Last summer, Colorado Avalanche star and fellow Nova Scotia boy Nathan MacKinnon told the world about his youth workouts with Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby. MacKinnon was a teenager set to begin his NHL journey, and Crosby was already an established Stanley Cup champion with Art Ross and Hart Trophies. Yet as they raced up the dunes of the Newfoundland beaches, Crosby had to win.
Crosby won, again and again. Until finally, MacKinnon took the lead on their last race…and he was promptly tackled by Crosby, who then surged past.
Sidney Crosby has been anointed as the next great hockey figure since he was 16-years-old and none other than the greatest of all-time Wayne Gretzky said Crosby could break the NHL scoring records which Gretzky himself set.
That won’t happen as the NHL is much different beast than it was in the 1980s when Gretzky sliced through teams for 200 points per season. Pittsburgh Penguins center Mario Lemieux dominated games for a decade and carried defensemen on breakaways. The current era is certainly far different from the 1970s when Bobby Orr redefined the game with speed and offense, Orr was the first defenseman to win the Art Ross Trophy.
And Gordie Howe, Mr. Hockey, who set the standard for scoring and toughness for more than a generation to become the NHL all-time leading scorer, until Gretzky smashed his totals.
They are hockey’s Big 4. Gretzky, Lemieux, Howe, and Orr. Maybe it’s time for hockey to have the Big 5, which includes Crosby.
“Sidney Crosby checks all the boxes of Stardom in his 15 Seasons of NHL hockey. (Crosby is) a model of consistency and excellence. He fits right in there with the greats of the game,” legendary coach Scotty Bowman told Pittsburgh Hockey Now. “When they describe generation type players, he fits the bill perfectly.”
Crosby’s stats won’t ever compare to Gretzky. The game is too balanced, and the talent margin between players is much smaller. If a player scores 50 goals in a season, it is noteworthy. Gretzky did it in 39 games. Lemieux did it in 44.
In 1987-88, the top 12 NHL scorers eclipsed 100 points.
Dominance takes a different form than flashing red lights in 2020. Dominance is about puck control and a single goal more than the opponent, not a handful. It’s about overcoming adversity and winning.
In addition to the all-time greats, there is a second tier of players such as Mark Messier and Jaromir Jagr, who left indelible prints upon their time but were mere mortals compared to the Top Four. Crosby was part of that crew, but his continued dominance in the salary cap era, which doesn’t just suppress team greatness, it attempts to forbid it, carries him beyond great to all-time great.
Through it all, there has been Crosby. From the kid who willed the Penguins to the 2009 Stanley Cup, the superstar who cut the ice in Vancouver until he scored the Golden Goal to lift Canada to an Olympic gold medal on home soil, to the veteran leader who cast aside personal achievements in favor of two more Stanley Cups, Crosby has defined the generation.
It is also fitting in the first nationally recognized Outdoor Classic with snow falling and nearly impossible ice conditions, it was Crosby who scored the game-winner in a shootout in front of an international audience.
The game checked all of the boxes for the heart and soul of hockey. And so does Crosby.
“The way I like to describe it is this —- if you beamed Sid back into any era in hockey history, he would dominate. The other players would have to adjust to him. And they would have great difficulty doing that,” said longtime Pittsburgh Penguins broadcaster Paul Steigerwald, who had a front-row seat for Lemieux, too. “There is nothing he does that anyone in previous eras did better.”
Of players who have at least 500 points, Crosby is the active points per game leader with 1.28 per game. In nearly 200 fewer games, Crosby trails current active leading scorer Alex Ovechkin by just 15 points. Crosby has 1263 points in only 984 games.
Crosby won’t get to 1000 games until next season, whenever that might be, but he’ll soon surpass 1338 points, which would put him into the top 30 all-time. With another 327 points, which at the current pace is about four more seasons, Crosby will surpass Phil Esposito for 10th all-time.
“In the early 1990s, he would have scored 75 goals, over 200 points. He would shred people in the ’60s, ’70s, and 80s. Mario, Wayne, and Jagr would have had another player to contend with for scoring titles if Sid were suddenly to appear,” Steigerwald continued.
Steigerwald’s assessment dovetails with Bowman’s and other hockey folks: Crosby is one of the greats.
Unfortunately, like his owner and briefly his teammate Mario Lemieux, Crosby missed nearly two full seasons in his prime. While back issues got Lemieux, concussions, and a soft tissue neck injury, which masqueraded as a concussion derailed Crosby.
With those lost seasons, Crosby would be approaching 1500 points. Over the last 14 years, which encapsulates the salary cap era, only three players have won multiple Art Ross trophies. Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins teammate Evgeni Malkin and Connor McDavid are the only ones to win the award a second time.
Crosby doesn’t just have speed and skill. Or just toughness and vision. Crosby doesn’t just have hands and a hockey IQ above everyone else. He has all of those things. He is unique among current players, but perhaps not so unique among the all-time greats.
It doesn’t seem out of line to compare Crosby to Gordie Howe, who did everything, too. And does anyone want to bet against Crosby also playing until he’s 50?
“His conditioning, vision, hockey IQ, grinding ability, explosive speed, playmaking and scoring ability would be overwhelming (in any era),” Steigerwald concluded.
And Crosby didn’t need the extra Stanley Cups to earn inclusion in the same breath as the all-time greats, either.
“Not at all,” Bowman said simply.
Though in the current media landscape, the additional attention brought Crosby’s remarkable showings when he lifted the 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cups surely didn’t hurt and certainly erased the few lingering critics.
The statistical comparison to Gretzky is an unfair fight. Perhaps if Crosby faced goalies who didn’t yet know the butterfly, or defenseman carved from the mountain of swift skating forwards, he too would have notched three consecutive 200-point seasons.
Instead, hockey will remember Crosby as the player who could and would do it all. Crosby will likely reach the pantheon of all-time scorers in an era that actively works against the possibility.
And when the next person discusses the all-time greats, Sidney Crosby should be in the sentence.