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Top 25 Centers: Crosby's fresh and ready to challenge McDavid

Crosby put up boffo numbers after two gruelling title runs. What will he do with some rest?

By Shelly Anderson

Sidney Crosby played all 82 games last season for the first time in his trophy-studded career. He finished 10th in NHL scoring with 89 points, and with 29 goals, he barely missed hitting the 30-goal mark for the ninth time. Impressive numbers, yes, but even more so when you consider they came after back-to-back long, tiring, successful Stanley Cup title runs.

So imagine what Crosby’s production might be in 2018-19 after an extended summer following a second-round exit in May. “I think it’s going to be great,” said Andy O’Brien, Crosby’s personal trainer since before Crosby was old enough to drive and now also part of the Penguins staff as director of sports science. “His focus and attention to detail is what allows him to have success in just about whatever he does. I think given the opportunity to train a bit more, that’s a good summer for Sidney.”

Crosby might be 31, not 21, but the extra rest and a chance to go through his full, well-thought-out off-season program could have him keeping up with, if not outpacing, the likes of McDavid and MacKinnon and Matthews.

Crosby’s off-season training has always been rigorous and based on the latest science. It’s done mostly behind closed doors, with only a few fan, media and promotional videos leaking out. The results are easy to see in watching opponents try mostly in vain to knock him off the puck, not to mention his 411 goals and 1,116 points in 864 games. “There’s so much more sophistication in that area than there was 10 years ago,” O’Brien said. “He’s just somebody that’s always wanted to be on the cutting edge.”

Crosby said after Pittsburgh lost to Washington in May that he didn’t anticipate watching much of the rest of the playoffs. It turns out he took off soon after on a European vacation. He enjoyed it so much that O’Brien was summoned to join him so he could remain overseas and still begin his training.

One stop was in Switzerland, where he skated with Swiss League club HC Davos. The team website reported that Crosby employed “strength and sprint training” and “intensive running and shooting training.” There was also “a lively exchange with the players and the staff of the HCD.”

It wasn’t difficult for Crosby to share his time with the Swiss players while still addressing his training. “He definitely prioritizes his work in the summer around getting ready for the season, but in general, being in the position that he is as an icon for the sport of hockey and a person people recognize in hockey rinks all around the world, he also takes that part seriously,” O’Brien said. “He’s very gracious with his time, and he’s very good with people. Anywhere he goes, he has a tendency to leave a lasting impression on people.”

And not just hockey people. Crosby made a stop at London’s All England Club in late June shortly before Wimbledon started. He hung out with top tennis players and practised with American pro John Isner, who later made the semifinal. “Actually got him out on the court for 15, 20 minutes and got to meet him and talk to him and see what he does to stay in shape,” Isner told reporters. “That dude works his tail off. That’s why he’s the best hockey player in the world.”

But what about his tennis game? “He was pretty good,” Isner said. “He actually was a little bit nervous, I think. Once he started releasing his forehand, he started hitting the ball much better. But he’s strong as an ox. It’s crazy how strong his lower body is.”

That strength, of course, being rooted in Crosby’s training. O’Brien works with several athletes in his personal training business, but he makes himself available to Crosby and estimates they have trained together in nearly 100 locations, depending on Crosby’s plans and obligations.

When Crosby is back in his native Nova Scotia, the training can be on the ice in familiar rinks (often with Colorado’s Nate MacKinnon), on a local track or on the steep grassy Citadel Hill in Halifax for gruelling off-ice workouts. O’Brien said the national monument site – where Crosby also has taken the Stanley Cup – is beneficial for its intimidatingly challenging setting as well as the technical and mechanical advantages of running up it, including what O’Brien calls a positive shin angle.

The longer off-season meant Crosby had four extra weeks of off-ice training. “I think that was really to his benefit,” O’Brien said. “We were able to use some things in our off-ice plan this summer that we haven’t had in three summers now.”

Look out, NHL.

TOP 25 CENTERS

1. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
Blazing speed, split-second decision-making, mind-bending creativity make captain the perfect offensive weapon.

2. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
No longer a ‘Kid’ but still an elite force thanks to combination of skill and defensive attention. Time for some Selke recognition.

3. Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins
Speaking of Selke wins, it’s hard to keep up with Bergeron, the defensive ace who also fronts the best line in hockey.

4. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
Missed the Hart by a hair but playoff berth was a nice consolation. Mixing up his speeds made him a devastating weapon.

5. Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets
Injury suppressed his numbers, but he confirmed he’s one of the best all-around centers in the game with his playoff run.

6. Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings
Who says you can’t get better with age? Renaissance in L.A. Career-high 92 points without sacrificing his defensive acumen.

7. John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs
He did it all on Long Island. Now he’s got even more weapons around him. The Leafs’ power play will be savage with ‘JT’ in tow.

8. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins
He’d be the top center on nearly every other NHL team. ‘Geno’ quietly puts up elite numbers thanks to his size and skill.

9. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals
Proved in Washington’s Cup run he’s an elite No. 1. His dazzling skill and ice-veined composure make him a rare bird.

10. Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs
Tied with McDavid for most even-strength goals the past two years – and McDavid played 20 more games. Release is deadly.

11. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning
The sniper-turned-playmaker created magic with Nikita Kucherov and made a statement in the process. Next mission? A Cup ring.

12. Tyler Seguin, Dallas Stars
Time is now in Dallas. Seguin must lead charge. Great on draws and coming off first 40-goal season, so the conditions are right.

13. Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers
Underrated Barkov has become two-way beast with Selke aspirations. Flirted with 80 points and should get there this year.

14. Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres
Didn’t have much help early in career, but with reinforcements in Buffalo, we can see what the north-south attacker can really do.

15. Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders
Three five-point games as a rookie were a warning to the league. Now he gets a brighter spotlight with Tavares gone.

16. William Karlsson, Vegas Golden Knights
Tip of the spear for Vegas’ fast-as-fire attack. Put up major points, took care of his own zone and avoided the penalty box.

17. Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers
Elevating him to the top line was genius. Big two-way force broke out for 76 points and gave Claude Giroux a new playmate.

18. Sean Monahan, Calgary Flames
Two 30-goal campaigns in four years working with Johnny Gaudreau. With Flames deeper, the points will keep rising.

19. Ryan Getzlaf, Anaheim Ducks
Forget his age. He can still pump in the points. Big, nasty and talented, he has three straight years of 50 assists or more.

20. Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals
No Ovie, no problem. Backstrom’s brilliant playmaking continued with T.J. Oshie as his target. Caps couldn’t be stopped in Cup run.

21. Logan Couture, San Jose Sharks
His two-way game is stellar. Gets a little overshadowed in San Jose (he needs a beard), but 34 goals were a career-high.

22. Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning
Small in stature, large in results. Had 32-goal sophomore campaign and great playoffs in a hybrid scorer/shutdown role.

23. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers
Can play on McDavid’s wing or center his own line. Size, power and skill make the German a force. Just getting started.

24. Vincent Trocheck, Florida Panthers
Another underrated gem from the Panthers. Can match up against anyone and get results. Bagged his first 30-goal campaign.

25. Ryan O'Reilly, St. Louis Blues
A shutdown center with offensive pop. Buffalo was a struggle for the vet, but St. Louis offers a bevy of talented linemates.

This story appears in the Season Preview 2018-19 issue of The Hockey News magazine.

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