PITTSBURGH — The Penguins will be forced to start the season without their captain, after Sidney Crosby underwent wrist surgery Wednesday.
Crosby will be sidelined a minimum of six weeks, the team announced. With the Oct. 12 season-opener against the Tampa Bay Lightning less than five weeks away, that means he'll miss the entirety of training camp and at least the first few games of the regular season.
“Obviously, we all hoped we wouldn’t have to go this way,” general manager Ron Hextall said. “We did everything we could to obviously avoid this. In the end, it was the best way to proceed. The focus was having Sid back at 100 percent or as close to 100 percent as possible. This was the proper avenue to go.”
The injury is not new, but instead something Crosby has tried to manage for years. In August 2020, for example, he underwent arthroscopic wrist debridement surgery to the same wrist. After exploring minimally invasive options, the club ultimately decided surgery was Crosby’s best route.
Asked why the procedure was not performed earlier in the offseason to allow more ample time for recovery, Hextall said it was just part of the “process” to determine the best path for a nagging injury.
“At the end of the year, you let the body heal, test things out,” Hextall said. “It takes weeks to see where the wrist is at and if it can get through another year. At some point, you ramp things up along the way. The conclusion that we came to was this procedure was the best way to proceed.
“We all, including Sid, wish that we knew this a month or two months ago. It would have been great,” he said. “But we are where we are.”
The injury news is the second significant offseason blow to the depth at center. The club is already planning to start the season without Evgeni Malkin, who underwent right knee surgery in early June.
Hextall did not provide any more information about Malkin’s timeline for a return when asked Wednesday. He said the club expects to know more when training camp opens in late September.
“It’s not ideal,” Hextall said. “Let’s be honest. But we’re not going to sit there and feel sorry for ourselves. We still have to find ways to win games. We’re not going to replace Sid and Geno, obviously. So we’ll need different guys to step up on any given night and play a hard brand of hockey.”
As it currently stands, 36-year-old Jeff Carter would be the top line center on opening night and Teddy Blueger would center the second line. Even with those two forwards in expanded roles, the Penguins will still need to find two more centers to play in the middle of the third and fourth lines. Hextall mentioned, by name, Evan Rodrigues, Radim Zohorna, Dominic Simon, Michael Chaput and Brian Boyle as options. Sam Lafferty might figure into that conversation, too, as a natural center who has played the position in the past.
Rodrigues and Zohorna are likely atop the list of candidates. Rodrigues’ positional flexibility was one of the reasons the Penguins re-signed him this offseason to another one-year contract. He has centered lines at numerous points in his NHL career.
The Penguins also have been intrigued by the potential of Zohorna, a 6-foot-6 forward affectionately nicknamed “Big Z.” He flashed some playmaking on the wing last season and the club has noted on several instances that he’s a natural center who could eventually slide over to the middle.
As for the others in contention, Boyle signed a professional tryout contract with the Penguins last week. The 36-year-old forward carved out a niche in 12-plus NHL seasons as a bottom-six grinder. However, he did not play during the 2020-21 season. His chances of making the squad suddenly have improved. Chaput, meanwhile, mostly manned the taxi squad last season, appearing in 13 NHL games with Arizona.
If the Penguins choose to place either of their centers on long-term injured reserve to start the year, they would be permitted to temporarily exceed the salary cap. However, Hextall expressed his reservations when asked about taking that approach to add a player.
“The problem is, if you use it, you’ve got to go back and get cap compliant when Sid and Geno come back,” Hextall said. “It’s not as easy as it looks.”
Crosby, 34, netted 62 points (24 goals, 38 assists) in 55 games last season. This is not the first time he has gone under the knife in recent seasons. During the 2019-20 season, his season was shortened to 41 games after undergoing midseason core muscle surgery.
The Penguins pulled together in his absence that season to post the NHL’s best record during the stretch in which they were without one of the NHL's best players. Now, with two centers missing, they’ll try to weather another injury storm.
“This is going to be a group effort to make up for the deficit that we have right now,” Hextall said. “There’s no use crying about it. Every team goes through it.”©2021 PG Publishing Co. Visit at post-gazette.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.