Maybe it’s a nuance. Maybe there’s a distinction. Either way, Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan raised a question Thursday night when he called team captain Sidney Crosby “inspirational.”
Not that there was much question that Crosby fit the description that night – the top-line center scored one goal, then set up Jake Guentzel’s winner with a singular three-zone play in a 2-1 win against Anaheim. And certainly Crosby, 32, has been feted with all sorts of accolades and high-praise adjectives over the years.
But the question arose: Is there a difference between being inspirational, and actually elevating the play of his teammates? The latter has been a benchmark assigned to the very elite in the NHL for decades.
“I mean, it’s kind of the same thing,” Penguins forward Jared McCann said after practice Friday at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. “I feel like he takes it the same way. We have to try to go off his energy and try to play well. … He’s the ideal captain. He does everything out there for us. He even fights. He fought against Columbus (last week).”
Crosby, in a conversation this week with The Athletic, said he was aiming to do “whatever it takes” to help the Penguins win while they are limping along without a handful of injured forwards who are regulars, including bookend center Evgeni Malkin.
Then he went out and did whatever and a little more.
Crosby, in the 132 games he has played with Malkin out over the years, has 57 goals, 158 points (thanks, Bob Grove).
“He leads by example,” winger Zach Aston-Reese said. “He goes out there and plays defense-first and that leads to offense for him. To set up that game-winning goal up, that was really nice.
“(He’s inspirational) just the way he carries himself, treats everyone with respect. He holds himself to a high standard, and just being around that, seeing that, I think everyone buys into that mindset.”
McCann has been with the Penguins less than a year, Aston-Reese a little longer, but check out what defenseman Kris Letang has to say on the matter.
Letang, like Crosby one of the Penguins’ long-time core players, has spent his whole NHL career with Crosby. After more than a decade, does he still find Crosby inspirational?
“Yeah,” Letang said. “It’s not only the way he plays the game; it’s the way he practices, the way he prepares himself. He’s just a great example for every single guy in this dressing room. We just try to learn and be better. Obviously, we all know he’s special on the ice and in the game, but he brings so much more than what people see out there.”
But does Crosby pass the completely subjective test of making his teammates better, more productive?
Some might argue Crosby brought out the very best in long-time linemates Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis. Does Jake Guentzel score 40 goals last season playing with a different center?
Others might point to polarizing winger Dominik Simon, currently on Crosby’s line, and perhaps argue that Simon needs to start finishing more to prove that Crosby makes his teammates better.
So which is true, or a better description: Is Crosby an inspiration, or does he actually elevate his teammates’ games? Sullivan doesn’t see it as an either/or question.
“He does both,” the coach said. “His game is inspirational in how hard he plays and his commitment to winning. But also as a player and his skill level, regardless of who he plays with, he always has the ability to elevate the players around him in their respective games. I just think that’s what makes Sid the elite player that he is.”