Sidney Crosby is in a slump.
It is an odd thing to say about a hockey player who, as of Sunday morning, was the fourth-leading scorer in the NHL, 56 points in 49 games and only two points out of first. But this is the best player of his generation. Last winter, Crosby led Canada to a second Olympic gold, was the NHL's most valuable player and won the scoring title by such a wide margin he would have topped the ledger if he had stopped playing in mid-March after 67 games.
Then the troubles began. Crosby injured his right wrist last March and was not himself in the playoffs. He scored a single goal in 13 postseason games and the Pittsburgh Penguins collapsed in the second round against the New York Rangers, blowing a 3-1 series lead as Crosby produced nothing in the final three losses.
He turned 27 last August and forewent surgery on his wrist and instead treated it with injections.
By October, the situation seemed resolved: Crosby opened the season big, pocketing nearly two points a game through early November, well above his sterling career average. Then the troubles flared anew. There have been long stretches of few goals – only four in 29 games from late October through early January – and looking back to last March, this is the worst it's ever been for Crosby to set the goal light flaring red. And now, even as he is fourth in scoring, and even with the superhot start to the season, Crosby's goals a game and points a game are the lowest they've even been, in this, his 10th season in the NHL.
There have been recent flashes of the real Crosby. Last Friday night in Calgary, he delivered two beautiful goals, the second of which was collected as a pass in full flight, after which he split the Calgary defence and cracked a laser of a wrist shot past the Flames goalie. But the next night, in Vancouver, the same old problems. Crosby looked strong and savvy at times – but managed only one shot at the net, a backhander from in close at a near-impossible angle that had no real hope of going in.
When he does get his chances – and Crosby is driving play this season, as always – the simple fact is he's connecting at a strong but not superstar level.
This is Sidney Crosby in a slump: excellent, but not amazing.
His shooting percentage is 11.3 per cent, the lowest of his career looking at seasons when he's been healthy, and the number is down several percentage points from his normal elite rate of 14 per cent-plus.
The difference is four shots that would have been, in seasons past, goals. Those four goals would be enough to elevate Crosby to this year's No. 1 scorer, where so many prognosticators slotted him before the season. Crosby's tough luck shooting has recently been most obvious at even-strength. In January his scoring rate for the season stood at less than 10 per cent – almost ordinary. The figure has ticked up of late.
Asked on Saturday night, after a tough 5-0 loss to the Canucks, about the ups and downs of the year, Crosby first paused and exhaled. This was a question he has heard before in recent months – but not one he is used to hearing.
"It's just a matter burying chances," Crosby said. "Obviously tonight there weren't too many. But for the most part, I feel like I have a handle on the puck a good chunk of the game, creating chances. You always want to do better, but it really boils down to, I think, just capitalizing on the chances you get. Every team's playing tight. They're not giving up much."
The reasons behind a weakened shooting precision are hard to pin down for certain. One has to wonder about his right wrist. There was the mumps, and in January a vague lower-body injury that Crosby played through before taking an injection to address the problem on Jan. 23, according to a brief Penguins press release. There have also been injuries to various Pittsburgh teammates, so Crosby has spent some time on the ice with the likes of Robert Bortuzzo and Steve Downie. New right winger David Perron, arrived from Edmonton in early January, has been a plus – but it hasn't translated into a lot of goals as yet.
You can even see the slump in the faceoff circle. Crosby is consistently a faceoff winner, but this season has slipped below 50 per cent, for the first time since his second year in the league.
Still, the words slump and Sidney Crosby in the same sentence is a relative thing – but Crosby is not measured in relative terms. He is always considered in an absolute rendering, as the best player in the league and working towards cementing his name as one of the all-time greats. His career points a game are fifth-best ever, behind Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Mike Bossy and Bobby Orr.
On Wednesday night back in Pittsburgh, the Pens play host to the Detroit Red Wings, and Crosby plays his 600th regular-season NHL game. His team holds a narrow lead in the Metropolitan Division and could find itself fourth in the division with only a few missteps. Since Pittsburgh's one Stanley Cup of the Crosby-Evgeni Malkin era, the Penguins have never really threatened to win again. If they have any sort of shot this winter and spring, Crosby will have to score – more.