Hockey is a young man’s game, as stars tend to peak in their early to mid-20s before facing an inevitable decline. In an effort to provide as much value as possible, veterans often refine their three-zone skills or carve out specialized roles at the dot or on the penalty kill later in their career. There’s seemingly no other way to keep up.
Well, Sidney Crosby didn’t get the memo.
At age 31, the highly decorated center has indeed grown more attentive on the defensive of the puck…but he also hasn’t been this productive (88 points in 66 games) since 2012-13. He’s managed to offer Pittsburgh the best of both worlds, and his MVP-caliber season has come at just the right time.
Not much has gone well for the Pens this year: Evgeni Malkin (68 points in 63 games) and Matt Murray (2.77 GAA, 91.7 SV%) have struggled to find any consistency. Phil Kessel (68 points in 69 games) resembles the disengaged Toronto Maple Leaf rather than a dynamic sniper. Derick Brassard (15 points in 40 games with Pittsburgh) was performing so poorly that he was dealt away. On the blue line, there isn’t much depth behind Kris Letang (53 points in 60 games) and Brian Dumoulin (21 points in 66 games).
Crosby’s spectacular campaign has kept his squad afloat down the stretch. He’s scored 30 points in his last 19 games as competition has intensified. As a result, the team is third in the Metropolitan Division and within arm’s reach of second.
To be fair, Jake Guentzel (65 points in 69 games) deserves credit for his performances alongside the captain. Finding a good match for Crosby has proven notoriously difficult throughout his career, but the third-year winger fits the bill as a skilled forward who never shies away from the dirty areas. He registers 54% of his shots from the slot or closer, and he’s equally lethal in tight and on the rush.
This ability to score from different ranges plays perfectly into Crosby’s game, as the gifted center has ridiculous vision and touch. He can put the puck on your stick from anywhere on the ice and adjusts his plan on a dime based on the opposition’s coverage, so you need to be ready at all times. Guentzel’s decision-making has improved and accelerated with every passing season, as he and Crosby now exchange give-and-gos to slice up defenses without breaking a sweat.
However, Crosby is special precisely because he puts in the work even though he could coast on talent and past accomplishments.
He’s frequently dubbed a superstar grinder, and he’s earned that title in 2018-19 with superb two-way showings. He governs every inch of the ice during his shifts, controlling 55.2% of the shot attempts, 57.5% of the scoring chances and 68.2% of the goals scored at 5-on-5. Those are sparkling numbers by themselves, but his team-relative metrics underline his importance. Among NHL forwards with at least 500 minutes played at even strength this season, he ranks fourth in relative CF% and first in relative GF%.
In other words, he’s leaving his teammates in the dust.
That type of impact is absurd on a playoff roster that includes Malkin and Kessel. Two-thirds of the three-headed monster hasn’t bothered to show up in 2018-19 — Pittsburgh has actually fared better with Malkin on the bench — but Crosby has carried on with perhaps his finest full season yet.
Many will point to 2010-13 as his true peak. He certainly never generated more offense than he did in that stretch, but he also struggled to stay in the lineup, playing 99 games across three seasons. Those years represent a great what-if in modern hockey history. With that said, there is value in durability and merely being there to contribute to the cause. Crosby has missed a whopping three contests this year, ranks fourth in league scoring and will likely earn Selke Trophy consideration.
Whether he deserves the nod is another story entirely — he doesn’t, by the way — but the thought alone reflects his all-around impact. He’s never dictated the flow of the game as comprehensively as he does now.
Sure, the flashy me-against-the-world highlights have dried up, but he’s learned to put a pro spin on every last ounce of his talent. He fights tooth and nail for loose pucks and protects the biscuit better than anyone in the world. Instead of waiting on the action, which he was guilty of in the past couple of years, he’s hustling in all zones and rolling his sleeves up to battle in the corners. With his lower-body strength and unparalleled edge work, he can get the jump on any opponent, dispossess them and seamlessly transition from defense to offense.
His commitment to 200-foot hockey may well represent the source of this spike in scoring. After all, there’s a reason coaches claim that defense leads to offense. Well, a reason that extends beyond merely wanting their players to care about that side of the ice. The puck is finding its way back to Crosby quicker because he’s willing it back onto his stick. As such, he’s enjoying more opportunities to attack than he would if were to cheat for offense and put his teammates in a bind on defense.
There are no one-and-dones here. No shortcuts. Crosby is continually in sound position to disrupt the opposition and allow Pittsburgh to break out of its zone as a unit. He and Guentzel own a huge share of the action and pour on the pressure during their shifts together, suffocating opponents with a combination of pure skill and tireless effort.
At the end of the day, perhaps there is merit to pacing yourself. The Pens have won two titles in the past three seasons. Can they win another with their stars burning themselves out in the regular season? Probably not. It’s a good thing two of the three aren’t exactly setting the world on fire at the moment. As for Crosby, normal rules don’t apply. If anyone can produce this sort of campaign and then deliver the goods in the postseason as well, it’s the best player of his generation.
Even after three Stanley Cups and two Conn Smythe Trophies in a parity-driven league, Crosby looks hungry for more. Frankly, he somehow looks better than ever.