Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Will he or won't he?


We're down to the final two weeks of the NHL regular season and there's one question that is on everybody's mind. ("Everybody" is defined as "People in Pittsburgh and the NHL offices." Oh, and probably "the Penguins' first-round opponent, whoever that will be." Let's throw in "NBC and Versus" for good measure. See? Everybody.)

The question is: Will Sidney Crosby return to play this season?

I have a different question: Should he?

Honestly, I don't think he should.

For every water bottle Crosby pops with a backhand in practice, for all the strenuous, fast-paced workouts he goes through on the ice, the buzz grows and grows that his return is imminent. The reality is he has yet to practice with the full Penguins team - he's skated with other injured players and also, on Tuesday, He Who Throws Elbows.

Not only has Crosby not yet practiced, he hasn't received any contact. There's no telling or predicting how he'll hold up to that. Other than that, all the reports coming out of the team are positive. Bob McKenzie theorized that it would take at least a few days, perhaps as much as a week or more, for both practicing in non-contact drills and practicing with contact.

Under that timeline, maybe Crosby returns for one of Pittsburgh's final two games. One of those, by the way, is a return engagement with the Islanders. Given their history, I don't want Crosby anywhere near that team right now. Pittsburgh's final game is the last day of the season, April 10.

If we assume Crosby doesn't return before then, just how wise is it to throw him into the thick of a playoff series? Two words: Marc Savard.

After He Who Throws Elbows leveled Savard in March, the Boston center didn't return until the conference finals. Then, either as a result of playing in that series or something else, Savard had a setback and missed the start of this season. Then he received another concussion and his career is in serious jeopardy.

Savard missed two months between his first injury and his return in the playoffs. Crosby will have been out for more than three months for a return.

If Crosby returns and plays at the level he was before receiving a concussion, and if the Penguins continue to get excellent goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury, they can win the Stanley Cup this year, even without Evgeni Malkin. Yet does anyone expect Crosby, after missing so much time, to step right back into the lineup without missing a beat?

Remember, he wasn't even allowed to work out for a significant amount of time. Most reports indicate he is one of the league's best conditioned athletes but even he must be affected by the layoff.

I'm not willing to take the chance that Crosby becomes the next Savard, a premature return leading to even more trouble later on. Of course, I don't make the decisions.

Discretion is the better part of valor. Better safe than sorry. Err on the side of caution.

Don't throw caution to the wind. Insert any other appropriate idiom here.

It's entirely possible Crosby returns and doesn't have any further problems. It's just as likely he does. The Penguins need Crosby to win championships.

They also need to look out for his health first and foremost.

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