During the past 72 hours, I have literally received dozens of emails and Tweets about one specific topic: Sidney Crosby’s poor leadership skills.
It seems that, in this era, if you go four straight playoff games without scoring a goal – and going back to last postseason, it’s actually been nine straight for Crosby – you’re a poor leader.
Crosby does deserve a heavy dose of criticism regarding his recent play. There is no question about this. His leadership, however, isn’t really an issue. In fact, suggesting that Crosby is a poor leader is merely a lazy excuse for his recent play.
I’m one of few people who cover Crosby daily, so I think I’m pretty well equipped to analyze his leadership skills. Here’s what I see.
= Crosby is always one of the first players on the ice at practice, and is always one of the last players off the ice. His work ethic is rarely exceeded by fourth liners in practice, let alone star players. He consistently sets a good example. Many young players – Olli Maatta in particularly – have told me stories this season about Crosby taking them aside to make sure they understand the system and their respective roles in certain situations.
= Crosby isn’t especially vocal by nature. Neither was Mario Lemieux. And like Lemieux, Crosby isn’t a phony. He doesn’t run his mouth daily to the press or speak to teammates so regularly that it becomes a bore. However, a number of players have commented to me this season that Crosby has spoken up at appropriate times, more than in other seasons. Crosby, in response to a question from my colleague, Rob Rossi, while we were in Columbus, said he will speak when something needs to be said in regards to the Penguins’ troubles with the Blue Jackets.
= Crosby, unlike many of his teammates, has never backed down from dealing with the media following difficult losses. A handful of Penguins typically speak following losses. Only a handful. Crosby is always in that handful. Yes, he’s the captain, but trust me when I tell you that all captains don’t speak after games. Or even before games. Crosby never backs down from the heat.
= It is commonly believed that true “leaders” in hockey score big goals in big games. I don’t really buy this theory, but in case you do, let’s look at this objectively. Who scored the gold medal game-winning goal in Vancouver? Who scored on a breakaway in the gold medal game-winning goal in Sochi? Who pumped life into the 2008 Stanley Cup Final against Detroit by scoring twice in his first home Stanley Cup Final game? Who scored the game-winner and set up another in Game 4 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Final, the game that told the Penguins they were better than the Red Wings? The game-winner in a shootout in the first ever Winter Classic? Or, how about the opening goal in Game 7 in Washington in 2009?
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Yeah, almost all of those moments were five years ago.” This might be true. But the clutch gene – call it leadership if you must – doesn’t arrive in waves at age 21 and then suddenly disappear.
= Back in March, on during the trade deadline period, I was with the Penguins in San Jose. On the morning following the trades, most of the Penguins were on their way back to the team hotel. Word had spread that Lee Stempniak and Marcel Goc were mere minutes away from arriving at HP Pavilion. Most players, creatures of habit on game days, went about their business of leaving for the team hotel. Crosby, however, still needing to shower and head back to the hotel, waited patiently outside of the locker room until the new players arrived. He wanted to make sure they were immediately welcomed by the team’s captain upon arriving.
But, you know, Crosby hasn’t scored this series. So, he’s a bad leader. Right.
Here’s what I think … I think Crosby is dealing with confidence issues now. It’s rare for a 26-year-old, future Hall-of-Famer to stop believing in himself, but maybe we’re seeing some of that right now. And there might be a reason. Crosby has never been the same player since sustaining a life-altering concussion in 2011. You all know the story. Crosby is finally healthy again, but his style is a little different now. He’s still great, still the world’s finest player. No one is disputing that. But his game is a little different now, a little less reliable.
Crosby was once a bulldog who would charge to the net numerous times a game. We don’t see that so much anymore. He’s still great on the boards, but he hasn’t “Spezza’d” anyone in a while, has he? No, he hasn’t. He’s more of a perimeter player now. He prefers to stay at the top of the right circle on the power play now where, frankly, he isn’t as good as his natural habitat, down by the goal line. Why has he turned the puck over so much on the power play lately? Because playing that perimeter game doesn’t come as naturally to him, and because it’s more high-risk by nature. He’s not terrible at this style of game, obviously. He easily won a scoring title playing this way. His reinvented game is still wonderful. But in the playoffs, pretty goals don’t really exist. Crosby the bulldog scored so many of his goals in those dirty areas, and while he doesn’t dodge the dirty areas, he doesn’t seem to dominate them the way he once did.
So, if you choose to be critical of Crosby the hockey player, go right ahead. It might be deserved. But criticizing his leadership skills is more ignorant than anything.
Jonathan Toews is a great leader because he scored that overtime goal against St. Louis last night, right? Well, how do you explain Toews scoring exactly one goal in Chicago’s first 20 postseason games last season? Does this mean Toews was being a bad leader last season? What if Detroit would have beaten the Blackhawks in overtime of Game 7 last season, with Toews finishing with one goal in 13 playoff games that spring? How would the hockey world have judged him then?
Crosby’s legacy is on the line beginning tonight. He’s a Hall of Fame lock, and clearly the best player of his generation. If he wants to someday be in a class with Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe, Jaromir Jagr, Rocket Richard – you know, the best players who ever lived – then he needs more championships, and need to start scoring against teams like the Columbus Blue Jackets. We all know this. Crosby knows this. Calling him out is completely fair.
But let’s call it like it is. This isn’t about leadership. In fact, leadership in sports is such of a stupid concept. It barely exists. Teams on the same page, teams with talent, teams willing to work hard, are the teams that usually win. Leadership? It’s just a made-up word, especially in hockey. Broadcasters always talk about “great leadership” after someone scores a goal. Really? Maybe great players just score goals sometimes, and the idea of leadership doesn’t really factor into the equation. Is blocking a shot a sign of leadership? Is sacrificing your stats for the betterment of the team a sign of leadership? That’s more like it, if you want to make an argument. But Crosby is paid to score and set up goals. And he’s not doing that right now, so he’s a bad leader?
Sorry, I don’t buy it. Rather, this is a great player who has temporarily and slightly – check out his number since December – lost his way. I suspect he will find his way, maybe even tonight. Great players always do. And if he does score tonight and lead the Penguins past the Blue Jackets, will that make him a great leader again?