The Crosby Conundrum: Entering middle age, who is Sid the Kid?
This story originally appeared in the Feb. 29, 2016 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.
The Mayan Doomsday calendar, which forecast the end of the world on Dec. 21, 2012, was off by a mere 1,137 days. The end arrived when a player with five career goals, and who was in the minors, was the MVP of the NHL All-Star Game, prompting teammates to hoist him on their shoulders and carry him off as if he had scored the winning touchdown in the 1956 Rose Bowl. Meanwhile, Sidney Crosby, the hockey household name whose career 1.33 points-per-game average ranks fifth in 99 years of league history, was not invited to last month’s beauty pageant. Crosby had been entrusted with shining the klieg lights on America’s fourth professional league for more than a decade, but ultimately John Scott, the friendly pugilist who was voted an All-Star captain by merry Internet pranksters, and whom the league tried to dissuade from darkening its spectacle, was the toast of Broadway, the name of the boulevard crammed with honky tonks that runs past the arena in Nashville.
This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but with a Disney movie.
Curiously, Crosby and Scott have played in the same number of NHL All-Star Games. One. Crosby made his only appearance in 2007, in Dallas, which is more a matter of happenstance than lack of interest. (He was named to six teams, but injuries kept him out in ’08, ’09, ’11, ’12 and ’15.) Theoretically Crosby could have been a Metropolitan Division replacement this year after Alex Ovechkin—the craggier face of the NHL who entered the league with Crosby in ’05—-canceled at the 11th hour, but asking him to fill in for his rival might have been more insulting than the initial snub. In any case the NHL didn’t inquire. Not inviting Crosby to an All-Star Game, of course, is like telling Robert DeNiro to skip the Oscars because of Dirty Grandpa. Crosby was his politic public self, saying he was not playing well enough to merit inclusion when the NHL picked the teams in early January. The high road did not run through Tennessee.
At 28, Crosby is at the midpoint of his career. He is neither the prodigy who won a Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh in 2009 and scored Canada’s golden goal at the 2010 Olympics, nor is he old enough to yell at the Oilers’ Connor McDavid to get off his lawn. After scoring 16 goals in 21 games since Jan. 1, Crosby might be, as Penguins defenseman Kris Letang avers, the best player in the NHL, but through Sunday he also trailed scoring leader Patrick Kane of the Blackhawks by 28 points. Crosby’s season, indeed his career, is best described as a classic case of what A.J. Liebling of The New Yorker categorized as on-the-one-hand-this-and-the-other-hand-that. On the one hand, Crosby is a respected leader of his NHL and national teams, a diligent two-way player, a two-time Olympic champion. On the other hand, he carps too much to referees, goes through wingers like Kleenex, has been a playoff disappointment in recent years and was not the dominant forward at his two Olympic tournaments.
Here, play along at home:
On the one hand, Crosby was the youngest captain of a Stanley Cup winner. On the other hand, he has been the captain of only one Stanley Cup winner.
On the one hand, he has been an exemplar on the ice, a generational player and a worthy ambassador for the game. Like Wayne Gretzky. On the other hand, unlike Gretzky, he has not been a crossover star who is part of the daily sports conversation.
The faults, if you find them, are not in the star but in ourselves. The expectations were always overblown for a hockey savant the likes of which seem to come along in Canada every seven or so years (Orr, Lafleur, Gretzky, Lemieux, Lindros, Crosby, McDavid). Crosby has always been graded on the Gretzky Curve, which works against him as a player and as an NHL flag bearer. If Gretzky could peer around corners, Crosby is a hard-driving, heavy-traffic player, more a workman than a visionary. And while Crosby has excited hockey fans, he hasn’t necessarily inspired hockey converts. Now in his 11th season—it began with a five-game pointless streak and has included a seven-game goal streak, each matching the longest of his career—he is an enigma in plain sight. His name comes with appreciative nods and also a “Yes, but ...”
He is Crosby in the middle.
“This might sound odd,” Guerin says, “But I honestly think he's coming into his best years. Maybe not his best numbers. His best hockey."
On the One Hand . . .
Sid the Kid. The nickname always had more rhyme than reason. No more profound than moon-spoon-June, it was a handle that severely shortchanged him. He could be petulant on the ice, but emotions never camouflaged an old soul. His original nickname was Darryl, hung on him after he recorded eight points in his first junior exhibition game, a nod to Maple Leafs captain Darryl Sittler, who in 1976 set the NHL single-game record of 10 points. “The guys in there,” Crosby said last month, gesturing across a corridor toward the Penguins’ dressing room, “they wouldn’t know who that is.”
He still looks boyish—clean-cheeked, impish grin—but he has begun his anticipated middle-aged slide, something that his two-month explosion surely delays but ultimately can’t deny. According to several studies, including an August nerdhockey.com survey, the sweet spot of a scorer’s career in the modern game generally falls between the ages of 23 and 26. Penguins co-owner Mario Lemieux had his career-high 85-goal season at 23; likewise, Crosby’s pinnacle might have been five years ago, when he scored 32 goals in 39 games and had a points streak of 25 games during the first half of the 2010-11 season. “That was the best I ever saw him,” says Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik, a teammate from ’05 to ’14. “Every game you just knew he’d do something amazing.”
Then came Jan. 2011, the Winter Classic, the NHL’s dark and stormy night. In a steady drizzle, Crosby was dinged by a fly-by, eminently unnecessary check thrown by Washington’s David Steckel under the Heinz Field lights. Four nights later in Tampa Bay, defenseman Victor Hedman checked Crosby into the endboards. “That,” says Chris Kunitz, Crosby’s regular left-winger, “might have changed everything.” The severe concussion robbed him of a chunk of his prime—he missed the rest of that season and was limited to just 22 games in ’11-12—but Crosby scuttled back. When he broke his jaw after being struck by a puck in late March 2013, he returned to have a subpar playoffs, failing to score in a conference finals sweep by the Bruins. Still, in 2013-14 he led the NHL with 104 points after having played in just 99 regular-season games during the previous three seasons.
Now he is on a run that mirrors the one that ended in the outdoor gloom. You have seen this movie. On Feb. 2, Crosby popped his head out, saw his shadow, and the hockey world was promised six more weeks of 2010. On Groundhog Day he scored three goals in a 6–5 win over the Senators, his ninth career hat trick and first since Oct. 12, 2013. Crosby scored in a subsequent loss at Tampa Bay and then reanimated the lifeless Penguins the following night. Trailing 2–0 at Atlantic Division–leading Florida with five minutes left, Crosby lost a glove in a skirmish along the boards but managed to corral the puck and, with one bare hand and one gloved hand on his stick, whipped a pass into the slot to create a Letang goal. With less than 90 seconds remaining and the Penguins’ net empty, Crosby deflected a shot-pass to force overtime. Finally, with Pittsburgh on the power play, he again set up Letang for the winner. Crosby had been magic. He made two points in the standings materialize out of thin air.
For his next trick, two nights later he scored on a pair of breakaways in a 6–2 demolition of surging Anaheim. His four points against the Ducks moved him into a tie for fifth in NHL scoring, 150 places higher than he had been on Nov. 17, when his professional obituaries were being typed.
Crosby has never stick-handled with the brio of Kane or scored as naturally as Ovechkin. His has been a subtler brand of exceptionalism, born of outsized effort and impressive skating edge work and an unparalleled backhand and all the details that piled high, create a mountain of hockey excellence. On Jan. 2, against an accomplished Islanders penalty-killing unit, instead of a shot from above the right circle or a safe pass back to the point to Letang, he whipped the puck 50 feet on a diagonal, through the feet of an Islander, to Phil Kessel’s tape along the left half boards. (Following the period, Penguins assistant general manager Bill Guerin would say, “Whoa, the entertainment value on that was pretty high.” This was not a compliment.) After breaking down the New York box, Crosby headed to the goal line, in position to tuck in a rebound when goalie Thomas Greiss fumbled Evgeni Malkin’s shot.
“He’s holding on to the puck more now,” says Guerin, his right wing when Crosby scored 51 in 2009–10. “People don’t always acknowledge it, but basically Sid’s a power forward. Yeah, he’s a center who makes plays, but maybe the best place for the puck to be is on his stick as he’s driving to the net.
“His whole career he’s been bombarded with pressure. With labels. He doesn’t need labels. He doesn’t need to be ‘the best player in the world.’ He just needs to be as good as he can be within our structure. This might sound odd, but I honestly think he’s coming into his best years. Maybe not his best numbers. His best hockey.”
On the Other Hand . . .
Crosby played 79 games in calendar year 2015. He had 73 points. This is fine in the neo–Dead Puck era (Stars winger Jamie Benn won last season’s Art Ross Trophy with a mere 87 points, the fewest by a league leader in a full season since 1968), but it is more than four-tenths of a point below Crosby’s career average. His even-strength points-per-60-minutes average is down 44.1% from his career high. Crosby entered the season with a 3.34 shot-per-game average, tied for eighth among all point-per-game centers since the 1979 NHL-WHA merger, but through 57 games he is averaging 2.98, the fourth consecutive season his total has dropped.
But goals and assists were never truly going to define a wonder like Crosby, were they? They would accumulate on their own, by-products of innate talent. Stanley Cups would define him. How many? How quickly? Gretzky won his first of four in his fifth season. Lemieux won his first of two in his seventh. Crosby beat them both, winning his first, and only so far, in his fourth year. Now he watches from the fringes, where he has seen Team Canada teammates Jonathan Toews lead Chicago to three in six years and Kings defenseman Drew Doughty spearhead two in the past four. Crosby has scored three goals in his past 18 playoff games, and the Penguins, a team larded with high-end talent, have not won any games beyond the second round, blowing a 3-1 lead to the Rangers in a 2014 conference semifinal.
“Sidney’s played a lot of hockey,” Gretzky says. “World Juniors. Under-18s, Olympics. Two Stanley Cup finals. Players are bigger, faster and stronger. You physically get beat up. Sidney Crosby has been through a lot. Simple as that.” Gretzky adds that Crosby, Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos are the players he most enjoys watching, although in two years he expects McDavid to be the NHL’s dominant player. McDavid will have just turned 21 then.
These are all hockey truths, of a kind. Mathematical. Ineluctable. Explicable.
The only thing that makes no sense is Crosby’s 2015–16 start.
Crosby says he lost his confidence, which, if true, is a stunning admission for a player who from the moment he could tie his own skates was basically better than everyone else on the ice. It wasn’t just that barren five-game streak to start the season: Crosby had only three goals in his first 19 games and six in his first 32. He was pressing, trying too hard to make plays for his linemates, including Kessel, with whom he had no on-ice affinity, rather than using his famous hockey haunches and remarkable balance to bull his way into scoring areas. “You start thinking, What about that bounce? Or, How did that puck not go in?” Crosby says. “A puck goes off the post, which is normal, but you start to dwell on it. The fact that I wasn’t scoring kind of compounded my situation.”
Crosby was taking shots from everywhere—off the ice (What is wrong with Sidney Crosby? TSN.ca, Oct. 29) and on. His arch-nemesis, Columbus’s Brandon Dubinsky, Lord Voldemort to Crosby’s Harry Potter, broke his stick over the back of Crosby’s neck as they jostled in front of the net on Nov. 27, an impromptu Bauer diskectomy that felled Crosby. After another thanks-for-coming cross-check, this one to the base of Crosby’s spine, Dubinsky skated casually to the penalty box, unmussed by the Penguins. No one rushed to the aid of Pittsburgh’s captain. Crosby shrugged off the response to the incident, which earned Dubinsky a puny one-game suspension, saying an institutional thirst for vengeance has been bred out of the NHL in recent years. (Like a penguin, that excuse for his teammates, who say Crosby is well-liked in the dressing room, won’t fly.)
“I think it reflected how the year was going, not fighting that extra mile for each other,” Kunitz says of the Dubinsky incident. “The team was so indecisive for the first quarter, almost the first half, of the season. The team was more worried about getting a win than responding in what would be considered a hockey kind of way.”
Crosby was not struggling in a vacuum. Kunitz was buried on the third line, and regular right wing Pascal Dupuis had to quit playing because of blood clots, commencing a familiar roundelay of Crosby wingers. Crosby is finicky. Because he has an exceptional hockey brain and barely conceals his annoyance when his line goes awry, finding suitable wingers has been a chronic issue, in Pittsburgh and on Team Canada. Kessel, the prize off-season acquisition from Toronto, lasted two weeks on Crosby’s flank. (By contrast Gretzky and Lemieux could make 40‑goal scorers out of Blair MacDonald and Warren Young, respectively.) “Sid can make guys uncomfortable,” says Orpik, his former teammate. “When he’s not happy about something, his body language is transparent. His emotions are genuine. Ecstatic or frustrated, there’s no in-between with him.” This is not merely an issue of his wingers. The Pittsburgh defense, especially when the brittle Letang and Olli Maatta are out of the lineup, is not particularly adept at moving the puck.
“I’ve had these stints before,” Crosby says. During an hour of conversation he will say stints, stretches, tough times, adversity and two or three other variations of the one word he will not utter: slump. “But [this] was the first time I didn’t feel like I was impacting the game. Before you could lean on [the fact that] you were out there the last minute of the game, or you were good defensively, or you had five or six chances, or you didn’t score but you drew a penalty. Not this time. No impact, win or lose.”
In early December, at breakfast with his agent, Pat Brisson, in Los Angeles, Crosby said, “I don’t know for sure when I’m going to get out of this. But when I do, I’ll be all the stronger for it.”
“Of course he was going to come out of it,” Kunitz says. “Too much skill. Too great a work ethic.”
And because no one has better prepared himself for greatness the past 15 years and because he was not going to shoot 4% for six months, the dark clouds began to dissipate—even before Mike Sullivan replaced Mike Johnston as coach on Dec. 12. (Crosby had 10 points in Johnston’s final 10 games.) He began shooting the puck more, and his shooting percentage slowly climbed into double digits, close to his 14.4% career average. The power play under Sullivan showed more hustle in retrieving pucks, and points began to flow. Under Johnston, Crosby was producing 1.6 points per 60 minutes at even strength. Under Sullivan his number rose to 2.34. The Shock! Horror! headlines—Will Sidney Crosby’s slump make him a World Cup ... fourth-liner? (SI.com, Dec. 17)—now look like Dewey beats Truman.
And So ...
Crosby still has years to change the plot. He may never score like Gretzky or lead like Mark Messier or be a godlike figure like Jean Béliveau, but a few more Stanley Cups or Olympic gold medals will sand off the corners and burnish a reputation to a lustrous glow. Of course, given the career arc of elite scorers, can Crosby’s best hockey really lie ahead?
The facile comparison for a mid-career Crosby virage is Steve Yzerman, the six-time 100-point man who in 1994 at age 28, with prodding from Detroit coach Scotty Bowman, reinvented himself as a two-way center. The change was a boon to Yzerman’s image, but his transformation was also a pre-salary-cap luxury, because by the late 1990s the Red Wings, deep as the Mariana Trench, did not need 50 goals from him. The Penguins are different. They have $32.25 million in cap space invested in Crosby, Malkin, Kessel and Letang. Since 2014 former GM Ray Shero and current GM Jim Rutherford have sacrificed first-round draft choices for the departed Jarome Iginla, the traded David Perron (a combined 21 goals in 99 Pittsburgh games) and Kessel (19 goals), mortgaging the future for modest returns.
The Penguins are in salary-cap prison—orange is the new black-and-gold—but the overriding economic principle in Crosby’s case is opportunity cost. Crosby envisions himself as a career one-franchise guy, but he is spending precious years chasing a narrative-altering Cup on a fringe playoff team that needs a big-minute, shutdown defenseman and more jam from its bottom six forwards. Crosby demurs. “Championship teams are built over time,” he says. He adds that the Penguins “have some good pieces.”
“I learned a lot about myself this season,” he says, eyes on a game playing on a nearby TV. “If I’m not scoring, can I do other things well? Are you going to be good defensively? Are you going to have a good attitude? Are you going to try to drag everyone down with you? Are you going to make excuses and give up, or are you going to find ways to make yourself better for everyone else?”
So did you like what you learned?
Crosby lowers his eyes from the screen. “Yeah,” he says, fixing his gaze. “I did.”