Penguins GM Shero insists that return of Crosby, Letang worth the wait

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- While the Penguins got a day off Thursday in south Florida, general manager Ray Shero, who is not on this trip, kept busy talking about his slumping team and injured star center Sidney Crosby. The message was clear -- reason trumps panic.

Shero ditched a notion that has gained popularity among some fans on social media that calls for him to shelve Crosby and perhaps injured defenseman Kris Letang for the rest of the season and use the millions of dollars in resulting salary-cap space to make a big trade or two.

"I have to have it in my mind about what we might have coming back," Shero said. "Those guys are worth waiting for."

What can't wait is a return to winning hockey. The Penguins have lost six games in a row and fallen below the Eastern Conference playoff line going into their game against Florida tonight at BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise, Fla. They have averaged just a goal a game in that stretch.

"We're not getting the contributions that we need, and those guys don't need to be told that. The guys who need to score know who they are," Shero said, adding that he includes scoring, defense and goaltending -- pretty much the key elements of hockey -- as areas of deficiency.

He noted that in the 5-1 home loss Tuesday against Ottawa there was a full breakdown in which an absent transition game helped thwart the offense -- "We couldn't handle one forechecker," he said -- but he refused to blame the absence of puck-moving defensemen Letang and Paul Martin, who was ill.

Martin returned the next night, and the Penguins had a better showing in Washington but lost, 1-0.

"I thought we brought that urgency in that game," Shero said.

He deplores the idea that the Penguins will spend a stretch run devoted to just making it into the top eight in the East.

"Our expectation is not [just] to make the playoffs; it's bigger than that," he said. "I don't have to tell our players that."

Shero still believes in his team, noting that the Penguins rank highly in goals per game, goals against per game, power-play percent and penalty-killing efficiency.

"Ten days ago, we had won four games in a row. Then, we lost to [Philadelphia] and started sliding," he said. "Any game, any lineup, you've got to believe you're going to win."

It has been difficult lately with a lot of missing bodies. Several Penguins have been hurt this season, including key players. In addition to Crosby and Letang, who has a concussion, Jordan Staal is expected to miss about a month because of a knee injury he got last Friday.

"Thank God, we've had Evgeni [Malkin] playing at a top level," Shero said of the team's other top center besides Crosby and Staal.

Shero can quickly tell you how many days are left until the Feb. 27 NHL trade deadline, and he's known for pulling some important deals at or before that designated day, but he said he addressed many of what he thought were the team's needs during free agency last summer.

And he expects a boost to come not so much from new faces as from the return of injured players.

Letang, out since Nov. 26, has resumed skating and could rejoin practice soon.

Crosby has played just eight games since being diagnosed with a concussion Jan. 6, 2011. His comeback ended Dec. 5 when he had a recurrence of symptoms. He is scheduled to return to skating today after the game-day skate and speak to reporters afterward.

There is no timetable for Letang or Crosby to return to the lineup, and Shero chafed at those who question Crosby's prolonged absence and suggest the Penguins should give up on him for the season.

"We never even once discussed that," Shero said of putting Crosby on long-term injured reserve to let him continue to heal for several months and finding a replacement or two through trades.

If the Penguins put any player on long-term injured reserve, that player's salary-cap hit does not count -- but only until he is reinstated or until the playoffs. The cap is suspended in the postseason. Shero is willing to wait and hope Crosby is back before the end of the regular season in April.

"I say to our fans, have patience with this," Shero said. "This is what he is -- he's a hockey player. There's nothing more that he wants to do but play hockey. He's not medically cleared to play. He's 24. He's in the prime of his career. He wants to play. "To think that I can go out and replace him with one or two players [isn't feasible]. Once a player is cleared to play, what do you do -- say, 'You can't play'?"


For much more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Shelly Anderson: shanderson@post-gazette.com , 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.


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