BOCA RATON, Fla. -- It was a few days before the NHL’s trade deadline and Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero sat his captain down for a chat. Shero wanted to feel him out. The Penguins had the option of putting Sidney Crosby on long-term injured reserve before the deadline and gaining the benefit of creating $8.7 million worth of cap space to make a big trade.
The flipside was that Crosby would not be able to return in their lineup until the playoffs, when the salary cap no longer applies.
"'It'll take you out of the lineup this year and you can only come back in the playoffs,'" Shero recalled telling Crosby. "I didn't have that deal, I just wanted to hear what he said. He was like, 'I'm not doing all this, not working this hard, not to come back, you know?' I'm like, 'Yeah, OK, I got you.'"
And with that, Shero had heard what he wanted. His franchise player was going to return before the regular season ended. So the trade deadline came and went without a move for Pittsburgh.
Heck, the biggest acquisition of the season is about to go down Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, when the hottest team in the NHL adds the game’s best player.
"He wants to play and he's worked really hard to get to this point again and come back and play," Shero said. "He said he's a hockey player, and I have great respect for that. He's the captain of our hockey team. I know it's exciting from a fan's standpoint. I'm the general manager of the team, but I'm a fan of the game as well, so from that standpoint, I'm really happy to see him come back. As the captain of our team, it's really important to have him back in our lineup. I'm looking forward to that as well."
The key in all this was Crosby playing regular-season games before the playoffs started. It’s a whole different animal come the postseason, and the Penguins were dearly hoping Crosby could use regular-season games to find his rhythm after playing in only eight games over the past 14 months.
"In the playoffs, when that puck drops, it's at another level,” Shero said. "He's only played eight games this year, so I think it's important to get back, get in the flow. We play three games in four days this weekend. We'll just kind of see how things go after Thursday.’"
The Penguins play back-to-back games Saturday (at New Jersey) and Sunday (at Philadelphia), and there’s no guarantee Crosby will appear in both.
"We'll see how he's doing, see how he's feeling," Shero said. "I don't know if he's going to play all three. If he feels real good, he will. If there's some reason, fatigue or whatever, it's OK. We're in this for the big picture to the end of the season and playoffs. We'll see how he's going to feel."
There’s an obvious level of apprehension after what happened last time around, Crosby appearing in eight games before concussion symptoms returned. The question now is just how long he’ll be back for, and how effective will he be.
"I think with anybody coming back -- could be [Evgeni] Malkin from an ACL or someone else coming back from a concussion or shoulder injury -- it's probably no different," Shero said. "Having gone through this the first time, he feels better about where he is, he knows what to expect. He'll jump into a certain situation on our team and not be relied upon to play 25 minutes, but if he does play 25 minutes, don't hold it against me."
But Shero and the organization are confident with Crosby’s decision.
"I think once he says he's ready to play, you trust the fact he is comfortable and confident to get out there and play, be hit and play his game,’’ the Penguins' GM said. "He feels great. There's no symptoms. It's three months now, so he has had lots of time to heal and train and get ready to play the game again."
The fact is, family, friends, teammates, the front office and fans will all be holding their breath every time he takes a hit. It’s going to be that way until the day he plays a full season without interruption.
But this isn’t a game that affords guarantees, not for the healthiest of players, let alone those recovering from a career-threatening concussion.
"I think he is in a good spot; he feels confident about where he is," Shero said. "He feels better than last time and knows what to expect this time."