Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Sidney Crosby: A unique combination of leadership and crazy

By Finesse (follow me on Twitter)

Sidney Crosby's decision to knock Jakub Voracek's glove away in order to bait Claude Giroux into a fight that Giroux probably wished had been broken up sooner was dumb.  But it wasn't dumb because it was "classless," terrible leadership, or some sort of horrible affront to the sport.  It was dumb only because it didn't work.

Outside of the first period of Game 1, the Pens have been completely and totally dominated by Philadelphia.  Every time the Pens score, Philadelphia scores.  Every time Philadelphia gets a power play, they score.  Every time the Pens get a power play, Philadelphia scores.  Every time Paul Martin has the puck, Philadelphia scores.  For 8 periods, plus a short overtime, it's been a total mismatch.

So Crosby, the Pens captain and best player, decided to try to do something to change that.  And he did something that very few people of his stature in the game (to say nothing of his concussion issues) would have done -- he picked a fight.  The guy he picked a fight with didn't want to fight so Sid had to instigate.  And to instigate the fight, he did something that harmed no one, was kind of funny and actually worked to instigate the fight -- he knocked Voracek's glove away.  In a league where TV analysts rip coaches for not fighting each other, we can't pretend to be offended by knocking a glove away.

No! Not the glove!
Unfortunately, Sid's decision to fight Giroux turned out to be a bad one because it did absolutely nothing to get the Pens any closer to beating the Flyers.  But before any more Pens fans decide to throw the final pieces of Sid under the bus, let's take a moment to get our composure.

Perhaps the biggest compliment that Sid has been given throughout his career is that he's a world-class talent with the mentality of a grinder.  He battles for pucks, he's the strongest player in the league on the boards, and he mixes it up after the whistle.  He's not a dainty player who is afraid to do his own dirty work.  So we can't and shouldn't act surprised that a guy who has been described by supporters as "fiercely competitive" and by his detractors as a "cheap shot artist" lost his cool and decided to do what almost 100% of NHL players have done in their career: pick a fight.  The NHL playoffs are as intense of a sporting stage as you can get anywhere in the world.  It's insane on the ice, or as it is now called, it's Kris Letang on the ice.  You can't half-step it.  You have to be completely invested in the moment and sometimes when you do that, your emotions get the best of you.

One way to look at Games 2 and 3 is to view them as an indictment of Sid's leadership ability and say that this confirms that he is not Wayne Gretzky or he's not Steve Yzerman.  And you'd be right about part of that -- he's not Wayne Gretzky and he's not Steve Yzerman, because Sid will fight his own battles.  Gretzky, Yzerman, and an infinite number of other revered captains in NHL history sent bigger, meaner, and more dangerous guys -- men like Dave Semenko and Bob Probert -- to do their dirty work for them.  Is that better "leadership" by captains?

Like everything, it's really only possible to judge after the fact.  If it works, like it worked for Max Talbot in 2009 or how the Iginla-Lecavailer fight in the 2004 finals is seen as a career badge of honor for those guys, then it's great leadership.  When you get smoked 8-4, not so much.

It's easy for us to watch the games and say that Sid should skate away.  But for better or for worse -- and it's almost always for better -- that's not how he is wired.  We thought the concussion might change him, or that maturity would morph him into some stoic Lady Byng-contending captain.  But you can't change a person's fundamental nature.  The truth is that Sid is kind of crazy.  And that's a good thing.

Also a pretty decent fighter.
It's also impossible to judge Crosby's actions in Game 3 without considering what precipitated them.  To a man, including the coaching staff, the Pens have been abominable this series.  The only way to describe how bad the defense, goaltending and coaching has been is to pull your teeth out one by one and live-blog how it feels.  That Crosby, who hasn't been great but has still managed 5 points, felt the need to try to do something to spark his team should come as no surprise, even if it turns out he took the wrong approach.

Crosby can't "lead" individual people out of how poorly they're playing right now.  He can't lead Marc-Andre Fleury to be competent.  He can't lead Dan Bylsma make a single tactical adjustment.  He can't lead Kris Letang to stop acting like a defendant trying to convince a jury that he's mentally incompetent to stand trial.  And not even Mike Richards in his prime could lead Paul Martin to play defense.

Just under 2 million hits for "paul martin goal philadelphia" Google image search.
(Relatedly, I don't think it's possible to assign too much blame to Fleury.  He's been abysmal.  When he gives up multiple bad goals a game, most of which come almost immediately after the Pens score and get some semblance of momentum, it's impossible for a team not to start breaking down mentally).

So this is not something that should cause Penguins fans to think of Sid as a punk or a terrible leader or question whether Flyers and Rangers fans have been right all along.  It's fair game to criticize him for making a dumb decision or losing his composure momentarily but all that makes him is a flawed captain.  Who isn't?  I'm glad he's not scared, I'm glad he doesn't care what people think of him, and I'm glad he's not the robotic groomed-from-birth-torch-bearer of the sport that he has been at points in his career.

During the last seven years, there has been one place that has hated Crosby more passionately and more fervently than any other city, and it's not even close -- Philadelphia.  One hundred percent of this venom is traceable to envy and jealousy, and any claim that it's somehow about the way he plays is cloaked in a thick coat of hypocrisy given the source.  And for the vast majority of those seven years, Sid has completely owned Philadelphia.  He's led his team to 2 playoff series wins, an 8-0 season series sweep in 2006-07, and more big goals and moments than we can remember.

On Sunday, Sid snapped.

I'm not surprised that it happened.  I'm surprised it took so long.

The guy takes untold amounts of abuse on the ice (he definitely dishes out his fair share as well).  Every single thing he does on the ice is dissected like the Zimmerman-police station video.  He's held to a supremely high standard of being the face of the NHL while opposing players, coaches, and everyone from every TV network that works with the league call him every name in the book.  He's despised in almost every city he plays in despite, for the most part, being guilty of nothing more than being a great player.  For seven years the league has tried every tactic in the book to get inside Crosby's head.  That he's maintained this level of composure for this long is no small feat.

But on Sunday, after seven years of Crosby Sucks chants, face-washes and sticks to the face, the Flyers finally got inside Crosby's head.  Enjoy it while it lasts, Philly.  Because it probably won't.


  1. Best Article ever.........Spot on.

  2. Wow, what a load ....

    1. Whatev's. You're a load.

  3. Brandy? P.Co? Randy!? Where are you guys? GTOG needs you now more than ever.

  4. Sorry - I was temporarily distracted by the Steelers new throwbacks. In fact, I would personally like to thank the whole Steelers organization for brightening up - both literally and figuratively - this dark time for us all.

    I imagine this conversation prior to their first game in these fine new threads to go as such:
    Ben: Maurkice, do these stripes make me look fat?
    Pouncey: No, but those pants aren't the best color for your complexion.
    Ben: Dude, do you think we could convince Tone to tape some antennae to his helmet?

    As far as the Pens, I am unable to wrap my head around any of this. I have no thoughts: they have made me thoughtless.

    Except for Sid: I know I have no issues with anything he did. And I'm glad that he is still, post-concussion, the same player who will inevitably be in the box for slashing with 2 mins left to play in a game when the Pens are down by 3. (Seriously, you could play over/under on the time on the clock when he goes off.) It is who he is.

  5. Wow, I'm super late with this, aren't I? This series has been such a nightmare I can't even think straight. Or work. Can we just go to sleep and wake up in October?

    I do have some issues with what Sid did. First, I was bothered by the third period stuff. The game was out of hand, it didn't work the first time you tried it, what do you expect to achieve now?

    Second, we can't ignore the fact that fighting involves blows to the head, and when Sid fights it's blows to Sid's head. The rest of the team obviously is aware of it, and Sid should be cognizant of that. You just can't start a fight anymore because you're just forcing a teammate to take you off the guy, fight in your place, and get an instigator penalty. Adams did the right thing - he protected his recently out for a year because of head issues captain from getting hit in the head. But this is a suspendable offense. As a result, the Flyers might be 6 for 4 on the PP tonight.

    As far as anything else, all the criticism of Crosby in this series is nothing but jealousy and schadenfreude-driven BS. With 5 points in 3 games there's not much you can criticize him for.

    The "cheap shot artist" and other labels stem from two reasons and two reasons alone:
    1. Sid came into the league after the lockout and was forced into the role of the savior of a league with branding and image problems. Since then he has more cameras on him than all other players in the league combined. Every slash is first captured on film and then replayed a million times on every station. So obviously you're going to see more slashes by Crosby than by any other player, but it doesn't mean that he plays dirtier than other players. He doesn't.
    2. He plays in the Atlantic division, going against teams that are covered by the Tri-State or Philly media 24 times a season. The NY and Philadelphia media drive the hockey discussion in the United States, and the only team they don't represent is Pittsburgh. Couple that with the fact that during their time in the NHL, the Pens won as many Cups as the Rangers and Flyers combined, and more recently, too, and you've got the hatred at ridiculously high levels.

  6. By the way, how come no one has any problem with Letang going at it after his two recent concussions?

  7. Meant to comment on this last week. I loved it.

    I'll save my thoughts on fighting & concussions for another time, but I'll say this: I have no problem with post-concussion Sid fighting his own battles, even with fists.