BOCA RATON, FLA. - The New York Rangers have led the Eastern Conference for most of this NHL season.
But the balance of power might be shifting west towards Pennsylvania.
With Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, arguably the game's best player, back in the lineup Thursday -- top defenceman Kris Letang is expected to play, too -- the Rangers will be the first team to see the Penguins with all their big weapons at their disposal again.
"They're obviously, I think, the best team in the league," said Rangers GM Glen Sather as the NHL wrapped up three days of general managers meetings Wednesday. "With (Crosby) back, it's certainly going to make it a lot more difficult. It's good for the game. He's a great player.
"I think we'll be excited to play. They're a great team, they've got their full lineup. We're missing some people. It's going to be a good contest. We'll give them a fight."
Crosby and Letang have been out of the Penguins lineup with concussion-like symptoms. Crosby has played just eight games since he had contact with his head in back-to-back games in January of 2011. He returned Nov. 21 against the New York Islanders and had four points in just under 16 minutes of ice time. Two jarring hits in a game against the Boston Bruins Dec. 5 resulted in a return of his concussion symptoms and he has been out since.
Letang has had a couple of incidents this season, the first on a hit by Max Pacioretty of the Montreal Canadiens which sidelined him for two months. The latest incident occurred on a hit by Eric Nystrom of the Dallas Stars Feb. 29.
The timing of their return is interesting as the GM meetings conclude.
Crosby has become the poster boy for the NHL and concussions.
While much of the talk at these meetings focused on safety, the takeaway this time around is while the NHL remains vigilant, they have pretty much reached what most of the GMs consider the tipping point between maintaining the game's physical edge and making it safer for the players.
The GMs have gone as far as they are willing to go when it comes to changing the game to prevent concussions.
For sure, there will continue to be work on better diagnosing and treating brain trauma. But for the first time in a couple of years, there are no new initiatives coming out of these meetings to attack the issue of concussions.
Putting the red line back in for the purposes of two-line passes and perhaps slowing the game down a bit got almost no traction here.
Taking out the trapezoid and allowing the goaltenders to handle the puck more to help their defencemen deal with the forecheck was a non-starter.
The GMs are, for the most part, happy with the job league disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan is doing in terms of deterring hits to the head with suspensions.
The attitude of the league towards brain trauma right now was pretty much summed up by Toronto Maple Leafs president and general manager Brian Burke.
"This is a full contact sport. We're going to have concussions and we're never going to get it to zero," he said, "and the game won't be worth watching if we get it to zero.
"There's only two sports where there's no out of bounds and that's hockey and ring sports. There is no place on a hockey rink you're safe if you've got the puck and it's got to stay that way. It's got to be, we're a full-contact sport. That's why players choose to play. An important part of our product is the amount of contact. In hockey all over the world, the amount of body contact in North America is distinctive. We don't want to change that."
The general managers didn't alter that.
For the foreseeable future, it seems the battle on the concussions front will be waged by Shanahan and his threat of suspension.