Thursday, May 15, 2014

Sidney Crosby doesn't deserve excuses or scorn. His game just needs to evolve.

By Finesse (follow me on Twitter)

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.

Potvin (4x)
Gretzky (4x)
Mario (2x)
Messier (2x)
Scott Stevens (3x)
Sakic (2x)
Yzerman (3x)
Toews (2x)

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.


  1. This is a reassuring post, really gave me a better perspective on Crosby. Not nearly as disappointed in him now as I was a few days ago. It would also be interesting to see where Malkin's achievements fall compared to past players at his age.

  2. i love how you justify losing. i'm a pens fan and i don't accept losing. i guess its ok to bow out to lower seeded teams year after year. including in early rounds. the pens can and should reach the finals year after year. or every 2-3 years. they just aren't prepared to go the distance. as much as i don't like chicago, they are a powerhouse and the pens should be their eastern equivalent. seeing the hawks go far every year in unbelievably amazing. hockey takes a toll on your body so to do what they do is pretty amazing. Also your logic defies the idea that a dynasty could occur. as one of your few readers, i find it entertaining more than informative. i also find your whining quite annoying. 5 straight years of disappointment may very well turn into 6 (or 6 more per your post). what if the kid never wins a cup again. not sure how great his legacy will be. legacies are measured with rings. one ring means jack and would be considered a major disappointment for someone with the skills of the kid.

    1. So stop reading. You won't be missed.

  3. 1) A really well-done post: I've been disappointed that Sid seems to have lost any willingness to shoot the puck - but long-term, this goal is perhaps more plausible than to ask him to be what he was in his 50-goal season. Given how goal-driven he is, I'd love to see someone set this as his summer agenda. (I'd also like to see how the hockey-world would react to this development, given that being a 60-70 pt. "two-way forward" apparently makes you above all reproach and applauded as the greatest thing since sliced bread, even compared to a consistent 100 pt. forward.)

    In any case - no one will convince me that a lot of what happened wasn't the result of him playing more than twice as many games as he has since '10. On top of carrying a team on his back through 500 mgl. That's like saying Ollie's regression at the end of the season wasn't the result of being a 19-year-old rookie who had never played even 50 games a year. I'm apparently not as willing as the typical Yinzer to filet a guy who is known across the hockey world as arguably the games hardest working player over one bad post-season. The dude is mortal. Shocking. I just know that a) there's no player in the game I would trade him for (or Geno), and anybody who suggests there is one is an idiot; b) he's going to come back with a fire in his belly like we haven't seen in years, with no fricking Olympics as a distraction (and it was a distraction, big time).

    2) I wasn't optimistic that the Pens were making it out of this series. Stupid Yinzer fans (*cough* Anonymous) think Sid and Geno's mere existence should guarantee a Final's appearance, but no one who actually knows that game thought this team had a chance. They were what we thought they were - a top-10 team in the league. Bylsma should be fired - and perhaps Shero, too - because this team needs a change. Mentally. Systematically. I want to see this team look like it enjoys playing hockey again - and nothing but a hit of the reset button is going to make that happen. That doesn't mean that the garbage this fanbase feels the need to spew on Twitter isn't utterly irrational.

    3) I wonder about "Anonymous." Is this one idiot who personifies Yinzerhood - or should I interpret the many Anonymous posts as a collective manifestation of Yinzer culture? Though I suppose in either case it just produces the same old crap.

    1. (Another) AnonymousMay 17, 2014 at 3:28 PM

      "One bad post-season"? He choked big time in '13, '12 and '10 playoffs too. What kind of "fire in the belly" did he come back with this spring after getting absolutely embarassed by Bruins last year?

      Olympics were also a distraction for Toews, Price, Subban, Kane, Carter, Kopitar, Doughty, Quick, Keith, Lundquist, among others. Lame excuse bro.

      The guy is simply a super talented but spoiled and soft brat. Great scorer? Beyond any doubt. Great player, great captain? Only in his dreams.

  4. Brandy,

    You need to get out more and realize the world is bigger than what the local sportscast is feeding you. Remember, this sport of hockey is a business first. The majority of teams in the league don't make a profit. Teams live and die financially by the rounds they achieve in the postseason. Mario and Ron's payroll comes from projecting that this team can go deep into the playoffs, otherwise, well these players you dream of putting on a black and gold sweater ain't gonna happen. So if you want to have a team where players not only want to come play for but also be finacially be able to play for, well, you better hope they start going deep into the playoffs sometime soon. It may not be about rings but it is about having a chance to win a ring. And this roster doesn't come close. Sid should be embarrassed. Mario visiting MAF and Sid may sound all neat to you but if they don't start to perform, you won't be seeing any more Cups in the Burgh for quite some time. Tell your players to grow a heart and then play with one. Your Pens were a joke that were lucky to get past CBJ.

  5. Finesse,

    I wonder what your reader/readers enjoy more, the reality tv blogs or the pens blogs. Maybe you should just stick with the tv crap. It's a better product than whats on the ice.