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The “What Ifs” with Sidney Crosby and Mario Lemieux

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Sidney Crosby became the franchise’s all-time leader in games played this weekend, passing Mario Lemieux. They both should have played in many, many, many more.

NHL: Stanley Cup Final-Pittsburgh Penguins at San Jose Sharks Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Penguins organization, and by extension its fans and city, have been kind of spoiled over the past 30 years in terms of on-ice success and the caliber of player that has played for the team.

The five championships are tied for the second-most in the NHL in the post-Original Six era, and from 1984 on the Penguins have pretty much consistently had what is arguably the best player in the league (or at least a top-three player) playing on their team, from Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Not only are they all among the best players of their respective eras, they are among the best players of all time.

At the top of the list, obviously, are Lemieux and Crosby.

And this past weekend Crosby actually overtook Lemieux as the franchise’s all-time leader in games played by dressing in his 916th game, another sign that we’re all getting incredibly old at an alarmingly fast rate.

It’s also another reminder as to the “what if” element that followed both players around for their entire careers.

There are many similarities between the two players and their careers. Not only were both hockey prodigies growing up that were the type of generational talents that would make teams forfeit full seasons in an effort to get them, but they both arrived in Pittsburgh at just the right time when the franchise was teetering on the edge of oblivion. Their arrivals not only eventually resulted in championships, they helped keep the very existence of the team.

They are both otherworldly talents that could change a franchise.

They also both had significant portions of their careers derailed by injuries and health issues.

Just for some shocking perspective on their two careers, when Lemieux was the same age that Sidney Crosby is right now, he was playing in his final season before his first retirement. When he ended that season he had only played in 745 regular season games. We know how many games Crosby has missed throughout his career and what that has done to him and his numbers ... but Lemieux missed an additional 171 at this same point. Given the era he was playing in and what he was doing at that point in his career when he was missing the bulk of his games. Between the ages of 21 and 26, what should have been his statistical peak in the NHL, he only played in 365 out of a possible 492 games. During a point in his career where he was averaging more than two points per game. An extra 127 games would have been massive for his goal and point totals during his career. And that doesn’t even take into account the games he missed between age 27 and his retirement at 31.

The same thing happened to Crosby during his peak when he appeared in only 337 out of a possible 458 games.

Like Lemieux, we never actually got to see him play a full season when he was at the height of his powers.

For Crosby, that was probably the 2010-11 season when he was just ripping the league apart offensively and was probably the closest thing the NHL had seen to Gretzky or Lemieux since ... Gretzky or Lemieux. Then the injuries started, and for the next three years it was a constant run of bad luck and misfortune that kept him off the more more than he was on it.

When Crosby appeared in all 82 games a year ago it was the first time he had ever done it in his career. Lemieux never did it.

It seems greedy to sit here and look at what the two have accomplished in their careers, both on an individual and a team level, and think “there should have been more!” because they are two of the most accomplished players in the history of the league.

But it’s also not outrageous to sit here and realistically say ... there should have been more!

Had it not been for injuries there are probably several more scoring titles on their resumes. Maybe another MVP or two. Maybe even a sixth Stanley Cup for the franchise somewhere in there.

The Penguins organization has been ridiculously blessed over the years in the talent it has seen.

Nobody should ever take it for granted because this type of run with legendary players, for this long, is almost impossible to duplicate and who knows what the future of the Penguins organization looks like once Crosby and Malkin retire. You are not guaranteed to get “the next one.”

Still, despite that, as irrational and spoiled as it might be to say, you’re not entirely wrong if you look at these careers and think you still didn’t get to fully experience everything they were fully capable of.

Sometimes sports can be simultaneously amazing, and just a giant tease.