The past eight months haven't been kind to the Penguins off the ice. A quick exit from the playoffs in May led to changes in management and the coaching staff. Additionally, the team has seen several players such as Olli Maatta, Pascal Dupuis and Sidney Crosby deal with significant medical ailments not necessarily related to the dangers of playing professional hockey.
The latest of those involved today's announcement of Crosby being diagnosed with the mumps.
Despite all of that, they have had quite a bit of on-ice success. At 19-6-4 with 42 points, the Penguins have one of the best records in the NHL two and a half months into the 2014-15 season.
They aren't hurting for wins.
They are hurting for credibility.
Crosby's diagnosis - after two days of quasi-denials from the organization - is the latest in a series of missteps which have put the trust in the Penguins into question.
The first of these missteps began in April. Crosby, who led the NHL in regular season scoring with 104 points, was limited during the postseason to one goal and nine points in 13 games against the Blue Jackets and Rangers. During the playoffs and afterwards, Crosby repeatedly denied he was dealing with any sort of medical issue.
In July, a Post-Gazette report revealed he had suffered a wrist injury which potentially could have required surgery. Later that month, the team announced Crosby had opted against surgery. Prior to training camp, Crosby confirmed his injury was suffered during a regular season home contest against the Blues, March 23.
After the Penguins' were eliminated from the playoffs, Ray Shero was fired as general manager May 16. Several media outlets, including the Post-Gazette, reported head coach Dan Bylsma has been fired that day as well. To the surprise to many, team president David Morehouse announced Bylsma had not been fired and said the new general manager would make that decision.
When asked about the reasoning for firing Shero, Morehouse explained:
"The new [general manger] will be charged with overseeing and revamping our hockey operations with the goal of returning the team to championship form. Part of his initial duties will be to evaluate our entire hockey operations department including the coaching staff and make decisions in the best interest of the coaching staff moving forward."
(Note: We've added emphasis to the quotes.)
Post-Gazette columnist Gene Collier was granted a one-on-two interview with owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle following the announcement of Shero's firing. Regarding the decision to retain Bylsma, Burkle explained:
"I just think when you meet with someone you have to consider all aspects. How they interview and what their qualifications are and what they bring to the table. I would say it’s a deal point – what they want to do with Dan."
Approximately three weeks later, the Penguins hired Jim Rutherford to replace Shero June 6. Rutherford announced Bylmsa had been fired that day but did little to suggest it was truly his decision to dismiss Bylsma when he said:
"What ownership wants here is a complete change in direction, one with the general manager and one with the coach. We met with Dan this morning and told him. And the timing of it is good. He’s a good man and a good coach. I really don’t know him very well and I only talked to him briefly this morning. The timing is good because there are coaching vacancies and it’s not going to be long until he coaches again in the league."
"I took the information from the people that were here. I didn't have several meetings with Dan to get to know him and evaluate him or take his side of the story. I took the information over the last week with a couple of meetings I had and we agreed making a change were a change we had to make."
Despite a desire for a "new direction" from ownership as explained by Morehouse, the Penguins eventually promoted three of Shero's top lieutenants, Jason Botterill, Tom Fitzgerald and Bill Guerin. Rutherford acknowledged his time in the position would be limited to two and three years and suggested Fitzgerald, Guerin and, most notably, Botterill, could replace him.
A bumpy search for a new coach took place and eventually the team hired Mike Johnston, June 25.
Following a busy July and quiet August, players began filtering back to Pittsburgh for informal workouts at Consol Energy Center. Center Evgeni Malkin took part in a handful of those workouts which are completely voluntary but his participation abruptly came to an end a few days before the start of training camp. On the first day of training camp Sept. 19, Johnston announced Malkin was sidelined due to an undisclosed injury.
Malkin did not participate in any preseason games and did not attend any practices until a few days prior to the start of the regular season Oct. 9. Since then, Malkin has participated in every game of the regular season. In 29 games, he has a team-leading 36 points. His absence from training camp has never been fully revealed. Malkin declined to discuss the nature of his injury when he spoke with media for the first time this season Oct. 7:
When the Penguins announced Dupuis would be sidelined indefinitely due to a blood clot Nov. 19, the team revealed for the first time that Dupuis had dealt with the discovery of a previous blood clot after he suffered a season-ending knee injury Dec. 23 in Ottawa. Prior to that announcement, no one outside the team or Dupuis' circle was aware of the previous blood clot.
This past Thursday, Crosby was absent from practice and it was simply explained as "he was sick today" by Johnston. Crosby did not participate in a team function that day at Children's Hospital of Pittsbugh of UPMC due to his ailment. With the NHL in the midst of seeing various players from all over the league dealing with an outbreak of mumps, Crosby participated in an optional morning skate Friday prior to a game against the Flames. Following the skate, Crosby spoke with the media and had pronounced swelling on the right side of his face:
The right side of Sidney Crosby's face was ... different ... today: pic.twitter.com/8gVmXU8c19— Seth Rorabaugh (@emptynetters) December 12, 2014
Former Post-Gazette reporter Shelly Anderson asked him if he had the mumps:
After cameras were turned off, Sidney Crosby noted that if had the mumps he would not be at the arena getting ready to play. #Penguins— Shelly Anderson (@_ShellyAnderson) December 12, 2014
Following player media availability, Johnston was directly asked if Crosby had the mumps. His response was:
"As far as Sid goes, he was checked out by the doctors yesterday. And I believe, as I mentioned, that our whole team has gone through some blood tests just to make sure everyone is taking precautions with the mumps, the scare around the league. So from my perspective, just talking to the doctors, they didn't mention anything like that. They just said he was cleared to play."
At approximately 4 p.m., some three hours prior to their game, the Penguins issued a press release announcing Crosby would be sidelined the next two games as a precaution. In the statement, Rutherford said:
"There is no indication at this time that this is the mumps, but we are going to hold him out as a precaution. We'll have additional test results in a few days."
Yesterday, prior to a game in Columbus, Johnston was asked about the decision to allow Crosby around the team facility with the possibility of him having contracted the mumps. Johnston defended the decision by saying:
“Nobody thought he had mumps. They’d run their tests and didn’t feel he did, so he was cleared to come to the rink. After that, they decided to take more precautions. I think what’s happened is, because of the mumps scare [around the NHL] and because of the concern, everybody is taking that extra step and saying, ‘Let’s hold on. If there’s any suspicion at all, we’re going to be cautious, run all the tests and wait until they come back before we clear anybody.”
Less than 24 hours later, the Penguins announced Crosby did indeed have the mumps.
This narrow eight-month window isn't the only time circumstances involving the Penguins have been murky. When Crosby was hit in the head repeatedly in at the start of the 2011 calendar year, he did not fly with the team prior for a game in Montreal Crosby flew to Montreal but returned to Pittsburgh prior to a game Jan. 6. Bylsma explained Crosby as having a "mild concussion" and said he would not play "for about a week."
Crosby would ultimately be sidelined for approximately 11 months and did not play in an NHL game until Nov. 21. His comeback would only last eight games as he left the lineup again after being jostled during a home game against the Bruins Dec. 5. Crosby would be sidelined another four months and did not play again until a road game against the Rangers March 15.
As it turned out, Crosby's ailment was related to soft tissue neck injury.
Last season, the Penguins held a wiffle ball game on ice after practice Oct. 1, 2013 to "celebrate" a Pirates playoff game. Two days later, former left winger James Neal left a season-opening home game against the Devils due to what was labeled as an "upper-body" injury. He would miss 15 games due to the ailment. The full nature of his injury was never disclosed on the record.
The Penguins aren't the only ones who operate in this fashion with regards to personnel. NHL game notes are filled with descriptions of players having "upper/lower-body" injuries. Some teams don't even acknowledge a player as having an injury in any official sense. The Sharks, for example, barely even acknowledge something as simple as man-games lost.
A culture of paranoia has festered in the league - probably since the start of the league in 1917 - when it comes to acknowledging the availability of personnel. The NHL was founded due in part to a lack of trust among owners of its precursor, the National Hockey Association.
In many of these situations such as the ailments suffered by Dupuis and Crosby, circumstances are very fluid in a narrow window of time. Chances are the team and the player don't have a true answer to offer. The Penguins and the rest of the NHL seems to be mystified as to how mumps are spreading among its players. But this team has a very recent history of contradiction and confusion when it comes to their personnel as outlined above.
Like any other NHL team, the Penguins are certainly under no obligation to offer the complete and full details of how they operate, especially with intimate, personal matters such as a player's health.
At the same time, the public has no obligation to place any credibility into the Penguins. They've provided little reason to do so.
(Photos: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images and team video)