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Already (at 19!) The Best

Jan. 22, 2007
Jan. 22, 2007

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Jan. 22, 2007

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Already (at 19!) The Best

In his second season Sidney Crosby is setting himself apart from the rest of the league--and scoring at a pace close to none other than Wayne Gretzky's

The Penguins--afree-agent hockey franchise--are nearing the end of their interminable game of"arena chicken," which has come down to a choice between astate-supported rink to be built in Pittsburgh or spiffy new digs awaiting themin Kansas City. This has turned into a national story of sorts, not because thefate of the Penguins can resolve the philosophical or economic debates over themerits of subsidized housing for pro teams but because one day their home,wherever it is, will be known as the House That Sid Built. Sidney Crosby isthat significant, that good. As the NHL slouched into the second half of aseason in which momentum from the postlockout return seemed to have slammedinto a wall (box, page 52), the emergence of Crosby as hockey's bestplayer--already, at age 19--was the singular development of 2006--07, a grandcounterweight to all the fretting over unbalanced schedules, inconsistentrefereeing and such that is typical of the league.

This is an article from the Jan. 22, 2007 issue Original Layout

The last time ateen was the dominant player in a major team sport occurred in 1979--80, whenWayne Gretzky was Crosby's age, which certainly makes the Penguins' future moreintriguing than a checkered past that includes as many bankruptcies (two) asStanley Cups. Crosby hopes the club stays in Pittsburgh--"There's a hockeyatmosphere here, but I can still have a little bit of freedom," he saidearlier this month, on a day when team chairman Mario Lemieux, with whom Crosbylives, was meeting with officials in Kansas City--but he never pesters his bossfor details about the business.

"To behonest, I don't think it really matters in what city Sid plays in terms of hisimpact on the game," general manager Ray Shero says. "Like Gretzky inEdmonton, he transcends place."

During the firstthree months of the season, in which he blended a sense of purpose with agrowing maturity, in which he was not a pawn but the king in a chess matchbetween Pittsburgh and Kansas City, in which he became the youngest player evernamed an All-Star Game starter, Crosby moved beyond being merely the Penguins'franchise player. He became the league's franchise player.

"Crosby'svery similar to Wayne," says Rangers general manager Glen Sather, whocoached the Great One for nine seasons at the start of Gretzky's NHL career."Same kind of vision. Crosby sees the ice as well as anybody. And I've seen[Crosby] do amazing things, like Wayne. He went through us [last month] andscored a goal"--a forehand flick from just outside the crease after a rushthat began near center ice--"that was one of the best I've ever seen. He'sfeisty, and that's what I like about him too. Wayne was feisty in his way butnot like this guy."

The disclaimer:Crosby is not Gretzky. Notwithstanding Gretzky's volunteering in 2003 that ifanyone could break his scoring records, it would be the then 15-year-oldCrosby, no one ever will be Gretzky. As Bobby Orr says of the Gretzky-Crosbycomparisons, "Give it time." Beyond reaching 200 points four times, 100assists in 11 straight seasons and 70 goals four years in a row, Gretzky washockey's foremost inventor in the 1980s. He would gain the blue line and thencurl, buying himself time and options. He opened up the area behind the net assurely as Lewis and Clark did the Northwest, planting himself there and forcingenervated defensemen to twirl their sticks like the metal players in the oldtable hockey games in hopes of deflecting his passes. Gretzky would play thegame to his whims, often fast but sometimes in waltz time, a maestro dictatingtempo.

Crosby is more,well, conventional. He has superb hockey sense (think Nashville's Paul Kariya),a heavy shot (like Colorado's Joe Sakic) and premier speed (quicker thanMontreal's Saku Koivu). He is also Gibraltar on skates (a compact version ofthe Rangers' Jaromir Jagr) and plays capable defense--at week's end Crosby wasa +13 on a team that was a collective +3. All these attributes in one player(let alone the fourth youngest in the league) is extraordinary--"You pointto other elite players, and there's always some hole, but he doesn't haveany," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff says--but Crosby's skills are not unique inthemselves. The 5'10", 203-pound center isn't reinventing the game, merelyplaying it at a rarefied level.

Still....

Consider, for onething, the statistics. Juxtapose them, fiddle with decimal points, contrast andcompare. In his one full year of juniors, as a 17-year-old, Gretzky (who has aJanuary birthday) had 182 points. Crosby, as a 17-year-old (born in August),had 168 for Rimouski of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. At 18 Gretzkyhad 110 points, mainly with the Oilers, to finish third in World HockeyAssociation scoring. As an 18-year-old rookie last season Crosby had 102, sixthin the NHL. Gretzky, 19 in 1979--80, the season of the NHL-WHA merger, tiedMarcel Dionne for the scoring lead with 137 points while playing in 79 games.This season Crosby had 21 goals and 45 assists through Sunday (he missed threematches in November because of a groin injury), putting him on pace for 130points in 79 games.

The contextualdifference is that when Gretzky ran amok as a 19-year-old, the league averagewas 7.02 per game, suggesting goals were a bit easier to come by than thisseason when the average was 5.95 (chart, page 55). The statistical conceit getsreinforced each time the Penguins see a televised classic game from 25 yearsago. The goalies look almost svelte in their equipment. Some of the defenseappears as soft as a grandmother's heart. "The guys will sit back and[say], 'If only the goalies had smaller equipment now ...'" Crosby says."Certainly it's a different style. Goalies were standing up [in the early1980s]. You could score along the ice a little more, and their five holes werebigger." (Crosby watches tapes of his father, Troy, a goalie drafted 240thby Montreal in 1984, and tells him, "I would have scored on you.")

Gretzky rocketedto 164 points as a 20-year-old and then to an unprecedented 212 points,including a record 92 goals, the following year. Gretzky would average morethan two points per game in 10 seasons, including a record 2.77 in 1983--84.From Crosby's perspective a 150-point season now represents "astretch." Linemate Mark Recchi, who broke into the NHL in 1988--89 andranked 28th alltime in points, suggests that--given that the game is coached tothe nth degree and there are superior (and better-protected) goaltenders,generally stouter team defense and fewer awful teams--an average of two pointsper game would be the postmodern parallel to some of Gretzky's stratosphericseasons. "For a guy to get to 160, he'd have to be on a damn goodteam," Recchi said. "He'd have to be surrounded with three good linesso teams couldn't focus on him. We're not far from that here."

Pittsburgh indeedhas added the flashy rookie Evgeni Malkin (44 points in 39 games) and18-year-old Jordan Staal, the precocious No. 2 pick last June. Still Crosby isthe fulcrum: The Penguins are winless in the 31 career matches in which he hasfailed to produce a point. After a losing streak of five games last month, inwhich Crosby had only one goal and three assists, coach Michel Therrien movedMalkin from second-line center to Crosby's flank. The unilingual 20-year-oldRussian and the Canadian teen don't share a language. But they seem to engagein virtual conversations on the ice that no one else can comprehend, Crosbyslipping into spots he might not otherwise go because Malkin will be able tomake sense of the kaleidoscope of possibility.

Malkin's aterrific sidekick, but of course by Gretzky's second NHL season the Oilers hadJari Kurri, Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson and Paul Coffey.

"When Gretzhad five points, he had his leg over the boards trying to get a sixth--just aninsatiable desire to score," says Oilers coach Craig MacTavish, Gretzky'steammate in Edmonton between 1985 and '88 and, briefly, in St. Louis in 1996."You certainly see the passion Crosby has, the emotion he shows when hescores. It looks like Crosby has that similar [hunger], along with a helluvalot of skill.... Everybody says they know where they were when they heard[President] Kennedy was shot. Now [in hockey] we all remember where we werewhen Pittsburgh won the [2005 draft] lottery."

Crosby demurs. Heis an alternate captain, not chief of state. He has accepted his role as atouchstone of hockey with a certain grace, a little too courtly at times forhis years but never presumptuous. When the Red Wings were solicitingtestimonials to celebrate the Jan. 2 retirement of Steve Yzerman's jersey--andthe Penguins were close to blowing the deadline--Pittsburgh vice president ofcommunications Tom McMillan asked Crosby before a practice in Atlanta if hecould come up with an idea that McMillan could craft into something to send toDetroit in Crosby's name. When Crosby came off the ice, drenched in sweat, heimmediately summoned McMillan and began dictating two neatly crafted sentencesabout Yzerman, which clearly he had been thinking about during the drills."I could have written it for him," McMillan says, "only not aswell."

Crosby'swillingness to do the right thing off the ice may ultimately link him toGretzky more than points scored. "I don't put pressure on myself to beWayne Gretzky," Crosby says. "And I don't put pressure on myself toeven try to get close to his numbers. Sometimes you hear a stat, and it's like,'Wow, I'm in the same ballpark.' Outside of that, I've pretty much come to therealization his numbers can't be touched."

What Crosby ispursuing, unrelentingly, are the outer limits of his own ability. In his secondseason he came back a stride faster and noticeably stronger. His confidenceswelled. His petulance shriveled. "Last year he whined a lot [about calls],and a lot of guys in the league hated him for it," one prominent EasternConference defenseman says. "This year he's toned it down." Crosbythinks the incremental improvement is principally a result of familiarity withthe NHL. "If you're playing [against Devils center] John Madden, and you'reshut down for two periods, you have to realize you still might be playingwell," he says. "Last year I'd have a couple of good games and run intoNew Jersey, and I'm like, 'What's going on with me?' Maybe now I have a littlemore patience."

He takes noshifts off, sometimes no days off. On a scheduled off day in October, Crosby,feeling displeased with his shot, had an equipment manager cover the lower partof the net with a sheet of plywood and worked on corralling rebounds andlifting pucks. He took perhaps 500 shots. Mostly, he took responsibility."Best player in the game," Penguins assistant coach André Savard says,"and the hardest working."

"I like thathe isn't piling up points on the power play," Toronto scout Craig Buttonsays of Crosby, who also led the NHL in even-strength points with 39."[Also] he puts up numbers in division games"--Crosby was averaging2.12 points per game against Atlantic Division teams this season--"whichtells you he's a big-game guy."

If hockey'scognoscenti genuflect to Crosby, he goes on bended knee himself at times,scoring one from the marriage-proposal position last week at Tampa. This wasonly his second-most spectacular goal against the Lightning in three days.Earlier, in Pittsburgh, he had scored while prone, the only time he can beaccused of lying down on the job.

A public personin Canada since adolescence (like Gretzky), Crosby has grown inured to praise.He frets about his flaws and picks at his shortcomings as if they were scabs.He wants to become as dangerous a scorer as he is a passer. He had improved his45.5 face-off percentage as a rookie to 49.7, but he realizes that, given hisstrength and smarts, break-even on faceoffs is not good enough. And more thananything he wants to be on the ice in the last minute of a one-goal game,protecting a lead. Forget Gretzky comparisons. Drawing this defensiveresponsibility is the compliment Crosby craves. Says Therrien, "He's doneit a little already. He's about there."

On asecond-period power play at Buffalo in early January, Crosby was yo-yoing thepuck between the right half boards and the point, waiting for the moment hecould abuse Jason Pominville, a Sabres penalty killer who had the misfortune oflosing his stick. As the power play ticked down, Crosby skated two stridestoward the right face-off circle, puckhandled and saucered a cross-ice pass--ahat trick of patience, vision and creativity--to Ryan Whitney, who buried thepuck in an open net. The Penguins beat the Eastern Conference leaders 4--2, andlater Crosby, full lips pursed, eyes locked on questioners, deconstructed thegame with a polite earnestness.

Then, when theinterviews were over, he stood at his stall and flipped an empty Gatoradebottle at a trash can 15 feet away. The bottle hit the front rim and bouncedover. "Fleur, Fleur, throw it back," Crosby called to goalie Marc-AndréFleury, who complied but then impishly dangled his hockey pants over the mouthof the can. Crosby's next toss struck Fleury's pants and bounded away."That was going straight in."

"Save,"Fleury said.

"C√¢lice,"Crosby shouted, using a Quebec epithet that he learned in Rimouski.

When Fleurywandered away, Crosby tried it again. The bottle soared end over end and ...nothing but net. Then hockey's best player, not 19 going on 29 but, for amoment, 19 going on nine, grinned and pumped his fist.

Great Stats

Midway throughhis sophomore season, 19-year-old center Sidney Crosby's statistics were on parwith those that Wayne Gretzky (right) put up in 1979--80, the season that heturned 19 as a first-year NHL center. However, while 7.02 goals were scored pergame in Gretzky's season, the average for 2006--07, through Sunday, was only5.95. After adjusting Crosby's production to reflect that disparity in offense,his numbers climb even higher.

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

 GRETZKY: FULL SEASONCROSBY (40 GAMES)CROSBY: ADJUSTED
GOALS PER GAME0.650.530.62
ASSISTS PER GAME1.091.131.33
POINTS PER GAME1.731.651.95
PLUS/MINUS0+13--

                                            SEASONTOTALS (79 GAMES)

 GRETZKY: FULL SEASONCROSBY (40 GAMES)CROSBY: ADJUSTED
GOALS514149
ASSISTS8689105
POINTS137130154

*Crosby hadmissed three games this season; his totals are projected over 79 games, thesame number Gretsky played in '79-80.

EXTRA
On-Ice Analysis
Allan Muir and Darren Eliot look past speed and slap shots to rate players onan array of skills and intangibles.
ONLY AT SI.COM.

PHOTOPhotograph by Bill WippertUNBLINKING
Crosby's self-confidence and dedication to improvement have made the Penguins'feisty center a complete player.
PHOTODALE ZANINE/US PRESSWIRE[See Caption Above.]PHOTOBILL WIPPERT WATCHHIM GO
With deft rushes and slick moves Crosby leaves opponents flailing, whiledelivering highlights galore to YouTube.
PHOTOBILL GREENBLATT/UPIVANISHING ACT
St. Louis's average crowd has plummeted by 43% from a year ago.
PHOTORAY STUBBLEBINE/REUTERSVICTORYMARCH
At week's end Brodeur needed 79 wins to break Roy's record.
PHOTOBILL WIPPERT Crosby(far right) and Malkin engage in virtual conversations on the ice that no oneelse can comprehend.TWO PHOTOSJEFF VINNICK/GETTY IMAGESMOCKELECTION
VoteForRory.com gave the anonymous Fitzpatrick (inset) a shot at the All-StarGame.
PHOTOJEROME DAVIS/WIREIMAGE.COM INFREQUENT FLYER Forsberg might follow Hitchcock (inset) out thedoor.PHOTOCHRIS O'MEARA/AP (HITCHCOCK)[See Caption Above.]PHOTOHOCKEY HALL OF FAMEPHOTOPhotograph by Bill WippertSEEINGDOUBLE
Sather, who coached Gretzky for nine seasons, says, "Crosby's very similarto Wayne.... Same kind of vision."
PHOTOPhotograph by Bill WippertRAISING THE BAR
Crosby transforms the Penguins: In his career the team was 36-38-16 in games inwhich he scored at least one point, 0--31 when he was shut out.