In 2012, the Pittsburgh Penguins invested heavily in Sidney Crosby when they signed him to a 12-year, $104.4 million contract. At the time, it was the highest-paying contract of any player in the league, and it carries an annual cap hit of $8.7 million per-season. While seen as an expensive contract at the time, it’s looked like a bargain over the last few seasons with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Alex Ovechkin and even teammate Evgeni Malkin signing for more money.
Fast forward to the 2015-16 season and Crosby is off to the worst start of his career. Through 24 games played, Crosby has five goals, 10 assists, is a -10 skater and has a Corsi For of 46.1 percent at even strength. He hasn’t looked like vintage Crosby, and the league has taken notice. He isn’t dominating games like he used to.
This is shaping-up to be the worst season of his career. How is a player who scored 104 points just two seasons ago now unable to even produce at a .75 points-per-game pace?
There are a few reasons why this may be the case. Is Crosby being used properly in an effective system and is he playing with the right players?
While the system that he’s being deployed in isn’t ideal, Malkin has still found a way to produce. The Penguins current system requires centers to be defensively responsible, and they’re often the last ones to leave the zone. A wing usually carries the puck through the neutral zone before dumping and chasing it into the opposing teams end. Not only does this not maximize Crosby’s skills, this also keeps him out of many offensive rushes.
Sidney Crosby will go down as one of the best players in the history of the NHL, of course. But, his play style is vastly different than those of Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemiuex, Goride Howe and even Malkin. Crosby excels down low, he’s hard-working and has the best hands in the NHL. He’s not the most talented player in the league, like we’ve previously discussed, but he compensates for it with exceptional vision and hard work. The current system is seeming to suffocate Crosby’s offensive production. And while a more talented player like Malkin can overcome that, he cannot.
Unlike Malkin, Crosby has not found linemates that he excels with this season. Malkin has found success with Phil Kessel, while Crosby has been struggling with a rotation of Pascal Dupuis, Patric Hornqvist, Chris Kunitz and Beau Bennett.
There’s a very good reason why Kunitz made the Olympic team with Crosby a few years ago, and it’s the exceptional chemistry the duo has. While the chemistry remains, Kunitz’s skills have eroded with age and he’s no longer a fit for the top line. Of all of the wings that Crosby has played with, Kunitz is the only one (with more than 20:00 played together) that has a Corsi For above 50 percent, as they sit at 52.1 percent together.
Pittsburgh has tried reuniting the line of Kunitz, Dupuis and Crosby, but it’s clear that this old line will not work as both wings have lost a step over the years.
The Penguins don’t have many options. Over the offseason, Kessel was supposed to be the talented wing that Crosby had been missing for years, but it’s evident that he has not gelled playing with Crosby.
Crosby is only 28 years-old and just a few years removed from winning the scoring race. He hasn’t plateaued and will be better this season, but he can’t fix his woes alone.
The first step comes with Mike Johnston abandoning the dump and chase approach and getting back to the fundamentals. At the start of his first season as the Penguins head coach, Johnston’s team looked unbeatable. Through the first 32 games of the 2014-15 season, the Penguins were 22-10 and had no trouble scoring. In that same time span, Crosby had 38 points, while in his next 45 games he scored just 46 points. The decline in production wasn’t due to Crosby, but to a change in the system. It would seem this change adversely affected Crosby’s production.
He still has another gear that we’ve only seen glimpses of this season and it’s only a matter of time before it appears again. Moving forward, Johnston needs to bring back his old system, as the Penguins are built perfectly to play an up-tempo puck possession game. What may be even more important is that he needs to find wings that work with Crosby. New lines will help Crosby and in turn, he will help the Penguins.