Sidney Crosby won his first Stanley Cup and at age 21 and his first of two Olympic gold medals at 22. This season, he led the Pittsburgh Penguins to a division title, won the scoring race and is favoured to be the NHL’s most valuable player.
Yet that’s not enough.
“He’s really got this essence about him ... that makes him constantly feel like where he is, is one step behind where he’s going and where he needs to be,” trainer Andy O’Brien said. “I think it’s just a real unique quality that makes him Sidney Crosby.”
Crosby earned his second Olympic gold in Sochi three months ago, but now he’s almost five full years removed from the first and only Cup he has ever won. He insists these playoffs don’t feel any different that previous years, only now he has experienced more spring disappointments since 2009.
“Just because you want to do it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen,” Crosby said of winning the Stanley Cup. “I think that makes you appreciate it, but at the same time, it motivates you to know that as much as you can kind of put forward to give yourself that chance, give your team that chance, you’ve got to do that.”
Crosby tends to be at his best when his team needs it, something evidenced by his 104-point season while the Penguins dealt with injuries to Evgeni Malkin, Pascal Dupuis and James Neal, among others.
The 26-year-old Cole Harbour, N.S., native had a direct part in a league-leading 43 per cent of Pittsburgh’s goals on the way to first place in the new Metropolitan Division. Crosby doesn’t know if this has been his best season — he won the Hart Trophy in 2006-07 with 120 points — but he is proud of staying healthy and being consistent.
Teammates can’t help but be impressed.
“His expectations are so high, but he’s been able to be so consistent and he’s been able play (almost) every game, and that’s not sometimes easy when guys are checking him hard and stuff like that,” forward Jussi Jokinen said. “I think just for being so consistent and being part of so many key goals and key plays for our hockey team has been fun to watch.”
That on-ice production is not just a result of Crosby’s natural talent, said O’Brien.
“He approaches his game year-after-year, night-after-night as if, ‘There’s something I be better (at), I’ve got to find a way to do this more,“’ O’Brien said in a recent interview. “It might be a specific area of his game he wants to get better at, certain types of plays that he feels he’s not making enough of. And a lot of times he’s able to identify those before me, so he’s able to say, ‘I feel like I’m not quite strong enough, I feel like I’m losing speed here,’ and we’ll have an open discussion about what we need to do.”
Crosby isn’t much for labels like best player in the world — “it’s different for everybody what they see.” It seems his mind has to tick like that, even while confident, because it’s not hard for him to find things he can improve.
“It’s not at all. I feel like there’s always something you can improve on, always something you can learn,” Crosby said after a recent morning skate in Pittsburgh. “That’s kind of the fun part. I think as a player it’s more about what you can learn and how often you can kind of bring that each and every night. I think that’s kind of the challenge for everybody.”
The challenge for opponents is matching that, as Crosby tries to follow in the lead of players like Steve Yzerman, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, who made a habit of trying to get better as their careers progressed.
That’s easier said than done because of what a lot of people around the game like to call “hockey I.Q.” Crosby is just a step ahead.
“He’s not thinking out there,” former Philadelphia Flyers defenceman and Canadian Olympic teammate Chris Pronger said. “He’s already ahead of you. He’s already seen the play four plays ahead. He already knows where he’s going. You don’t.”
Add to that Crosby’s powerful stride and ability and willingness to play defence and he’s quite the handful.
“He’s a well-rounded player, which makes him harder to play against because normally you can frustrate the offensive guys when you force them to play defence,” Pronger said. “They don’t want to.”
There’s not much Crosby doesn’t want to do, except publicly pat himself on the back. Even after this season, in which he found a groove and wasn’t guessing as much as he was as a younger player, he finds faults.
“I feel like there were certain points I could’ve been better, but I don’t remember what I felt like in seasons four and five years ago,” Crosby said. “I think consistency’s always something you need to find, but I think definitely at this point I feel like I have a pretty good gauge of how I need to play to be consistent.”
Consistency extends to the off-season, as well. O’Brien, a Toronto-based trainer who also works with Matt Duchene, Nathan MacKinnon, John Tavares and Canadian national-champion figure skater Patrick Chan, has known Crosby since he was a teenager and sees a person mindful of the “opportunity he has in front of his mind all the time.”
“That weighs into every decision that he makes,” O’Brien said. “If somebody invites him for a golf game, the first he thinks of is: ‘Is that going to interfere with my workout the next day? Am I going to be tired? Am I going to be dehydrated?’ And he may take the steps and make those sacrifices to make sure that he’s prepared at everything he does.”
Crosby is again prepared, this time for the Penguins to go into the playoffs against the Columbus Blue Jackets as one of the favourites to come out of the Eastern Conference. They’re in that spot in large part because what was been able to accomplish during the regular season.
But as much as he’s counted on by coach Dan Bylsma and the rest of the team, Crosby doesn’t consider that a reason to feel a heavier burden on his shoulders.
“I don’t know if because I’ve had a good regular season if that changes the expectations in the playoffs or not. I think they’re there,” he said. “I’ve had a good year. I don’t really gauge the height of the expectations. I feel like they’re high and I think the main thing is I put them pretty high for myself, anyway. ...
“I think that as far as I’m concerned, I need to make sure that I play well that time of year. That’s the most important time of the year for the team.”