CANONSBURG, Pa. - The Pittsburgh Penguins finally acknowledged what has seemed obvious for weeks: Sidney Crosby is having concussion symptoms.
Crosby is exercising lightly, much as he did during his nearly 11-month concussion layoff earlier this year, and there is no timetable for his return. It is almost the same scenario the Penguins have dealt with for nearly a year, except for the brief two-week window in which Crosby returned earlier this season.
"He's still having some symptoms," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said Wednesday following an off-day practice at the team's suburban practice rink.
Bylsma did not say whether Crosby has a new concussion or if he is experiencing a carryover from the vestibular concussion that sidelined the NHL's highest-profile player from Jan. 6 until Nov. 21.
While Bylsma offered no other details, this was the first time since Crosby last played on Dec. 5 against Boston that the Penguins confirmed their superstar centre is dealing again with concussion-related problems.
Crosby hasn't talked to reporters since Dec. 12, when he said he was experiencing headaches—one of the side effects of his previous concussion. He suggested after missing a two-game road trip that he was only being cautious, and that he might return soon.
"I'm not happy about watching, but I have to make sure with these sorts of things that I'm careful and making sure I'm 100 per cent before coming back," Crosby said.
The 24-year-old Crosby also said he felt much better than he did when he was initially hurt in January but, until Wednesday, neither he nor the Penguins had updated his status since then.
Regardless of whether this is a new or a recurring concussion, this is exactly what the Penguins feared when Crosby made his stunning return with a two-goal, four-point night against the Islanders on Nov. 21.
Namely, that the player seemingly destined to be this era's version, albeit a lesser-scoring one, of Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux might have his spectacular career greatly shortened or diminished by the same injury that has affected three dozen NHL players this season alone.
In that Dec. 5 game, Crosby absorbed several hard but routine hits, including an elbow from forward David Krejci. That such a hit, or hits, could cause further problems are becoming a worry to the Penguins because it might mean that even a seemingly insignificant hit in the future might trigger such a response.
Already this season, the Penguins have lost Crosby, star defenceman Kris Letang, defencemen Zbynek Michalek and Robert Bortuzzo and forward Tyler Kennedy to concussions. Letang, off to a strong start with three goals and 16 assists in 22 games, hasn't played since being jarred by a hit from the Canadiens' Max Pacioretty on Nov. 26. Letang's nose was broken on the play, yet he returned to score the game-winning goal in overtime after being cleared by a doctor to return.
Around the NHL, stars such as Chris Pronger, Claude Giroux, Shea Weber and Jeff Skinner have dealt with or are dealing with concussions. Pronger, one of hockey's most physical and effective defencemen, won't play again this season. Weber, of Nashville, is the latest star to go down.
Bylsma said it is becoming one of the least-pleasant chores of any NHL coach, to be constantly discussing concussions.
"It's unfortunate to see Shea Weber have a concussion…you want to talk about the health of the players, and it is something to talk about," Bylsma said. "And maybe we talk a lot more about it than we did before."
Letang's return also doesn't appear to be imminent. While Bylsma said he is feeling better, Letang still isn't skating again. Letang is one of the NHL's most offensively skilled defencemen, and his absence also creates a void in a team that is playing well but could be better still without two of the NHL's best players.
And as good as Crosby was during his brief return—two goals and 10 assists in eight games—the words Crosby and concussion are becoming increasingly interlinked.
While his teammates say they will remain patient—"He'll be back when he's back," as Pascal Dupuis said—the Penguins are beginning to understand that Coping Without Crosby might be the unwanted theme to this season.
SinceCrosby experienced hard hits in successive games Jan. 1 and 5, he has played in only eight of their last 69 regular-season games. The Penguins are 39-22-8 during his absence, a remarkably good record considering the level of star they are missing, and 21-11-4 this season.
Going into Thursday night's home game against Jaromir Jagr and the Flyers, the Penguins are only two points out of a share of the Eastern Conference lead. Dupuis credits that resiliency to depth; Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, two of the NHL's leading scorers, each have eight-game scoring streaks, and Jordan Staal has 14 goals.
"It picks everyone up—if everybody around him (Malkin) gets a point, everybody feels comfortable," Dupuis said. "You play well and the guys around you feel more confident and you achieve more."