Pittsburgh Penguins' Opening Day Lines in Light of Crosby's Potential Absence

James ConleyContributor IIIAugust 22, 2011

Even if just two of Pittsburgh's top-three centers are healthy at the outset of the season, the team will be in far better shape than in last year's first-round loss to Tampa Bay.
Even if just two of Pittsburgh's top-three centers are healthy at the outset of the season, the team will be in far better shape than in last year's first-round loss to Tampa Bay.

Several reports, like this one citing NHL Home Ice's Josh Rimer and his now famous thrice-sourced tweet, have suggested that Sidney Crosby will not be ready to join the Pittsburgh Penguins when training camp opens next month, nor will he be ready for the regular season opener in Vancouver.

Other reports, such as those coming from inside the organization, suggest that Crosby is continuing his offseason workout plans as scheduled, and that he is not being pressured to do anything more than he and his doctors are comfortable with.

The media tug of war is staggering—and irresponsible.

The truth may be that perhaps even God Himself isn't sure where Crosby's health stands as he continues to rehab from his famous concussion suffered in early January 2011.

And that may be a safe bet, because even Crosby might not be sure where he stands.

Such is the nature of the elusive recovery process involved with post-concussion syndrome.

Crosby isn't speaking, and his agent Pat Brisson is only making appearances to neither confirm nor deny the onslaught of conflicting reports and the Pittsburgh Penguins apparently have had minimal contact with their star player all summer.

Simply put, reporting on his condition is a non-story.

Like Crosby, we, the media, the fans—even his employers; all will have to wait.

And while the organization will await Crosby's return, the NHL regular season won't. It will be up to Dan Bylsma and his staff to configure four lines of healthy forwards with or without their captain, and training camp, should Crosby still be absent, will be a very interesting time for the club.

Given that Crosby is healthy and the team hits the season all hands on deck, the top line at least figures to be a combination of Crosby, Chris Kunitz and James Neal.

Kunitz and Crosby have developed an excellent rapport (Kunitz was on pace for 30-plus goals last season before he and Sid both went down with injuries), and team officials have stated they would like to put Neal on Crosby's line, even if it means a move from left wing to right.

With No. 87 in the picture, the second and third lines could run out any combination of players. There has been talk going back to the beginning of the 2010 season of running Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal on the second line. Malkin and Staal were linemates in Staal's rookie season, which saw him score a career-high 29 goals.

However odd it may seem, Crosby's potential absence actually makes the picture a little clearer. Should he be unavailable, it's logical to assume to Malkin will take his role as the top-line center, and Staal will center the second line.

Subject to all manner of uncertainty, he lines may look something like this:





There's no telling how the wingers might shake out (especially with Dustin Jeffrey and Eric Tangradi in the mix), but it's a safe bet that Malkin and Staal will man the top-two lines.

While it's less than ideal to play with the league's best player still out with injury, those potential lines represent a marked improvement over the units Pittsburgh fielded in the 2011 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against Tampa Bay:





Even with their star pivot out, Pittsburgh will begin the new season well ahead of where they finished the last one.

A platoon of Malkin (injury), Matt Cooke (suspension), Steve Sullivan (free agent), Jason Williams (free agent) and Dustin Jeffrey (injury) figure to be a massive upgrade over last year's supporting players, such as Kovalev, Talbot, Conner and Rupp.

In all cases, the team is in better position than they were last April, when Crosby's status was just as certain as it is now.

His prolonged recovery, should it keep him out for a great portion of the regular season, will certainly be a blow to the Penguins (if only a small one), and will serve as media fodder for as long as humanly possible.

Given the field of returning and new players who figure to crack the lineup, the Penguins themselves will only make his injury a story once it begins to interfere with the postseason.