Here we go again.
Three weeks after making his much-hyped return to the ice, Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby is once again on the sidelines with concussion symptoms. The problem is speculated to have come from a hit Crosby took against David Krejci of the Boston Bruins in last Monday's game.
Crosby told USA Today that he practiced the day after the game, but didn't feel 100 percent. He decided to sit out Pittsburgh's games against the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Islanders last week, but took the hockey world by surprise when he said today that there is no timetable for his return.
It was something that Crosby, the Penguins organization and Pittsburgh fans did not anticipate happening once the captain was back in uniform.
But now that the issues have reared their ugly head again, the Penguins could be in trouble.
Hold on, you say. The Penguins have won without Crosby before. They're still in a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Everything's fine!
While I have written before about how the Pens have kept up their winning ways without Crosby, I decided to explore the other side of the argument. Here are some reasons this setback could hurt the Penguins.
When Crosby first came back to the Penguins lineup on November 21, things were supposed to get back to normal for the team. Sure, there was a media circus that night, but Dan Bylsma and Ray Shero no longer had to worry about fielding questions about Crosby's progress or if there was a date for his return.
Now, they will be faced with these questions again. As much as the team will want to avoid it, the media will be all over this storyline and will press for information no matter what the cost.
This means that players who are performing well for the Pens will get overlooked, and the story will once again be all about Crosby. His teammates will be pressed to talk about how they're doing without him and how they hope he will come back soon. There will even be talk about whether or not he should retire, which could bring down team morale, as they certainly hope their franchise wouldn't be dealt that big of a blow.
Regardless of how the Pens do without Crosby, it is never easy to carry on when there is a constant spotlight on their star player. It would be there if he were healthy, but in his absence, it's been 10 times brighter. It is simply unfair to the rest of the team to put them through this again, and that could affect their play and spot in the standings.
Crosby's absence alone is a big enough of a deal and obstacle to get through, but he's not the only banged-up player on the Penguins roster.
Here's a rundown of some of the other injuries the Penguins are dealing with:
Top defenseman Kris Letang is out of the lineup with a concussion. He is arguably the Pens' top blueliner, as he leads Pens defensemen with 19 points. He is also first on the team with 26:10 of ice time per game and 4:59 played on the power play, and is third with 33 blocked shots.
Jordan Staal is day-to-day with a lower-body injury. The center is fifth on the Pens with 18 points and second with 12 goals. He is also fifth with 2:54 of ice time on the penalty kill.
Richard Park, a serviceable third liner, is out four to six weeks with a fractured foot. He has just seven points in 21 games this year, but he's scored one shorthanded goal and has 11 blocked shots.
In addition, Dustin Jeffrey is out of the lineup after he had problems with a knee injury he suffered last year. Jeffrey had a conditioning stint with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League, but when he was called up to Pittsburgh, he couldn't play, as his surgically-repaired knee had swollen up.
Other injured players include Robert Bortuzzo (concussion symptoms), Zbynek Michalek (concussion) and Ben Lovejoy (broken wrist).
Sooner or later, this will catch up to the Penguins. Even if the healthy players can keep performing, they will have to mesh with linemates all over again as players return from injury. The returning players also have to get up to game speed, which means they may not be effective immediately.
The Penguins have several players on their roster who have shown throughout their careers that they easily get injured. Although they are currently in the lineup right now, there is no guarantee that they won't go down again.
For example, Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins' other superstar, has not played a full season since 2008-09. He was limited to 43 games last year after tearing his ACL, and because of this, he has struggled to regain the form that got him back-to-back 100-point seasons in 2008 and 2009. He already missed seven games this year dealing with issues from his knee surgery last season.
Malkin currently has 28 points through 23 games, but can he get through the rest of the season without another problem?
Steve Sullivan, a veteran forward who the Penguins acquired in free agency this summer, has only played a full season once in the last five years. He even missed the entire 2007-08 season dealing with a back injury. Last season, he played in just 44 games with the Nashville Predators.
In addition, Sullivan is 37 years old, so he is slowing down and has arguably been a disappointment for the team. Even though he has played all 30 games this season, can he be effective when needed to step up?
Tyler Kennedy has missed 11 games this season and has not played a full season with the Pens to date. The closest he came was last year, when he played 80 games and had a career season with 45 points. Kennedy has a physical edge to his game in addition to a scoring touch, and his presence would be missed should he get hurt again.
While even the healthiest of players could end up dealing with an injury at some point, it is clear that the Penguins have players who they cannot afford to lose yet again. If the above players find themselves unable to play at any point this year, it will make the team that much less effective. Plus, it could set the individual's career back, and no player wants to return to the game only to find he is less than 100 percent.
When players go down, the Penguins look to their farm team in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for a temporary solution.
While it may seem like there are endless players to call up who can help out, the truth is, some of these players haven't been able to deliver when they get up to the NHL.
Eric Tangradi, who is one of the Pens' top-ranked forward prospects, now has many question marks surrounding his potential. He has just three points in 18 games with Pittsburgh.
Ryan Craig, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton captain, has 63 points in 190 NHL games. His best NHL showing came with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2005-06, where he had 28 points. He had no points, a minus-three and 22 penalty minutes in six games with Pittsburgh last year.
Jason Williams has possibly the best NHL career in the group, but there must be a reason why he has never been a full-time NHL player. He has 225 points in 448 games with the Detroit Red Wings, Dallas Stars, Atlanta Thrashers and Columbus Blue Jackets. His best showing was in 2008-09, where he had 47 points with Atlanta and Columbus.
Should the Penguins need a defenseman, their pickings would be slim and unpromising. Philip Samuelsson and Carl Sneep have yet to play NHL games and would go through growing pains if they got playing time in Pittsburgh, while free-agent signing Boris Valabik has yet to play after offseason knee surgery.
Although it may seem like WBS has an unlimited crop of players to call up and plug into the lineup, the statistics and other uncertainties say otherwise. The AHL players will never be an answer for a team that is trying to win another Stanley Cup with their highly-talented core who can never seem to play together.
I can only hope that the Penguins do not have to go through another Stanley Cup Playoff series without Sidney Crosby.
But let's assume that this will happen again.
Last year, the Penguins were so close to being able to get through the first round of the playoffs without Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. They had a 3-1 series lead over the Tampa Bay Lightning, who some thought were never going to get far with question marks on their defense and a 40-plus-year-old starting goaltender.
But the Penguins collapsed. They were blown out at home in Game 5 of that conference quarterfinals round, then lost to Tampa Bay in Florida in Game 6 and finally, they completed a disappointment by falling 1-0 in Game 7 back in Pittsburgh.
It was a choke job, plain and simple, and I'm not going to make excuses for it here. Since they nearly won without Crosby, there are none.
However, if the team has to deal with this again, their chances of a Stanley Cup may not be as high. Guys like Arron Asham, Matt Cooke and Dustin Jeffrey won't light the world on fire with their scoring. James Neal and Evgeni Malkin tend to be too inconsistent. Paul Martin has disappeared so much this year he may as well be invisible out there.
Sure, Marc-Andre Fleury has proven he can handle the pressure of the playoffs, but he cannot win games all by himself.
The Penguins need Crosby for playoff success, and if he can't get healthy, they will once again be watching the later postseason rounds from their couches.