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Starkey: It's Malkin's team for now

"Not even close."

That was the glaring headline from Sidney Crosby's news conference Wednesday at Consol Energy Center. Dr. Michael Collins, director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program, was responding to one of many queries aimed at pinning down a timetable for Crosby's comeback.

There is none.

"We're going to make sure we introduce contact in a very careful way," Collins said, "and we're not even close to that right now."

The Penguins are going to be as cautious as humanly possible in monitoring their franchise player's return from concussion symptoms, and that is the only sane way to go. Surely, you know the stories of Keith Primeau, Eric Lindros and Pat LaFontaine — three of many ex-NHL players whose careers were cut short because they returned from concussions too soon.

"I suffered through and played through numerous concussions," Primeau told me yesterday in a radio interview. "Ultimately, it was a cumulative effect that forced me to retire."

Six years later, Primeau still battles symptoms. That kind of cautionary tale provided the backdrop to Crosby's first public appearance in five months. Asked if it was more likely or unlikely that he'll play this season, Crosby said, "Likely," but somehow his pronouncement didn't carry the weight of Collins' three words.

Not even close .

Crosby's recovery will take care of itself, in its own time. Nothing can speed the process. His return would be a glorious bonus that could turn a very good team into the Eastern Conference favorite.

In the meantime, the Penguins' mandate is clear: Operate as if Crosby will not play this season. That doesn't mean general manager Ray Shero should start spending Crosby's $8.7 million salary on replacements. It absolutely means that coach Dan Bylsma and his players must strap on the blinders and discard any notion that Crosby will swoop in to rescue them next week, next month or next spring.

Keep in mind what Collins said, when asked yet again for a timetable: "I have no earthly idea."

Even if Crosby comes back this season, danger lurks. He would rejoin a league that still has such a thing as a "legal head shot," to quote NHL commissioner Gary Bettman — and there is no predicting how Crosby's brain will react to the next big hit, no matter what the medical experts say.

The cruel nature of his injury makes Crosby day-to-day for good.

The false hope of Crosby's return permeated the Penguins' dressing room during last year's playoffs and made for a daily distraction until he shut it down for good. That can't happen again. This team starts training camp in 10 days and opens the regular season Oct. 6 at Vancouver. Bylsma and his staff should be strategizing short- and long-term without penciling Crosby's name onto the depth chart.

This is Evgeni Malkin's team for now — and despite injuries and bouts of inconsistency, Malkin has shown he can carry the club. When he's right, he is a top-five player in the world. A two-time 100-point scorer. He should run the power play from the right half-boards, as he did so expertly during Crosby's prolonged absence in 2007-08.

The Penguins' defense and goaltending is second to none. They lack firepower up front, but if Malkin returns to form, they would be a viable Stanley Cup contender without Crosby.

Hopefully, yesterday's news conference shocked some people into the reality of Crosby's plight. When you hear that he couldn't drive or watch video with his team or even listen to a radio without becoming disoriented, you get a feel for the terror of living with a severe concussion. Thankfully, the symptoms now have been reduced to headaches.

"Trust me, you never want to be on this side of the fence," Primeau said.

Primeau, by the way, was expecting Crosby to announce he was going sit out the season. He figured he'd hear Crosby say something like, "You know what, as much as I'm feeling better, in order to take the distraction away from the team and allow me the time to rest and heal, I'm going to forgo the 2011-12 season."

That could still happen. The Penguins, sadly but surely, must operate as if it already has.

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