After Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ron Hextall joked with the media that he would not replace Sidney Crosby just because of his wrist surgery which will keep him away from the Penguins for at least six weeks, an unsettling reality faced Hextall and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
It’s not just that Crosby is the Penguins’ best player, one of the best in the league, and the Penguins lineup will be without him. It’s not just that the Penguins are also without Evgeni Malkin, who is recovering from knee surgery. Nor is it that PTO Brian Boyle was almost guaranteed at least a short-term spot with the news.
It’s the totality of the situation and all of the little things that could be bad news.
On the one hand, it’s not a big deal, right? Crosby misses a handful of games or so in the regular season. He comes back in the first few weeks, then Malkin comes back, and all is well.
The problem: This keeps happening. Again and again and worse and worse.
This was Crosby’s second surgery on that wrist in about one year. Hextall conceded Crosby had surgery on the same wrist that doctors repaired last summer. And Crosby tried all options to avoid surgery this summer.
Who would have guessed Crosby played through a nagging wrist injury after scoring 62 points, including 24 goals in just 54 games? The first surgery didn’t fix it.
Now, needing a second surgery is the key worry.
Pittsburgh Penguins BIG Question:
Two wrist surgeries in 12 or 14 months isn’t an ideal situation.
Evgeni Malkin has missed 14 or more games in the last two seasons, and serious knee surgery followed by rehab at 35-years-old is no small thing.
The million-dollar question is–are we watching the Penguins break down a couple of years before we expected? Nagging wrist injury for Crosby. A myriad of injuries, now including serious knee surgery for Malkin.
I don’t know the answer. Many have you have insisted that the dynasty is long over, the players are burnt toast, and it’s time to blow it up. But I also know that’s based on emotion.
But now we have medical proof that the top player has a chronic injury and the other can’t stay healthy.
It changes the flavor of this season and the next offseason when both Evgeni Malkin and core defenseman Kris Letang need new contracts. It suddenly seems like the question is not IF the Penguins should ride or die with Crosby, Malkin, and Letang, but how can the Penguins plausibly do so?
Pittsburgh Penguins Two Problems: Getting Worse & Lack of Defense
The other problem the Crosby injury exposes is an absolute lack of center depth in the organization.
“There’s going to be an opportunity for players like Evan Rodrigues and (Radim) Zohorna, (Michael) Chaput, (Dominik) Simon. (We) bring in Brian Boyle to camp here…,” Hextall said.
You’re forgiven if you’re not dancing in the streets. Rodrigues has proven to be a gritty addition on the wings, but playing a third-line center role is a big ask for the player who has not yet established an every-night role with the Penguins or in the NHL.
The Penguins top forward prospects, Sam Poulin and Nathan Legare, are wingers, so there’s no help there.
Zohorna had fans’ tongues wagging, but that was perhaps based on expectations that his 6-foot-7 frame was a heavy presence. It certainly is not. Zohorna is still learning to play between the dots, not outside them, as he did in his native Czech Republic. He has silky hands, but insiders confided in PHN that the organization was pushing him to play a harder game…and it was, shall we say, a process.
The Seattle Kraken expansion draft really hurt. The Penguins gave away their genuine center depth by trading Jared McCann for a prospect (Filip Hallander) to avoid losing him for nothing, then spent the savings of losing Brandon Tanev via the draft on a Tanev replacement (Brock McGinn).
Perhaps you read our chat with Stu Grimson about what having some toughness in the lineup means to a team, how toughness keeps other teams accountable and a lack of it often means teams have to put up with more guff from opponents.
I knew there would be some kneejerk reaction to it, but don’t hate the player for telling it like it is.
Does anyone want to deny that Crosby’s wrist will have a bullseye and every Metro Division checking center’s stick will target it? If you thought teams were hard on the Penguins before…oh boy.
Playing Without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin
The Penguins will also have to adjust their style as long as Crosby and Malkin are out. That means a more defensive system and game. Last season, the Penguins proved they could lockdown when they blanked the Boston Bruins 1-0 in an imposing late-season win. Others followed.
That was last year. The Pittsburgh Penguins defensive corps was surprisingly one of the best in the league. Even if both had mediocre years by their own standards, the third pairing with John Marino and Marcus Pettersson was still good enough. Cody Ceci and Mike Matheson were easily the most surprisingly effective pairing in the NHL; two players changed the chatter and career trajectories together.
“..obviously, when you have the number of points of the lineup that we’re going to have with Geno and Sid, you need to tighten things up. And obviously our defense and goaltending–we got to be tight,” Hextall said. “But also upfront, we need you guys to step up offensively and do a good job for us.”
The defense corps now has a giant hole in the wall. They’re short one established right-side defenseman. Ceci was off to Edmonton on a fancy new four-year deal, leaving the Penguins with Chad Ruhwedel and Mark Friedman.
We’ve seen this before. The Pittsburgh Penguins almost exclusively excel when injuries decimate them, and they plug holes with (no pun intended) pluggers.
But everything seems different now. Superstars banged up before the season begins. Age banging on the door with increasing ferocity. Depleted depth. Only five regular NHL defensemen when the team needs to play a tight defensive game. And a goalie who was rattled by his first playoff series.
Goalie Tristan Jarry is the least of the worries and probably will be one of the heroes if the Penguins pull another Houdini act and pile up points despite a lineup that screams, “Help!”
Or, we could be watching that season when everything changes. I don’t know the answer. I really don’t, but I learned long ago not to count out Mike Sullivan teams in a tight spot.
But I do know it feels different this time. And there are big questions to answer and problems beyond Crosby and Malkin’s absence to overcome. Training camp starts soon.