He's been called the best player in the NHL. He's the youngest captain to ever win a Stanley Cup. He's won the Art Ross, Pearson and Hart trophies. And this season his team is again perched near the top of the Eastern Conference despite a plethora of injuries to stars like Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Gonchar.
Given all of that evidence, this question is going to come as a shock, but some recent evidence has prompted us to ask: Is Sidney Crosby pulling his weight?
Crosby leads the team in goals and points, and supporters would argue that were it not for him, the Penguins might be languishing outside the playoff race instead of atop the Atlantic.
Well, maybe. It's true that Sid's traditional stats (10 G, 12 A) are pretty good and lead his team. But let's delve a little deeper.
First of all, Crosby gets a lot of ice time, and it's quality ice time. He has played more minutes (111) on the power play so far this season than any other player in the NHL except the San Jose Sharks' Dan Boyle. To the mystery of almost everyone who follows the NHL (myself included), the Penguins have had a terrible power play both last year and this year (24th last year, 29th this year), and Crosby's lack of productivity has been one big reason why. In fact, of the 128 forwards who have played 50 minutes or more on the power play this season, Crosby ranks 104th in per-minute offense, with 1.0 goals created* per 60 minutes (for more information on goals created, see explanation at end of column). That's less than a third of league-leader Dany Heatley's 3.8 and less than half of Malkin's 2.3. Also notable is that when Malkin went down with an injury, the team struggled, losing five of six, scoring only four goals in those five losses.
The numbers are kinder to Crosby at even strength: He ranks 28th in per-minute production at even strength, at 0.9 goals created per 60 minutes, although even here his numbers compare unfavorably with players such as Patrick Kane (1.4), Marian Gaborik (1.3), Dustin Penner (1.3) and archrival Alex Ovechkin (a league-leading 1.7).
Sidney Crosby's PIMs are quite high relative to
the top point producers in the NHL, particularly considering
his total includes only one five-minute fighting penalty.
Here's how Sid the Kid rates against the league's current
top-10 point scorers as of 11/23.
Rank Player Points PIMs
1. Anze Kopitar 33 6
2. Joe Thornton 32 6
3. Dany Heatley 28 20
4. Marian Gaborik 28 4
5. Patrick Marleau 27 4
6. Zach Parise 27 4
7. Corey Perry 27 24
8. Brad Richards 26 2
9. Alex Ovechkin 25 12
10. Rick Nash 25 16
27. Sidney Crosby 22 35
Then there are the penalties. Crosby has racked up 35 minutes in penalties this season, which include nine minor penalties that offered his opponents a power play. Given that a typical penalty puts a team down 0.2 of a goal (between the opposing power play and the lost offense while being short-handed), that means Crosby's penalties have cost his team 1.8 goals over the course of the season. A skilled player like Crosby is supposed to be drawing penalties by forcing opponents to take him down, not giving the opposing team a chance to go a man up, yet Crosby has only drawn three penalties so far this season. Also dubious is that, unlike defensemen, he's not often forced to take penalties to avoid breakaways and other likely scoring opportunities. All told, Crosby's net penalty performance (penalties drawn minus penalties taken) is fifth-worst in the entire NHL, behind only Evgeny Artyukhin, Shane O'Brien, Marek Svatos and another notably skilled hothead, Ryan Getzlaf. Ask the Anaheim Ducks how constantly playing short-handed is working out for them this season.
Given all this, has Crosby been doing anything right? Obviously. He typically ends up playing against the opponents' best line, which takes the load off some of his less-talented teammates. It takes a special player to be on the ice for almost 22 minutes a game as a forward and to do so at a high level. He has even played 17 minutes killing penalties, during which time the Penguins have remained even with their opponents (two goals for, two against), with Crosby scoring a goal and assisting on another. It would just help a little if he spent more time on the ice killing penalties and less time causing them.
Possibly Crosby's largest unsung contribution this season has been in the shootout. The Penguins have been in four shootouts and Crosby has scored in all four, leading to four wins by the Penguins. This may seem pointless to fans who believe the shootout "isn't hockey," but those points count in the standings and will be well appreciated in April. The Atlantic has three very strong teams this season, and not winning the division crown will likely mean playing either the New Jersey Devils or Philadelphia Flyers in the first round.
All in all, Crosby has been decent this season, but nothing like the dominant No. 1 center he's renowned to be, and the player the Penguins need him to be to defend their title. When Crosby went down with an injury two years ago, Malkin raised his game to another level, showing the first signs of the superstar he has become. Crosby did nothing similar with Malkin out. With Malkin back, he can relax a little more, work on his power play, and take fewer dumb penalties. What's scary for the rest of the league is that the Penguins were still near the top of the Eastern Conference despite playing several games without Gonchar and Malkin and not having their leader play up to his superstar potential. If Crosby gets his game back and the Penguins return to full strength, the Cup champs will be the hands-down team to beat this season.
*Goals Created is a way of distributing credit for each goal scored, giving a higher weight to goals than to assists. Goals are given 1.5 times the weight of assists, and for each goal credit is distributed, such that a player who scores an unassisted goal gets 1.0 goals created, a goal with a single assist will be split 0.6 / 0.4 and a two-assist goal will be split 0.42 / 0.29 / 0.29.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Tom Awad is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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