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Penguins Q&A: Who Fills Guentzel’s Spot? Crosby’s Place in History

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Pittsburgh Penguins, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin

We had an interesting little Twitter discussion supposedly regarding the Pittsburgh Penguins late Thursday night on X, formerly known as Twitter. On an off night, we got a few good questions from readers about the future of the Penguins and Sidney Crosby, who will fill the spot beside Crosby while Jake Guentzel mends, and the city with the best pizza.

And a question from an OG, John, who has followed PHN since the very beginning and before when I was a radio host, about Phil Kessel’s future.

It was hard to feel like hockey was on the way earlier this week with the first official East Coast heat wave of the season, but the players hitting the ice at the UPMC Lemieux Complex on Tuesday was a nice reminder that next weekend, it all begins.

The Penguins will participate in the Prospects Challenge in Buffalo. The final Penguins’ prospects roster had some names I’m unfamiliar with, and I’m not sure if they’re filler or undrafted prospect material. I suppose we’ll find out together.

First, I’ll tackle the pizza question.

As a noted devotee to greasy spoon diners and cheap eats, especially pizza, Detroit-style pizza isn’t bad. Yet, it usually feels less satisfying than the doughy goodness of a Pittsburgh pizza. A Detroit pizza’s crispy, thin crust sometimes feels like a Cheeze-It pizza.

I refuse to eat another Chicago deep-dish pizza. A few years ago, a colleague and old friend took me to a quintessential Chicago spot for a deep dish. I couldn’t eat for two days afterward. The overwhelming taste of grease and Italian meets lingered on my palate as the undigestible weight of a 12-layer pizza casserole sat in my stomach like an unwelcome house guest.

Nope, the undisputed municipal heavyweight pizza champ remains New York City, where I had about a half dozen slices between Wednesday morning and Thursday evening. Now to hockey…

No, Phil Kessel will end as one of those great scorers of his era but not one of the great players. I’m not sure Kessel cares about his legacy, but he remains one of those unique players who easily could have been a Hall of Famer but, for various reasons, never achieved his fullest potential. For reference, Alexei Kovalev is another on that list. Perhaps we could have a different conversation if Kessel took conditioning more seriously, exerted himself in the defensive zone, or delivered more than nine hits per season.

For a few rare breeds, playing the game their way trumped playing a team game or a complete game, and they were good enough to pull it off. Kessel helped the Penguins to two Stanley Cups. Those rings will be his legacy.

I’m starting to believe Crosby will play for three or four more years and be done. I have no public statements to back that up, but it’s a gut feeling that Crosby will eventually fall victim to the great-player syndrome. When he can no longer dominate, or he feels his game has slipped too far, he’ll walk away. Gretzky held on as long as possible. Lemieux left in 1997 before returning to save his franchise and enjoy the game with his son.

Crosby’s level of investment in his craft is unparalleled. He’s set an impossible standard for the superstars who will follow him.

With 1502 career points (550-952-1502), Crosby currently ranks 15th all-time. Let’s say four more seasons with about 70 points per season; he’ll finish just ahead or behind Ron Francis for fifth all-time. Of course, if Crosby plays five or six more years, it is entirely possible he will finish ahead of Mark Messier  (1887 points) and Jaromir Jagr (1921 points), behind only Wayne Gretzky (2857).

I think the number to shoot for is Gordie Howe’s 1850 points. Howe is the player I most associate with Crosby among the all-time greats: a sharp-elbowed winner who loved the game. I think Crosby already ranks ahead of Messier all-time, and maybe even Jagr.

The casual American fans will always associate Crosby with Alex Ovechkin, and the odd media person will occasionally buy into that comparison by citing Ovechkin’s chase of the all-time goals record. It’s misguided, as Crosby will rank fifth all-time beyond Gretzky, Lemieux, Howe, and Bobby Orr unless Connor McDavid wins a Stanley Cup or two and takes that spot.

I’ve gone through a few possible candidates, trying to get a feel of who could work.

Drew O’Connor? Probably not. He doesn’t think the game like Crosby and doesn’t play a creative game, at least to a top-six creative level.

Reilly Smith? It’s possible, but Sullivan likes consistency. Why start Smith with Crosby if he’s destined to play with Evgeni Malkin two weeks later?

Rickard Rakell? Very possible. Rakell can play both wings, and he’s moved back and forth from Crosby’s line to Malkin’s line. He could flip to the left side for a bit, allowing Bryan Rust to elevate to the top-line RW. O’Connor could be a better fill-in beside Malkin and Smith than with Crosby.

Bryan Rust: Almost the same answer as Rakell. Possible.

Perhaps Andreas Johnsson or Alex Nylander will also get a training camp shot. Nylander’s new and improved NHL game is responsible, but he didn’t show any offense to go with the newfound defensive posture. Johnsson does have a 20-goal season on his record, so perhaps he gets the five-game tryout.

Yes, but as a trusted news outlet, we prefer to keep news secret.

I kid, I kid.

As soon as anyone gets word of where Tomas Tatar will sign, it will make big news. He is the last notable UFA on the market. And no, I don’t think the Penguins have the best shot at him because their top-six is full and the salary cap maxed, but he is the type of third-line scorer they probably need.

I still believe Tatar will hold out for a bigger contract than a PTO or minimum salary. He should.