The Pittsburgh Penguins organization and fan base were hit with a titanic shock Monday when captain Sidney Crosby was diagnosed with a concussion. It is Crosby’s first concussion since he suffered through a two-year battle with concussion symptoms beginning with the 2011 Winter Classic. His previous concussion was severe and included numerous false returns.
The injury kept Crosby off the ice at the height of his dominance. Fans and the Penguins organization remember the saga too well even if it was finally resolved with an alternate diagnosis–a deep tissue neck injury. Everyone remembers the terror felt with every hit Crosby absorbed. For months, every hit seemed like it could be the last.
Bad memories, for everyone. Crosby’s 2011 concussion was suffered in a high-speed collision with Capitals forward David Steckel, but this head injury has mysterious origins. Implausible conspiracy theories posit the injury occurred during the World Cup.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said it happened Friday in practice, but no one saw anything out of the ordinary.
Crosby arrived at PPG Paints Arena, Saturday and reported to Penguins medical staff he did not feel well. He was scratched for the afternoon preseason tilt against Columbus. Crosby will now go through concussion protocols, which includes skating then contact before he can be cleared to return.
A one-week absence seems the bare minimum. Without directly attributable hard contact, there is optimism Crosby’s absence will be short.
Opportunity KnocksWithout Sidney Crosby, the Penguins will call on their 13th forward. Before the Crosby injury, that figured to be Tom Sestito. As an occasional insert into the lineup, the veteran Sestito is an appropriate extra part. The Penguins would not stunt a developing young player with press box duty.
Sestito cleared waivers Sunday as he and Kevin Porter, who also cleared waivers, have remained with the team rather than report to the WBS Penguins. However, the team is unlikely to insert Sestito into the lineup for an extended period.
Fourth line center Matt Cullen appears to be the choice to center Crosby linemates Patric Hornqvist and Conor Sheary, and the other two lines will remain intact which leaves a spot on the fourth line.
Kevin Porter, 30, was the choice last season because he was a better fit for head coach Mike Johnston’s defensive system. As an NHL player, Porter will never hurt the team, will always be in position, and provides continuity. What Porter does not provide is offense. Porter’s play creates offensive chances and puts him in position for chances but those chances disproportionately end without goals.
The Penguins now have a couple players, slated for a season in AHL, who could provide offense from the fourth line: Carter Rowney and Jake Guentzel.
UPDATE: The Penguins assigned Porter to the WBS Penguins.
Rowney, 27, is a late bloomer. A career minor leaguer, Rowney had more than a cup of coffee with the ECHL Wheeling Nailers before spending the last three seasons with the WBS Penguins. Rowney is too old to be considered a prospect, but his offensive output at the AHL level combined with 6′-2″ frame could apply to the NHL game.
It is nearly impossible to judge a player based on preseason hockey. The mix of minor league players and disinterested veterans creates sloppy hockey. Rowney showed some flashes of talent, including a wicked right wing blast over Red Wings goalie Jared Coreau’s glove for his first preseason goal.
If Crosby figures to miss time, his stay on injured reserve would more than pay for Rowney’s cost.
Eric Fehr will center the fourth line in Crosby’ absence. Fehr became of the best shutdown centers in the NHL with the Washington Capitals, before signing with the Penguins. Rowney could be the finisher on a line with Fehr and the aggressive Tom Kuhnhackl.
Rowney didn’t display great feet in the preseason, but part of that is attributable to the messy play. He is considered to have good speed.
For a team which built its success on second chances, Rowney also fits that bill.
The Penguins have high hopes for Guentzel and his continued development. A top 6 role could be in his future. Guentzel likely needs more development before he is ready for the NHL. His best preseason game was in Chicago with six shots, otherwise, Guentzel did not register a point in the preseason.
Guentzel, 22, could be a short term choice if the Penguins choose to expose the youngster to the NHL game to further his development. He displayed his speed in the preseason, but also spent too much time on the perimeter. Learning when to skate and when to battle will be part of the process.
The Stanley Cup is neither won or lost in October, as evidenced by the Penguins performance last October and November. An extended Crosby absence will be offset by the HBK line and perhaps Scott Wilson’s emergence as a scoring threat on Evgeni Malkin’s right wing. If Wilson does not succeed, Patric Hornqvist could slot beside Malkin to maintain two scoring lines.
Last season, Head coach Mike Sullivan’s message to the team was “resilience”. The coaching staff may need to renew that message because the Penguins will deal with healthy adversity to begin their Stanley Cup defense.
Sheary, Rust, Matt Murray, Trevor Daley, Brian Dumoulin, Ian Cole, Justin Schultz and Phil Kessel capitalized on new opportunities to win the Stanley Cup. Sestito may get another chance. Rowney or Guentzel could get their first chance. That is the silver lining.