Why Sidney Crosby is actually underrated
Take a moment to think about NHL superstars and their signature styles and attributes. Alex Ovechkin plays like a heat-seeking missile. Steven Stamkos has his laser-precise Howitzer shot from just inside the face-off dot. Bewitching stickhandling wizardry is the way of all things Patrick Kane and Pavel Datsyuk.
But what about Sidney Crosby, who is better than all of them?
Crosby inspires questions that are usually reserved for the all-time greats -- such as how many players in NHL history have basically been a constant threat to win the Art Ross Trophy as the league's leading scorer (provided they stay healthy, of course)? By my count, we're talking about four guys in their primes: Gordie Howe, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and Crosby. It's easy to associate the first three with their most salient skills: Howe was relentlessly physical, the man whose trademark hat trick came to mean a goal, an assist, and a fight in the same game. Gretzky was an offensive visionary, a Socrates on skates. Lemieux was the grand master of size and finesse. You can keep going with Hall of Famers such as Maurice Richard, who was a paragon of burning intensity. Bobby Orr had game-altering speed from the backline. Mike Bossy had his snake-snapping-at-you fast release. Phil Esposito was a supreme slot presence. Bobby Clarke had guts and guile ...
But what do we associate most with Crosby? Sniping ability? Dangle derring-do? Net drive skills? No, nope, nah. But they're all there in his game—in spades. Rarely, if ever, has a player had such a richly textured game, one so well-balanced that, his point totals aside, we can easily take it for granted.
It's not easy to find analogues for Crosby, and when you try to come up with them, you can sound a bit fatuous. Doug Gilmour kind of/sort of fits the bill in that he was a center who, during his best years, could score 30-plus goals per season while dishing 70 assists, but he was also a defensive maven and tough SOB, which Crosby is not. If you watched HBO's recent 24/7 series during the run-up to the 2014 Winter Classic, you saw that scene where a Maple Leafs player kvetched to the ref about Crosby hitting him from behind, to which Crosby replied, in profanity-bolstered terms, that he doesn't hit anyone. Which is both hilarious and true.
So maybe a Gretzky comparison will work? Both players are veritable Omega Points of, well, points, but Gretzky was more of a mystical presence on the ice than Crosby is now. After the 1987 Canada Cup, in which Gretzky's Team Canada, arguably the greatest hockey squad of all time, beat the Soviets, arguably the second greatest, a Russian coach said something to the affect that when Gretzky takes the ice, he seems almost harmless, but before you realize it, the puck is in the back of your net. Then Gretzky goes out a few shifts later and much the same thing occurs. So I contend that avidly studying Gretzky on old tapes is the best way to uncover the secrets of his game, but with Crosby, just watch him closely and you will learn. You don't need to focus on what he might be thinking—as with Gretzky—you simply need to observe. His game is for the true hockey connoisseur, just like the peatiest Islay whisky stirs the soul of the diehard Scotch drinker. You can see elements of other superstars' games in his, but more than that, you get a portrait of an artist as, dare I say it, an underrated hockey player.
A list of the NHL's fastest NHL players—hello, Erik Karlsson!—usually doesn't include Crosby, but if you bear down and watch him skate. you'll notice that he usually goes in a straight line only when he's busting to the net to corral a pass. Otherwise, he's all bobbing, weaving, and constant misdirection, but hardly anyone ever catches him from behind. It's like some Doctor Who trick that Gretzky—another underrated skater—would have understood. There are speed merchants, and then there are hypnotic speed merchants. That's Crosby.
Also, watch how he explodes out of crossovers, seemingly defying physics as he goes. This particular ability reminds me of major league pitchers whose blazing fastballs appear to rise into the upper portions of the strike zone a la Roger Clemens' heat, circa '86. Now, you know this isn't scientifically possible—the pitch has actually slowed and started to sink by the time it dents the catcher's mitt—but I bet it still feels like the apex of speed to the batter. Crosby must appear much the same way to a pursuing backchecking center who watches him enter the attacking zone, set his edges, power into a crossover as he loops back to the blueline, and then cuts towards the center of the ice, creating pockets of time and space. It is from these pockets that the greatest of the greats create their magic. If each player on the ice during any given shift is out there for 40 seconds, it seems as though Crosby, somehow, has an extra five built into his 40, and much of that impression comes from his uncanny skating ability.
Crosby has generated 64 percent of his career points via assists, which is surprising, because you'd think that the world's best passer would have a bigger goals-helpers differential. But Crosby can snipe, and his shot arsenal is tops in the league. He has the best backhander since Eric Lindros, maybe the best of all time. Watch him drive the right wing, dip his shoulder—which serves to hide the shot angle of his stick—and then send the puck on its journey to the top of the net. Snipe-tastic. This season, he's ripping more one-timers, including an instance when he was on his strong-side wing. The puck had to cross his entire body before he could drive it home in a single motion. Hardly anyone one-times shots from their strong side wing. You're not even supposed to try. It's too easy to whiff on the puck, but Crosby connected and scored.
There is also his quick release. A goaltender will tell you that he'd much rather face someone who takes the puck, takes a big windup and unloads a 100 MPH bomb than a player who gets off a middling shot, velocity-wise, within a nanosecond of receiving a pass. Yet, so few players realize that one of the keys to scoring in today's NHL—hell, even during the more wide open days of yore—is not allowing a goalie to get set. Crosby understands this. His rapid release, though, is like Bossy's in that the velocity of his shot is still near a peak level. More crucially, Crosby's is GPS-accurate and tends to result in pucks zipping an inch or two above the ice and ending up tucked just inside the posts.
GALLERY: Sidney Crosby's career
Few NHL players are harder to bump off the puck than Crosby. His core strength, low center of gravity, and strength on the edges of his skates make him like an unbudgeable NBA post player, albeit one who moves at 25 MPH. And while last year's playoff ouster at the hands of the Boston Bruins suggested that he's soft and anything but a grinder, no offensive player may be more of a beast below the goal line. Crosby's knack for turning his body into a shield, keeping the puck safely secured, and making radial turns before firing a tape-to-tape pass to a teammate in the slot is the epitome of modern day cycle-based hockey. If you've ever played, even in a beer league, you've surely been aware of the guy who used to play Division 1, the one you think you have lined up in the corner only to bounce off him when you take your glorious Dave Schultz-esque run at him. Crosby is like that guy, only more so.
Most players, even NHLers, move in the direction of the hit they receive. Some power back through it, recoiling from the boards to deliver a pop of their own. Others allow their bodies to be blasted into directions that best enable them, with the help of their linemates, to grind in the offensive zone. There's an artistry to the play of the best fourth lines, for whom this is a speciality. But watch players try to hit Crosby. They often go one way and he goes another. You know that they want to knock him into the third row. He's annoying. He's the best, he knows it, and he whines more than anyone. But hits that should ride Crosby off the play tend to create scoring opportunities for him, with seams opening as he bounces free of his check.
Now, no one would ever mistake Crosby for Mark Messier, but this sort of play is kind of rugged, or at least as physical as he gets. It's no surprise that Crosby's physicality has a utilitarianism to it, that it's yet another aspect of his game in service to lighting that ever-beckoning lamp. Come the Olympics, he'll have more space to work with on the bigger ice surface, and if we were giving him those imaginary five extra shift seconds before, maybe it feel more like seven in Sochi.
Oh my, look out!
Actually, that exclamation could serve as the summary for the bottom of Crosby's eventual Hall of Fame plaque.
Colin Fleming is the author of "Dark March: Stories for When the Rest of the World is Asleep." He is finishing a novel, "The Freeze Tag Sessions," and a work of nonfiction, "Just Give Me the Backing: A Life Lived to the Music of the Beatles." His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, Slate, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post and more.