PITTSBURGH - Having completed two trades to add three players to the injury-depleted Pittsburgh Penguins lineup, general manager Ray Shero is looking forward to seeing how good his team might look once its healthy in time for the playoffs.
What remains unclear is whether Shero's vision includes Sidney Crosby.
"It's the unknown," Shero said this week after bringing in reinforcements - the latest, forward Alex Kovalev, in a deal with Ottawa - to prop up a roster that's missing 11 regulars. "Based upon Sid, it's hard to make that determination."
As the Penguins prepared to play at Carolina on Friday night, they did it without Crosby, who missed his 22nd game. The Penguins captain and face of the NHL remains out indefinitely while recovering from a concussion after sustaining hits in consecutive January games.
Compounding the Penguins troubles was the loss of Evgeni Malkin, who will miss the rest of the season with a knee injury sustained on Feb. 4.
Kovalev's addition is a short-term solution to provide offensive punch to a team that's not scored four goals in regulation since Crosby last played on Jan. 5. And Shero opened the week by acquiring young power forward James Neal, who will be around beyond this season, and defenseman Matt Niskanen in a trade that sent defenseman Alex Goligoski to Dallas.
Shero acknowledges the moves combined with the anticipated returns of many of his injured players will benefit the team come playoff time. And yet it's no secret, as center Michael Rupp acknowledged, that the Penguins would be regarded as a more serious Stanley Cup contender with Crosby.
"He makes every guy in this room a better hockey player as soon as he steps on the ice," Rupp said. "We'd all be thrilled to have him back in the lineup at any point. But the reality of it is, he's not."
Amid the trades and turnstile of call-ups from the minors that have entered and exited the Penguins locker room over the past two months, there's one thing that has remained a constant. And that is Crosby's gear - his pants that hang from a hook, the gloves and pads stuffed into a compartment, and the black helmet with the No. 87 on the back facing outward on a top shelf. Those items have been left untouched at his stall located beneath the word "Passion" and near a picture of co-owner Mario Lemieux at the head of the football-shaped room.
After spending time off in his native Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, Crosby is back in Pittsburgh where he's been cleared to have light workouts. He spends time with the Penguins players, sent a text to Neal in welcoming him to Pittsburgh shortly after the trade was completed, and was also spotted in a dark suit outside the locker room following the team's 1-0 loss to Washington on Monday.
"You always see him at the rink and he looks a little upset not being in the room and playing," goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. "But his health comes first."
Fleury, though, can't help but think how much Crosby's return would help.
"We're not just missing him, we're missing a lot of guys, which I think makes it a little worse," Fleury said. "We've just got to try to find ways to get points and make sure we get a good playoff spot. Hopefully, he gets better soon and can join us."
The Penguins, who sit in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, are at least expected to get healthier in the coming days and weeks.
Forward Dustin Jeffrey (lower body) could return as soon as Friday, while forward Mark Letestu (lower body) isn't far behind. Defenseman Paul Martin (upper body) is expected back after this weekend, while forward Chris Kunitz (lower body) will miss another week or two.
They're additions will help a team that entered the game Friday 2-5-2 in its past nine. A bigger question is how much they can help a team that's gone 10-8-3 in Crosby's absence.
Pittsburgh would be in even more trouble if not for the stellar play of Fleury. He's 26-8-4 since Nov. 12 and has allowed two or fewer goals in 27 of his past 38 starts.
With the number of injuries, it's difficult to gauge exactly how big of an impact Crosby's loss has played in the team's second-half wilt.
Coach Dan Bylsma wouldn't provide a guess, while insisting the Penguins' record over the past two months should be better.
"We anticipate winning and being able to win a lot of hockey games with the guys I mentioned on that (injured) list minus Sidney Crosby," Bylsma said. "So I think we miss Sidney Crosby. He's a great player. We're looking forward to getting him back in our lineup in the future. But we're capable of winning hockey games better than 10-8."