Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Impact of a Crosby-less NHL

As you may have noticed, had you read or seen just about anything about the NHL over the last couple days, Sidney Crosby suffered a high ankle sprain during the Penguins January 18th loss to Tampa Bay.

So just what are the ramifications of this injury? Are the Penguins still a playoff team? Does this affect the Capitals at all? What will they talk about in-studio on Versus now? Is this actually a good thing for Crosby and Penguins fans, giving him a chance to rest to help avoid a more serious back injury, the result of being asked to carry an entire professional sports league?

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Let me preface this by saying that I like Sidney Crosby, and I have ever since his rookie season (2003-04) in the QMJHL. His talent is undeniable, he's got as much professionalism as anyone else in the NHL and his character flaws from when he first entered the league (complaining to referees too frequently; diving) were forgivable and have been fixed. In addition the criticisms leveled against him are generally, well....wrong. Crosby doesn't rack up most of his spoints from secondary assists (see here and here) and he isn't soft - he played through a broken foot in the playoffs and he takes as much abuse as almost any other player in the league and still go into high-traffic areas hard to fight for points.

Anyhow, let's start with Sid the Kid himself:

Sidney Crosby

A high ankle sprain is one of those injuries, like a groin pull, that any NHL player fears. Of course there are worse injuries (just ask Bryan Berard or Pat Peake), but as far commonly seen injuries a high ankle sprain is about as bad it gets. It's nearly impossible to play through, hard to rehab, easy to reaggravate, and once reaggravated can be just as bad as it was when it first occurred.

If Crosby tries to play with his ankle at anything less than 100% his skill set is going to be severely diminished. Given that, and how easily a high ankle sprain can be reinjured, Crosby needs to focus on his rehabilitation and not give in to the temptation to return to the lineup early, which will certainly set in in the likely scenario that the Penguins see their play drop off without him.

With a lot of players, given how sensitive the ankle will be during the rehab stage and the time away from game speed, there would probably be a period of adjustment, but I don't think Crosby will have that given how focused and talent he is. That is, of course, provided that Crosby does sit until he is 100%.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Are the Penguins a playoff team without Sidney Crosby? You could make a case that they're not: Crosby is their captain, their first line center and their leader in points and assists (he's second in goals). On the other hand the Penguins still have a ton of young talent, lead by Evgeni Malkin, and were better than a borderline playoff team with Crosby in the lineup (Pittsburgh currently sits at second in the Eastern Conference).

What this means to me is that without Crosby, Pittsburgh is a borderline playoff team that would probably get in as a 6-8 seed. Thus they should be able to continue to win on a regular basis without Crosby, and while they won't pick up as many points as they otherwise would they should still be firmly in a playoff spot when Crosby gets back.

The one scenario where Pittsburgh gets in trouble is if they suffer a loss of confidence without Crosby in the lineup and let it snowball into a losing streak. The Penguins need to realize they're still a pretty good team and not panic even though their leader scorer is on the shelf.

Evgeni Malkin and Ty Conklin

While it's unrealistic to expect anything less than a team effort would be needed to compensate for the loss of a player like Crosby the Penguins' immediate fortunes rely in large part on these two players. Malkin has been an excellent NHL player in his short career, but he has also been afforded a luxury very few players selected second overall have had - being able to fly under the radar for the first couple NHL seasons. With Crosby out, Malkin is going to be asked to prove he can be a big-time player without the kind of help he's accustomed to.

The Penguins will also be hoping Ty Conklin's incredible season continues. Although Conklin has already done more than anyone would have ever asked of him it'd be unfortunate for the Penguin if he decided to come back to earth while Crosby's out.

The League and its Broadcast Partners

Speculation already exists about the panic going on within the league offices because of Crosby's injury but the reality is that the injury is not for a long enough term or enough severity for the league to become concerned about hitching their star to Crosby; in reality the ones who are concerned are the television networks: Versus is already cursing Crosby's ankle, as they'll have to come up with at least one topic of discussion beyond "Crosby vs. Ovechkin" (suggestions: each team's record since Thanksgiving, Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, Bruce Boudreau).

In my view it's not such a bad thing that the league's talking heads may have to talk about other players. In addition to Malkin and the Capitals' quintet of skilled player under the age of 24, Eric Staal, Jason Spezza, Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel are part of the league's immense amount of young talent. In addition the contribution of guys like Joe Thornton and Jarome Iginla have been criminally underrated for years.

Maybe the league will realize that there are other players worth talking about. If they do, it will be a good thing because it's difficult to be as relevant as the NHL wants to be when the majority of the country associates your league with only one face.

The Capitals

Well...Crosby won't be playing when these teams meet on Monday. So....that's a break for the Caps.

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