An interesting week in the NHL: Sidney Crosby returns to the Pittsburgh Penguins' lineup after a highly-scrutinized 10-month recovery from a concussion and a couple of coaches receive their departure notices. Somehow, there is a link.
Not that Crosby bursting back on the scene with nine points and a plus-7 rating has anything directly to do with Bruce Boudreau exiting Washington and Paul Maurice being relieved of his duties for the second time in Raleigh, but I think the contrast is stark.
Both of the fired coaches had team captains who were struggling mightily. The Capitals' Alex Ovechkin seems lost and the Hurricanes' Eric Staal appears to have lost his way entirely.
Enter Crosby -- a captain, too -- rejoining a team that proved competitive without him. Yet it was obvious to everyone who watched last week that the Penguins went to another level with him on the ice. Crosby's game and the way he approaches it elevate everyone around him. That's a testament to him. That he joined a team that was winning regularly with its identity firmly entrenched, well, that's a testament to coach Dan Bylsma, his staff and Crosby's teammates.
But this is Crosby's team without him actually "being the team." He makes the Penguins better. It's not all just about him.
This isn't all about Sidney Crosby, either. It's about those special players who truly elevate their group's level of play by simply playing their game within the team framework. The other example of that dimension is Pavel Datsyuk in Detroit.
The Red Wings' superstar got off to a subpar start and subsequently, his team experienced up and down results. After enduring a 12-game goalless spell, Datsyuk scored in three of four games from Nov. 19 to Nov. 25 while garnering eight points in a five-game streak and suddenly the Wings look formidable again. His night-in-night-out excellence likewise lifts an already competitive squad to upper echelon status.
Now, circle back to the coaching changes. Yes, the moves are beyond the scope of struggling captains. Yet, a team cannot contend for the ultimate prize if its top performer is bottoming out. Compete, yes. Contend, no. The Caps and 'Canes were falling below the compete level, never mind looking like contenders.
Crosby rejoined a clear-minded harmonious Pens team and Datsyuk likewise was part of a group committed to getting to its collective game, so the two organizations were still viable Stanley Cup contenders. Ovechkin and Staal were captains of ships that had run aground, thus the coaching changes.
Now here comes Dale Hunter in DC and Kirk Muller in NC. Their immediate challenge is to get their respective captains playing to their potential. For whatever reasons, both Ovechkin and Staal have hurt their respective clubs with surprisingly shoddy play. Can either coach expect to have a Ken Hitchcock-like effect like the 8-1-2 surge going on in St. Louis? No -- at least not from a how-to perspective.
Both Hunter and Muller may get the usual short-term spark that a coaching change brings. Neither, however, can have long-term success without top level results from their captains -- and that's even conceding that Ovechkin and Staal, while stars, don't have the effect on their rosters that superstars like Crosby and Datsyuk do.
That's not a slight. There are very few players who have a special quality that buoys an entire team. I've mentioned Crosby and Datsyuk. Staal and Ovechkin have had runs during their careers where they've "carried" their teams. Star players can do that. Both Hunter and Muller will take a run of top-notch play by their captains to start because right now they are weighing their teams down, even though both the Capitals and Hurricanes have team-wide issues to address.
That's the coaches' plight -- both the outgoing and incoming ones.