Sidney Crosby: The Best Captain in NHL History?

Sidney Crosby: The Best Captain in NHL History?

By Pete Dombrosky

With fireworks set to launch above the confluence of the Monongahela and the Allegheny in Pittsburgh this July 4th, Sidney Crosby and the rest of the Penguins waited for star free agent Zach Parise to decide where he would bring his talents for the foreseeable future. The Steel City had long anticipated the acquisition of a star winger to pair with Crosby and rumor had it that Parise just might be the man for the job.

But unfortunately for the Penguins, the Minnesota Wild set off some fireworks of their own, announcing they signed Parise and free agent defenseman Ryan Suter for identical 13-year, $98 million deals.

The Penguins’ plan A went up in smoke while sky-bursts lit up the North Shore.

Plan B might include Shane Doan, Bobby Ryan, Rick Nash or even Alexander Semin. Sure, a star forward would be a great gift for Crosby – whose birthday is approaching on August 7 – but he already has about as much as a 24-year-old Canadian could ask for.

On July 30th, 2005, Crosby fulfilled his life-long dream of being drafted into the National Hockey League. Although he grew up a Montreal Canadiens fan, Sid certainly wasn’t any less-enthused about joining the same roster as Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux.

He succeeded Lemieux’s captaincy in 2007 – becoming the youngest ever to receive the honor – and later that season led the Penguins to their first Stanley Cup Final since 1992, while winning the Art Ross Trophy, the Hart Memorial Trophy and the Ted Lindsay Award. Since then, Crosby has won a Stanley Cup, a Maurice Richard Trophy and an Olympic Gold Medal.

On Sunday July 1, the Penguins captain officially signed a 12-year contract worth $104.4 million, making him the highest paid player in hockey (if you average the first nine years of the front-loaded deal).

Yes, Crosby has more hardware than a Home Depot, but he’d be the first to admit that his championships are the most important. That’s why it’s reasonable to assume that what Crosby wants most is to keep adding his name to Lord Stanley’s Cup as many times as possible.

And that shiny new contract might give him a shot at an NHL championship record set in 1971 – the most career NHL championships as a captain. NHL legend Jean Beliveau won the Cup as captain five times – in 1965, 1966, 1968, 1969 and 1971 – during his 10-year captaincy of the Montreal Canadiens from 1961-1971.

Crosby may only have one Cup now, but there are four reasons why he has a chance to eclipse Beliveau’s mark.

1. Time is on Sid’s side. His new contract ensures that he will be a Penguin until 2025. Because there’s little chance anyone else becomes captain while he’s there, Crosby has a lengthy span to win five more Cups with the “C” on his chest.

When Crosby’s latest contract runs out in 2025, he will be 38. Yes, that’s pretty old for a hockey player, but there have been some pretty outstanding men to compete well past that age in the NHL. Chris Chelios was 46 years old when he won the Stanley Cup in 2008 when he and the Redwings beat the Penguins in Crosby’s first trip to the Finals. Former Penguin Mark Recchi was 43 when he won his third Cup with the Boston Bruins in 2011. Igor Larionov and Dave Andreychuk also won Stanley Cups when they were 41 and 40, respectively. Hockey players aren’t necessarily like fine wines, but they can be good enough to win for a long time.

2. Crosby’s contract is structured for team building. Upon first examination of Crosby’s new contract, it might seem like he’ll be handcuffing the Penguins in the first nine years of his deal. Here’s what it will look like: 2013-14 — $12 million, 2014-15 — $12 million, 2015-16 — $12 million, 2016-17 — $10.9 million, 2017-18 — $10.9 million, 2018-19 — $10 million, 2019-20 — $9 million, 2020-21 — $9.6 million, 2021-22 — $9 million.

But because of the structure of the deal, he’ll command an annual cap hit of only $8.7 million per year, the same as his previous contract. Because Crosby was willing to go without a raise for the rest of his career, that leaves plenty of annual cap room for the Penguins to sign additional talent to place around their captain.

Within the current roster, that means the Penguins will have a better shot at signing core players to new long-term contracts when the current deals expire. Evgeni Malkin – who won the Art Ross Trophy, the Ted Lindsay and the Hart Memorial Trophy this season, will be an unrestricted free agent in 2014. The same goes for All-Star blueliner Kris Letang. The following year, Stanley Cup-winning goalie Marc-Andre Fluery will also become an unrestricted free agent. They will be the priorities for Penguins GM Ray Shero. We won’t know what kind of contracts the three will be asking for by then (they’ll most likely be in need of raises at that point) but Crosby’s deal will give the team more wiggle room to lock them up.

In addition, the Pens will have the ability to go after big-name free agents when they pop up. Parise was a prime example. Not only was there cap room to pursue him, Crosby himself was part of the selling point. He called Parise on the Penguins behalf to entice him to Western Pennsylvania. Sid is a big draw for the fans in Pittsburgh, but he’s also an attractive worm on the hook to lure talent to the team. It’s a pretty big selling point to skate with the best player in the world and since Crosby will be in Pittsburgh for the rest of his career, big-time UFAs should be drawn to Pittsburgh for a decade.

3. Crosby is only 24 years old. Beliveau was 33 when he won his first Cup as a captain – 12 years older than Crosby was when he became the youngest captain ever to win a Stanley Cup in 2009. And Sid will be in the prime of his career for at least 3-4 more years. After that, you can expect a decline in his numbers, but a decline for Crosby probably won’t bring him down to human-like stats until he’s in his 30s. Obviously it’s speculation at this point, but it’s a reasonable assumption.

Crosby has seemingly reached his full maturity potential when it comes to his puck skills, scoring and skating, but I still believe he can further progress. Again, I’ll reiterate that he is only 24. Crosby would be the first to tell you that he still has plenty to learn and achieve. He already has a “veteran presence” but the average age of a captain in the NHL is 30. So it’s reasonable to assume that a player reaches full maturity and has the full capacity to become a stalwart leader around that age as well.
You think Crosby is mature now? Just wait six years. His physical abilities might have declined by then, but his intangibles will have escalated.

4. Crosby is one of the best players in the world. Although Evgeni Malkin probably holds the current title of best player in hockey, a healthy Sid can take over a game more so than even Geno can. He has an average of 1.40 points per game, which is first among active players and fourth all time, behind three guys named Gretzky, Lemieux and Bossy. Only once in Sid’s seven-year NHL career has he scored fewer than 24 goals, and that was last season, when he scored eight in only 22 games. His last full season was 2009-10, when he scored 51 goals, tying Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos for the Maurice Richard Trophy for most goals in the season.

Sid has a nose for the back of the net, but he’s also an outstanding playmaker. He has averaged .889 assists per game, putting him behind only Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr and Peter Forsberg on the all-time list. He currently ranks first among active players in that category.

Not only do Crosby’s stats represent his case, he has unquantifiable intangibles that make him extra valuable. He has outstanding vision of the ice. He knows where space is, even if it’s out of his field of view and he can always sense where his teammates are. Crosby has that unexplainable sixth sense of his surroundings that truly sets him apart. Even if his critics think he complains too much, they have to admit he is a special talent.

The main roadblock standing in Crosby’s way is his injury history. Sid missed the better part of the last two seasons with concussion symptoms. He was on pace to set career highs in goals, assists and points when he was blindsided by Washington Capitals forward David Steckel in the 2011 Winter Classic and suffered a concussion. During the next game, Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman smashed Crosby into the glass, worsening the effects from the Steckel hit.

After rehabbing and seeking treatment for the remainder of the season and the following summer, Crosby came back on November 21, 2011, 320 days after the injury occurred. He lasted only eight games however, and was once again put out of commission by a David Krejci elbow. On March 5, Crosby returned again and played in the remaining regular season and subsequent playoff games, appearing to be back to normal.

Will Crosby’s concussion symptoms return? No one knows for sure.

His health will determine his longevity, but the Penguins brass seemed to be confident that Crosby’s concussions are a thing of the past. If they were truly skeptical about his condition, they might not have signed him to such a lengthy deal. That became more apparent when the news broke that Crosby’s new contract isn’t insurable because his concussion history is considered a pre-existing condition.

If Sid can’t finish his contract because of a concussion-related injury, he will still be paid in full, but the Penguins would not receive assistance from an insurance policy. Although this event wouldn’t cripple the team financially because of revenue generated from 251 consecutive sellouts, a big TV deal, hefty sponsorship and deep-pocketed ownership, Penguins management still needed some faith in Crosby’s health to sign him for more than a decade.

Another barrier to this record is the parity in the NHL. It’s been 14 years since a team won back-to-back Stanley Cups (The Redwings in 1997 and 1998). And the last captain to win multiple Stanley Cups? That would be Scott Stevens of the New Jersey Devils when he won his third in 2003; before that was Steve Yzerman of Detroit Red Wings, who won his third Cup in 2002. The last captain to win four Stanley Cups was The Great One in 1988.

For Crosby to win five more Cups in the next 13 seasons, the Penguins would have to average one championship about every two years. The difficulty of that task cannot be overstated. NHL teams just don’t have dynasties like in the days of the two-line pass. It’s highly improbable that there will be a new “Montreal Canadians” dynamic because of free agency. Teams just don’t have the money to pay an entire roster of stars any more. Although future collective bargaining agreements could change the salary cap ceiling in the future, it’s still unlikely that teams could hold onto all of the pieces they used to win one Stanley Cup.

Crosby’s best chance to keep a highly competitive team around him is to have the Penguins sign their core players and a few other star pieces to long-term deals, spreading the salary out to stay under the cap. And in these days where star NHL players make many times the salary of the President of the United States, it’ll be tough to convince the best of the best to sign for less money when they could go to other teams to pad their wallets.

So if the salary cap will be an issue when it comes to signing free agents to play with Crosby, the Penguins will have to be successful in stockpiling young talent from the ground up. As the whole, the organization has been successful recently. It seems to draft well every year and currently, has a wealth of defensive talent in its farm system including Brian Dumoulin, the 20-year-old defenseman who came over from Carolina in the Jordan Staal trade; Scott Harrington, the 19-year-old Penguins second round draft pick in 2011; Joe Morrow, the Penguins 19-year-old first round draft pick of 2011, as well as 18-year-old Derrick Pouliot and 17-year-old Olli Määttä, the Penguins 2012 first and second round draft picks, respectively.

The Pens absolutely need to keep hitting the bull’s eye with their drafts and player development. Not only will these youngsters need to develop to play for the Penguins someday, they also need to be good enough to use for potential trades to acquire other NHL players to address the immediate needs of the team. For Crosby to win more Cups, it’s essential that the Penguins be among the most competitive organizations from top to bottom in the league for the next decade, which is another very tough goal to achieve.

Pittsburgh also needs to sort out their postseason issues. Although they have a combined regular season record of 147-78-21 since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009, the team has gone 12-14 in the postseason since, winning only one series (against the Ottawa Senators in 2010). It’s a terrific regular season record to have, but it doesn’t mean anything if they can’t win games in April and May.

In the 2010 playoffs, the team had trouble scoring goals. It was the same story in the 2011 postseason, but the team had the excuse of an absent Crosby and Malkin. Last season, there was no shortage of offense for the Pens, but there were defensive breakdowns every two minutes and Fluery was abysmal. Hopefully for Pittsburgh, the offseason signing of veteran goalie Tomas Vokoun will give Fluery more rest during the regular season so he is fresher come playoff time.

And defensively?

They just have to be better, there’s no other way of putting it. Maybe that warrants calling up young defensive talent from Wilkes-Barre Scranton to join the full-time roster. Perhaps Pittsburgh should hire a coach to specialize on the penalty kill or change their overall PK philosophy. Maybe they need to find another blueliner via trade. Maybe all four.

But ultimately, the team goes as Sid goes. He is the heartbeat of the Penguins and if he stays healthy for the remainder of his contract, the team makes responsible roster decisions and the hockey gods sprinkle in a little luck, the one they call “The Kid” might very well see his moniker engraved in silver and nickel alloy five more times.

That would be the best present that Crosby could ask for.

Sidney Crosby
                                                                                                                 Credit: Dan4th Nicholas, Flickr Creative Commons
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Stanley Cup Wins by Captain

5 Stanley Cup Wins (1 player)
Jean Beliveau, Montreal Canadians (1964–65, 1965–66, 1967–68, 1968–69, 1970–71)
4 Stanley Cups Wins (5 players)
Maurice Richard, Montreal Canadians (1956–57, 1957–58, 1958–59, 1959–60)
Yvan Cournoyer, Montreal Canadians (1975–76, 1976–77, 1977–78, 1978–79)
George Armstrong, Toronto Maple Leafs (1961–62, 1962–63, 1963–64, 1966–67)
Denis Potvin, New York Islanders (1979–80, 1980–81, 1981–82, 1982–83)
Wayne Gretzky, Edmonton Oilers (1983–84, 1984–85, 1986–87, 1987–88)
3 Stanley Cup Wins (4 players)
Syl Apps, Toronto Maple Leafs (1941–42, 1946–47, 1947–48)
Sid Abel, Detroit Redwings (1942–43, 1949–50, 1951–52)
Scott Stevens, New Jersey Devils (1994–95, 1999–00, 2002–03)
Steve Yzerman, Detroit Red Wings (1996–97, 1997–98, 2001–02)
2 Stanley Cup Wins (12 players)
Sprague Cleghorn, Montreal Canadians, Boston Bruins (1923–24, 1928–29)
Bill Cook, New York Rangers (1927–28, 1932–33)
Sylvio Mantha, Montreal Canadians (1929–30, 1930–31)
Doug Young, Detroit Redwings (1935–36, 1936–37)
Toe Blake, Montreal Canadians (1943–44, 1945–46)
Emile Bouchard, Montreal Canadians (1952–53, 1955–56)
Ted Kennedy, Toronto Maple Leafs (1948–49, 1950–51)
Ted Lindsay, Detroit Redwings (1953–54, 1954–55)
Bobby Clarke, Philadelphia Flyers (1973–74, 1974–75)
Mark Messier, Edmonton Oilers, New York Rangers (1989–90, 1993–94)
Mario Lemieux, Pittsburgh Penguins (1990–91, 1991–92)
Joe Sakic, Colorado Avalanche (1995–96, 2000–01)
1 Stanley Cup Win (22 players)
Howard McNamara, Montreal Canadians (1915–16)
Hap Day, Toronto Maple Leafs (1931–32)
Charlie Gardiner, Chicago Blackhawks (1933–34)
Johnny Gottselig, Chicago Blackhawks (1937–38)
Cooney Weiland, Boston Bruins (1938–39)
Art Coulter, New York Rangers (1939–40)
Dit Clapper, Boston Bruins (1940–41)
Bob Davidson, Toronto Maple Leafs (1944–45)
Pierre Pilote, Chicago Blackhawks (1960–61)
Henri Richard, Montreal Canadians (1972–73)
Bob Gainey, Montreal Canadians (1985–86)
Jim Peplinski, Calgary Flames (1988-89)
Guy Carbonneau, Montreal Canadians (1992–93)
Derian Hatcher, Dallas Stars (1998–99)
Dave Andreychuk, Tampa Bay Lightning (2003-04)
Rod Brind’Amour, Carolina Hurricanes (2005-06)
Scott Niedermayer, Anaheim Ducks (2006-07)
Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit Redwings (2007–08)
Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins (2008–09)
Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks (2009–10)
Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins (2010–11)
Dustin Brown, Los Angeles Kings (2011–12)

Stanley Cup Winners By Team/Captain

Anaheim Ducks 
2006-07- Scott Niedermayer

Boston Bruins 
1928–29- Sprague Cleghorn
1938–39- Cooney Weiland
1940–41- Dit Clapper
1969–70 No captain
1971–72 No captain
2010–11- Zdeno Chara

Calgary Flames
1988-89- Jim Peplinski

Carolina Hurricanes
2005-06- Rod Brind’Amour

Chicago Blackhawks
1933–34- Charlie Gardiner
1937–38- Johnny Gottselig
1960–61- Pierre Pilote
2009–10- Jonathan Toews

Colorado Avalanche
1995–96- Joe Sakic
2000–01- Joe Sakic

Dallas Stars
1998–99- Derian Hatcher

Detroit Red Wings
1935–36- Doug Young
1936–37- Doug Young
1942–43- Sid Abel
1949–50- Sid Abel
1951–52- Sid Abel
1953–54- Ted Lindsay
1954–55- Ted Lindsay
1996–97- Steve Yzerman
1997–98- Steve Yzerman
2001–02- Steve Yzerman
2007–08- Nicklas Lidstrom

Edmonton Oilers
1983–84- Wayne Gretzky
1984–85- Wayne Gretzky
1986–87- Wayne Gretzky
1987–88- Wayne Gretzky
1989–90- Mark Messier

Los Angeles Kings
2011–12- Dustin Brown

Montreal Canadiens
1915–16- Howard McNamara
1923–24- Sprague Cleghorn
1929–30- Sylvio Mantha
1930–31- Sylvio Mantha
1943–44- Toe Blake
1945–46- Toe Blake
1952–53- Emile Bouchard
1955–56- Emile Bouchard
1956–57- Maurice Richard
1957–58- Maurice Richard
1958–59- Maurice Richard
1959–60- Maurice Richard
1964–65- Jean Beliveau
1965–66- Jean Beliveau
1967–68- Jean Beliveau
1968–69- Jean Beliveau
1970–71- Jean Beliveau
1972–73- Henri Richard
1975–76- Yvan Cournoyer
1976–77- Yvan Cournoyer
1977–78- Yvan Cournoyer
1978–79- Yvan Cournoyer
1985–86- Bob Gainey
1992–93- Guy Carbonneau

New Jersey Devils
1994–95- Scott Stevens
1999–00- Scott Stevens
2002–03- Scott Stevens

New York Islanders
1979–80- Denis Potvin
1980–81- Denis Potvin
1981–82- Denis Potvin
1982–83- Denis Potvin

New York Rangers
1927–28- Bill Cook
1932–33- Bill Cook
1939–40- Art Coulter
1993–94- Mark Messier

Philadelphia Flyers
1973–74- Bobby Clarke
1974–75- Bobby Clarke

Pittsburgh Penguins
1990–91- Mario Lemieux
1991–92- Mario Lemieux
2008–09- Sidney Crosby

Tampa Bay Lightning
2003-04- Dave Andreychuk

Toronto Maple Leafs
1917–18- N/A
1921–22- N/A
1931–32- Hap Day
1941–42- Syl Apps
1944–45- Bob Davidson
1946–47- Syl Apps
1947–48- Syl Apps
1948–49- Ted Kennedy
1950–51- Ted Kennedy
1961–62- George Armstrong
1962–63- George Armstrong
1963–64- George Armstrong
1966–67- George Armstrong

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About Pete Dombrosky
Pete is a graduate of Penn State University and a life-long Steelers, Penguins, and Pirates fan. He covered men's hockey, golf, tennis, swimming and the enterprise beat as a reporter at the Daily Collegian, Penn State's award-winning, independent student-operated paper. He currently serves as the Assistant Managing Editor for Thrillist Media Group (www.thrillist.com).

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