Sidney Crosby is at the precipice of a huge season in his career.
He is undoubtedly one of the best players in the world, and he may very well be at the top of the list. But it has been a while since the Canadian has been at the top of his game for a full season.
Crosby's last full season in the NHL was 2009-10. That was a brilliant year for the centre, perhaps the best of his career. He led the NHL with a career-high 51 goals and he had 109 points that season.
At the time he was the game's dominant superstar and it seemed that nothing would take him off that track. Nothing did until he suffered concussive hits in back-to-back games in January, 2011. The seemingly indestructible star proved quite vulnerable as he missed the rest of the 2010-11 season and was unable to play at the start of 2011-12.
When he did come back, it was just for a brief time before his post-concussive symptoms returned. Crosby ended up playing 22 games that season, and it seemed like he was in good form as the Penguins prepared for a first-round playoff matchup with the hated Philadelphia Flyers.
The matchup was a vicious one, and Crosby seemed more intent on mixing it up with his Philadelphia counterparts than he had previously. As an elite player, Crosby had seemed a step or two above the fray in the past. But in the 2012 Flyers-Penguins series, Crosby was yapping and cheap-shotting like a fourth-line fringe player.
Crosby and the Penguins dropped a six-game series to the Flyers. While Crosby had eight points, he was also minus-three in the series.
The 2012-13 season was basically cut by half as a result of the NHL's decision to lock out its players. However, when the season started, Crosby was back at full speed. He had 15 goals and 41 points in the Penguins first 36 games, and he was running away with the scoring title and seemed to be the likely winner of the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player.
However, his season was stopped in its tracks when he suffered a broken jaw after being hit in the face with a puck. He did not play any more in the regular season.
While he returned for the playoffs, Crosby was held scoreless in a four-game sweep at the hands of the Boston Bruins.
The star centre was also strangely antagonistic against the Bruins, much as he had been the year before against the Flyers. While he was fully engaged, seeing him try to dress down Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara was quite unusual.
The Penguins may feel optimistic about Crosby as they prepare for the 2012-13 season, but that does not mean there won't be issues. Physically, he is fully recovered from the concussion problems of the past and the jaw problems that sidelined him at the end of the regular season appear to be over as well.
But what of his demeanor? Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux had a certain regal presence on the ice. Both men got in dust-ups from time to time, but they did not engage in any of the cheap behavior that marked Crosby's play in each of the last two playoff years.
It's not going to be enough for him just to lead the Penguins, either. He will almost certainly play a key role for Canada's Olympic hockey team.
When you score the gold medal-winning goal in 2010, you are not going to get a pass in 2014. More heroics will be expected from that hockey-crazed nation.
Does he have the talent and ability to deliver? No doubt. Crosby showed for the majority of the 2013 regular season that his skills were intact. But the edginess that has surfaced in the past two playoff seasons does not need to be a part of his game.
It's one thing to be a team player, but he has to keep his mind on his business.
That business is scoring goals and assists and doing his part on the defensive end. He does not need to get in the scrums and skirmishes. He can play head games by filling the net with pucks.
He doesn't have to get in shouting matches with others like he's about to swing his stick in anger or drop the gloves.
His name is Sidney Crosby, not Brad Marchand. He should not try to emulate the Little Ball of Hate or any of the other pests in the NHL.
It's beneath him.
With an 82-game regular season, an Olympic effort and a postseason in front of him, Crosby has enough on his plate without trying to engage in the extra-curriculars.
Physically, Crosby does not appear to be at any more risk than any other player. However, he needs to get his emotions under control and the Penguins need to urge him to keep his mind on the business of scoring goals and not getting under his opponents' skin.
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