PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 20: Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins looks on against the Philadelphia Flyers in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Consol Energy Center on April 20, 2012 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
I wrote a piece on Sidney Crosby in January when the uncertainty surrounding his return to NHL ice consumed Pittsburgh Penguins fans. I talked about how his identity as the Face of NHL hockey took a backseat and he became the Face of the NHL's Biggest Problem It Loves Ignoring. Crosby returned later in the season, averaging an unearthly 1.68 points per game as the Pens cruised into the playoffs.
But something wasn't right with Crosby.
Despite his points per game average, Crosby was playing, well...average. There were times when flashes of brilliance would move fans to ooh and ahh, like they once did, but those moments became foreign. Crosby wasn't exuding the "just-try-and-stop-me" swagger's he owned since he learned to play the game.
The long and winding road back to the NHL for a player like Crosby who missed a significant amount of time, isn't going to be a walk in the park, no matter how easy he makes it look. For all we know, the questions could all be answered when Crosby returns after a full training camp and preseason, playing as if the concussion never happened.
However, another concern entered the picture: the Pens weren't the same when Crosby returned the second time. Their record speaks otherwise—the Pens went 14-6-2—but the dynamic of the team was very different than before. As if someone poured water over the well-oiled team, the chemistry was off. This is very interesting because adding a player like Crosby should only improve a team. Now I am not making the claim that Crosby's presence in the dressing room made the Pens worse; we have no way to prove it nor do I believe it. However, something about Crosby's return fiddled with whatever magic was happening among the Pens that made them look unstoppable and the overwhelming favorites to win the Cup.
Dare I say, Crosby was in the midst of another identity crisis?
This new identity crisis no longer focused on Crosby's health, but his place on the Pens. Imagine the difficulty returning to a team that has, for the most part, not missed you.
Remember how hard Crosby worked to become the goal scorer Pittsburgh desperately needed a few seasons ago? Last season, Pens were no longer desperate and it was because of the consistent firepower from Evgeni Malkin and James Neal. There was no shortage of leaders on the team. Everything was fine.
Bring Crosby into the picture and what happens? His goal-scoring mentality was replaced with a pass-first mentality. His usually crisp passes were missing their targets. His timing wasn't on point. His spark, barely flickering. If the fans could feel this off-beat Crosby, then the rest of the team certainly did as well. I remember everyone asking, "What's up with Sid? He doesn't look like himself." The uncertainty exuded by Crosby had a domino affect on the rest of the team.
Obviously this is not a good thing, but if Crosby can have a strong negative affect on the team, then the same can surely be said of the opposite. Whether people like it or not, Crosby is the anointed leader of the Pens. He isn't going anywhere; the Pens will flourish or disintegrate by his stick. See the playoffs for proof.
This summer should be filled with soul searching for the Pens, especially Crosby. He needs to figure out his place on the team and do it. Most importantly, he needs to re-embrace his leadership position.
And I don't see any problems with him doing either. Crosby's work ethic has been lauded his entire life, but there was something about his exit interview that made me feel there would be more to this season to just getting back in the swing of things. As we all know, Crosby decided against representing Canada at Worlds and here was his reason:
"I feel pretty good. (But) the last year and a half has been tough," Crosby said. "It's been tough to stay healthy. I think the best thing to do is to give myself a full summer for to get ready for next year and have a full season."
The letdown of this season will be a great motivation for Crosby to get back to his usual form. I also wouldn't be surprised if he decides to tape a picture of Claude Giroux or Daniel Briere celebrating a goal near his workout area, just like he did with Detroit after losing to them in the Stanley Cup Final in 2008. And imagine what his numbers will be if 1.68 points per game was the result of average play? Scary...for the opposition, that is.
Is it not almost a blessing that the Pens lost to the Flyers, of all teams? The opportunity this gives Crosby and the rest of the Pens as they prepare for the start of the season is endless. Their anger and frustration should be as well. For that reason, I do not foresee this team having difficulty finding motivation.
Who the motivated bunch will be after free agency? Well that's another story.