Typically players reach their prime around their mid-20s, exiting as they reach their late 20s, but Sidney Crosby isn't a typical player. Sure, it looked like Father Time had caught up to Crosby in the early going of last season, but the firing of Mike Johnston and the promoting of Mike Sullivan proved it was more the system than the player at fault, as Crosby and the team have shed the shackles of a restrictive system and took off, ultimately winning the Stanley Cup and finding them sitting pretty roughly a third of the current season with the 4th most points in the league.
But somehow, at an age when the majority of players start seeing their offensive production begin to decline, Crosby has somehow found himself playing better than ever before with 18 goals in 21 games on the year. At a scoring rate of 0.86 goals/game, it's a 70 goal pace over the course of a full season or, given that Crosby missed the first 6 games of the season with a concussion, a 65 goal pace assuming he doesn't miss any more time to injury. With a 50 goal season already under his belt, and at a time when scoring has been hard to come by, could Sidney Crosby possibly set a new career-high in goals this season?
To answer that question, it's important to keep in context the current state of the league. A new career high would mean Crosby finishes the year with at least 52 goals on the season. In the three full seasons since the last lockout, there has been just one season where anyone reached that mark - Alexander Ovechkin in 2014-15. Also important to note that while Ovechkin has three 50 goal seasons in as many years, there have been a grand total of seven 40 goal seasons during that time frame from everyone else. Not only has 50 goals become near impossible to reach, as Ovechkin needed a hat trick in the last game of last season to reach the mark, but 40 goals has become an increasingly difficult milestone as well.
Crosby already has 18 goals banked, meaning he would need 34 more goals in the team's final 55 games in order to hit 52 on the season. At a scoring rate of 0.62 goals/game, that correlates to a 51 goal pace over the course of a full year. Yes, at this point in the season, to set a career high in goals Sidney Crosby would need to score at a rate that matches his previous career high in goals. This underscores a couple of things. First, and fairly intuitively, scoring a lot of goals requires a player to score a lot of goals and continue scoring a lot of goals over an entire season. More importantly, it highlights just how important every game is, and how the six that Crosby has already missed makes the task much more difficult.
So, it'll be a tall task for him, but how reasonable is it for Crosby to accomplish during the remainder of the season? At first glance, it would appear to be a bit of a stretch, considering that Crosby would need to score at rates rivaling his 22 year old and 23 year old seasons - ones that he has fallen well short of following his long absence with a concussion. However, it shouldn't be understated how much of an impact Mike Sullivan has had on the Penguins' offense as a whole and Crosby in particular. In 73 games under Sullivan, Crosby has 48 goals (0.66 goals/game), which would be enough to push him over the top. Even limiting it to last season, Crosby had 30 goals in 52 games after Sullivan took over, a 0.58 goal/game scoring rate that puts him right in the mix. But even with the strong stretch of play, is there enough to suggest it can continue for the rest of the year?
If there's one thing that won't continue, it's the 24.7% shooting that Crosby has enjoyed up to this point in the year. It's an unsustainable percentage for any player in the league, and it's a full ten percentage points higher than Crosby's already great 14.7% shooting percentage. But that just means he's not going to continue to average 0.86 goals per game down the stretch. Some of the other underlying numbers suggest that he's going to continue to score goals at a high rate.
Stats Courtesy of Corsica Hockey
So far on this season, Sidney Crosby is averaging close to the same individual Corsi attempts per 60 minutes as he did during his 51 goal season, and the most that he's had since his injury shortened seasons in 2010-11 and 2011-12. However, he's been making more out of his shot attempts this season that he has in years past, and one of the reasons is that he's begun attacking the net more consistently than in recent years. The average distance of Crosby's shot attempts is his second closest to the net over the past 8 seasons, and it's no coincidence that his expected goals per 60 minutes is his highest of that stretch, even though he's had three other seasons with a higher rate of shot attempts.
Of course, there's a long way to go in the 2016-17 season, but Crosby is off to a great start on a potential career year. Even with the unsustainable start to the season, his underlying numbers compare favorably to some of the best goal scoring stretches of his career. However, a couple factors will work against him moving forward. He's averaging less time on ice at this point of his career than he was in his early 20s, meaning that even though his per 60 minute rates compare favorably, his totals will reflect that he's spending less time on the ice. And as always, injuries are unpredictable, and even a game or two off for something minor could have a big effect. But at a time when goal scoring is becoming increasingly hard to do across the league, and at an age when most players will see their production begin to tail off, Sidney Crosby has a legitimate chance at not only a 50 goal season, but a career high in the goal department to boot.