How Long Can Crosby Remain at the Pinnacle?
Pundits and fans are lauding Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby for leading his club to consecutive championships while earning himself back-to-back playoff MVP honors.
He’s at the pinnacle of his NHL career, but it remains to be seen just how long he’ll be there.
After 12 NHL seasons, Crosby now stands alone as this generation’s greatest player. His performance over the past two seasons should dispel any lingering doubts.
In addition to the Cup championships and postseason MVP honors, the Penguins captain won the Richard Trophy as top goal scorer in 2016-17, became a Finalist for the Hart Trophy in 2016 and 2017, was named a first-team All-Star in 2016 and likely will be again in 2017.
On the international stage, Crosby captained Canada to a gold medal at the 2015 World Championships and to victory in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, earning MVP honors and leading the tournament in scoring.
His great rival, Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, is this generation’s top goal scorer and certainly ranks among the greatest of all time. While Ovechkin’s earned numberous individual NHL honors, he’s yet to lead the Capitals to a championship. He’s also not a complete a player like Crosby.
Chicago Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews was considered a better leader by captaining his club to three championships in six seasons. While Crosby’s Penguins won three titles since 2009, they became the first time in nearly 20 years to win consecutive titles and he became the first player since former Penguins great Mario Lemieux (1991, 1992) to win back-to-back Conn Smythe trophies.
Within the next few years, rising young stars such as Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid and Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews could one day inherit the mantle of “NHL’s Best Player” from Crosby. Given their youth, they will likely be considered part of the next generation of stars. Once they each their prime, the first player they will be compared to will be Crosby.
Crosby’s critics, of course, will continue to reject his status as this generation’s greatest star. Their argument, however, has considerably weakened.
Most tend to cite Crosby’s propensity for cheap shots and complaining to officials. Valid complaints to a point, but nothing that cheapens his legacy.
Many great players of the past had their flaws. Maurice Richard was hot-tempered and combative. Gordie Howe’s sneaky elbows are part of hockey lore. Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky yapped at officials. Mario Lemieux had a reputation for diving.
Such behavior was a byproduct of their desire to win and be the best. It doesn’t excuse their antics but it is part of their makeup. When Crosby retires and is enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame, his faults will also be glossed over or chuckled about in remembrance.
The question now is how long can Crosby remain at the top. He turns 30 in August and enters his thirteenth NHL campaign this fall. He’s reached a point in his career when his best seasons are likely behind him.
Given Crosby’s conditioning, will to win, devotion to the game and the depth of talent surrounding him in Pittsburgh, he should remain among the league’s best players for several more seasons, provided he can stay healthy.
Between 2010-11 and 2012-13, concussion, neck and jaw injuries robbed Crosby of parts of three of his prime seasons. Concussion symptoms sidelined him from the opening two weeks of this season and knocked him out of the lineup for nearly two games during the Penguins second-round series against Washington. Both instances raised concerns over his long-term well-being.
Every time Crosby takes another hit to the head, every time he leaves a game doubled over in pain, every time he’s sidelined with an “upper-body injury”, the hockey world will hold its breath and wonder if this is the beginning of the end of his career.
Crosby could change his style of play to avoid injury, but that doesn’t seem likely. His game defines his greatness and success. He could remain healthy for several more seasons, but the threat of serious injury will always hang over him.
Several more years of greatness could lie ahead for Crosby. Maybe he can lead the Penguins to a third straight championship, securing their place as a true dynasty. On the other hand, age and the heavy workload of his long career could catch up with him.
All careers have their peak before the inevitable decline. Crosby doesn’t have many more prime playing years left. Time will tell how long he stays at the pinnacle.