Latest setback threatens Roberts' career
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With the NHL trade deadline later today, it seemed like the perfect time to ask a question of Penguins winger Gary Roberts, who had such a huge impact after joining the team in a deadline deal a year ago.
Do you think you'll be able to provide the same lift down the stretch that you did last year?
Roberts' answer was troubling, to say the least.
"Well, I was hoping to -- until this," he said, pointing at his left foot.
Another high ankle sprain.
- Game: Penguins vs. New York Islanders, 7:08 p.m.
- Where: Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, N.Y.
- TV: FSN Pittsburgh.
"Our fourth of the season," Roberts said, sadly.
You know all about Sidney Crosby's ankle injury and Marc-Andre Fleury's and even Maxime Talbot's, but news of Roberts' must come as a stunner. It sure shocked Roberts and Penguins officials, who had hoped he would be back in the lineup for the past weekend's games. They thought he was just dealing with a broken left leg from a game Dec. 29 against Buffalo. Team doctors had told them the swelling and weakness in Roberts' ankle was from that leg injury. It wasn't until he tried to skate for the first time two weeks ago -- and crumpled to the ice in a heap -- that he knew something worse was wrong. Further examination revealed a ligament tear in his ankle, another result of that same collision with Buffalo's Tim Connolly.
"All that time I was waiting for a bone to heal I could have been doing rehab for my ankle," Roberts said.
He said he won't try to skate for two more weeks. His new target date to play again is March 27, a home game against the New York Islanders. "At least that would give me five games before the playoffs."
So much for that big push for the team down the stretch.
Roberts acknowledged there's no guarantee he will make it back. He'll be 42 in May. Although he works out maniacally -- "His muscles have muscles," Penguins teammate Erik Christensen gushed upon first watching Roberts train last season -- jumping back into the games just when their intensity is starting to soar is a lot to ask.
If Roberts can't make it back, it would be a big loss for the Penguins, even if they have managed to stay near the top of the Eastern Conference standings without him, Fleury and Crosby. The leadership he brought after the trade last season was incredible. The toughness. The energy. The Penguins could use all of those things, not to mention his playoff experience.
Although they got a taste of the postseason last year, they still are a young team. Come April, it would be mighty comforting for the other players to look across the room and see Roberts pulling on his equipment.
"I just want to be a piece of the puzzle," he said. "Even as a third-line player ..."
Roberts has much more at stake than just the tail end of this season. His career could be on the line. Although saying he wants to play next season -- "There's no way I want to pack it in under these circumstances" -- he conceded, quietly, "I know I have to show them something this year to be back next year."
Roberts probably could have signed a two-year deal elsewhere before this season but took one year to stay with the Penguins because "this is a great city to play hockey in. It has exceeded all of my expectations." Even before his injuries, his season had not gone well. A respiratory infection on top of his asthma sapped him of his energy. For a long time, it looked as if he had hit the wall that even the great players eventually do. It wasn't until just before that Buffalo game that he started to feel like he had his legs again. He had two goals and an assist in a 4-2 win Dec. 23 against Boston.
"They haven't shot me or put me out to pasture yet," Roberts said, forcing a smile. "I have a couple of close friends in this game. I've told them, 'If I'm really losing it, tell me so I don't embarrass myself.' No one has said anything yet. I'm thankful for that. I still feel like I have some game left in me."
And if Roberts doesn't? If this is his final season?
The man will have no regrets.
Remember, Roberts retired after the 1995-96 season because of a serious neck injury before making a Lemieux-like comeback in 1997-98.
"Here I am, 41, almost 42, and still playing," he said. "I'm grateful for the second opportunity I've been given. If I don't get next year, I won't feel gypped. Hockey has been too good to me and my family to ever feel that way."
If anyone can bounce back from two bad leg injuries, it is Roberts. "You can be damn sure I'll give it my best effort," he said. Of that, Penguins coach Michel Therrien has no doubt.
"Some guys have the capability of upgrading their game when it's crunch time. Gary Roberts is that player," Therrien has said. "He plays for real. He doesn't play for fun. He plays for real."
Make no mistake here.
This really is crunch time for Roberts.
Like never before in his career.
First Published February 26, 2008 12:00 am