Any peek into the inner workings of Sidney Crosby’s hockey mind is a treat for sports fans. So let’s dive in.
Former Penguins coach Dan Bylsma began a conversation earlier in the week during a podcast for ESPN. Pittsburgh Hockey Now rounded out the conversation Friday after Penguins practice in Cranberry.
Bylsma — behind the bench for the 2009 Stanley Cup, and the 2010-11 Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year — opened his part of the conversation by offering his opinion that the highly accomplished Penguins center “is not the best hockey player in the world, skill-wise.”
Others have said similar things. Crosby has even been called a glorified grinder. But before you balk too loudly, consider that Bylsma immediately balanced that by pointing to qualities beyond physical skill that he believes make Crosby so good.
“He has an unbelievable ability to take a situation, analyze it, work on it in a very small sample size and improve drastically,” Bylsma told ESPN. “So if he sees a play on TV the night before, and he’s like, ‘We should do this,’ he’ll go and practice it 10 times, and he’s got it.”
We’re going to go ahead and take some issue with the initial part of Bylsma’s premise. Crosby, 30, on Wednesday picked up his 1,100th career point in his 850th game with three assists in a 5-2 win at Philadelphia. He recently eclipsed 400 goals and is four assists shy of 700. That doesn’t happen without a good deal of skill, regardless of intelligence.
Crosby Gives His Take
Bylsma’s full point is interesting. Those who have followed Crosby’s career have heard similar glowing descriptions of his ability to adapt and adopt. In past years, he famously has worked to improve his faceoffs or his shot.
Bylsma added the notion that Crosby has an incredibly sharp learning curve, and that created an opportunity to take the idea directly to the source.
“It’s not something I really focus on or think about; it’s just the way that I kind of go about things,” Crosby said. “Everybody’s different, has different strengths, different weaknesses they want to work on, things like that. I always like trying to challenge myself to get better, try to keep those things fresh in your mind so that you can go out there and get better.”
That was a good start, but Pittsburgh Hockey Now had to probe a little deeper. Does Crosby, perhaps, have a photographic mind that allows him to internalize, repeat and even improve on certain plays or details? He didn’t answer the question directly, but it seems as if that’s close to what goes on.
“Yeah, I’m pretty good at remembering as far as plays and things like that,” Crosby said. “As far as watching video, I think a lot of times there are a lot of plays I remember. I don’t really have to go back and (watch).
“I know (Kris Letang) watches a lot of video, and he likes to go over plays. Everyone’s different. For the most part, if something happens and I’m unsure of it or didn’t like the way I felt, I’m usually pretty good at remembering it and going out there and working on it.”
Bylsma marveled at that aspect of Crosby’s high-level game.
“There was an instance where the puck hit the end boards, and he was near the side of the net, and it came out, and he had a chance to score, and he missed it,” Bylsma said in the podcast. “The next day, he was out getting pucks to go off the end boards, to that area and he’d make a play. He did 15 pucks and he’s got it.”
The Kids Defend Sid
Crosby’s previous and current linemates, Conor Sheary and Jake Guentzel, not only appreciate the steel-trap mind of Crosby and his ability to incorporate and improve on things but they also benefit from it when the Sid & the Kids line is together.
“He’ll see something, even in a game the shift before, and he’ll say it to me on the bench, to look for something,” Sheary said. “Just to have that mind and how he thinks the game is pretty special.”
Guentzel smiled when asked if he and others on the team might need a few more than the five or 10 reps Crosby takes to learn or add a new wrinkle.
“Yeah, maybe,” Guentzel said. “The things he can do is pretty crazy. Sometimes you have to work on it a little more because of the skill he has, but I think it’s nice to have a guy like that.
“Just his smarts for the game. I think he’s just a hockey guy where if you watch the game if he likes something he sees, he brings it to his game. Different plays. Definitely a student. For us to be playing with him, we learn that much more because of the stuff he sees and brings to us.”
Whether Crosby is the best player in the world right now is something that can be debated ad nauseam, although he’s certainly in just about every conversation on the matter. Even outlining what qualities should define the top player can be difficult. Bylsma obviously feels Crosby isn’t the most physically gifted player but stands out because he is perhaps the smartest and most adaptable.
Sheary and Guentzel quickly defended Crosby as being at the top of his class.
“I don’t think you can take away from his ability,” Sheary said. “His skill and the things he’s able to do on the ice definitely puts him at the top of the league in terms of players. But I think the mental aspect is maybe that extra thing that makes him that much better than the rest.”
Guentzel also takes a holistic approach, including Crosby’s off-ice qualities.
“From our perspective, he’s the best player,” he said. “You see that every day – his smarts and how he carries himself, the leadership and all the qualities he has. We’re pretty lucky to have him.”
That’s a pretty strong bottom line.