It’s never a good thing when your top forward gets hurt, but when that top forward still has a credible claim to “best player alive,” things are even more concerning.
So it is with Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh, where a guy who’s easily one of the five best forwards to ever put on a pair of skates is potentially on the shelf for weeks, and whose presence has been one of the unquestioned highlights for any team this season.
The Pens are obviously more than a little injury-plagued this season, but Crosby’s absence might be the kind of blow a team that’s already just kind of shuffling along can’t handle. They have 21 points in the standings and hold a wild-card spot in a tight Metropolitan Division, and that’s despite missing Evgeni Malkin for a good chunk of the year.
Added to the injury pile with Patric Hornqvist (out nearly two weeks at this point) and Kris Letang (still considered “week-to-week”), Crosby seems a bridge too far.
His underlying numbers are, incredibly, some of the best of his career, and when he’s off the ice the Penguins — perhaps understandably — don’t stack up against most competition. They’re getting a lot of production from those lower-end guys for now, with 36 of their 57 goals coming when Crosby’s on the bench so far this year. But when everyone has to move up a slot on the depth chart, things start to get a little more dicey.
It’s not that Malkin, fresh off his injury, isn’t up to taking No. 1 minutes, but you have to ask where Crosby’s injury leaves, say, I don’t know, just to pick someone at random, Jake Guentzel. Dominik Simon likewise ends up maybe not looking as good as he did earlier in the year. That’s life, obviously, but it also means the Pens don’t have the options to put them in a position to continue succeeding.
That’s especially true with Letang — who’s also having a great season once again — on the shelf, because the rest of this Penguins defence is suspect if you want to go the full 200 feet. The potential long-term lack of Hornqvist further thins out the depth.
One guy who’s going to need to step up in a big way is Jared McCann. He’s shown flashes of dominant play in the past, but with Crosby potentially out weeks, that’s going to need to be shifted from “occasional” to “sustained.”
The problem for these guys is that even if you believe they won’t miss a step because Malkin is back now, the slightest stumble is going to put them in a tough situation. The top two spots in this division seem spoken for. The Pens ended Tuesday with an OT loss to the lowly Rangers and in the first wild-card spot. They now stand three points behind the Islanders with two extra games played, as well as eight back of Washington with a game in hand. Seems like those guys aren’t going anywhere.
So now they’re in a dog fight with Philadelphia and Carolina, all within a game or a point of each other, for third. The Flyers suddenly look like they’re playing well, and the Hurricanes’ latest skid isn’t likely to last given how well they control their games as a general rule.
Add in the scratching and clawing teams like Florida, Toronto, and Montreal will do to maintain their position in the Atlantic’s last two divisional slots, plus the likelihood that Tampa surges? With Crosby and Letang’s absences potentially stretching on for weeks, that already precarious spot in the standings slips even more with the slightest setbacks.
We’ve talked before about the “mushy middle” in the league, and it’s especially evident in the Eastern Conference. You don’t need a big explainer about why losing Crosby hurts, but the likely length of his absence and how things stand in the conference are a bad combo.
Even if he “only” misses eight games, the way things have gone this year can’t portend good things for this group. You don’t want a situation where he eventually comes back and you have to make up three or four points just to get into the playoff conversation again, but it’s a real possibility.
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