Less than a year ago, I felt as if we Pens fans were on top of the world.
The glow of the 2009 Stanley Cup win may have dulled, but we were entering a time full of promise and good hockey. The team's core was in tact and raring to go. The decision to fire Michel Therrien and pick up Dan Bylsma was looking to be one of the team's best decisions after drafting Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Ray Shero was dictating free agency as if he had players tied to strings. The Pens were christening their new home, welcoming a new age of hockey into the already rich history of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Everything seemed to be going as planned. Everything was good. But as we look back on the last few weeks, even the last few months, we have witnessed how quickly times can change. We became slaves to our computers throughout #JagrWatch and saw as two iconic players traded their black and gold uniforms (or in Jagr's case, history with a black and gold uniform) for orange and black, with only the "fondest" memories of where they started their careers. And since then, we have become concussion experts and message overanalyzers concerning Crosby's mysterious situation.
Fellow Pens fans, I have a feeling we're still in for more and it won't stop once we get to training camp. Unfortunately, things are just getting warmed up.
We're all familiar with Crosby's situation. We've been all over it since we heard that Crosby was a scratch for the Jan. 6 game against the Montreal Canadiens.
The last few weeks, Crosby rumors were on the fly with JoshRimerHockey's tweet stating the Pens would start the regular season without their captain. Then discussions began on why there seemed to be a lack of communication between Crosby and the rest of the organization. Discussions became so intense, and at times, skewed, that we finally heard from Crosby himself through a team announcement.
"I appreciate all the support I’ve received from my family, friends, teammates and fans and from the entire Penguins organization," Crosby said. "I know they only want the best for my health, and for me to be fully ready when I return to game action."
So maybe it wasn't the news many anticipated, but it was something. After the initial surprise of the announcement subsided, Crosby's status in terms of a return time still remained uncertain.
But we knew that. We've known that since Crosby was first diagnosed with a concussion. These injuries take time, Crosby will have to be careful as he returns to his training regimen, yadda yadda, we had all heard it before.
There isn't much more anyone can do but wait and that realization became painfully clear yesterday once again. Unless something happens, there won't be any noteworthy news until training camp. I know I saw some people commenting about how much this must frustrate Crosby that he can't focus his offseason on improving, rather he has to listen to everyone and their mother become his personal concussion expert. As Crosby correctly noted, at least this is all coming from a place of love. We all want him back yesterday.
But just like it is for Crosby, it's a waiting game for us as well. Rossi's article pointed out that multiple doctors expect Crosby to make a full recovery, no matter how long it takes (the only new bit of information released in the announcement). But even once Crosby returns to the roster full time, it doesn't necessarily mean everything will be fine and dandy. I know we all believe in the magic Crosby can conjure with his stick, but he's going to have to find his skates and it probably won't happen immediately. Our faith has to rest in Crosby that he'll pull through. Once that happens, then we will have to find a way to numb anxiety when we see players line up Crosby in the corners. His chances of receiving another concussion have increased dramatically no matter what which makes for an unstable future. Right now, there are more questions than answers for Crosby, but we still come back to the fact that there's nothing new that can be done anymore for the time being.
It's a waiting game.
Outside of the Crosby news, Pens fans were reminded earlier in the week of another player who has taken center stage in the world of NHL drama: Matt Cooke.
Rossi posted an article about the personal struggles going on in Cooke's life while he was being nailed with fines and suspensions. The article does little to rectify the wrongs of Cooke's on-ice actions, but it makes very clear that Cooke is set on changing.
Don't get me wrong, this is obviously a good thing, but like Hooks mentioned in his write up of the article yesterday, his actions will have to speak louder than his words. I don't know a single Pens fan who tried to defend Cooke's hits, but I've adamantly stood by him. I think he's capable of changing for the better. But here's the problem: how many more chances are we willing to give him? There is a good chance Cooke will never clear his name because of the power of Youtube and he no longer has wiggle room for an "accident."
I'm going to be on pins and needles watching Cooke play because we know he's going to be watched just as carefully as Crosby. We'll have to be prepared for more boos whenever he knocks a player on his wallet in opposing buildings and cheers when the same happens to him.
Despite the problems Cooke might bring with him, I know I'll be glad to see him on our penalty kill once again. About 26% of the Pens' power play goals against were scored while Cooke was serving his suspension. Cooke is a superb player and he's only given us his best while a Penguin. We just need to be ready for the imminent hate that will follow him for years to come. All I can say is ready your earplugs.
Lastly, we have Malkin.
Out of the three, he's easily the least nerve-wrecking to think about because the Pens have supplied us with a mini Real Life series on how Malkin has been training in Russia. We've been told that he's ahead of schedule in terms of his recovery from an ACL/MCL tear. By the time training camp rolls around, he'll be ready.
I've seen so many articles about how Malkin will be expected to have a big season, especially if Crosby isn't ready for October. I've already shared my thoughts on expectations toward Malkin's return. Honestly, though, the articles saying Malkin needs to have a big season are silly. With the amount the Pens are paying him, every season should be a big season and these articles have been a regular occurrence for the last few years Ultimately, however, the fact that he's returning from injury puts everything in a different perspective.
Either way, Malkin's predicament mirrors Crosby in that we don't know how this season will go for him. Will he fly out of the gate, ignited by the same emotions that sent Shero the "I'm sorry" text? Or will he start off slow and build up his pace? Or will he have another average season that would ultimately trigger more "trade Malkin" rumors?
We don't know. If you haven't noticed, this has been the theme of this piece. There is so much uncertainty that lies ahead of us this season, more than we've been used to in the last few seasons. And I'm not talking about the uncertainty in figuring out who will be regular wingers on Malkin's line. Some of us may see this as a negative thing and it totally makes sense why.
I'm trying not to.
This is how champions are born. They defy difficulty like it's a part of their normal routine. We were all witness to this in 2008-2009 when the Pens wrote new definitions of suck before Therrien was sacked and Bylsma picked up the reins and led the chariots to victory. They made something out of what seemed to be nothing.
So keep the faith, hang tight and let's keep our eyes on the prize. There's a good chance we'll have a ton of bumps along the way, but this is the team who lives by the phrase "Nothing worth winning ever came easy."