PITTSBURGH, Pa. - Sidney Crosby is hitting the road with his Pittsburgh teammates again, but is not ready for prime time yet.
Despite recent speculation that his return could be days away, perhaps in time for the first round of the playoffs, Crosby climbing over the boards again during game action might not occur until next season.
Crosby will rejoin his teammates for game-day skates starting Thursday, but it appears increasingly less likely the former NHL MVP will heal from a concussion in time to play again this season, no matter how far the Penguins advance in the post-season.
"The last thing we'll do with Sidney Crosby or any player is push him if he's not ready," general manager Ray Shero said Wednesday.
Crosby, sidelined since early January after sustaining two hard hits in as many games, isn't cleared yet to practise or for anything resembling contact—only to skate with his teammates on game days. Some days he will just work out off the ice, as he has been doing since he resumed skating nearly three weeks ago.
Shero speculated that with the playoffs only two weeks away, there might not be enough time for Crosby to return for the post-season. He ruled out any possibility that Crosby could play in any of the Penguins' remaining five regular-season games.
"Our captain is coming back any time soon? That is not our expectation," Shero said. "Having said that, I don't want to take hope away from the player, because he's feeling good about himself. But when I talk to Dan Bylsma, our coach, about a date, a certain date about when Sid might be coming back, the certain date might be in training camp."
Bylsma said several more steps await Crosby in his lengthy rehabilitation, including getting cleared to practise and for taking body contact. The Penguins' doctors are determining each step, and there is no timetable for any of them.
"We have no anticipation for when the next step is and where that might down the road, if at all this year," Bylsma said.
"There is no strategic plan from myself or Dan Bylsma to reintroduce him in our lineup at any certain day or time," Shero said. "This is a complex injury. I think we're happy as to where he is in terms of getting back on the ice. His off-ice program's continuing, which is good. That's really where we are."
Only last week, Penguins fans—and, too, their players—became optimistic that the team captain might return soon after the team's website posted video of him shooting and skating at nearly full speed. One of his backhanders exploded a water bottle that sat atop the net.
From the way Shero and Bylsma were talking Wednesday, taking shots while unopposed during an individual skate is far removed from being able to play effectively—and without worry about his health—in a physical, tight-checking and pressure-filled playoff game.
"To return to game action for the Stanley Cup playoffs takes a certain type of fitness and (being) game ready," Shero said. "He is certainly not close yet at this point.…I just want to take a step back and kind of temper some of the enthusiasm for any certain date that he's coming back to play. That is not the expectation of the manager, and it's not the expectation of the coach."
Shero added, "He's a pretty diligent worker as we know, but he's not cleared for contact or anything like that. That is part of the next step, and we'll see how he handles that (skating with his teammates) and go from there."
Crosby has not played since being driven into the boards by Tampa Bay defenceman Victor Hedman on Jan. 5, and he likely would need weeks of conditioning work just to get back into game shape. The game before that, Crosby absorbed an apparently unintentional but hard hit to the head from then-Capitals defenceman David Steckel during the Jan. 1 Winter Classic outdoor game.
"The progress that he needs to make and the steps that he needs to have (with timing and conditioning) are not even on the radar yet," Bylsma said. "He's dealing with the doctor in terms of when that is going to be and how that is going to be. So Ray and I have not had discussions about the start of the playoffs, first round, second round."
For now, Crosby is doing better but, given the complex nature of a concussion and the uncertainty in predicting when or how an athlete will recover from one, the Penguins are operating on a day to day basis. The doctors tell Crosby what he can do that day, and he does it.
"There was talk about him retiring, which was ridiculous," Shero said. "There was talk about him coming back April 5. (That's) not happening."
The 23-year-old Crosby, who led the Penguins to a Stanley Cup championship two years ago, was enjoying his best season with 66 points in 41 games before he was hurt. He was the runaway leader in the NHL scoring race, and he remains in the top 20 despite not playing for nearly three months.
The Penguins are 19-12-5 without Crosby and are second to Philadelphia in the Atlantic Division after dropping a 5-2 decision to the Flyers on Tuesday night. They play Thursday night at Tampa Bay and Saturday at Florida, and Crosby accompanied the Penguins on the trip.
"It seems like he's been having fun and smiling, so that's great," goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. "Hopefully this keeps getting better and he'll join the team (for full practice) when he’s ready."
Unless the Penguins overhaul the Flyers—they trail 102-98 in points—they face the possibility of not having home-ice advantage for any playoff round other than the first. Pittsburgh also is without its Conn Smythe Trophy winner from two seasons ago, former NHL scoring champion Evgeni Malkin, who is out for the season after having right knee surgery nearly two months ago.
Crosby did not talk to reporters on Wednesday, but will do so Thursday after the morning skate in Tampa. He will skate on his own Friday, and then rejoin his teammates for their game day skate Saturday at Sunrise, Fla.