“Sidney Crosby,” “injury” and “mulling surgery” are ingredients of a catastrophic sentence in almost any scenario. But there's a chance the Pittsburgh Penguins can escape this situation relatively unscathed.
As reported by the Athletic’s Rob Rossi this week, Crosby has been dealing with a sports hernia since training camp. He played through it because the Penguins had suffered such a non-stop parade of injuries to their forwards, from Evgeni Malkin to Nick Bjugstad to Patric Hornqvist to Bryan Rust, but Crosby aggravated the injury after an awkward fall during last Saturday’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Crosby must decide whether to have surgery now, which would sideline him four to six weeks, or play through the sports hernia with a steroid injection and physiotherapy and have the injury repaired in the off-season.
Should the decision even be difficult? Yes, Crosby obviously isn’t one to want to take himself out of the lineup. It’s not in his nature. The Penguins are 10-6-2, holding down the first Eastern Conference wildcard spot, so there’s a playoff race to consider. Hornqvist also remains sidelined long-term with his lower-body injury, and top blueliner Kris Letang hasn’t yet returned from his lower-body injury, so Crosby could feel pressure to keep carrying his team.
At the same time, sports hernia surgery ranks pretty low on the surgery-severity scale. Even a worst-case timeline gets Crosby back in the lineup before January. If he delays the surgery, it’s possible he aggravates the injury further and ends up shelved later in the season in the thick of the race. Crosby hasn’t recorded a point in four games, during which the Pens have been outscored 5-0 at 5-on-5 with him on the ice, albeit the shot-attempt ratios were still solidly in Pittsburgh’s favor over that stretch. The point is: it’s possible we’re seeing Crosby’s play hindered just a bit by the injury, so that’s one big reason for him to get the surgery.
And Crosby kept the Pens afloat while Malkin missed 11 games with a lower-body injury, so maybe Malkin can return the favor. His history of flourishing sans-Crosby is well documented. We all remember 2011-12, Malkin’s glorious MVP season, in which he ripped off 50 goals and 109 points while Crosby languished in the scariest phase of his career, fighting through concussion woes. Malkin isn’t the player he was then, of course, especially since his body continues to break down at age 33. But he remains an all-world talent capable of incredibly dominant stretches. He’s playing a career-low 16:42 per game as the Pens handle him carefully – but he’s averaging a fantastic 4.28 points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. Among players with at least 75 minutes played this season, Malkin ranks second only to Brad Marchand in the entire league in points per 60. Malkin’s sample size is tiny at seven games, but he’s earned the benefit of the doubt as a future Hall of Famer.
So maybe coach Mike Sullivan slowly ramps up Malkin’s ice time in Crosby’s absence and that helps keep the Pens at around .500 hockey for the next month, which is all they’ll really need until their captain returns.
Even if a true Murphy’s Law scenario strikes – maybe Malkin gets hurt again, or Crosby has a setback in his recovery – and the Pens end up missing the playoffs as a result of the in-season surgery…that might not be a bad thing, either. The Penguins have the lowest-ranked farm system in the NHL according to our Future Watch panel of NHL scouts and team executives, and 2019 ended a streak of five straight drafts without a first-round pick, so a playoff miss would provide an opportunity to infuse the roster with high-ceiling youth while Crosby and Malkin still have good years left.
That’s not the desired outcome, of course, but it’s not a horrible one, either. So, for a litany of reasons, it makes sense for Crosby to get the surgery over with. It'll hurt his team less now than it will later on.
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