“Mmm,” Crosby said. “Maybe.”
He mulled his answer, a clue to how one of the greatest hockey players ever views the game. Crosby, 30, is playing at his highest level in these Stanley Cup playoffs, having recorded seven goals and eight assists in eight games, controlling games either through muscular stickhandling or planting himself in front of the net. All four Penguins goals in their second-round series against the Washington Capitals, which heads to Pittsburgh on Tuesday night tied at 1, have come with Crosby on the ice. If the Penguins win a third straight Stanley Cup — a distinction no team has earned since the New York Islanders captured their fourth consecutive title 35 years ago — Crosby will again be the engine.
Having overcome the concussion scares of his mid-20s, Crosby has reached the apex of North American sports, a player so embedded at the top of his game and so regularly excellent that it becomes tempting to take him for granted or look past him at newer, fresher stars. Crosby often ends up on a secondary tier of the hockey world’s consciousness. Edmonton’s Connor McDavid, 21, won last year’s Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player. Auston Matthews, 20, is the face of one of the league’s most storied franchises, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The sport is growing faster and younger, and Crosby is doing neither, probably in the former case and certainly in the latter. Still, those inside the game have no doubts about his eminence. Like baseball’s Mike Trout, Crosby is a metronomic exemplar of all-around skill. Like basketball’s LeBron James, he has established all-time-great bona fides as he remains at the crest of his performance.
“The last couple seasons, he’s been the best player,” Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen said.
“I truly believe he’s the best player in the world,” NBC analyst Jeremy Roenick said.
“Still the best guy in the league,” former teammate Brooks Orpik said.
The quality that allows Crosby to remain atop the league, coaches and teammates say, is his unique work ethic, an ability to specify subtle areas for improvement and work with meticulous precision until they match the other elite elements of his game. While his natural ability — powerful skating, pistol-quick hands, uncommon feel — made him a phenom, his creative, distinct capacity for work has enabled him to stay atop the NHL.
“He’s a generational talent,” Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan said. “He does things that you can’t teach, and that’s part of what makes him what he is. What separates him from other elite players is his appetite to be the best and his willingness and his drive to be the best.”
Craig Adams, now retired, arrived in Pittsburgh in 2009 and practiced in the same positional group with Crosby for six-plus seasons. When he came to Pittsburgh, he appreciated that Crosby worked hard. But, well, it was the NHL; everybody worked hard. “It doesn’t make you special,” Adams said. The specificity of Crosby’s work struck him. He noticed a habit: If Crosby missed a scoring chance one night, he would replicate the situation the next day in practice.
“He’s able to pick things he thinks he needs to get better at, and he’s very deliberate at practicing those things and working on those things all the time,” Adams said. “He’s methodical about doing that on a daily basis.”
'Not a lot of luck involved'
Former Penguins coach Dan Bylsma recalled one night when a puck bounced off the end boards and toward Crosby, who was standing in front of the net. Crosby missed the scoring chance, and it ate at him. The next day, Crosby discussed the play with coaches, then asked for pucks to be smacked off the end boards in identical fashion.
“He’ll do it 100 times, until it becomes second nature,” former teammate Pascal Dupuis said. “Trust me, he can analyze his own game better than anybody else. When he sees something of his own game that’s not where he thinks it should be, he works on it and works on it until he gets really good at it. As far as him getting better, I’ve never seen anybody else doing it that way.”
For Crosby, the idea to re-create game situations in extreme detail came naturally. Missed chances gnawed at him, and through specific work he ironed out perceived flaws.
“I don’t know if you call it a mistake, or you call it something you wish you could do over again, but yeah, he’s always done that,” Troy Crosby, Sidney’s father, said Saturday afternoon while lingering outside the Penguins’ locker room at Capital One Arena. “For a long time he’s done that, ever since he was a kid. For as long as I can remember.”
“It’s an instinctive game,” Crosby said. “Sometimes, things come easier than others. Just being aware of what those are, the areas you’re not comfortable or don’t feel as comfortable in, you just try and develop those things. It’s not something you think about or pick apart. It seems to come pretty naturally. If you play that many games over the course of the year, you kind of get reoccurring things.”
Early in his career, Crosby racked up assists with modest goal totals, so he started arriving 10 to 15 minutes early for practice to rip shots from specific spots on the ice. The next year, he led the league in goals. In his first three seasons, he sat in on penalty-kill meetings, even though he was not on the penalty kill — he wanted to be ready, just in case. One year, he decided he needed to improve on the draw, and he became one of the best faceoff men in the league.
“He’s made a ton of changes,” said Capitals center Jay Beagle, a frequent faceoff foil of Crosby’s. “I mean, it’s no surprise that if he doesn’t like a little part of his game, he’s going to come back the next year better.”
“He’s still the hardest-working guy I’ve ever played with,” said Orpik, now a Capitals defenseman. “That’s probably the one thing that people overlook — how he achieves his success. A lot of guys are just naturally gifted. He obviously has a lot of natural gifts. But, I mean, I’ve never seen someone as committed to getting better as him.”
Late this season and into the playoffs, Crosby scored a spate of what can only be called fall-off-your-couch-and-scream goals, whacking pucks out of the air and past goalies, in one instance after an aerial tip to himself. They appeared to be feats of improvisational genius, the product of instinct and divine hand-eye coordination. To an extent, perhaps, they were. “I don’t know,” Crosby said. “It’s just instincts.”
Teammates believe otherwise. Bylsma remembered watching Crosby work on batting pucks and said the likelihood the goals were a result of practice was “100 percent.”
“He does practice weird stuff like that,” Niskanen said. “He’s naturally very intelligent. Really, I think his on-ice awareness is so high, he knows where the puck is at all times. A lot of guys don’t have the awareness to even try something like that.”
Orpik remembered how Crosby would ask teammates to stand in the corners and rifle waist-high shots toward him as he stood near the net. Crosby would use the shaft of his stick to knock the pucks into the net, like a bunt in baseball.
“Just stupid little stuff like that,” Orpik said. “You would think it would never happen in a game. He would work on it for hours at a time if it meant he would score one goal that way. . . . A lot of people label it as lucky. With him, guys that practice with him know there’s not a lot of luck involved there.”
Of course, if you are going to target a specific skill to improve, it helps to be Sidney Crosby. His creativity allows him to create and execute plays in practice that others cannot.
“I try to do a couple of drills, like where he’s on the goal line and there’s a shot coming, and he deflects it under the bar,” Pittsburgh winger Tom Kuhnhackl said. “We’ve tried that a bunch of times. It’s either up somewhere on the rafters or it’s on the ice. I’ve never even managed to get it on net.”
And so, do those extra hours create instinct? Or does instinct make the hours pay off?
“It’s got to be both,” Crosby said. “One without the other, you’re probably not getting those opportunities.”
Always striving to improve
Over the years, Crosby has built a complete game, and his collection of skills makes him a skeleton key in skates. As Pittsburgh has tweaked its roster, Sullivan often places new players on the same line as Crosby. Whatever strengths they possess, Crosby can accommodate them.
Teams often build around superstars. Crosby’s game is so well developed, he can conform to whatever teammates are available.
“We ask them to play their game and not try to do something outside of their game, and Sid will make the adjustments,” Sullivan sad. “Sid has the ability to adapt and adjust based on who we utilize beside him. He’s one of the easier guys to play with because he has the ability to adapt to the guys we put beside him.”
The work also made him a natural leader, worthy of the “C” on his sweater even if he were not the team’s best player, let alone the league’s. Sullivan called him the best leader he has ever met, in hockey or otherwise. When Crosby devotes himself, it leaves teammates no choice.
“He practices the way he would play in a playoff game, and he does it every day,” Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford said. “When he’s on the ice, he never takes a day off. He’s just driven by perfection. That’s how he drives our team.”
“Just the way he works on things after practice, it’s something new every day,” second-year winger Jake Guentzel said. “But he’s usually one of the first ones on and one of the last ones to get off the ice. I think everyone notices that. He’s the guy we all look up to.”
In the past two years, Crosby has displayed a consistent on-ice calmness sometimes missing in prior playoff runs. He faced greater expectations and pressure than perhaps any Canadian player since Wayne Gretzky, and when those forces combined with his perfectionism, they could boil over. Now, though, observers no longer see actions that led some rivals and experts to label him a “whiner.”
“He has grown and matured so much as a — I don’t want to say ‘ambassador’ or ‘leader’ — but he has been able to mentally handle the negative attention on the ice so much better,” said Roenick, an NBC analyst who in the past has criticized Crosby’s on-ice demeanor. “He is not letting anything bother him. A couple years back against Boston, he’s going after [defenseman Zdeno] Chara, he’s yelling at the refs, he’s visually frustrated at being taken advantage of on the ice, which stars get. They get slashed, they get punched in the face. They get the attention you don’t like from other players. Sidney has been able to let that go and understand and almost use it to his benefit.”
Roenick added that he has never impugned Crosby’s behavior off the ice, where those around him regard him as an ideal avatar of the sport. Capitals Coach Barry Trotz was an assistant on Canada’s 2016 World Cup team, which Crosby guided to the championship while leading the tournament in points.
Outside the team hotel one night, Trotz watched Crosby sit down next to Trotz’s son, Nolan, who has Down syndrome. He watched Crosby start a conversation and play on Nolan’s iPad with him, even though Crosby had never met Nolan.
“I know he gets pulled in a lot of different directions, but he’s very personable, very sincere in a lot of ways,” Trotz said. “He’s a good representative for the game.”
And he is still, in his 13th season, the best at playing it. He has melded work and instinct like no player in the game, and like few in any sport. He entered the NHL with more talent than any prospect in a generation, but it is the work that makes him its best player.
“Some guys are talented, but they use their talent and that’s it,” Dupuis said. “He’s talented, and he wants to be there every day. He feels like the better version of Sidney Crosby, it’s going to be tomorrow. ‘Tomorrow, I’ll be better. Tomorrow, I’ll be better.’ ”
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