On the Penguins: What can anyone honestly expect of Sidney Crosby upon his return?
Ten months ago, Sidney Crosby was widely regarded as the finest player in the world.
Perhaps he will be again 10 months from now. Or 10 weeks. Or 10 days, for that matter.
But as Crosby gets closer to returning from the concussion that has prevented him from playing since Jan. 5, it's worth pointing out that he won't necessarily be the same player.
Not immediately, anyway.
Even if there are no lingering effects from his concussion, Crosby will have to deal with having been away from games for 10-plus months.
And while none of his teammates know what it's like to perform at the level Crosby routinely reaches -- OK, Evgeni Malkin probably has at least a rough idea -- several are all too aware of what it's like to return to work after an extended layoff.
And while their injuries were as different as their playing styles, they have at least one thing in common: All agree that their returns were not seamless, that they needed time to get acclimated before feeling entirely at home in game situations again.
"It probably took me a good 15 games before I felt comfortable out there," said winger Steve Sullivan, who missed 142 consecutive regular-season games, including the entire 2007-08 season, because of a back problem.
Crosby has, to this point, missed 54 games. Not as many as Sullivan, obviously, but more than the 40 Jordan Staal sat out at the start of the 2010-11 season because of a foot infection and its complications.
"The timing is one of the biggest things," Staal said. "It's a fast game. You think that in practice you're moving fast and you're feeling good, but when you get into a game, it's that much faster and that much harder to find openings and understand where you need to be."
Defenseman Paul Martin sat out nearly five months during the 2009-10 season because of a broken left forearm, and he concurs with Staal.
"The longer you're away, the less comfortable you are with the situations you're in," he said. "A lot of it, you don't know what to expect. You don't remember what it is like."
There is, naturally, no way of knowing how much time Crosby will need to get acclimated. Heck, he might look and feel like his old self the instant he goes over the boards for the first time.
His teammates who have endured extended stretches away from games think that might be a bit much to expect, though, even for a player with Crosby's exceptional skill level, instincts and work ethic.
"I don't think it will be as hard for Sid, but I think it will take some time, with the timing, the speed, getting used to it," Martin said.
"There's going to be some amount of rust. That's not necessarily even physical. It takes some time to get back into that groove you were in before."
Staal expects that to be the case, too. Not that he anticipates Crosby's co-workers being unduly demanding once he's back in uniform.
"Obviously, he's a very talented player, but you would think there are times where he's going to have to find his game back," he said.
"I'm sure our team will be very patient with him. And happy to have him back."
It's hard to think of a facet of the game -- OK, maybe goaltending -- that Crosby couldn't improve simply by getting back in the lineup.
Certainly, the Penguins will be happy to get him back in their shootout rotation, considering his career success rate of 40.4 percent (21 for 52).
Kris Letang, who was 15 for 42 (35.7 percent) going into Saturday night's game at Toronto, is a fixture in the shootout lineup, too. And if Jason Williams, signed as a free agent during the offseason, hadn't had his bid for an NHL job sabotaged by a groin injury during camp, he might have been there, as well.
Williams has scored on 13 of 34 shootout tries, a conversion rate of 38.2 percent, and realized he had a knack even before shootouts were adopted by the NHL.
"In the lockout year [2004-05], I went over to Finland," he said. "They did the shootout thing at the end of the game. I did pretty good in the first five or six shootouts. I scored on the majority of them.
"Then coming back here, when they [instituted] the shootout, I was one of the guys to get a chance. It's something I enjoy doing. It's fun. You have 18,000 or 20,000 people watching."
He also appreciates the impact that doing well in shootouts can have on a team's regular-season point total.
"It pays dividends at the end of the year," he said. "It's become a big part of the game."
First Published October 30, 2011 12:00 am