Sidney Crosby Won't Need to Be Rushed Back Thanks to Penguins' Depth, Systems

James ConleyContributor IIIAugust 30, 2011

Marc-Andre Fleury, Kris Letang and the new-look defense took the Penguins from 20th in the league in goals against in 2009 to 6th last season.
Marc-Andre Fleury, Kris Letang and the new-look defense took the Penguins from 20th in the league in goals against in 2009 to 6th last season.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Contrary to the internet, the Pittsburgh Penguins will not burst into flames if Sidney Crosby is forced to miss parts or the whole of the 2011-12 regular season.

Rather, those elements of the team which helped to secure 106 standings points last season (the second-most in franchise history) will be back, and in many cases healthier and more familiar with their roles within the team structure.

Crosby or no Crosby, team defense and goaltending will get the Penguins where they want to go. No one will have to step up in the possible absence of their captain—they'll need only to do their jobs.

Some Final Thoughts on Crosby

Talk of Crosby's recovery has reached the irresponsible journalist's equivalent of DEFCON-1. August and early September are the doldrums of hockey season where not a single thing is bound to happen between the cooling off of free agency and the beginning of training camp.

The ensuing summer dry spell provides just the conditions needed to allow a non-story such as Crosby's quiet recovery to take flight.

Amid the wild guesses, half-truths and outright rumor-mongering, Pittsburgh Magazine's Sean Conboy has recently shared a few words that help shed light on the realities of the post-concussion syndrome recovery process.

His latest continues the interview with UPMC physician Dr. Micky Collins, who has treated Crosby during his recovery and who spoke broadly about the science of concussions and the specifics of the recovery process (though he was unable to speak about Crosby specifically).

Said Collins,

The coolest thing about my job is that the brain wants to get better from this. If you manage [concussions] correctly, the potassium will go back into the cell, the calcium will go back out of the cell and that membrane will go back to normal. The great majority of the time, you can hit the reset button on these athletes, if you make sure, again, that the cows are back in the barn. You have to do the right evaluation to make sure that’s happened.

To me, it’s an injury that can be completely vanished. But we [have] to educate. We have to get what we know about this injury into clinicians' hands, and we need the media to write about the boring stuff.

Everyone wants to write about the sexy stuff. But the real story is that we’ve got ways of managing this injury pretty well.

It cannot be stressed enough that Conboy's article, which presents dialogue from an honest-to-God physician, is worth a read or two (or 10).

One Superstar Is More Than Most Teams Boast

When training camp opens in a few weeks, perhaps only James Neal, a member of the Gary Roberts' offseason nutrition and exercise school, will have spent the summer training harder than Evgeni Malkin.  

Still rehabilitating the damaged ligaments in his right knee, Malkin has been a man on a mission this summer.

The "From Russia with Love" series from the Penguins' team website gave a good look at Malkin's training regiment in Moscow, and close friend and former teammate Sergei Gonchar spoke highly of Malkin as well.

Via ESPN, 

"He's never seen Geno working this hard, looking this good and this motivated at this point of the summer," [Head Coach Dan] Bylsma said of Gonchar. "So, I expect a real motivated, real focused guy, and a guy whose body and his injury is ready to go. 

"He's really well beyond (ready), so I think he'll be at full-go coming into training camp and really motivated."

Malkin is a near-lock to open training camp at full speed. This spring, he told Penguins staff he'd be able to return if the team advanced into the later rounds of the postseason.

Should Malkin enter the season as the team's No. 1 center, he'll likely play alongside Chris Kunitz and James Neal. He hasn't enjoyed such wingers since Ryan Malone, Petr Sykora and a still-productive Ruslan Fedotenko flanked him from 2007 to 2009.

Penguins fans have seen Malkin put the team on his back before. Crosby can't be replaced, but a healthy Geno gives the Penguins one more superstar center than they had for the final half of the 2010-11 season.

Pittsburgh's Blueline among League's Elite

Barring trade or catastrophic injury, Pittsburgh's defensive corps will remain largely unchanged for the next two seasons.

The top-four group of Kris Letang, Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik and Zbynek Michalek is locked up through the 2012-13 season (after which Letang becomes an unrestricted free agent), and the group managed to escape the rash of injuries which decimated the team's forwards last season (Orpik missed just a month with a broken finger, and Michalek sat out a few early games with a shoulder injury).

With a full season under their belt, the unit will likely avoid the early-season feeling-out process they experienced last year. It took until late November before the pairings of Oprik-Letang and Martin-Michalek were set in stone, but by season's end the unit was responsible for keeping the duct tape and superglue lineup on the winning side of games.

The third pairing has a number of options, including second-year starters Deryk Engelland and Ben Lovejoy. Trade acquisition Matt Niskanen will have the chance to establish himself on the third-pairing, and minor league blue-chippers like Simon Despres will be waiting in the wings.

The Penguins finished last season sixth-overall in goals against (2.4 per game) and first-overall in penalty kill success (86.1 percent), and in January ranked as high as second in goals against.

By the end of the season, Bylsma's unorthodox philosophy of puck retrieval (two defensemen overload the opponent chasing the puck, backchecking forwards cover the open ice and stay ready for the breakout pass) had taken hold, and Pittsburgh's defense had become even more effective than the group which helped to win the Stanley Cup in 2009.

Starting the upcoming season without the jitters of a new and unfamiliar group (only Letang and Orpik were holdovers from the 2009-10 unit) should help the defense jump out to a fast start.

Marc-Andre Fleury Will Benefit from Strong Defense

A year ago, Marc-Andre Fleury endured a horrific start that saw him go 1-6 in his first seven games, with a goals against average of more than 3.0 and a save percentage hovering around .850.

By season's end, Fleury finished the year with 36 wins, a career-best 2.32 GAA, a .918 save percentage (the best of his career in seasons in which he has appeared in more than 50 games) and the Penguins' team MVP award as voted on by his teammates.

Like the defense, Fleury needed time last season to become comfortable with the new personnel and systems.

Things settled down in November. When the Penguins won 12 straight games from November 17 to December 11, Fleury was responsible for all but one of the victories, allowing three or more goals in just one of his 11 appearances.

As the defense and team record improved, so too did Fleury's numbers (ask any goaltender what a good defense means for their performance).

Many players stepped up during last season's injury spree, but none greater than Fleury, whose individual work kept the team afloat at times when it should have been sinking.

Given the returning defensive cast, there's no reason to assume his performance will wane in the early parts of the coming season.

Coaching Is Key to Consistency

Perhaps moreso than any individual player, Dan Bylsma's work behind the bench helped to keep last year's Penguins in the hunt for the division and conference titles in spite of nearly 400 man-games lost to injury.

Players thrive on familiarity, and organizational familiarity does more for a player's success than ensuring the blade of their stick is taped just so.

The Penguins maintain the same on-ice systems and off-ice regiments from the lowest minor-league affiliate to the NHL. Players at any level of the system can feel comfortable moving from one team to the next, and the formula has proven itself in the form of five consecutive postseason appearances.

Year-over-year, players can now be comfortable with Bylsma's style of coaching, which is fully engrained after two-plus seasons behind the bench.

It was Bylsma's ability to extract 106 points and 49 wins from a patchwork lineup for most of last year which earned him the Jack Adams Award this summer.

If he has a healthy team to work with in 2011-12, the Penguins will be primed for another 100-plus point season, regardless of the health of their captain.

This article also appears at Slew Footers. Follow James on Twitter @slewfooters


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