BOCA RATON, Fla. - There were a few jealous glances cast toward Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero.
News of Sidney Crosby's impending return to the Penguins lineup left Shero's colleagues pondering how much tougher the path to the Stanley Cup became as they gathered in Florida for the NHL's general managers' meetings.
"They're obviously, I think, the best team in the league," New York Rangers GM Glen Sather said Wednesday after the meetings wrapped up. "With him back, it's certainly going to make it a lot more difficult."
Crosby is scheduled to see his first action since Dec. 5 when Pittsburgh (42-21-5) visits the Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night. New York (44-18-7) is currently the top seed in the Eastern Conference, some six points up on the Penguins.
However, Crosby is rejoining a Penguins team that has won nine straight games and appears to be peaking just before the start of the playoffs. Adding the best player in hockey to that mix is a scary thing for opponents.
"It's not like they needed help," said Philadelphia Flyers GM Paul Holmgren.
Not only does his team face the Penguins three times before the end of the regular season, they are also possible first-round opponents. Holmgren has been impressed with how well the rival Penguins have managed to play despite only having Crosby appear in just eight games over the last 14 months.
"Obviously, Pittsburgh over the last couple of years have been a tremendous team," he said. "There was a period of time last year where they had Sidney and Evgeni (Malkin) out and they still continued to march along. They're certainly one of the top teams in the East and they have been for a long time."
Crosby's absence from the sport dates back to January 2011, when he sustained blows to the head in consecutive games and was diagnosed with a concussion. He returned to the Penguins' lineup in November ??? scoring two goals and four points in his first game ??? before suffering a setback in December that was linked to a soft tissue neck issue.
While acknowledging that his team found it easier to face Pittsburgh without Crosby, New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello indicated that seeing No. 87 back will be a welcome sight.
"It's great that he's back," said Lamoriello. "He's certainly not only a great player, but he's a great personality in the game. He represents the game as well as anybody represents the game."
The Penguins plan to ease Crosby back into action, starting him as the centre on their third line. But rivals don't expect that to last long.
Virtually every general manager agreed that the Penguins are a serious Stanley Cup threat.
"I hope he doesn't play against us (in the playoffs)," said Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray. "He's an elite player. When you have a good hockey team or a very good hockey team with an additional player coming in to help, it's certainly going to have an impact.
"He adds a great dimension to their hockey team."
For Shero, the biggest concern is that Crosby's return ??? and potentially that of defenceman Kris Letang, who is recovering from a head injury of his own ??? doesn't get his teammates to change the way they've been playing during the recent hot stretch.
"It's easier said than done," said Shero. "We want to keep things as normal as possible. We've played without so many players for a good period of time and we've had some success.
"We don't want to get away from that."