Sidney Crosby doesn't deserve any excuses. The last month was, without question, the longest sustained stretch of stink in his entire career. Pointing to his puck possession numbers or his criminally sub-par supporting cast is just an excuse. A seven-game series is a small sample size, but that's by design -- the playoffs test a player's ability to perform and produce under pressure in a small number of games. He didn’t. And his teammates didn't lob harmless wrist shots into Lundqvist's crest from 40 feet away or pass the puck to the other team on every power play. It should be open season on criticizing his performance.
But it's hard to see the forest through the trees when you're walking through the woods with your head down staring at Twitter. The truth is that even if Crosby gets swept in the first round in each of the next five years but wins one more Cup in his late 30s, his career would still be a massive success.
Crosby will be 27 when next season starts. Here is the list of players since 1980 who have captained a team to multiple Stanley Cups.
Scott Stevens (3x)
That's seven of the greatest players of all time, plus Jonathan Toews. The fact that Toews has turned into a better player than a lot of people thought doesn't make Crosby any less successful. Mark Zuckerberg didn't become a disappointment to his parents the day someone came along and invented Twitter.
And really, Toews' unprecedented success is the exception that proves the rule: it's really hard to win one Cup, let alone multiple Cups. Joe Sakic won his first Cup at 26, but he didn't win his second until he was 31. Steve Yzerman didn't win a Cup until he was 32. Next time talking heads point out that Crosby doesn't have any playoff overtime goals, remember: When Yzerman stole the puck from Gretzky and scored on John Casey in double OT in 1996, he was 31 years old and Cupless (and lost in the next round). When someone on Twitter asks when Sid is going to have his "Messier in '94 moment," remember: Messier was 33 years old in 1994. Maybe Sid will have his Messier Moment in 2020 when he's, you know, 33 years old.
So yeah, the last five years were a lost opportunity for Crosby, but it was the opportunity for him to achieve a level of success by age 26 that is pretty close to unprecedented. The best players of all time lose in the playoffs ALL THE TIME. Gretzky lost 12 playoff series. Messier and Sakic lost 11. Yzerman lost 17! Crosby has lost six. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but he's going to lose another six. At least.
The only thing that matters now is how he can get that second Cup.
Whether we like it or not, the playoffs de-emphasize skill and elevate the frustrators over the frustrated. A big reason why the Pens never won another Cup after '92 is that Mario martyred himself in a holy war against the league over how hockey should be played in the playoffs. Sorry, but Mario lost that war. Sid shouldn't martyr himself, nor should his only recourse be to toughen up and fight through the punishment and interference. Instead of being the one always getting frustrated, he should listen to Missy Elliot: "Flip it and reverse it. Ti esrever dna ti pilf nwod gniht ym tup I."
If I was Bylsma's replacement, this is the challenge I'd issue to Crosby: be a finalist for the Selke trophy in 2015. Crosby won the scoring title by 17 points this year, but he was on the ice for 53 goals against at even strength. The three Selke finalists -- Kopitar, Bergeron, and Toews -- were on the ice for 27, 29, and 45, respectively. If Crosby had scored 17 fewer points and been on the ice for 17 fewer goals against, he'd have still won the scoring title and been a leading candidate for the Selke, all while developing the one trait that will endure through any prolonged slump: a tenacity to get the puck away from the other team as fierce as the tenacity to keep it away from them. If developing that means the Pens beat Carolina 2-1 on Thanksgiving Eve instead of 6-3, good. The Pens were never going to win Game 7 against the Rangers 6-3. But they could have won it 2-1.
Using recent history as a guide, Crosby is better off being more Frank Selke and less David Hart. From the 2009-10 season through the 2013 season, the finalists for the Hart Trophy won a combined 64 playoff games. The finalists for the Selke Trophy won a combined 85 playoff games. Or go back even further -- before the age of 30, Steve Yzerman finished in the top 10 of Hart Trophy voting six times. He won zero Cups. From age 30-37, he finished higher in Selke voting than in Hart voting every single year. He won three Cups.
It might be time for Crosby and Art Ross to see other people, too. It’s nice to see that banner hanging, but it’s not really necessary. After all, if the Ducks beat the Kings in Game 7, only five of the top 20 scorers will be left in the playoffs. If the Kings win, only four of the top 20 will be left, and none of the top 11.
Becoming a little more Selke-ish wouldn't be a reinvention of Crosby’s game; it would be an evolution, and one that's necessary because of the inevitable: Crosby isn't going to be the best player in the league forever. Sooner rather than later, especially given his concussion history, he will slow down and younger players will come along and start winning his scoring titles. His path back to the Cup isn't to try to keep getting better at the things he will inexorably get worse at. It's to get better at the things he can still be great at deep into his 30s.
Steve Yzerman’s career can teach valuable lessons about how Crosby’s game can evolve, and how everyone watching should be patient and keep perspective along the way. In the first round of the 1993 playoffs, the Wings were down 3-games-to-2 to the Leafs, and Doug Gilmour was getting the best of Steve Yzerman. Before Game 6, according to Sports Illustrated:
Yzerman went to see Murray and MacLean and asked them not to lie to him. How was he playing? What could he do to be better? Said Murray, "We asked him not to lose to Doug Gilmour's line. To look after his own end, and if he did that, the scoring chances would come."
And so they did, in bunches. With Yzerman in effect turning the tables on Gilmour and assuming the role of the highest-paid checking center in the league, Toronto's offense stalled. "I had no jump in my legs," Gilmour said. Yzerman had a goal and an assist, and Detroit's depth at the skill positions took over.The Wings won Game 6 and tied the series.
But you know what happened next? The Wings lost Game 7.
Yzerman was a week shy of his 28th birthday at the time. Only four short years away from his first Cup.