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Catch me if you can: Crosby still the best of the best when it matters the most

Sidney Crosby remains at the top of his game as he skates into his back half of his career, and he doesn’t want to hand off the crown – or the Stanley Cup – anytime soon.

(Editor's note: This column originally appeared in the 2018 NHL Playoff Preview issue of The Hockey News. It has been edited and updated for online purposes.)

You obviously can’t see it under his helmet and it’s not detectable on television, but if you look closely enough, the flecks of white are there on the side of Sidney Crosby’s head. This keeps up and he’s bound at some point soon to get two minutes for lookin’ so good. With Alex Ovechkin sporting the full-on salt-and-pepper look, it dawns on you that these guys have fewer years left in the NHL than they’ve played. Crosby is not a kid, or even The Kid anymore. In fact, his off-again, on-again line with Jake Guentzel on the left and Conor Sheary on the right goes by the moniker of ‘Sid and the Kids.’ They grow up so fast.

Crosby hit one of those crossroads birthdays this past summer, even if they say 30 is the new 20. Those people haven’t played in the NHL or examined the analytics that suggest a player’s peak is at 29, or even before that, and it’s all downhill from there. They haven’t had to deal with cohorts of “generational players” who keep coming into the NHL more frequently at younger and younger ages and do things that are more and more sublime. So what do you get the guy who has everything and has done everything? “I mean, I’m not a big birthday party kind of guy,” Crosby said.

Too bad. You’re going to parade through your hometown with the Stanley Cup in the back of a truck, just days after doing the same thing in the little town where you played junior hockey. You’re going to take it to a local children and veterans’ hospital and to a hockey camp before retiring to a party with your closest family and friends, complete with a salted caramel buttercream cake that replicates in minute detail the dryer you used to shoot pucks in when you were a kid. You will bring your friends and your community together because you’ve come to realize that your triumphs are theirs, too. You’ll watch your buddies get a little goofy, while you sit back quietly and take it all in. “I’ve been to his party the last two years and if he wins it again this year, I don’t think I could survive another one,” said Colby Armstrong, Crosby’s former teammate with the Pittsburgh Penguins and one of his closest friends. “I kind of went a little hard. He’s pretty reserved, but he has some buddies who go hard for him. He kind of just hangs around and laughs and giggles, but he doesn’t really get ’er going too hard.”

If he wins it again this year…the fact that’s even a topic of conversation is a testament to Crosby and the Penguins, who appear to have cracked the dynasty code. The shrewd work of GM Jim Rutherford has kept them on the right side of the salary cap while retaining their otherworldly talent. Meanwhile, Crosby goes on his way, fully into the Steve Yzerman portion of his career when he gives up goals and assists in exchange for Stanley Cups and a 200-foot game. (Former teammate Eric Fehr once referred to Crosby as “a superstar grinder.”) In the process, the Penguins are defying convention. Everything points to the NHL becoming a younger league, but the Penguins continue to contend with core players who are all 30 or older – Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Phil Kessel. And what’s with this “championship window” everyone talks about? For the Penguins, it’s more like a screen door and it’s been swinging open for a decade now, with a few more years to go by the looks of things.

This is not exactly Crosby’s last stand, but he can hear the footsteps. Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, his Cole Harbour buddy and TV commercial co-star Nathan MacKinnon, all young and robust and talented, all chasing Crosby for the title of Best Player In The World. They’re coming on, but they haven’t done it yet. McDavid was mired in another a tire fire in Edmonton this season, while Matthews, Laine and MacKinnon are integral cogs on contending teams that hope to someday become what the Penguins are now.

McDavid and MacKinnon might end up as Hart Trophy nominees this season, but it’s telling that in a recent survey of NHLers conducted by the NHL Players’ Association, 380 players were asked the following question: “If you need to win one game, who is the No. 1 player (any position) you would want on your team?” And it wasn’t even close. Crosby garnered a whopping 43.7 percent of the vote, with McDavid finishing a distant second with 15.3 percent. And one of those votes that McDavid got was from Crosby. “I don’t plan on riding off quietly,” Crosby said. “We’ll see how long they think that. I’d love to be a part of that conversation. If those guys you’re talking about happen to be 23, 24, 25 and there happens to be a 31- or 32-year-old, a guy like Alex (Ovechkin) who’s doing what he’s doing…if we can hang on and be part of that group, then we’re doing something right. I know at some point I’m not going to be part of that conversation.”

That’s about as close as you’ll get to Crosby throwing down the gauntlet and telling all those snot-nosed kids to give him the best they’ve got. Every player from the fourth-line hanger-on to the superstar wants to be the best player in the world, and Crosby is no different. It’s just that he’s one of the very, very few who have reached that goal and is now in the position of defending it.

Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are being pushed by the NHL's next generation of superstars, but the emperor Penguins are up for the challenge.

You may think his grip on that title is tenuous, you may think he has already given it up. But with back-to-back Conn Smythe Trophies to his credit, it’s clear Crosby, like his teammates, knows when he has to be great. It’s easy to forget that the Penguins were beaten 10-1 in the second game of the regular season and bumbled through December with a 6-8-0 record. Hardly the stuff of Cup contenders, but Crosby and the Penguins have learned to pace themselves. Two years ago during the final, Crosby went out with the Black Aces on an off day and Fehr had to suit up, too, just so Crosby could work on faceoffs. But there are times now when Crosby will exercise his option to take a morning skate off. “Before you wouldn’t even think of that, you’re just go, go, go,” Crosby said. “It’s just more work to take care of yourself. It’s not, ‘Be ready 10 minutes before and just go.’ It might not pay off two weeks from now, it might be something that pays off years from now. But if you want to keep playing and keep playing at a high level, that’s the motivation behind it.”

Like almost everyone else, Crosby keeps a keen eye on McDavid, to both marvel at his gifts and see how long it takes for him to usurp Crosby as the undisputed Best Player In The World. The two of them had quite a spirited battle in the NHLPA survey, with McDavid topping all players that other players would choose if they were starting a franchise. Crosby finished a distant second in that one.

But Crosby edged McDavid in both the most difficult player and most difficult forward to face. Crosby bettered Jonathan Toews as the best team player and won by a country mile over Toews as the league’s best role model. He also was the top choice among players as to who would make the best NHL coach someday. Crosby doesn’t rule out coaching, but he’d rather do it at the college level. “I would probably enjoy the practices more than the games,” he said. “I don’t know how (the coaches) watch that much video and break it down.”

He’s impressed by what he sees in McDavid, particularly given that McDavid is doing it in a pressure-filled market where his every move is parsed and examined. Near the end of the regular season, McDavid and his parents were jeered as they left a restaurant in Edmonton. Crosby marvels at the way McDavid has handled it all and not allowed all the tumult to affect the way he plays. “His game speaks for itself, that does all the talking,” said Crosby. “You can tell this year he’s gotten stronger. I feel he’s probably shooting a little more.”

Crosby is right about that. In his rookie season, McDavid averaged just 2.3 shots per game, a mark that went up to 3.1 last season and is hovering around 3.5 this year. When Crosby first broke into the league, one of the criticisms of his game was he didn’t shoot enough. He eventually became a 50-goal scorer. Then he needed to be better on faceoffs. So he became one of the best in the league on the draws. This is the first season that Crosby finished outside the NHL's top 10 in points per game (he tied for 12th at 1.09). In the playoffs two years ago, Crosby showed he could transform himself into a complete player and earned playoff MVP honors with his performance.

Crosby has acknowledged the day will come when he is no longer in the top player conversation. He watched this year as Jaromir Jagr struggled his way through the NHL grind and left the league to play at home when the Calgary Flames terminated his contract. Wayne Gretzky, the greatest goal-scorer in the history of the game, managed but nine goals in his last NHL season. Marcel Dionne finished his career in the minors. Crosby has seven years remaining on his deal with the Penguins, the last three of which he’ll carry an $8.7-million cap hit and be paid only $3 million. “That’s a good deal, right?” he said.

He is fully intent on playing out his contract and then will see what the future holds for him after that. “There are two ways of looking at it,” Crosby said. “From what I’ve seen, the trend is either guys play until they can’t play at the level they want to anymore or they play until they just can’t play and they kick you out.”

So which will it be for him? “I don’t think you know until you get to that point, right? It’s really hard to know what that’s going to be like right now.”

There’s plenty of time for that. In the here and now, Crosby could very well be that guy you need when you have to win a game. His possession numbers are still strong. His ice time was down slightly this season, but he still played more than 20 minutes a game, and this year, like almost every other, he was among the Penguins’ top forwards in offensive-zone and defensive-zone starts.

By both the eye test and the numbers, Crosby is still very much earning his place among the NHL’s elite. And he continues to do it all while emerging as one of the most respected players in the league, which is a far cry from his early years when his temper tantrums were legendary. Last season, Rutherford marveled at how much abuse Crosby endured throughout the playoffs without complaint. “I think (former Penguins teammate) Hal Gill said it best when he said that Sid poops rainbows,” Armstrong said.

There were years when the Penguins should have won Cups and were playoff flops, another thing that is getting a little more difficult to remember. Those were the days when observers mused whether it wasn’t time to break up the Malkin-Crosby tandem, something that seems preposterous in retrospect.

The NHL playoffs are more of a crapshoot than they’ve ever been, and almost everything has to fall into place at the most crucial time. Nobody, however, would be surprised if just that very thing happened again in Pittsburgh this season. Not that Crosby needs to cement his legacy, since that was already taken care of a long time ago. “All I can do is be the best I can be and prepare myself the best I can and see where it takes me,” he said. “At the end of the day, if it doesn’t work out that way and I start to slow down earlier, I can look in the mirror and know that I’ve done everything I could to be the best. You only have a certain window to be an NHL player, so you have to enjoy it and you have to try to be the best at it while it lasts.”

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