As the Pittsburgh Penguins' 2011-12 season opener draws near, the negative speculation surrounding Sidney Crosby has greatly subsided. In recent weeks, Crosby has seemingly experienced no setbacks while going through team drills and other conditioning in a non-contact capacity.
Despite the climate of conversation being dramatically more positive, the fact remains that Crosby, or any NHL player, is not ready for games if they are not taking contact in practice.
Because of that, the possibility remains that Sid will not be ready for the start of the season.
Based on the team's performance after many high-profile players were injured, that is not a reason to panic. This team just has to get itself ready for April and beyond in order to meet the fanbase's expectations.
The goal is not a President's Trophy. Nobody cares who the regular season champs are.
Luckily for Crosby, the Pittsburgh Penguins hold the belief that the definition of success will mainly come from the postseason. He will be given ample time, if needed, to gradually work back towards contact.
Coach Dan Bylsma will still have high expectations for the group he puts on the ice, until Crosby is among them. He won the Jack Adams Award largely because of how he coached the team in the second half of last season.
It is worthwhile to note that this short list of players who will need to step up does not include Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury. Their value is too obvious to waste time saying they need to "step up."
Geno and MAF will likely be keys to the season, both before and after Sid returns. An Art Ross-caliber forward and Stanley Cup-winning goalie tend to be important, regardless of the circumstances, oddly enough.
The guys in the slideshow are still very important. With their help, there is plenty of hope that the Penguins will not have to abandon their plans for a long spring and summer of hockey.
James Neal was acquired via trade last season for Pens fans' favorite punching bag, Alex Goligoski.
The excitement of gaining a scoring winger was eventually reduced when the winger, well, did not score very much.
With Crosby's goal scoring out of the lineup, having Neal step up would take a lot of pressure off the offense. The main concern would be that he seemingly needs to be on a line with a playmaker, as it became evident that carrying the puck was not cut out of his game.
Get Neal on a line with someone who can carve out some room for him, then dish him the puck.
He has a cannon of a shot, so if he establishes some early rhythm and consistency, there is a good chance the net will keep filling.
Paul Martin is a unique defenseman. There are many, myself included, that believe his cap hit is very steep, yet that he is not a bad player by any means.
Martin is steady, plays extremely well with Zbynek Michalek and can be counted on for excellent positional and situation defense. In a salary cap era, though, you always hope to get the most bang for the team's buck.
This may be fair, because Martin put up numbers that were lower than his highest output season with the New Jersey Devils. But, on the other hand, as hockey fans, we do realize that some players' worth does not show up in the stat sheet.
While the comparison does not exactly hold numerically, it would be nice to see Martin have a second season with the Penguins similar to Sergei Gonchar. Gonchar struggled somewhat in his first season with the Pens, but then went on to have at least three-and-a-half great years playing his style.
Paul Martin will not be a top-scoring defenseman. If he is able to flesh out a better season at the offensive end, while maintaining his performance in the defensive zone, then it will help the team beyond the numbers.
Chris Kunitz has been troubled by injuries the past two seasons. Last season, he still had a pretty good run, all things considered.
Kunitz will have millions of reasons to produce at a high level this season, with his contract about to come to an end. If he stays healthy and gets on a roll, he could translate that into a big contract.
Whether or not Kunitz will be back here next season is hard to say. All the more reason for the Penguins to worry about this season's results.
Kris Letang had a pretty strong season on paper. If you look into things a bit further, you see that he had 17 of his 50 points after the Winter Classic.
That means he did not finish anywhere near as strongly as he started. Now, before all the women that cannot handle criticism of Letang—since he's a "dreamboat"— flip out, please allow me to explain.
Letang's point production suffered noticeably when Crosby left the lineup. The team's hodgepodge lineup also did not allow Tang the free skating he usually has.
Defense had to be the No. 1 priority during the last few months of the season. I am excited to see Letang build on the success he had early on last season.
Kris Letang is an amazingly talented defenseman. Hopefully he can raise his game this season, especially if Sidney Crosby is out.
Jordan Staal is a great two-way center. He often plays a key role in the line matchups and shutting down an opponent's top player.
For my money, his value is greatest as part of a separate line from healthy Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Until then, this team could use an increase in production at the offensive end.
Staal certainly shows flashes of being able to put up bigger numbers. Whether he is an offensively inconsistent player, or burdened by his defensive assignments, is up for debate.
One thing that cannot be debated, Jordan Staal will be a key to this team's success, with or without Sidney Crosby.