Penguins’ general manager Ray Shero is the most interesting man in all of hockey this February. Shero is interesting every February, in the leadup to the NHL’s trade deadline; he always seems to have the perfect read on his club, and to make just the moves his club needs to strengthen its standing for the rigors of the NHL postseason. A young executive, already he’s piloted his club to two Stanley Cup finals appearances. A lot of Caps’ media and fans believe that Shero outfoxed George McPhee in landing Bill Guerin in the spring of 2009. The Pens bested the Caps in seven games that spring, and it’s quite easy to imagine that had Guerin been a Cap instead of a Pen it would have been the Caps advancing to the Eastern conference finals.
That offseason, McPhee inked Mike Knuble to bolster the right side of his attack.
This February, however, Ray Shero isn’t weighing his roster options from a position of relative strength. His center-centric club is battered down the middle of the ice, missing three regular pivots, two of whom — Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin — just happen to be among the top five players in the world. Malkin had season-ending knee surgery this week. Crosby, who’d been on a career-best production pace in the first half of the season, is making a slow recovery from two concussions he endured last month.
In a matter of weeks, perhaps, the day may arrive when Shero’s medical staff report that Crosby is sufficiently recovered so that he can rejoin the Penguins’ lineup. It’s at that moment that Shero would be tasked with making the most difficult and most important personnel decision of his young executive career.
Here’s what he should do: shut Sidney down this season, get both his world-class center performers back healthy next fall, and then renew what should be a championship contender’s quest — one that ought to be viable for much of this decade.
It’s a tough call, admittedly. Though we don’t much like to admit it in these parts, Sidney Crosby has distanced himself — appreciably — from our Alex in the claim to the title of world’s best player. And it really isn’t even close. Getting Crosby back in the lineup would change an awful lot about a Penguins’ club that last night was on the seriously short end of a 9-3 drubbing on Long Island. But with production on the wings ever a bane of their existence, the Penguins need both of their premier pivots to pose a serious challenge to the deep and talented Flyers, to the Bruins with a crazy-good Tim Thomas between the pipes, perhaps even the Caps. Montreal may get some blueline help this month, and they’d be a tough out. And were Crosby merely recovering from a bum shoulder or knee, his manager might justifiably roll the dice to try and get a playoff series or two swung his way in a brand new beautiful rink in his city.
But now, most belatedly, we know just how sinister — how career-threatening — the effects of concussions are, or certainly we do relative to our knowledge of head injuries say 15 or 20 years ago. It’s never a good thing thing to endure two concussions in the span of a single calendar year. What about two in the span of a week, as Crosby did last month, first from Dave Steckel’s inadvertent contact at the Winter Classic and then from a blow into the end-boards dolled about by Tampa’s Oscar Hedman? Bringing Crosby back this season obviously runs the risk of his incurring a catastrophic third concussion. In the NHL, once the puck drops, there is no allowance made for vulnerability and stature: the moment Sidney dresses is the moment he becomes fair game. And that’s as it should be.
It’s a risk Shero just can’t take. Even if Sidney is judged to be fit in March, or April, give him the entire summer to rest and strengthen. The Pens aren’t winning a Cup with just half of their elite center lineup.
The Penguins are spending more than $60 million on their club this season, and because of Malkin’s long-term injury Shero is afforded cap space with which to potentially address his predicament. But there’s no replacing top-five talents, and Shero doesn’t want any short-term fix that would cause long-term cap management woe. It’s a brutally tough call, more or less waiving a white flag of surrender, and the moreso in the first year of his club’s beautiful new building. And it’s a particularly tough call for this manager because he assembled this club rather spectacularly last summer.
Shero reacted to his team’s playoff loss to Montreal last spring much differently than did George McPhee. Shero went out and signed no one but two no. 1 defensemen in free agency last summer — Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek. Those talents joined an already decent Pens’ blueline boasting Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang. Letang especially this season has skated with a Norris-worthy pedigree likely out ahead of him. Before all these injuries robbed this club of its elite skill, the Pens, all season long, were at or near the top of categories like hits, blocked shots, and fighting majors. They were highly skilled and very tough to play against. Beautiful hockey, I call that.
Beginning with Fleury in net and all that talent on the blueline and perhaps the best trio of centers in the world when they’re healthy, the Penguins are durably built for contention for another decade. That’s the big-picture vantage Shero needs to adhere to this month. Penguins’ fans may not want to hear it right now, but extreme safeguarding — overly cautious in fact — is imperative when it comes to Crosby. In the Crosby-Ovechkin rivalry Sidney’s emerged as the dynamic talent with unassailable street cred in getting it done when it counts: He wears gold, he’s hoisted a Cup. He’s the lynchpin of the Penguin Cup contention blueprint. If Ray Shero makes the difficult but right call with him the balance of this season, odds are there’ll be more Cups in western Pennsylvania in the years ahead.
Sickening thought, isn’t it?