As the Pittsburgh Penguins feared, longtime captain Sidney Crosby will miss at least six weeks after undergoing surgery to repair a core muscle injury.
Realistically, this was the best move for Crosby and the Penguins; he should make his return shortly after Christmas, in time for an important second half. This next month and a half without their superstar center still has some serious playoff implications, though. The Penguins are clinging to the second wild card spot in the tightly contested Eastern Conference and don’t have much breathing room.
The last time Crosby played fewer than 70 games in a full NHL season was back during the 2011-12 campaign (he played 36 games in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season). Missing roughly 20 games will also effectively remove him from all individual award talk by season’s end. As for the Penguins, they’ll need big contributions from a few skaters to make up for Crosby’s absence.
The most obvious forward to replace Crosby’s production is fellow star Evgeni Malkin. The 33-year-old Russian missed nearly all of October with a lower-body injury but is still operating at a point-per-game pace through seven contests this season. He’s also riding a four-game point streak heading into Friday’s tilt against the New Jersey Devils.
Malkin will assume the top-line center duties and, according to Thursday’s practice, he’ll have Bryan Rust and Jake Guentzel on his wings. That trio has almost no playing time together over the last three seasons and they haven’t looked great in the small sample size. Unless this line is blatantly awful out of the gate, they’re likely to be the top line that head coach Mike Sullivan uses for the next month and a half.
While the team is going to struggle without Crosby, this might be pretty beneficial to Malkin. He desperately needed a big performance after his disappointing 2018-19 campaign and all signs pointed that way before this season started. Despite already missing 11 games, the former Hart Trophy winner can still save his season. However, to do that, he needs to “be fire” over the next month and a half.
Malkin has historically stepped up when Crosby’s sidelined, increasing his already-juicy personal numbers:
With Crosby: 327 goals (0.44 per game) and 848 points (1.15 per game) in 738 games
Without Crosby: 66 goals (0.55 per game) and 161 points (1.33 per game) in 121 games
If the Penguins have any hope of staying in the playoff race while Crosby misses at least 20 games or so, Malkin is going to have to produce similar numbers. He started by recording an assist on Justin Schultz’s goal during Tuesday’s 3-2 overtime loss to the New York Rangers. Malkin’s individual play can carry the Penguins, but it’s a matter of whether he’s able to flip that switch.
With Malkin sliding up to the top line, Jared McCann will take over the second-line center duties. Since being acquired from the Florida Panthers last season, the 23-year-old forward has been the team’s most versatile player. He’s moved from center to wing in various roles throughout the lineup and has been a key member on both the penalty kill and power play. His most important role to date will be put to the test over the next six weeks.
McCann has averaged just about 14 minutes of ice time per game this season. That number will rise as he’s leaned on as one of the leaders of the forward group. The Ontario native will have the Dominiks – Simon and Kahun – by his side. Unlike Malkin’s top line, Sullivan may decide to tinker with his middle-six early and often to find something that sticks.
McCann tallied a game-tying, power-play goal in Tuesday’s loss to the Rangers. That ended a hideous 11-game stretch where the Penguins failed to convert on a power-play opportunity, the longest such streak in franchise history. Without Crosby, those power play struggles are likely to continue, making it even more important for the forwards to dominate at 5-on-5.
On top of Crosby’s absence, defensive leader Kris Letang has missed the last three games and has already been ruled out for Friday’s game against the Devils. He was initially considered “week-to-week” after sustaining an injury last week, so he could still miss another handful of games. John Marino has averaged 21:37 of ice time on the top pair with Brian Dumoulin during Letang’s absence. It will be important for Marino to continue driving offense and playing his usual strong defense to lead the blue line.
There’s never a “good” time for your star center to miss six weeks of action, but this is probably the best time for Crosby. He should be back around the New Year for a healthy second half and tight playoff push. However, the schedule over the next month and a half won’t be a breeze.
From now through the first week of December, the Penguins have to face the St. Louis Blues twice, the New York Islanders twice, the Vancouver Canucks, and the Arizona Coyotes, among others. Fortunately, two games against the Devils and another against the Detroit Red Wings are included as well. Later in December, the Penguins will also have a tough road trip against the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, and Canucks.
The Penguins managed to stay afloat during the early goings with Malkin, Rust, and Nick Bjugstad all missing chunks of time. Now, it’s up to them to survive while Crosby is on the shelf. They’ve shown their depth and resilience and should find a way to grind out some wins. However, a long cold streak could prove to be insurmountable down the stretch.