If Sidney Crosby is old, the Penguins are cooked.
And, no, not just this year, but down the road too.
From where I’m standing—where we’re all standing, really—what’s the plan if not Sidney Crosby? Leaving aside, for now, the impossibility of replacing the best player of his generation, the Pens are not built to replace their top-line center.
And if Crosby is old, where does that leave Evgeni Malkin? Malkin is a year older and, though he fortunately doesn’t have Crosby’s concussion history, he has an injury report nearly as in depth as the captain’s: torn ACL, torn MCL, bad left shoulder, bad right shoulder, a recurring thigh injury, and concussions of his own.
Further, the Pens’ prospect pool can’t handle an emergency at center (having Malkin and Crosby locked up means they haven’t drafted to replace them) and neither can their current roster, with Sutter playing like he should barely be handling the responsibilities of a 4C, let alone getting promoted.
So, why buy trouble? Why eulogize Sidney Crosby’s career and his years in Pittsburgh? Why spend the rest of the season looking at each of Crosby’s forthcoming goals and wondering if it’s amongst his last as the “best player in the NHL”?
Really, how did the Pens go from needing better bottom six depth last year to sitting in a wild card spot while twitter suggests moving one of Malkin and/or Crosby now to get ahead of the inevitable?
If you’ve found yourself in the latter category or have found yourself worrying about the prognostications of people in that category, I have good news!
Sidney Crosby is not dead. He’s not even kind of dead. He’s not even that old! And the team mostly still just needs better bottom 6 depth!
If you’re counting Crosby out, or worrying about his production to the exclusion of other deficits the team may have, you are, in fact, buying trouble.
As Crosby gets older, he’s not going to outpace his competition to the same degree he used to before. But that doesn’t mean he’s down or out. If we’re citing the concussion as the time where there’s an appreciable decline in Crosby’s production, what we find is that, while he didn't produce at the same levels as he did prior to the concussion, he still led the league in even-strength points per 60 (P60) from 2011-present, at 3.0 P60. Right behind him? Malkin at 2.7 P60.
Looking at this year alone, Crosby and Malkin are a year older and are both producing 2.4 P60, which is less than they have each produced over the course of the last few seasons. While isolating this year does show a decrease in production, it’s important to note that the previous example shows a multi-year trend of dominance over a much larger sample than one incomplete season.
So where’s the league leader in points per 60? Rick Nash is at 3.4, followed by Tyler Johnson at 3.2 and Tyler Toffoli at 3.0. Nash’s production, while impressive, is likely unsustainable, as he is currently shooting at 16%, and forwards tend to not be able to sustain that kind of production over large samples. Still, this is instructive: no one in the league is producing at the insane, over-4.0-points-per-60 rate the Penguins used to get out of Crosby.
So, yes, there is the inevitable: we all age, and Crosby’s concussion likely robbed him of some of the most productive years of his career. Unfortunately, he sat out more games than he played during the statistical most-productive years for forwards. I, too, like to dream about what could have been.
It's harder to think about, but you know what else robbed Crosby of success during productive forward years?
Brandon Sutter, third-line center (representative of a complete failure to replace Jordan Staal); a fourth line of Craig Adams, Joe Vitale, and Tanner Glass; sub-.900 playoff goaltending; and a revolving door at wing last year that included, at the best of times, Brian Gibbons and Lee Stempniak.
Sidney Crosby is tied for 5th in the NHL scoring race (rocking the lowest shooting percentage of anyone in the top 13!), leading the league in points per game, and, individually, is shooing more than he did last year. Here's my request: critique Crosby (or Malkin or any other superstar), but when you critique him, don't compare him to Crosbys of years past--it's unfair to the player but also minimizes the ability to analyze scoring trends across the league.
While it's true that the gap is closing between Crosby and his competitors, he’s still at the top of the league.
Time to focus on the things the Pens can change—the cast that is supporting their stars—and stop focusing on what they can’t—that Crosby, like all of us, is aging.
I, for one, am looking forward to watching Crosby for years.