Thursday December 17th, 2015

Sidney Crosby is struggling through the worst season of his career, but as TSN’s Pierre LeBrun reminded everyone on Wednesday, the Penguins’ captain is still a lock to make the Canadian squad that will compete in the World Cup of Hockey next September.

“There is no discussion about Sidney,” Team Canada GM Doug Armstrong told reporters last month. “He will be part of the first group of 16 players.”

Six weeks later, some people are wondering if Armstrong might like a do-over on that guarantee. Crosby has become a player who, on most nights, stands out only by virtue of how unnoticeable he is. After another “Where’s Waldo?” performance in Pittsburgh’s 3–0 loss to Boston on Wednesday night (0-0-0, one penalty, three shots), he ranks 87th in NHL scoring with just 19 points. He’s 65th in assists (13), and 127th in goal scoring (6). Statistically, he remains above average but he’s done nothing this season to suggest he deserves a spot on Canada’s roster.

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That said, you won’t find many hockey insiders quarreling with his early coronation. A brief and very informal survey of five hockey execs by on Thursday morning revealed that every one of them considered Crosby’s invitation a no-brainer.

“Seriously? How is that even a question?” one replied. “He’s the best player of his generation ... [look what he’s] done for Canada: the [Olympic gold OT winner] in Vancouver; a big insurance goal in [the gold-medal game against Sweden] in Sochi...”

Crosby always seems to come up big when he’s wearing the red maple leaf. Just last May he was a central figure as Canada captured the World Championship in dominant fashion. Crosby chipped in four goals and 11 points in nine games to finish seventh in the tournament scoring race, and might have padded his stats further if he hadn’t skipped a 10–1 whipping of Austria in the round-robin finale.

Forget the slump. He’s earned his spot on his track record alone.

One exec, however, did offer a twist after saying Crosby belonged on the team. “What’ll be interesting is to see how [coach Mike] Babcock uses him. He has options.”

Like, for example, slotting Crosby on the fourth line.

World Cup of hockey training camp, exhibition schedule released

Look around at the early roster predictions posted by pundits and Crosby is typically penciled in as the team’s first line center. It’s likely that Babcock envisions him filling that role when the tournament starts in Toronto, possibly with World Championship linemate Taylor Hall on his left and sniper Steven Stamkos on his right.

But Canada’s offense might be more effective with a Tyler Seguin-Jamie Benn combo anchoring the top line, and John Tavares or Stamkos centering the second unit. That would leave Jonathan Toews as the third-line pivot and free Crosby up to center an embarrassingly skilled fourth line.

Remember, despite his abundance of natural talent and well-honed smarts, Crosby is, at heart, a grinder. When he’s at his best, he’s using his strength and explosiveness to win battles and create space down low. Paired with the right linemates, say equally aggressive wingers like Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher on his right and Buffalo’s Ryan O’Reilly on his left, he could focus on playing his best possible game while creating a nearly impossible matchup for opposing teams.

And without the burden of carrying the offense—something that seemed to weigh on him at times in Sochi—he might prove more effective at even-strength.

Of course the tournament doesn't kick off for nine months and Crosby is a still good bet to rediscover his game long before Canada hits the ice.

But even amidst the current uncertainty, one thing is set in stone: for better or worse, Crosby belongs.

The numbers game

• Braden Holtby, who leads all NHL goaltenders in victories (20) and goals-against average (1.83), is now the third netminder in Capitals history to win nine or more consecutive games at home. The others: Olaf Kolzig (10, 1999-00) and Jose Theodore (9, 2009-10).

• Boston’s Tuuka Rask pulled within one shutout of Tim Thomas (31) for third on the franchise’s all-time list and has Hall of Famer Frank “Mr. Zero” (35) in sight at No. 2. Tiny Thompson is still in the distance at No. 1, with 74.

• Jeff Skinner is now the first player in Hurricanes/Whalers history to score multiple hat tricks in a span of three or fewer team games. Ray Ferraro hung two in a four-game span in 1984-85.

Hot links

• What does it cost to shepherd a young player from minor hockey to the NHL? Matt Duchene’s dad pulled out his calculator and the figure he arrived at is stunning.

• Sergei Fedorov, Peter Bondra and Pat Quinn are among the inductees of IIHF Hall of Fame Class of 2016.

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• Hockey historian Bob Duff explains the challenges of writing his latest book, 50 Greatest Red Wings, including his controversial choice at No. 2. If you're not familiar with the work of The Duffer, this is a great place to start.

• You have to see this Finnish league defenseman snipe a natural hat trick in just 44 seconds.

• Five artists take a shot at redesigning the logo of the Toronto Maple Leafs. No. 5 is just crazy enough that it might work.

• The unusual bond between NHL backups Mike Condon, Scott Darling and Garret Sparks began with an invitation to a hockey camp.

• The Canucks have won just four games since Nov. 10. Winger Brandon Prust tries to explain what’s gone wrong in Vancouver.

• Finally, this video of a young girl celebrating five years cancer-free at a Blackhawks Shoot The Puck challenge has all the feels.

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