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Crosby concussion shapes Penguins plans Add to ...

On the one-year anniversary of his golden goal, Canada’s Olympic hero Sidney Crosby was nowhere to be found Sunday. He is not close to returning to the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup and presumably not celebrating much either, perhaps just taking a quiet moment to reflect on the goal that shook a nation and put a punctuation mark on a wildly successful and endearing Olympics for Canada.

Sadly, that is the critical issue when recovering from a concussion. Improvement is measured in small increments, with simple tasks such as reading a book or going for a walk.

Nobody knows for certain if he’ll play in the NHL again this season, least of all Crosby himself, and this same uncertainty is being played out all around the league on the eve of the 2011 trading deadline.

In this, the NHL’s year of the concussion, Crosby’s absence – along with those of his concussed brotherhood – has left his Penguins and a whole host of other teams too unsure of how to proceed, as the annual shuffling of the playing decks approaches the witching hour.

Crosby’s boss, Penguins general manager Ray Shero, is hedging his bets by putting one foot in each camp. He added a short-term solution in Alexei Kovalev to make the Penguins more competitive right now, and Kovalev paid immediate dividends by providing the shootout winner last Saturday over the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Adding James Neal from the Dallas Stars represents more of a medium-to-long-term investment. Neal is a scoring winger approaching his prime and meets the need for a finisher to play alongside Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, whenever they get back to playing in the months and years to come.

From watching Pittsburgh play these days, Shero has clearly reconfigured the Penguins lineup presuming that it won’t get Crosby back this season.

Notwithstanding that wild 6-5 game against Toronto, their new blueprint is all about grit and hard work and grinding out low-scoring, narrow victories. With their forward ranks thinned by all those key injuries, they will not win a lot of run-and-gun games come playoff time.

Neal’s former team, the Dallas Stars, is in even more of a pickle when it comes to Brad Richards, its best player, who is also concussed – and on an expiring contract to boot. General manager Joe Nieuwendyk is listening to offers for Richards’s services, but he has set the price so high that, unless the Los Angeles Kings or New York Rangers swallow hard and determine to overpay, it is far more likely that he is staying in Big D, at least in the short term.

The Stars are a different team with Richards in the lineup than they are when he’s absent and they are crossing their fingers that he’ll be back at some point later this week or early next. Ultimately, they have a seven-game home stand coming up here in the final quarter of the season that will make or break their season. Nieuwendyk may be a newcomer at this business of being an NHL GM, but he also understands how these rental deals frequently turn out – not so well for the team that’s giving up the best player. He doesn’t want to end up with Angelo Esposito and a couple of picks in a not-so-great draft the way the Atlanta Thrashers did a few years back when they auctioned off Marian Hossa (to the Penguins).

If that’s all that’s being offered, then it is far better for Dallas to stay the course, compete for a playoff spot with Richards at its disposal, and maybe even win a round or two. The bonus there would be that it then has him until July 1 – maybe enough time to sort out its ownership situation, which has been the biggest stumbling block in the Richards contract negotiations anyway. Richards wants to see signs of ownership stability before he commits for the long term, and who can blame him? He was there, at the end, in Tampa, when new and bizarro ownership essentially wrecked the franchise and sent a lot of quality players to the exits.

It is the same elsewhere too – Marian Gaborik is out with a concussion in New York; and Eric Staal looks as if he suffered some sort of a head injury in Carolina, even if the Hurricanes haven’t officially confirmed what it is that ails their captain. Without Staal, Carolina could be caught for eighth place in the Eastern Conference standings, which puts an onus on its two closest pursuers, the Buffalo Sabres and the Toronto Maple Leafs, to keep pushing hard and maybe add a warm body or two later Monday as well.

Much of the intrigue for this year’s deadline probably disappeared in the past fortnight, when a handful of big names – Chris Stewart, Erik Johnson, Alex Goligoski – plus a lot of little ones changed teams. Monday, in the final hours before the 3 p.m. (ET) deadline, it’s all about the “what ifs?” going forward and especially the “what if” in Pittsburgh, where Crosby finds himself in a far different place (and a far different space) than he was for his golden moment just one year ago.

Follow on Twitter: @eduhatschek

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