Not that long ago, Sidney Crosby was Sid the Kid. Now he's Sid the Coach.
A concussion has sidelined the NHL's signature star since Jan. 6 yet that doesn't mean Crosby hasn't contributed to Pittsburgh's 3-1 playoff series lead against Tampa Bay. The Penguins can close out the Eastern Conference quarter-final series at home Saturday.
Just like he's done for years, Crosby arrives at the arena a few hours before each game, wearing a nicely pressed and not inexpensive suit. The only change from a few months ago is Crosby doesn't take the suit off to put on his Penguins' gear.
Instead, he rides an elevator seven floors up to the top floor at Consol Energy Center, grabs a bottled water - that's a routine he doesn't change -and settles into a seat in the Penguins' executive box. Minutes before game time, he puts on a headset that allows him to speak with assistant coach Tony Granato behind the bench.
The Penguins aren't revealing how much insight Crosby is relaying to a team that wasn't expected to advance far in the postseason without him. But coach Dan Bylsma makes it clear this is not window dressing or a harmless way for Crosby to mind his time during tense games he badly misses playing.
To Bylsma, Crosby is an extremely valuable asset, even when he isn't wearing his familiar No. 87. Instead of centring a line with James Neal and Alex Kovalev, Crosby shares thoughts with Granato, Bylsma, general manager Ray Shero, and assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald, among others.
Crosby also talks directly to some teammates.
"It's not much different than what you'd get from Sid when it comes to seeing things on the ice, adding to our team and power-play situations," Bylsma said. "He's a smart player, an intellectual player.
"He often has ideas. Some are founded in his brilliance on the ice and might not work for everybody else. He's also offering things in between periods, of what they see up there."
On Friday, Penguins teammate Max Talbot couldn't pass along any insightful tidbits he acquired via Crosby's expertise. But Talbot knows when Crosby talks, the Penguins listen. Just as they once listened to star-turned-owner Mario Lemieux during his frequent health-related layoffs.
"He's talking to Tony, and if he sees stuff he tells Tony," Talbot said. "We hear about adjustments in-between periods, but we don't really know if it's coming from him or the coaching staff. "
Crosby's comments display a deep knowledge of the sport he has played - and dominated at every level - since he was a pre-schooler, according to Bylsma.
"During the game his talk is in a positive way, what we're doing well, reiterating what we're trying to do," Bylsma said. "He's added a lot in the games on the headset, talking to Tony, conveying messages either to the coaches on situations or to players."
Crosby, who has been made available to the media only infrequently since he was hurt, has not discussed his off-ice duties.
And if the 23-year-old might seem to be a little young to be taking on the role of a quasi-coach, he isn't. The Cleveland Indians once considered prize shortstop Lou Boudreau to be such an asset as a strategist, they made him their player-manager at age 24 in 1941.
Of course, the Penguins expect this coaching-like role to be a short one for Crosby. Even if it hasn't been quite as short as they would have liked.
Saturday's game will be the Penguins' 46th without Crosby in their lineup, by far his longest layoff since he became an instant star at age 18 in 2005. It's been 108 days since he last pulled on a Penguins' sweater for a game, and there is no indication when the player who had a substantial lead in the NHL scoring race when he was injured will return.
Concussions affect players in widely varying ways, according to doctors, and the Penguins aren't about to risk rushing Crosby back too soon.
In hindsight, the Penguins probably wish they hadn't allowed Crosby to play Jan. 5 against Tampa Bay, when he was driven into the boards by defenceman Victor Hedman long after they took command during an 8-1 victory.
Four days before, during the rainy Winter Classic outdoor game at Heinz Field, Crosby was levelled by an apparently inadvertent blow to the head by Washington's David Steckel late in the second period. While Crosby's agent, Pat Brisson, now believes Crosby sustained a concussion on the play, Crosby returned for the third.
He then played against Tampa Bay despite a sore neck. The Penguins said they didn't suspect Crosby had a concussion because, at the time, he had no concussion-like symptoms.
Since then, the NHL has altered its in-game procedures so that doctors, not team trainers, must thoroughly examine players with possible concussions before they can return to a game.
While Crosby began skating and practising with his teammates in non-contact situations more than month ago, his doctors have not yet cleared him for contact. There is no indication when that might occur, and Crosby can't begin to think about playing again until it does.
Crosby practises when his doctors allow him; he did not take to the ice either Thursday, an off day for the Penguins, or Friday, when they practised in advance of Game 5 against Tampa Bay.
Shero and Bylsma recently acknowledged there is a chance Crosby might not play again until next season.
"He continues to keep going, but we need to see him progress further down the road before any kind of timetable is talked about," Bylsma said.
So, for now, Crosby can only wait. And hope. And polish his skills for a coaching career - should he chose to pursue one - that might not begin for another 15 to 20 years.
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