Sidney Crosby's defense: problems real or imagined?

Spotted: rare pick of Sidney Crosby playing defense - Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Sidney Crosby is getting roasted on social media for his -5 night that culminated with a lackluster effort on a SHG against (after turning the puck over, no less). But is it deserved?

Sidney Crosby was a career worst -5 last night in a 5-3 loss to San Jose, with one play that will probably live in infamy. It even got the "Alex Ovechkin video game GIF" treatment, so you know it's bad. For once the social media sites have blown up with criticism, some real, some imagined, and some just taking the opportunity to pile on an MVP caliber player that almost never has an off-night, let alone a really off-night.

But is all that talk deserved? Deep down, is Sidney Crosby pulling his weight defensively and should the Penguins expect him to be better?

To be certain, it was a rotten night for Crosby and there's no doubting or denying that. But is Sid's defense up to snuff? Let's look at some season numbers to get a sense of how he's doing overall.

Evidence

At five-on-five action, the Penguins are outscoring the opposition 53 to 45 when Sidney Crosby is on the ice. Considering that Crosby plays the 2nd most total minutes per game of any NHL forward this season (behind only, amusingly, rumored Penguins trade target Ryan Kesler) and also considering that Crosby logs the most even-strength minutes per game of any forward in the league we can probably excuse the high total.

Crosby also has, by far the biggest faceoff burden of any player in the league. He's taken a league high 1,492 faceoffs this season- and second place is 115 faceoffs back, despite playing three more games. Crosby's won a respectable 52.3% of all those faceoffs, which average 24 a game. Every game. And the nature of those faceoffs have changed too- his offensive zone faceoffs have fallen over the past couple years from 36.0% to 30.9% to 29.9% this season.

Whether it's a function of usage, or the Penguins own lack of possession from year's past (less shots, less times the opposing goalie freezes it, less offensive starts), Sidney Crosby is having to take a significant amount more faceoffs in the neutral and defensive zones this season.

Knowing that about the amount and type of minutes he is called on to play and 45 goals against at 5v5 in 62 games for a player like Crosby doesn't seem like too bad a total.

Recent History

Add up the 2011-12 and 2012-13 regular seasons that Crosby played and it was just 32 5v5 goals given up in 58 games. Compare that with 45 GA in 62 games this year and it's clear that this season Crosby is seeing more rubber go into his net than years past. Naturally, this opens up more criticism from fans who get more of a chance to hold onto remember certain moments (like dogging it on a backcheck or a bad pass that ends up in his own net).

And it's not just the goals against that hurts. Crosby's on-ice goals for at 5v5 was 78 for those two combined seasons, compared to just 54 in 62 games last year. He's seeing less pucks end up in the other team's net. In this regard, the bigger fall-off has been offensively even more so than defensively (hello losing Pascal Dupuis and subbing in "22 shots in 23 games" Brian Gibbons). Crosby's offensive production is a different topic for a different time, since not much is focused on his defense we'll save that for later.

Conclusion

Sidney Crosby isn't a Selke level defensive forward, and is bound to end up on the ice for some goals against just as a function of the heavy amount of minutes he plays plus all the faceoffs in the defensive zone he's called upon to take. At times there will be a lack of back-checking. The SH goal against last night, Crosby had played 2:49 of a period that only had 5:18 gone. When playing that heavy amount of minutes and several shifts in a row, the energy level (especially in the 3rd period) isn't always going to be there.

That's reasonable, but it's still an excuse. It's one thing to say that even great players occasionally have bad games, and last night certainly qualified as one of the worst in the celebrated career of Sidney Crosby. But, overall, the Pittsburgh Penguins outscore their opponents while Crosby is one the ice, eating the most minutes and faceoffs of any NHL forward, and battling the other team's toughest competition. That's a huge win that helps set the Penguins up to win many of their games.

Crosby could probably be setup for success better by lesser usage in better spots- and adding a defensive minded forward in Marcel Goc who's capable of being 50%+ and taking many draws helps. There's also the seven extra Olympic games to consider as well, as the Pens go down the stretch. Coach Dan Bylsma will have to be smart to make forward-looking choices to help put Crosby, and the Pens, in the best chance for success when it matters the most.

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