Penguins' Sidney Crosby continues climb on list of NHL's all-time best players

0:50 | NHL
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Saturday June 3rd, 2017

The players that we so often love to hate in hockey history are commonly thorn-in-the-side guys. They can be rats, agitators, goons, on-the-edge chippy forwards who turtle when challenged, role players who have a knack for becoming ace marksmen in the playoffs against your team, lowlifes who all but deliberately end careers with cheap hits. 

But normally we don’t hate all-time players, as begrudged respect usually outweighs antipathy. Yeah, if you were a Bruins fan in the 1970s, Guy Lafleur wasn’t exactly oodles of fun, and any Flames supporter throughout the 1980s couldn’t have enjoyed anyone who suited up for the Oilers, just as Wings fans in the late 1990s were reviled by Joe Sakic and Avalanche fans all but gagged over the thought of Steve Yzerman. 

Let’s call this form of gagging a kind of hat tipping: this was about the laundry, not the dude wearing it. You can’t say the same about Sidney Crosby. Canadians love him. He’s almost Messianic if you’re north of the 49th. People-in-the-know love bestowing awards on Crosby, who had no business winning the Conn Smythe last season. So much so that you could argue he might not have been among the top five deserving players. But are you shocked he got it? You’re no more shocked he got than when you pull home on some big birthday and the house is quiet and, what do you know, there is everyone in the kitchen with a cake.

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In the States, it seems like no one outside of Pittsburgh likes Crosby. There’s that sense that everything is titled his way, when he’s already equipped with generational amounts of skill. For a long time he was a player who would shy away from anything physical, that type of person who is last into a skirmish and first out of it. Sometimes he scored big goals when the puck seemingly ended up on his stick after doing nothing all game—or all Gold Medal game—and got to be the hero when others should have been. 

Then there’s the fact that true greatness is so often hated and feared and envied in our society now. We wish to tear people down not because of who they are, necessarily, but how they make us feel about what we aren’t, never will be, never really worked to be, never had the talent to be. Rather than look inward and find a better way to move forward, it’s far easier to lash out and light up someone like Crosby in a comment section. 

It also doesn’t help that as he’s become more physical—and kudos there—and better defensively, he’s also become chippier. Dirty, even. Crosby will wait until the ref turns his head, and give you the quick stick to the groin. He’ll also toast you next time down the ice, and he’s obnoxious enough—the kinder word might be “rascally”—to chirp you about both the goal and the stick to the groin on the way back to the bench. People normally hate this.

Personally, I love it. If you’re not hitting someone from behind and risking breaking their neck, I really could care less what a player does, if it gives him an edge, gets inside heads, in any way influences what is on the scoreboard. Even if that influence is residual over the course of a season. Stick away, is what I say—especially if you’re popping in 1.10 points per game in a league where 60 points over 82 games is reasonably impressive. 

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Yes, I know, this is a minority opinion, but I can’t say I’ve ever watched Crosby and been that bothered by him. I’ve watched and wondered if it was ever really close between he and Ovechkin for best player of the last twenty years, concluding that it wasn’t. And now I’m watching him close in on what could be back-to-back Cups and, maybe, back to back Conn Smythes. And if you don’t like Sidney Crosby, that’s a bad thing. 

 In every other instance in NHL history, a team that goes back-to-back is an all-time great team. These Penguins would be the first not to come remotely close to that category. They don’t even have Kris Letang, the player who should have won the Conn Smythe last year. Have a guess how many players have ever won consecutive playoff MVPs? That would be two—Bernie Parent in the mid-1970s and Pittsburgh’s own Mario Lemieux in the early 1990s. 

The non-Crosby people are going to hate this, but as matters are presently progressing, it’s time to do some re-Jenga-ing of the league’s top ten list. We all know the top four: Gretzky, Orr, Howe, Lemieux. Put them in what order you wish, but have Gretzky first. After that, in no particular order, I’d stick in Bourque, Sawchuk, Beliveau, Harvey, Roy, and now Crosby. What’s more, I’m not sure that Crosby isn’t fifth. He’s the best player since Lemieux, truly generational. He’s not merely the best player since Super Mario: it’s not even close. 

This can be hard to appreciate statistically, given where scoring is at, but I don’t think it’s crazy to suggest that Crosby could have been a regular 150+ points a year performer in the 1980s. He’s a nasty little punk in some ways now, too, which seems to have made him more defensively reliable. Or made his game much more complete, anyway. 

You ever get a taste for something in your life that’s kind of foul, and just really not right? Maybe it’s not too, too bad, and you go with it? I’m thinking that’s what happened with Crosby when he became chippy. With his stick he’s worse than Brad Marchand. True, if you’re going into the corners, Marchand will kick out the back of your skates and your head might bounce off the ice, and Crosby doesn’t do that. But he’s good at those quick spearing motions. He also blocks shots now, picks up his man down low in the slot, bails out that Letang-less defense in the corners and behind the nets. He’s a right playoff warrior. And one who hasn’t sacrificed his offensive game, like Yzerman did. He’s a better, fuller, more high end version of Stevie Y following on from that point when the second greatest Red Wings’ captain learned to win. 

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And now he’s put a shoulder to the gates of the top ten. Please don’t bemoan the exclusion of Maurice Richard, who never should have been there—he was more effective as a concept of fear, power, intimidation, will power, than he was as a player. Which isn’t to say he wasn’t top twenty-five. We’re still talking the elite’s elite. But Crosby has now stormed the citadel of the top ten, and the arguments against his inclusion should crumble down like catapult-blasted battlements. 

The Big 4 don’t have anything to fear, but I would not put it past Crosby to give them a quick thrust of his stick in an attempt to get inside their heads and ultimately supplant them. He won’t, but we’re already talking oceans’ worth of supplanting here, and he can still make certain forms of history that no one else ever has in the league. Depending upon where you live, that’s either utterly maddening or pretty damn cool. And who the hell leads a team that no one thinks is great, vaguely great, or much more than pretty good, to back-to-back cups? 

You’re not doing that without a top ten guy breaking trail for you. Yes, teammate Evgeni Malkin isn’t far behind Crosby in many ways and he could win the Conn Smythe. No one would be annoyed if this was a Malkin thing, but it’s not a Malkin thing, it’s a Crosby thing. Embrace the animus, I say, because the top-ten is now a Crosby thing, too. 

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