Sidney Crosby had a half-season for the ages.
Incredibly, Crosby's 32 goals, 34 assists and 66 points still rank him third amongst skaters in our Player Power Rankings, despite the fact that his competition has now played more than 150 percent of his game total. Consider that it's entirely possible that the Pittsburgh Penguins captain may remain among the top 10 skaters on the list even if he doesn't return for another regular-season game. By the measure of Goals Versus Threshold -- our player value metric which accounts for a skater's offensive, defensive and shootout contributions -- if he'd kept up the same pace, Crosby's 36.0 GVT over 82 games would have been the best season for an NHL skater since the lockout, blowing away Alex Ovechkin's 2007-08 (33.1 GVT) and 2009-10 (32.7 GVT) campaigns and Crosby's own 2009-10 (32.0 GVT).
Of course, individual achievement and team success go hand in hand. The Crosby-led Penguins were on fire for the first three months of the season, racking up 55 points and a .671 point percentage through 41 games before hits in consecutive games by Washington's David Steckel and Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman sidelined the Pittsburgh captain with the concussion that he's been struggling to shake since. Not surprisingly, what had looked like a top contender for the Stanley Cup has consequently transformed into a team that's not of playoff caliber without its all-world center. Pittsburgh has a .558 point percentage without Crosby and .526 without both Crosby and Evgeni Malkin -- the Pens lost Malkin for the season after he suffered torn knee ligaments Feb. 4.
The injuries have reduced the Penguins from playing like a first seed in the East to a team that would place 10th -- just ahead of the Toronto Maple Leafs (.508) -- if it had to go without Crosby and Malkin the entire season ... thus leaving their Stanley Cup fortunes in doubt.
The injury to Crosby was especially unfortunate because the Penguins were on the verge of getting even better. Jordan Staal -- either the NHL's best third-line center or alternately a top-six forward lining up with Malkin -- was playing his first game of the season the same night when Crosby got hit by Steckel. Now he's left trying to fill the enormous void left by the two star centers. Unfortunately for the Pens, the renewed presence of the Selke finalist isn't enough to make Pittsburgh a legit playoff team, even when coupled with GM Ray Shero's astute acquisitions of Alex Kovalev, James Neal and Matt Niskanen (at the expense of Alex Goligoski), as they've proved to be a mediocre team with those additions. The reason? It's Crosby -- he makes that much of a difference.
How Pittsburgh has fared without Crosby and/or Malkin in 2010-11
Situation Points % GF GA GD
Crosby in the lineup .671 3.22 2.29 +0.93
Malkin in the lineup .628 2.98 2.40 +0.58
All games .627 2.81 2.43 +0.37
Malkin out of the lineup .625 2.50 2.50 +0.00
Crosby out of the lineup .558 2.15 2.65 -0.50
Both Crosby and Malkin out .526 2.00 2.79 -0.79
Wouldn't you have expected some of Pittsburgh's better role players to have picked up the slack? After all, losing Crosby can't possibly account for a goal and a half change in Goal Difference per game, as we see illustrated above. When looking at individual contributions, we see several steep drop-offs in the captain's absence. Some, like first-half wonder Kris Letang -- one of only three defensemen to have made an appearance in the Player Power Rankings -- have tanked:
What happened to Pittsburgh's best contributors after Crosby's injury (GVT per game)
Player Position GVT (before) GVT (after)
Sidney Crosby C +0.43 +0.00
Kris Letang D +0.31 -0.05
Alex Goligoski D +0.18 -0.11
Matt Cooke LW +0.14 +0.08
Ben Lovejoy D +0.11 +0.05
Pascal Dupuis LW +0.11 +0.11
Brooks Orpik D +0.11 +0.01
Interestingly, it's rookies like Dustin Jeffrey, Nick Johnson, Mark Letestu and Brett Sterling who have been among the Penguins' best players, albeit over a handful of games -- those first-year players will need to prove their worth over the long run before we will know what to consistently expect from them.
Meanwhile, Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy have been among the best of the veterans. But ultimately, where's the value in their solid play if the remnants of the Penguins have no shot of advancing in the postseason? It's in the hope of Crosby's return. Holding out for that hope, the Penguins want to cling to a high seed, so as not to make their path through the playoffs any more difficult than it needs to be.
If Crosby can come back, return to the same form and avoid injury, Pittsburgh should transform back into the dominant team it was from October through December. In that scenario, the Pens should be even better than they were previously, given the additions of Staal, Neal, Kovalev and Niskanen:
With and Without Crosby: in-season gains and losses
Player Position GVT Note
Jordan Staal C +10.8 Return from injury, Jan. 1
James Neal LW +9.7 Acquired, Feb. 21
Alex Kovalev RW +5.6 Acquired, Feb. 24
Matt Niskanen D +3.8 Acquired, Feb. 21
Alex Goligoski D -7.6 Traded, Feb. 21
Evgeni Malkin C -17.1 Out for season (knee), Feb. 4
Sidney Crosby C -22.1 Out with concussion, Jan. 5
Total - without Crosby -16.9
Total - with Crosby +5.2
Preseason GVT projections used
Given the gauntlet of top teams that any contender will have to face in the West, if Crosby returns, it would probably be reasonable to consider the Penguins the overall favorite to win the championship, even over the likes of the Vancouver Canucks, Philadelphia Flyers, Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings.
But ultimately, the long-term health of Crosby is the only consideration of consequence. Not only is the 23-year-old an ambassador of the game and a future Hall of Famer, but even in a cold and calculated sense, he's by far the most important long-term asset of the Penguins. Even if Pittsburgh was a co-favorite for the title, that still might only translate into a 1-in-7 chance of hoisting the hardware this season. Those odds aren't worth risking five or more peak years of hockey's best player. If Crosby can build upon the progress from the first half of this season for the next five-plus seasons, Pittsburgh can be a contender year in and year out.
Crosby is a superstar who can win championships with a well-constructed team of role players around him. A superstar pairing with Malkin seemed nice, but Crosby might be just good enough to make that second star unnecessary to Pittsburgh's championship aspirations.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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