Acquired by the Penguins during the 1995-96 season from Vancouver in exchange for a struggling winger named Markus Naslund, Stojanov was envisioned by GM Craig Patrick to be the heir apparent to Kevin Stevens and the next great power forward to play alongside Mario Lemieux. Wearing Stevens' old No. 25, he scored in his first game but fell victim to nagging injuries and was seriously injured in a car crash and never again displayed the talent that made him the seventh overall pick in the 1991 NHL Entry Draft.
While Markus Naslund would go on to become of the most accomplished and beloved players in Vancouver Canucks' history, Stojanov was sent down to the minors in 1998 and would never make it back to the NHL.
Kris Letang in action
Since his arrival in Pittsburgh, Kris Letang has been proven to be not only of the best young defencemen in the NHL but also one of the most injury prone.
Although he routinely averages over 25 minutes per game and is consistently among the top point producers among NHL, he's currently listed on the injury report, has missed at least eight games due to injury in all but one of the past six seasons. With 28 points in 28 games this season, Letang is an indispensible member of the Penguins and a Norris Trophy candidate.
Although the Penguins may someday lose him due to salary-cap constraints, they can not afford to lose him due to injuries if they have any hope of once again winning the Stanley Cup.
Kevin Stevens with the 1992-1993 Penguins
Perhaps no player in Penguins history has had his career impacted the most by a single injury as Kevin Stevens.
Weighing in at 6'3" and 230 pounds and possessing great hands and a mean streak, Stevens was the prototypical NHL power forward who twice topped the 50-goal plateau with the Penguins. After a horrific collision during a playoff game with the New York Islanders which required him to undergo extensive facial reconstructive surgery, Stevens was never the same player and spent the next five seasons bouncing around the league.
Although Stevens did show flashes of talent when he returned to the Penguins in 2001 and still ranks fifth among goal scorers in team history, Penguins fans are left to wonder where he might rank among Penguins greats were it not for a career-altering injury.
Joe Mullen with the 1992-1993 Penguins.
Acquired from the Calgary Flames for just a second-round draft pick in 1990, Joe Mullen proved to be one of the missing pieces to the Penguins' championship puzzle as a member of the 1991 and 1992 Stanley Cup Champions.
Although he endured two serious knee injuries and chronic neck pain caused by a herniated disc, Mullen would average over 30 goals per season during his five-year stay in Pittsburgh. Despite missing more than one full season's worth of games while with the Penguins, he remains one of the most popular players in team history and, as the first American born player to surpass 500 career goals, serves as a great example of resilience in the face of adversity.
Evgeni Malkin heads to the dressing room after suffering injury
Although he missed only four games due to injury during his first three seasons in the NHL, Evgeni Malkin has recently found himself bitten by the injury bug and has missed the equivalent of a full NHL season over the past four years.
After tearing both the ACL and MCL in his right knee in February of 2011 in a game against the Buffalo Sabres, Malkin missed the rest of the 2010-11 season. Although he returned to All-Star form in the 2011-12 season and won the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL scoring leader and the Hart Trophy as the league MVP, this season has not been kind to "Geno."
This year, he has had to fight through nagging shoulder injuries as well as post-concussion symptoms stemming from a violent fall against the end-boards in a home game against the Florida Panthers on Feb. 22. If the Penguins are to compete for the Stanley Cup in 2013, they will need to keep Malkin off of the injury report and on the ice.
Sidney Crosby suffers knee injury in Stanley Cup Finals
Over the past few years, no other professional athlete's health has received as much scrutiny or been the source of as much agony as has the health of Sidney Crosby.
Beginning with a high ankle sprain suffered in January of 2008 and culminating in a broken jaw suffered on March 30 of this year, Crosby has endured a seemingly endless streak of injuries that have threatened to derail one of the most promising careers in NHL history. When Crosby first arrived in Pittsburgh in 2005, hockey experts predicted that his immense talent would take Penguins fans' breath away. Unfortunately, Crosby's numerous battles with injuries have made Penguins fans hold their breath as well.
While Crosby is widely expected to win the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP, his willingness to fight through injury after injury should also earn him the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy which is awarded to the player who shows the most perseverance and dedication to the game of hockey.
Perhaps no other player in NHL has had his name connected to the phrase "what if" as often as Mario Lemieux.
Despite his legendary accomplishments, hockey fans can only speculate what Lemieux might have accomplished had he not been forced from the game twice due to injuries. While even the most unfortunate athletes may deal with career-ending injuries, Lemieux's ailments, which included cancer and atrial fibrillation, extended to the life-threatening realm.
Though medical issues may have shortened his career, they have also served to elevate it to an almost mythical level. Great players win MVP awards but only Lemieux won an MVP award despite missing a quarter of the 1992-93 season due to cancer. Great players win Stanley Cups and Conn Smythe Trophies but only Lemieux won both despite being unable to tie his own skates due to debilitating back pain.
As acclaimed sportswriter Frank Deford said of Lemieux, "That is the stuff that answers those who wonder where all our sports heroes have gone."