You can judge the quality of a person’s career by the number of acts they manage to fit into it.
Most of us get three – enter workforce; work; retire and/or die. Sidney Crosby, the world’s oldest 33-year-old, has had a half-dozen.
Act 1: The Arrival of the Savant. Act II: The Takeover. Act III: The Concussion Years. Act IV: The Resurrection. Act V: The Return to Glory. That puts us somewhere in the midst of Act VI.
Crosby’s sixth act is becoming a bit of a mess. What exactly is the motivation of the Pittsburgh Penguins captain here? What’s his purpose? What does he do? It isn’t winning, that’s for sure. It’s more like existing (but a lot better paid than if you tried it).
Six acts is a lot to live, and it’s beginning to feel like a lot to watch as well. There is a natural point at which fans want their heroes to begin shuffling off the stage. It’s not that they’ve stopped liking the guy. It’s that they’ve grown tired of hearing the same stories. They want new stories.
Ahead of Sunday’s first playoff game against the New York Islanders, Crosby did the usual round of interviews. He’s been asked every possible hockey question and has yet to give a single interesting answer to any one of them. And yet, we continue with this charade because those intermission segments are not going to write themselves. If they could, more people would watch hockey.
When people ask Crosby when it all changed, he is still telling them it was that first Stanley Cup final loss in ’08.
Two thousand and eight?! Chris Chelios was still a sprightly 46 when they played that series. That is history so ancient they ought to run the replays in black and white.
But Crosby can’t see that any more. He has become hockey’s Zelig. He’s done it all, played with or against everyone, and shows no inclination to leave any time soon.
This accordioning of the generations through one man has consequences. For the good of the NHL, it’s time for Edmonton’s Connor McDavid to assume control of the league’s brand. In the same way that LeBron James represents basketball, McDavid should represent hockey. It makes it easier to sell.
But that can’t happen with Crosby hanging around in the background of the shot. As soon as he shows up, people gravitate away from McDavid and toward him. It’s a question of charisma. We’re not talking Dean Martin vs. Sammy Davis, Jr. here. Neither of these guys has ever lit up a room with his dazzling wit. But if Crosby is a bit flat, McDavid is so dull you could sharpen a knife against him.
McDavid is putting up stupid numbers, but Crosby is still putting in more than a full shift every season. If Nathan MacKinnon or Mark Stone is your idea of an underappreciated genius, Crosby is as good or better than those guys. Because he’s being judged against the Sidney Crosby he was at his peak, he’s probably even better than that.
But what does it add up to any more?
The Penguins are a neither/nor team – neither good nor bad. It’s been a while since they’ve won a playoff series. Actually, it’s a been a while since they looked as if they belonged in a playoff series.
Any other U.S.-based team would have blown the tanks and started heading for the ocean floor. The Penguins have to work by Canadian NHL rules – pretending they are good when they know they aren’t – because they have Crosby. He cannot be part of a tank. He wouldn’t go for it, and it wouldn’t make any sense.
Rumours floated midway through this pandemic season that Crosby might be traded. Not traded now, mind you. But traded at some indeterminate point in the distant future.
It was transparently a sounding effort by the Penguins, Crosby’s reps or some combo of the two to see how the idea would go over. Not great, as it turns out. People didn’t like that idea.
If the Penguins want to quit Crosby, or vice-versa, there will be hard feelings.
But it’s beginning to feel like a better idea than the alternative.
Crosby is still a vibrant force in the game, but he doesn’t belong in Pittsburgh any more. It’s depressing watching him get old, while the team can’t do what it needs to to start over.
That would make this postseason the last rodeo.
If the Penguins make a dent in these playoffs, that would give management enough cover to kick the can on disassembling their core (Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang) down the road a bit.
‘Making a dent’ isn’t getting past the Islanders in the first round. It means getting as far as the final, at a minimum. When you’re Sidney Crosby, there are no more moral victories, just victories.
Would that be a good idea? No. Absolutely not.
It’s in everyone’s interest – the Penguins’, Crosby’s, the NHL’s – that Crosby move somewhere else. Montreal has always been the dream destination, narratively speaking. Imagine Crosby reinvigorating the league’s most storied franchise?
The NHL could run wild with an ancien régime vs. arrivistes storyline pitting Crosby and the Canadiens vs. McDavid and the Oilers.
The only way to reconcile the two men existing in the same space, both the best of their time, is to make them on-ice enemies. Crosby leaving Pittsburgh to return to Canada makes that possible. It’s something you might even be able to sell to Americans.
So, in the best interests of hockey, the Pittsburgh Penguins must die.
On Sunday, the Penguins agreed. Crosby was a force, scoring the second goal. But Pittsburgh gave up a couple of cheap ones, including the overtime winner. New York won 4-3.
Most people agreed this series advantaged Pittsburgh. Just like the one the year before, and the one the year before that, both of which turned into disasters for the Penguins.
You know how this goes. One is chance, two is a coincidence and three means it’s time to let Crosby begin Act VII of his remarkable career.