Will Sid "The Kid" stay healthy this year?
Being the "face" of an entire professional sports league isn't easy. Just ask Sidney Crosby how the last two years have gone. Concussion and neck injuries have kept the NHL's most recognizable player out of the lineup for all but 63 games over that stretch.
However, optimism is abound in Pittsburgh coming into this season because Crosby is and has been at 100 percent. The thoughts and fears that his setbacks were solely from post-concussion syndrome were averted when it was discovered that a neck fracture is what was actually slowing his recovery.
With the start of the 2012-13 season only a little more than two months away, let's look at 12 predictions for his upcoming season.
Crosby in 2007 with the Art Ross Trophy.
It may come as a shock to most of you, but Crosby's only won one scoring title in his career, back in 2007. For most of his time in Pittsburgh, he's had as good a supporting cast as any other star in the league. Most would argue Evgeni Malkin, last year's MVP, is at worst the second best player in the NHL behind Sid.
Few in history can say their second-line center is as good as Malkin is. However, departures from trades and free agency will put more of the spotlight than ever on these two this year. Can Malkin repeat last year's performance?
Keep in mind, Crosby only played 22 games in 2011-12. Malkin's numbers benefited from that. If Sid can play at least 75 this year, I fully expect him to win his second scoring title.
Sid had better keep his head up.
There's a reason why coaches spanning all four major sports are vague and sometimes downright silent about injury specifics these days. That's because opponents smell the proverbial "blood in the water" when a star player is suffering from or coming back from a serious injury.
This fact has NHL coaches calling concussions "upper-body injuries." Does it get more vague than that? It's no secret though that Crosby has had head and neck injuries over the last two years. He's already the target of most teams just because of how good he is.
Now, more than ever, Sid had better be prepared to keep his head on a swivel. He'll also need to accept that teams are going to test him and his "upper-body." Some hits will be clean...most will be dirty.
If ever Crosby could learn from a former player, it would have to be Eric Lindros. His penchant for skating over the middle with his head down ultimately led to his career being cut short because of recurring concussion problems.
In today's NHL, where hits to the head are the taboo issue league-wide, Sid needs to avoid those same mistakes.
His scoring load will be greater than ever.
As I mentioned earlier, the Penguins of the last four years have had an abundance of scoring talent and depth. Though it's not as if the cupboard is bare going into 2012-13, the Pens certainly can no longer roll three legit "scoring" lines.
The departure of Jordan Staal, which I will touch on more in depth shortly, is the most glaring subtraction. A third-line center who scores 25 goals in today's NHL is an enigma, one the Penguins no longer have the luxury of saying is theirs.
Expect seeing Crosby out for all two minutes of PP's more often, which certainly won't hurt his offensive numbers. With James Neal more than likely staying on a line with Malkin, expect Crosby to center a line with Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz.
Neither of those players have ever scored 30 goals in a season, so more pressure will be on Crosby to produce even strength as well.
Jordan will now play side-by-side with brother Eric in Carolina.
The Jordan Staal trade in June was to be expected. With Crosby about to resign for 12 years and $104.4 million and Malkin's free agency looming after the 2013-14 season, most Penguins' fans knew it wasn't financially feasible for them to keep Staal. He was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent after this upcoming season, and overpaying players has become the norm these days in the NHL.
Where he will be missed most is taking faceoffs and killing penalties. Since Malkin does neither of those particularly well, Crosby will be expected to pick up the slack there.
Staal was second among Pittsburgh forwards in ice time, averaging just over 20 minutes a game, and he was tied for the team lead with three SHG's. He won 51 percent of his faceoffs, which is obviously about average.
What's more important than the percentage though is the actual number of faceoffs he took and the magnitude of them in the course of a game. That, along with penalty-killing, is where Sid is going to see extra duty.
Will Crosby be burnt out come playoff time?
With those added responsibilities comes added ice time. No one has ever questioned Sid's conditioning, but he can't escape the fact he's only played 63 games in two seasons.
This year's NHL schedule focused on cutting down travel and eliminating so many back-to-back games. Even with that being true, an 82-game season is grueling. It can be a grind at times.
Don't be surprised if the Pens give Sid a couple days off towards the end of the season (assuming they have a playoff berth locked up).
Fleury was terrible in the first-round loss to the Flyers.
As I watched the first-round matchup between the Flyers and the Pens this past April, I wondered if I was watching the same person in goal for Pittsburgh that had preserved their Cup win in '09 with what might have been the most clutch save I've seen in 20 years of watching hockey.
To say Marc-Andre Fleury struggled in that series is like saying there's only a little bit of bad blood between those two teams. He single-handedly lost the series for the Pens.
The acquisition of Tomas Vokoun in the offseason shouldn't be seen as a move to replace Fleury. Vokoun's best days are behind him and again, Fleury won a Cup three years ago.
If goaltending continues to be an issue, Pens fans will look to Crosby and Malkin to compensate by simply trying to outgun other teams. Is that a recipe for success though?
Some fans view Crosby as a "spoiled brat."
This is more of a guarantee than a prediction. Sidney Crosby will continue to "whine" about calls, or lack thereof. Coming off the injuries he's had, I'll cut him some slack.
However, non-Pens fans know that any hit that comes within six inches of his head will result in him working the officials over like he's known to do. Again, I understand that being as good as Crosby is makes him a target.
However, it gets incredibly annoying watching him constantly complain no matter how clean the hit or how good the call is. He is the captain, so that alone does require more player/official interaction.
I think I speak for many though when I say I'd like to see him shut his mouth once in a while and just play the game. He does know the refs give the best players the benefit of the doubt more often than not doesn't he?
Crosby keeps going even after the linesman steps in.
I could write an entire article on my feelings about players who play dirty, run their mouths, and then rarely back it up. I could also write an entire article on how cowardly it is to fight with a visor on. Crosby's guilty in both of these areas.
To his credit, he has actually dropped the gloves before, albeit with players like Claude Giroux, someone hardly known for his toughness. The fact he's the only rookie in NHL history to have 100 points and 100 PIM in a season is also impressive.
My point is simple. If you want to deliver a two-handed slash to the back of another player's legs, you better be prepared for the retaliation. I don't care if it's Alexander Semin or Shawn Thornton. Too often, Crosby initiates a scrum and then finds his way out of it. I see nothing indicating that that will change.
Sid is certainly the "face" of the NHL.
For someone who yearns for the days when Gary Thorne and Bill Clement announced NHL games for ESPN, the coverage that network gives to the NHL is pitiful.
You're more likely to see a segment on Manchester United than you are on the New York Rangers. Even though hockey is not "American," its place in our sports landscape was much higher before the lockout wiped out the 2004-05 season. That resulted in ESPN cutting its ties with the NHL, and frankly, they've yet to recover.
Being buried on an obscure channel half of the country doesn't even get is not a recommended avenue to try to grow your game.
Sid is the game's top star, one of the few in the game who actually transcends the hockey barriers in the States and is known by many. Ask the average American to name a current hockey player and Crosby is probably the top name you'll get.
This will remain true as long as the NHL is viewed by many in the U.S. as a fringe sport.
Get ready for another bloodbath in the first round.
Throughout this article, I've gone over several factors that not only will affect Crosby's game, but also the Penguins' success. Based on those factors, I see the Pens having another solid regular season. One hundred points should again be attainable.
However, the Pens are in one of the better divisions in the league. With the Rangers' acquisition of Rick Nash, I don't see them relinquishing the No. 1 spot in the division or the conference.
In 2011-12, the Pens finished fourth and the Flyers finished fifth. That led to one of the most unpredictable and fight-filled series' in recent memory. Fights are supposed to disappear come playoff time. Apparently the Pens and Flyers didn't get that memo.
I see the same happening this season. The only difference is they'll switch seeds; the Flyers will be fourth and the Pens fifth.
The Pens can't match the Flyers' firepower.
I want to briefly touch on a point I brought up earlier about the lack of scoring depth on the Pens heading into this season. The scoring depth that they lack is something the Flyers have in abundance, probably more than any other team in the league.
That alone is reason enough for me to pick the Flyers to send the Pens home early for the second straight season. Now, the Flyers' seemingly-constant struggles with goaltending could easily reverse that result.
With that said, if Marc-Andre Fleury plays like he did in April, Crosby could net a hat-trick in every game and it still wouldn't matter.
Prediction: Flyers win another brutal series in six.
Can the Pens afford both Crosby and Malkin?
If my predictions hold true, the 2013 offseason for the Pittsburgh Penguins should be a busy one. Certainly management will not be happy with another first-round loss to the cross-state rival Flyers.
Malkin will be in the last year of his contract, and my guess is if they can't resign him by early summer, they may entertain offers for him. There's no way to get equal value for a player of his caliber, but he's also more than likely going to want to test the free-agent market.
Who knows...Malkin may stay put. Where else would he go to play with someone as good as Crosby? With that said, he may want to step out of Sid's shadow and play somewhere where he's the No. 1 guy. That will never be the case as long as Crosby's in Pittsburgh.
I'd look for Pittsburgh to be big spenders, regardless of what the situation with Malkin is. The 2013 list of unrestricted free agents is impressive. Cory Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Jarome Iginla and Alexander Edler are just a few of the players that will be available.
Keep your head up Pens fans. No matter what happens, you still have Sidney Crosby at the end of the day. That's the only selling point you need to bring other players aboard...because who doesn't want to play with the best player in the league?