Plenty to question - 01-30-12

Written by Seth Rorabaugh on .

The Penguins aren't the only team in the NHL to treat medical updates like launch codes for nuclear weapons. In fact, the vast majority of NHL teams rarely volunteer the specificity of their players ailments. Dan Girardi could have his left arm severed with a skate in front of thousands of spectators and the Rangers would label it an "upper-body" injury pending further evaluation.

The motives for this approach are pretty simple. It prevents opposing players from exploiting a potential weakness. If the right ankle of Kings defenseman Drew Doughty is wobbly, the predatory nature of hockey dictates you find ways to abuse it even further and make him a less effective player.

But that doesn't mean the culture of hiding a specific ailment isn't silly. Or in some cases, damaging to an organization's credibility.

Over the past 13 months, the Penguins have had a run of injuries no other team can boast. While they've done remarkably well on the ice in terms of wins and losses, their results off the ice have been, well... less than ideal.

Prior to this weekend, the Penguins medical staff was being questioned for how it handled the ailments of Sidney Crosby. After Saturday's revelation that Crosby suffered a neck injury in addition to a concussion, the spotlight on those who oversee the Penguins' physical well-being is even brighter.

And it's not just Crosby. Five of his teammates have been diagnosed with injuries this season and in all five instances, there have been some peculiar circumstances in how they were treated or how they were publicly reported by the team:

Player: Sidney Crosby, C
Injury: Head and neck
Games Missed: 108 (Including seven playoff games)
Crosby was struck in the head by the right shoulder of Capitals center David Steckel in the Winter Classic, Jan. 1. He finished the game, a 3-1 defeat, and afterwards stated, "I couldn't even tell you what happened" during a post-game press conference. Four days later, in an 8-1 rout of the Lightning, Crosby's head struck off the glass when he was hit from behind by Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman. The next night, prior to a road game in Montreal, head coach Dan Bylsma declared Crosby would be out about a week due to a "mild" concussion.
      On Feb. 1, he was placed on injured reserve but resumed light workouts off the ice. He returned to the ice for light skating March 14 and began skating with teammates March 31 but did not partake in contact drills. He would miss the final 41 games of the regular season and all seven of the Penguins' playoff games. During exit interviews April 29, Crosby admitted he had a setback in his recovery. In May, Penguins general manager Ray Shero said Crosby had a "step back" and not a "setback."
      After a fairly quiet three months in the offseason, reports surfaced in August that Crosby might not be ready for training camp or the regular season. During a press conference Sept. 7, Crosby appeared alongside Shero as well as Ted Carrick and Mickey Collins, the concussion specialists he sought help from. All four declined to offer a time table for Crosby's return but expressed optimism he would play in 2011-12.
      Crosby received clearance to resume non-contact drills in practice when training camp began and wore a white non-contact helmet during drills. On Oct. 13, he was given clearance to resume contact in practice. A heavily-speculated return against the Stars on Nov. 11 never materialized.
      After an ugly two-game swing through Florida resulted in two losses, the Penguins issued the long-awaited news that Crosby would return Nov. 21 against the Islanders. Crosby did not disappoint and recorded four points. In the next eight games, he scored 12 points.
      In a 3-1 home loss to the Bruins Dec. 5, Crosby was struck in the head by Bruins center David Krejci on a fairly routine puck battle in front of the benches. Throughout the the game, Crosby appeared somewhat sluggish and even collided in the neutral zone with teammate Chris Kunitz. After Crosby participated in a full practice Dec. 7, the Penguins issued a statement saying Crosby would skip the next two games for "precautionary reasons." When asked about Crosby's absence Dec. 8, Bylsma said the Penguins captain was dealing with a "slight headache." Crosby spoke to the media Dec. 12 and while he passed his imPACT test, he was still experiencing concussion-like symptoms.
      After roughly a month of little news involving Crosby, he joined the team for a three-game road trip with two stops in Florida.
He participated in some light skating then visited Carrick in Georgia and followed that up with a visit to Dr. Robert S. Bray, a neurological spine specialist in California.
      This past weekend, it was revealed Crosby had visited Alex Guerrero, a trainer in Utah and that he had also suffered a neck injury in addition to a concussion. The time frame of Crosby's neck injury was not fully reported. Pat Brisson, Crosby's agent, said MRI and CAT scan results of his client would be examined by independent specialists. When asked if Crosby was displeased with the medical care supplied from the team, Brisson said, "
I really can't comment on that."

Player: Dustin Jeffrey (right), C
Injury: Right knee (ACL)
Games Missed: 45 (Including seven playoff games)
Note: Jeffrey suffered his injury March 24 when Flyers center Jeff Carter fell on his right leg. He underwent surgery April 5 and the team said he should be ready for the start of the season in October. At the start of the 2011-12 campaign, Oct. 3, Jeffrey was placed on injured reserve. After missing the first eight games of the season, Jeffrey was activated and played in six games, primarily in a fourth-line role. Following a brief conditioning assignment to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL, Jeffrey was once again placed on injured reserve Nov. 22. He did not return to the lineup until Jan. 11 and has not missed a game since.

Player: Kris Letang, C
Injury: Nose/Concussion
Games Missed: 21
Note: During a road game in Montreal, Nov. 26, Letang was struck in the head by the left shoulder of Canadiens right winger Max Pacioretty. Letang was sprawled out on the ice bleeding from the nose. He returned to the game at the start of overtime and scored the winning goal. Initially, Letang was diagnosed with broken nose. According to Bylsma, he passed a concussion test as prescribed by the NHL's concussion protocol. After battling an illness, Letang was placed on injured reserve Dec. 5 due to a concussion. During his hiatus, Letang was treated by Francois Chaput, a Montreal-based concussion specialist. He was cleared for contact in practice Jan. 16 and returned to the lineup Jan. 19 in a 4-1 road win against the Rangers.

Player: Evgeni Malkin (right), C
Injury: Right knee (MCL and ACL)
Games Missed: 43 (Including seven playoff games)
Note: While battling for a puck during a 3-2 home win Feb. 4, Malkin suffered an injury when 6-foot-8, 227-pound Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers fell onto his right knee. Malkin would undergo surgery Feb. 10. He resumed light skating April 23, but did not play for the rest of the regular or postseason. After he suggested he could have played in later rounds of the postseason if the Penguins had advanced, Malkin engaged in a rigorous training regimen during the offseason which the Penguins openly showcased through videos on the team's Web site.
       Malkin was able to participate fully throughout training camp and was one of the team's most productive players in the preseason. After collecting a shootout goal and an assist in 22:59 of playing time during a 4-3 season opening win in Vancouver, Malkin was limited to a goal and 14 minutes of ice time two night later during a 5-3 victory at Calgary.
       A "lower-body" injury would keep Malkin out of the lineup the next two games. He was back Oct. 13 and recorded two assists in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Capitals but missed the next five games due to soreness in his surgically repaired right knee. He returned to the lineup Oct. 25 in a 3-0 shutout of the Islanders and has not missed a game since.

Player: James Neal (right), LW
Injury: Right foot
Games Missed: 0
Note: During a 3-1 home loss to the Devils, Neal blocked a slap shot from Devils defenseman Henrik Tallinder. After hobbling on the ice for several seconds, Neal stayed in for the remainder of the contest. The next day, Bylsma reported Neal would be out "weeks" due to a broken bone in his foot. Two days later, Neal resumed practicing and proclaimed himself able to play.  Bylsma explained an MRI revealed Neal had a pre-existing condition which appeared "as a crack on the x-ray." Neal played in the team's next game, a 5-1 home loss to the Senators, Jan. 10.

Player: Brooks Orpik, D
Injury: Sports hernia
Games Missed: 8
Note: Orpik underwent surgery July 20. The recovery period was initially said to be six to eight weeks. By the time training camp started Sept. 16, roughly eight weeks later, Orpik was not able to fully participate in practice. His ailments lingered throughout the rest of September and into October. Orpik did not return to the lineup until Oct. 20, approximately 13 weeks after his surgery.

In contrast, there have been other instances where Penguins players have made speedy recoveries from injuries this season:

-Defenseman Ben Lovejoy (right) missed approximately six weeks due to a broken left wrist. The team initially said he would be evaluated after six weeks.
-Defenseman Zbynek Michalek missed four weeks due to a broken finger. The initial time frame for his recovery was four to six weeks.
-Right winger Richard Park missed three weeks due to a broken foot. His initial time frame for recovery was four to six weeks.
-Center Tyler Kennedy missed 11 games due to a concussion, a relatively short period of time for an injury which has no set time frame for recovery.

Additionally, the fact that brittle veteran right winger Steve Sullivan has not missed a game yet this season - he was sidelined for 36 in 2010-11 - can be considered a surprising success or even a religious miracle.

This just illustrates how the human body remains a mystery to all of us, experts included, regardless if you're talking about an ailment as complicated as a brain injury or something fairly simple such a broken pinky finger.

Ultimately, it's irresponsible for anyone outside the Penguins' organization to make any sort of absolute judgement on the team's medical or training staff, positive or negative. Most of us, including this corner of the Internet, don't have the adequate medical training to make that call.

But you sure as heck can question them. They've given us plenty of reason to do so.

(Photos: First and Neal-Christian Petersen/Getty Images; Crosby first and third-Jamie Sabau/Getty Images; Crosby second-Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press; Jeffrey-Harry How/Getty Images; Malkin-Justin K. Aller/Getty Images; Lovejoy-Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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