After his team had been swept out of the first round of the playoffs, it was put to Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan that his team should try to be more like the New York Islanders.
More defensive, more cautious, more one-rung-down-the-food-chain. To try playing like a team without stars.
Knowing any hard demurral would sound silly – who wouldn’t want to be more like the team that just whipped you? – Sullivan tiptoed into his answer.
“I think that our identity is different …” he said. “… Based on the personnel we have.”
It was probably Pittsburgh’s cleverest deke of the whole series. When you have Sidney Crosby on your roster, and he is still only 31 years old, you do not want to say out loud that the team’s Golden Age is over.
But it’s pretty obvious the Golden Age is done. It’s a Silver Age, trending toward a Stone Age.
The Penguins tried the ‘it’s a game of thin margins’ excuse, but that doesn’t hold up. The Islanders trailed for less than five minutes over four games. Never falling behind – that’s a better definition of domination than a crooked number in a couple of outings.
The Penguins’ core is getting old. Their defence is ragged. Their goaltending is mediocre. They’re not bad yet. They’re something worse. They’re average.
No one outside Pittsburgh will give a good goddamn if the Penguins go down like the Lusitania. They’ve had a lovely decade-long run. Most franchises will never see the like.
But what now for Crosby? People do care about that.
He had only one point in the series. That said, no one else in black and gold distinguished themselves.
Crosby took the blame: “I’ve got to be better … I’ve got to find a way to produce and contribute.”
That’s perfectly correct. He wears the C for a reason. He should take the lashes.
But you could argue he had done enough work over the preceding six months to expect a few more hands in the kitchen once the dishes piled up.
Crosby’s been selected as the NHL’s MVP only twice. Perhaps voters thought the public would grow bored if they gave it to him every time, and swung too far in the direction of equitability.
He won’t win it again this year, but this may be the season in which Crosby deserves it most. He was once the best talent on a remarkable team. Now he is the Penguins’ Mr. Fix-It. If there’s a problem, Crosby takes care of it, while the rest of the boys stand around handing him tools.
Crosby’s in terrific shape. He’s years removed from his concussion trouble. He could conceivably continue at this level for five or more seasons, while the Penguins crumble around him.
That’s not good for anyone.
Of all the early themes of these playoffs, the most worrying for the NHL should be the game of Where’s Waldo? casual fans are playing nightly.
The most electric player in the league, Edmonton’s Connor McDavid, didn’t make it this far. Neither did the regular season’s third-leading scorer (and still one of its few recognizable stars south of the 49th), Chicago’s Patrick Kane.
Tampa’s Nikita Kucherov should have been the NHL’s fresh springtime face, but he had more suspensions than goals in the postseason.
Alex Ovechkin is probably the most marketable star left. Then some teenager foolishly asked him to fight and the Washington Capitals star gave him a hard lesson in getting what you ask for.
Twenty years ago, after that knockout, they’d have been casting Ovechkin in bronze. Ten years ago, he’d get a few high-fives from the backward-baseball-cap set. Today, he’s a villain.
This is the problem with getting old. As soon as you lose interest in keeping on top of where the trends are headed, the culture pulls a handbrake and heads off in a totally different direction.
Who’s left? With due deference to Mark Stone and Robin Lehner, I don’t think they’re going to push boffo TV numbers.
Teams need their stars to be stars at this time of year, but the league needs that even more. Famous names doing highlighty things while everyone watches is the NHL’s (and every other league’s) lifeblood.
And so the decline of Crosby’s circumstances, if not yet his ability, should set the NHL to shuddering. It’s possible that what is happening to the first part of McDavid’s career in Edmonton will now commence to the last third of Crosby’s in Pittsburgh.
There’s nothing to be done about it from the Crosby end of things. He’s under contract until his late 30s. You just know in your bones the guy is never, ever demanding a trade. He’s just not cut that way. It isn’t ‘unselfish’. It is more ‘settled in his ways’.
Crosby represents too much local goodwill and ancillary cash flow for the Penguins to consider him as what he is – a human commodity.
So the only way around this is for the Penguins to retrofit the hull while Crosby sits up on deck cooling his heels for a year or two. In a league that hates trades as a general proposition, and hates free agency even more, that’s a tough ask.
That leaves us with a likelihood – that Sidney Crosby’s time in the sun is turning over to shadow. He may still be great, but will probably not get to show it when it matters. It was always bound to happen, but seeing the moment come around is still a surprise.
You could call this the NHL’s Peter Pan conundrum. We all knew that, eventually, Crosby – a generational player, a top-five all-time talent, the league’s great 21st-century salesman – would probably get old.
He hasn’t. Instead, everyone else is in decline, while the Kid stays the same.