At this point in his career, we have an awful lot of data on Sidney Crosby.
He's played 666 games to this point in his career, and was only occasionally slowed by various injuries. He nonetheless has 884 points in those 666 games, a mark that is tops among active players by a decent shout (0.15 points per game more than second-place teammate Evgeni Malkin), and fifth all-time behind only Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Mike Bossy and Bobby Orr.
The fact that he has played a decent-sized chunk of his career in the second Dead Puck Era is frankly incredible.
However, as awed as we are — and should be — by what Crosby has accomplished in such a short time, there is the inescapable fact that he is clearly slowing down. Like all players, time comes for your skills at some point, and Crosby having been banged up for some of his prime scoring years hasn't gotten any favors from his body or opponents.
Not that he should expect any from the latter.
It's very clear at this point that Crosby, at 28, isn't likely to be the guaranteed-100-a-year points producer he once was. Last year was the first of his career in which his points-per-game pace didn't guarantee that he'd break 100. It was only about 89.4, the lowest since 103.3 his rookie year. And this year, it's down to just 64.8. So the question is, what's happened to Crosby, and is it reversible?
Age, of course, is not. But in the 11 games since Mike Johnston was mercifully dismissed as the Penguins coach, Crosby is at least starting to resemble his old self. In those 11, he's on 6-6-12, but all those points have been in the last nine games.
Perhaps you say it took him a game or two to get up to speed with what Mike Sullivan was trying to do. Perhaps you say it's a product of his overall shooting percentage for the year to that point literally doubling in the last three-plus weeks. But there's reason to wonder if whatever Mike Johnston's systems asked of Pittsburgh's players was necessarily depressive when it came to creating offense. Because one thing no one talked about is that Evgeni Malkin didn't score a ton last year — less than Crosby, in fact — and is doing very well this year but that's arguably because he's got Phil Kessel on his wing.
Here's Crosby's 5-on-5 point production for his entire career, including playoffs, with the years he played under Johnston shaded red. You'll notice that even before Johnston was hired — so we're talking the waning days of Dan Bylsma — there was a steep decline in assist production, and a slightly less-steep one in goalscoring.
That rectified itself right before Bylsma's time behind the bench at CONSOL came to an end, but started declining once again as Johnston's time wore on.
That's obviously reflected in the overall points numbers, but what's important here is the understanding that Crosby has always been a top-line player (basically 2.0 points per 60 is the cutoff there, and he has dipped below that maybe two or three times in his career), but that he used to be mega-dominant. Look at those stretches of 3.5 points per 60 at full-strength. There are a number of them, and it's absolutely absurd that anyone could do it reliably. Such is Crosby's skill level.
You of course do not pay Sidney Crosby to be a top-line forward, though. He's not a top-90 forward, or a top-30 center. He's a top-2 player regardless of position, and basically was for every second of his career before the team appeared to quit on Bylsma.
But we understand by now that points are not always the best indicator of dominant play, because sometimes the puck just doesn't go in for you, as with this case. Others, it goes in for you at a ludicrous rate, as with those 4.5-plus runs Crosby occasionally went on earlier in his career. So while Crosby is paid an awful lot of money to produce an awful lot of points, you also have to look at process to determine if he's actually trending in the wrong direction or if this is, to some extent, just a run of 120 or so games of bad luck.
And as far as the stuff that leads to goals goes, you can see that Crosby is clearly trending down a little bit, but isn't totally out of line with the norms seen at other points in his career. The area where playing for Johnston, and for a losing-the-room Bylsma before that, seems to have really hurt him is in terms of generating his own high-quality scoring chances.
You can tell that from watching the games of course, but the fact that Crosby ended his run under Johnston generating chances at a roughly average rate for his career speaks well to his ability to, ahem, shockingly turn it around.
But when considering these things, one must also look at the Penguins' roster degradation over the last few years, as well as people's waning patience for Crosby to start scoring again. One imagines that, if left with Kessel in the long-term, instead of abandoning the experiment pretty quickly — they have about 132 minutes of 5-on-5 time together this year, about three games' worth of full-strength TOI less than Crosby has with Patric Hornqvist — that duo could produce goals pretty effectively. Not that Kessel is doing badly with Malkin, but Crosby wasn't given much of a chance to “figure things out.”
Look, the Penguins' roster is not as conducive to helping Crosby score these days as it was around Game 450 of his career. That was during the 2010-11 season, when Chris Kunitz was actually useful and Crosby was blissfully unaware his season would end on Jan. 5. He scored 66 points in 41 games that year, a pace for 132.
Now he's............ still playing with Chris Kunitz. And somehow the Penguins' depth has only gotten worse.
It's pretty exceptional, really.
But despite the obvious problems with his ability to put up points for much of the Johnston era, there's little to suggest the Penguins as a whole have struggled there apart from what you might have expected. Pittsburgh started out pretty rotten this year, no doubt, but they've normalized in the last little while here to about where the club was in Bylsma's heyday around 2009 and 2010 in terms of possession, and scoring chance differential. Firing Johnston was likely the right move to some extent, because you miss the playoffs and then get off to a start like this, you deserve it in some way. This is, after all, a results-oriented business.
One thing you also have to keep in mind when making these evaluations, though, is that since 2009, the average NHL save percentage has increased eight points (to the current .916 from .908). Doesn't sound like a lot, but it's on pace to cost the league about 640 goals, assuming about 79,000 SOG, which is roughly the figure from last year. That's about 20 fewer goals per team, and Crosby always scores a big chunk of Pittsburgh's goals in the first place.
Crosby may have had a down year last year, there's no denying it. But if a down year for Crosby means you finish third in the league in scoring, 3ish percent behind the eventual winner, I think you take that. And again, he seems to be heating up once again. It's not improbable he finishes the year top-five or even top-three in scoring. Right now he's 29 points off the scoring lead, so perhaps you say Patrick Kane is uncatchable, but he's only seven out of the top 10.
So overall there are two fundamental realities we need to accept:
1) The days of more than one guy a year regularly scoring 100 points are over as long as save percentages keep trending upward.
2) Crosby has aged out of his prime scoring years.
Mike Johnston didn't “break” Crosby, nor did Dan Bylsma. He went through a prolonged slump in his late 20s. They're going to become more more common. And he's still unbelievably great. He's just not likely to ever again be the Sidney Crosby you remember.
All stats via War on Ice unless otherwise stated.
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