Sidney Crosby…cleaning out his stall…before the end of April? The idea was surreal. The lone playoff miss of his legendary 14-year career came in 2005-06, his rookie season, and, across 13 consecutive berths since, early exits have been rare for the Penguins. They’ve been to four Stanley Cup finals since 2007-08, winning three, with another conference-final trip to boot.
Getting swept by the New York Islanders in Round 1, with the final two defeats coming in Pittsburgh, was disturbingly off-brand for this incarnation of the Penguins franchise, built around future Hall of Famers Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. That’s how it felt just watching it. Imagine how strange it felt to experience it. “Yeah, it was tough,” Crosby said. “You get so pumped about getting into the playoffs, and you work so hard to get into that position, and it’s not easy to get there. It’s a grind all year to find your way in. To have that result, to be out in four, to have that disappointment, it leaves a bitter taste in your mouth. You try to use it as motivation and learn from it.”
There was plenty to learn after Pittsburgh’s previous one-and-done disappointments. When the Ottawa Senators disposed of the Penguins in five games in 2007, for instance, that was Crosby’s sophomore season and first taste of playoff hockey. There was an obvious upward trajectory to follow. Now? Crosby turned 32 in August. Malkin turned 33 in July, and cornerstone defenseman Kris Letang turned 32 in April. Bombing out in the post-season at this stage of their careers sounds alarm bells. Are we seeing the end of something in Pittsburgh?
In a three-season span, the Penguins have slipped from repeat Stanley Cup champ to second-round exit to first-round-sweep victim. The next rung down the ladder sits outside the top eight in the East. And, hey, the Crosby era’s peak must end at some point. Not that he’s ready to acknowledge that idea. This is Sidney Crosby, after all, three-time Cup champ, two-time Olympic gold medallist, two-time Hart Trophy winner, synonymous with competitive fire.
“It’s a challenge of playing these days as far as the parity of the league and how tight everything is, having to find ways to be successful, but we still have a lot of belief,” he said. “We still had 100 points last year as a group. We had some injuries we had to deal with. (Goalie) Matt Murray was out for an extended period of time, and various guys through our lineup were out, and everyone found a way to step up. We’ve shown we can be a successful team, something you’ve got to do year after year, so we’ll look to try and do it again.”
Crosby’s words still carry weight considering his own game shows no signs of decay. He posted his first 100-point effort since 2013-14 last season and played the best defensive hockey of his career. He logged 21:00 per game, won more than 55 percent of his faceoffs and battled opposing teams’ top lines nightly.
With Crosby on the ice at 5-on-5 last season, Pittsburgh outscored its opponents 82-43, outchanced them 653 to 510, outshot them 764 to 598 and out-attempted them 1,388 to 1,158. Crosby’s two-way dominance earned him a career-best fourth-place finish in Selke Trophy voting. There’s a sense the award is a remaining bucket-list item for a guy who’s won almost everything he can in the sport. Not that he’s optimistic about his chances of getting it. “I look back on this year, and I was in the conversation,” he said. “I’m not sure how many cracks I’m going to get at that. As long as (Patrice Bergeron) is in the league, there’s probably only two spots. He’s got one of them locked up every year.”
Selke or not, we can expect elite 200-foot hockey from Crosby for at least a couple more years. But will the rest of the Penguins do their part to help him compete for more championships? That’s debatable. Because they’ve contended for so many seasons this decade, they have the league’s thinnest prospect crop. Asked whether he believes the Pens should reload for another Cup push or rebuild, Crosby keeps things diplomatic, expressing his trust in Jim Rutherford to make good decisions. And the GM’s off-season moves did suggest a big-picture plan. By trading Phil Kessel to the Arizona Coyotes for Alex Galchenyuk and blueline prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph, Pittsburgh got younger, which might be the key to long-term contention. That said, removing Kessel from the equation in the short term sets the Penguins back.
There’s thus no guarantee Crosby gets another playoff run deep into June before his prime is up. The longest, most intense years of his career may be finished. So at what point does he begin pondering life after hockey? It’s not something that comes up often with him. For someone who has spent most of his career as the face of the NHL, Crosby has kept things remarkably private. We don’t hear many stories about plans to settle down for good or start a family. He’s been with girlfriend Kathy Leutner for many years, and that’s about all we know. It’s by design for Crosby, who only leaks the tiniest personal details if asked. “I’ve always been that way,” he said. “When I was young and growing up, there was so much attention, and everything was magnified, and just having certain things to yourself was nice.
“I take a lot of pride in being professional and taking what I do seriously. As far as personal stuff, I’m not on social media and stuff like that like other guys would be. But that’s me. I think people respect that. Everyone does things differently. That’s just something I’ve felt comfortable with. Being a hockey player, you automatically think, ‘There are certain things that are going to be more known about you,’ but it’s nice to have that (privacy), for sure.”
The deeper Crosby goes in the playoffs, the more the focus will remain on his hockey life. So getting the Penguins back into Cup contention kills two birds with one stone.