As the hockey world passes the mantle of ‘best player in the world’ to Connor McDavid with an honorable mention to Auston Matthews, Toronto head coach Mike Babcock had a different answer when reporters asked his opinion on the matter.
“I think one guy’s got two Olympic gold medals and three Stanley Cups,” Babcock declared in his usual matter of fact manner.
If nothing else, that is a very factual statement.
At the start of this young season, Matthews (16) is putting up points at a near historical pace, and McDavid (11) is not far behind. Fans across the league are lining up to declare the scoreless Sidney Crosby washed up. Even in Pittsburgh as Evgeni Malkin has surpassed Crosby on the scoresheet with three goals and 12 points, murmurs of concern are making the rounds through PPG Paints Arena.
Despite being goalless in October, ‘Sid’ is still leading the Penguins in the right direction as his teammates have struggled to find their way. One of the most significant numbers to gauge Crosby’s play is zero. Not zero goals, but zero giveaways. The Penguins’ captain has not been charged with turning over the puck a single time this season, while his teammates played several games of ‘hot potato’.
“When Sid is at his very best, I think he’s the best in the game. Underneath the hash marks, he might be the best that ever played,” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said on Tuesday.
The line of Carl Hagelin-Malkin-Phil Kessel has a combined eight goals and 22 points in six games to lead the team but is also guilty of 14 giveaways. Turnovers and poor puck possession defined the Penguins’ slow start prior to the strident win over Toronto but Crosby has bucked the trend as one of only four forwards to have positive possession numbers.
The Penguins have controlled the puck 55.9 percent of the time while number 87 is on the ice, which is better than any forward on the team. Close behind is left wing fixture Jake Guentzel (55.6), Bryan Rust (51.7), and Kessel (50.8). It’s true that Malkin’s line has scored the most points, but Crosby and Guentzel have produced the most complete showing to date by simply playing a more responsible game.
“Sid and I sat in my office yesterday, after practice and we just looked at a lot of the offensive zone stuff. He’s such a student of the game…One of the things that I think came out of the conversation was just hanging onto pucks,” said Sullivan.
The 31-year old is among the team leaders in Corsi, assists (5), faceoffs won (73), goals for percentage (60), and hits (13). Yes, hits. But it appears that there is one place that he needs to improve: selfishness.
Crosby is one of the most gifted playmakers in the history of the game, while Guentzel is a budding sniper, so it’s natural that one would want to feed the puck to the other. But in the past, when the former would take some notes out of Malkin’s playbook, the results ended up with ‘Rocket’ Richard trophies on Crosby’s oversized mantle.
Guentzel may be the most offensively gifted winger that Crosby has skated with since Marian Hossa, and the more that they play together, the more confident they will get in their own games. Adding Bryan Rust to the mix may help the process along as it will allow the skilled players to be more creative, while the young speedster does the grunt work.
The goals will come, likely in bunches. But for now, Crosby has been a steadying presence while others have floundered. As long as he continues to drive play as only he can, the wicked backhand goals and snipes from one knee will follow. The man himself may be ready to name McDavid the best player in hockey, but there are likely a few people in Pittsburgh and around the league who disagree.
At 10:00 a.m.: The Penguins Face Tough Trade Market for Right Defensemen