Crosby Still's No Longer Young
If you don't mind, I'd like to discuss a major athlete many currently see as in decline. Now you'd probably expect that opening line to segue into a eulogy for Peyton Manning's days as an effective NFL quarterback, blah blah. But no, let's keep it more Canadian-centric and deal with a less severe (and less depressing) example of a superstar hitting a patch of struggles.
Anyone with eyes and ears is well aware of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia's megastar, Pittsburgh Penguins captain, MVP, All-Star, Cup Champion, two-time Olympic Gold Medalist (including 2010's "Golden Goal"): Sidney Crosby. You're probably aware he's the "Face of the NHL" and has been since the Canadian sports media and NHL went into hyper-gear to anoint him as such before he even stepped into the NHL in 2005. Crosby was the first "Next Megastar of Hockey" to come along in the age of high-speed internet, social media and round-the-clock TV sports coverage (Eric Lindros managed to break in just before that explosion began).
Crosby delivered on that hype in spades and while he's never quite attained the awe-inspiring highs of a Lemieux, Orr or Gretzky, he's lived up to the accolades expected of him. That may sound trivial, but it's not — if you consider the disappointment of the oft-injured, oft-controversial Lindros.
Crosby has been an NHL superstar since day one, there's no doubt that. And he's been doing it for so long that it's a shock for some to hear that he's already 28 years old (Sid...the Kid?). That age of his — along with other factors — may have something to do with Crosby's sudden slip over the last 2 seasons.
Before you guffaw and roll your eyes, understand what I am implying by "slip." A "slip" for Sidney Crosby means going from the unquestioned number one player in the game — or at least with a share of that title — to just another top player that can slot inside the top 10 on most lists. Despite the Art Ross Trophy-winning point total last season being a mere 87 (how ironic!) — the lowest since Stan Mikita 1967-68 — #87 couldn't snag it.
Sure, Crosby led the NHL for the fifth time in points-per-game at 1.09 (84 pts. in 77 GP — itself the worst PPG to lead the NHL since the mid-40s). But therein lies the rub: Crosby often has missed too much action to take home awards that require a durable player such as the Hart Trophy, Lindsay Award, and Art Ross Trophy.
Crosby's career will never be defined by the same glaring "What ifs?" as a failed "Next One" such as Lindros but more in the realm of a Peter Forsberg, as in "If only he was healthier". One thing that's always been missing for Crosby is multiple playoff successes. But hockey is a team game — playoff success is often coupled by what you're surrounded with as a player. After all, Wayne Gretzky did amazing things but won zero Cups after being dealt from the powerhouse Oilers. Sure, the one Cup the Pittsburgh Penguins won — in 2009 — can go a long way to exonerating him from the "Can't win the big one" label. Unfortunately for Crosby it doesn't yet launch him into the stratosphere of the true generational talents.
TheNHL isn't like the NBA where a generation talent is judged against Michael Jordan's six title rings. Crosby only need ask Alexander Ovechkin what true playoff blues are about, Sid's eternal rival in the NHL and closest competitor for "Player of a Generation" status. "OV" has neither won a Cup nor been past the second round of the playoffs. Despite his contributions being the most important in the championship efforts of the Capitals, Ovechkin still wears that crown of thorns heavier than most (he can ask Marcel Dionne about that, or Steve Yzerman who bore the brunt of that criticism until 1997).
This brings us to this 2015-16 season. Crosby is off to a horrid start by his standards: nine points in 17 games, as of this writing. The ugliest part are his piddly two goals. Crosby likely doesn't remain on this pedestrian pace — which would only get him to 10 goals and 44 points in a full 82 game schedule — however, it's concerning nonetheless. While never mistaken for Ovechkin in the goal department, Crosby has had seasons where he proved he could hang with the top snipers: six of his 10 seasons are 30+ goal campaigns — including a 51-goal season and 32-goal season, the latter in a season cut to 41 games by a concussion (there it is again: the durability).
One big issue is Penguins Head Coach Mike Johnston preferring a defence-first style that has tried to cover up for a thin corps of rearguards. Some observers and fans say it's squandering the pure scoring talent assembled of late by the Pens (i.e. David Perron, Nick Bonino). How can we hold it against Crosby that Pittsburgh management has been foolish and didn't target defence in the off-season in favor of yet another offensive-minded player in Phil "The Thrill" from Toronto? Truthfully, they constructed their own coffin when they hired Jim Rutherford, who left the Hurricanes in shambles with no semblance of "D" and has made several questionable moves since being hired — like dealing draft picks for Daniel Winnik and trading top 4 D-man youngster Simon Despres for the dime-a-dozen Ben Lovejoy.
Will Crosby eventually turn it on in 2015-16? No doubt, in this author's mind. With flashier scoring wingers than he's ever had and the usual stand-bys like Dupuis, Malkin and Letang, the assists shouldn't continue to be too tough to come by. But is his highest level still enough to blow past the competition? Well, it doesn't seem so anymore. In this day and age, names such as Tyler Seguin, Vladimir Tarasenko, John Tavares or Jamie Benn (2014-15's scoring champ) may not be a ton more spritely than Crosby — at 4.5, 4, 3 and 2 years younger respectively — but they have fewer miles and major injuries on their body in the NHL. 27-year old Patrick Kane has finally figured out how to put it all together (ahem, on the ice) and if not for a mid-season shoulder injury, he likely would've snagged his first scoring crown in 2014-15. They all stand poised to take Crosby's mantle as the scoring machine of the circuit.
But scoring isn't everything, right? Hockey fans know this. What Crosby doesn't have in spades over his peers, he more than makes up for in defence, no? His two-way ability has been part of his reputation for a while. Except that completeness to his game was always the secondary attribute to what offence he provided, the proverbial gravy on his already delicious mashed potatoes. Without that he was just another Ryan Kesler or Patrice Bergeron — good scorers but better defenders. Again, injuries cloud the equation. With the number of serious concussions and ankle injuries Crosby has incurred over the years, he could very well fall into that mould someday. But likely not for another 5-7 years. The fitness level and fierce lower body strength Crosby has possessed will serve him well into his waning years. But have those years started?
One can look at the experience levels of some of the greats. Age can be taken into account but not every one of the greats begins their career at 18 or 19 so let's go with experience. Taking out his underwhelming 2014-15, let's analyze Crosby's first nine seasons. This period does involve seasons cut short to game totals of 53, 41, 22 and 36 (out of 48) so his first nine are nothing like that of a Wayne Gretzky who barely missed any time — a mere 24 out of a potential 720 games. But those major injuries can play a part in a faster decline for some players. Each one you suffer can take more off the end of your career — see names such as Orr, Lemieux (who played from 19 until 40 but missed the equivalent of 8 full seasons due to injury or retirement), Lindros, Forsberg. That said, how about Wayne's first nine seasons? They saw him gain an output of 1669 points in 696 reg. season games played (yes, you read that right) — a staggering a 2.40 points-per-game rate. Gretzky's next next nine seasons? 1185 points in 639 GP (1.86 PPG). As we see, they are noticeably weaker. Lower scoring rates in the mid-90s helped but a herniated disc in his back in 1992 threatened to end it all and ended up significantly limiting the old stride in his step.
As with anyone not named Jaromir Jagr or Gordie Howe (who played professionally with his kids), age made decline inevitable for The Great One. There will always be those second winds in a storybook career, however. Gretzky was considered not the same old Wayne upon the eve of the 1993 playoffs, with questions abound after he missed 39 games in the regular season due to the back surgery. By the end of those playoffs though, the 32 year old Gretzky looked like a born again force of nature — and yet, as only a legend can do, he still mused about retirement in post-game interviews after his Kings lost in the Cup Finals to Montreal. Why? Cause he'd done it all and had nothing left to prove. But he stuck around to smash a few more records. So will a similar reminder of his old powers come from a 30-something Crosby, in a day and age where he's no longer the top name in the sport? Advancements in training, nutrition and fitness certainly benefit the idea of him having that sort of revival.
Are these projections of doom and gloom — being a shadow of his former self and no longer having the capacity to dominate the league — overblown? It's just a slump after all and Crosby has had many he's bounced back from, right (though none this long? There's a first for everything, right?
It is difficult to imagine counting out a player of his remarkable skillset from still achieving amazing highs. I will say that Crosby will likely never string together 2-3 seasons in a row as good as the ones he enjoyed between his rookie season and two years ago. Just don't expect with the frequency and intensity of 2005-14. Getting a head coach who nurtures free-flowing hockey would be a surefire way to kick starting his scoring again. However, today's NHL coaching brethren are ever so preoccupied with keeping the puck out of the net than putting it in the other.
At the very worst, Sid can remodel himself into a Selke-calibre centre into his twilight years, should he choose to stay in hockey that is. From the standpoint of this hockey follower, Sidney Crosby is being 'caught up to' by the rest of the superstar crop. How he responds to this new challenge is anyone's guess. He may just plow through with his head down, focused on a Penguins return to championship glory — even if that means sacrificing his point total. Or will he for once listen to his ego and show the newcomers on the scene a thing or two?
To paraphrase Gord Miller a little here: Stay tuned to the Crosby show Canada — as it struggles through Season 9 on the airwaves.
Evan Dowbiggin @EDowrimple @NPBroadcaster