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Crosby has goals

Even if his evolution were to suddenly flatline, and he remained the exact same player for the next 15 years, Penguins captain Sidney Crosby would go down as an all-time great.

His points-per-game average of 1.38 would dwarf those of Mark Messier (1.07), Jaromir Jagr (1.26) and Gordie Howe (1.05) and trail only the likes of Wayne Gretzky (1.92), Mario Lemieux (1.88) and Mike Bossy (1.50).

But you just know Crosby is looking to expand.

That's what the greatest of great ones do. They constantly seek to enhance their repertoires. And for all he has accomplished by age 21, Crosby still has plenty of growth potential. He wants to become a better two-way player and penalty killer. His faceoff skills need polish.

Most significant is this: He could be a better goal scorer.

He'll likely need to be, if the Penguins are to get where they want to go. He'll definitely need to be, if he is to claim the title of undisputed best player in the world.

On the eve of Penguins training camp Tuesday, after his physical at the UPMC Center for Sports Medicine on the South Side, Crosby considered the numbers I presented to him on a piece of paper. They showed his decreasing goal-scoring output from his first three NHL seasons:

Goals per game:

2005-06: 0.48

2006-07: 0.46

2007-08: 0.45

Power-play goals per game:

2005-06: 0.20

2006-07: 0.17

2007-08: 0.11

Understand, the man already has two seasons of more than 30 goals, which is two more than Peter Forsberg ever had. But the trend is apparent.

"That doesn't surprise me," Crosby said, "because, obviously, I look to pass a little more than I look to shoot - and eventually, the less shots you have, the less chance you have of scoring."

Indeed, Crosby's shots per game the past two years (3.16, 3.26) fell below his rookie average of 3.43. And as Gretzky once said, you don't score on 100 percent of the shots you don't take.

Crosby intends to reverse the trend.

"I want to keep opposing teams on their toes a little bit more," he said, "and be a bit more of a dangerous shooter."

To that end, he has considered trying a curved stick, which can increase shot velocity and overall sniping ability. But it's hard to let go of the straight blade he was weaned on. It makes passing much easier, especially on the backhand.

"I've thought about (using a curve)," Crosby said. "I'm always kind of messing around with different sticks, but the stick I've used, I've used for so long it's pretty difficult to change -- especially in a month-and-a-half."

I wondered if it's fair to say Crosby is less confident in his finishing ability than other parts of his game.

"I don't think less confident. No," he said. "I like my chances around the net. I believe in myself. I know I'm capable of scoring goals. But I also know that a lot of times my first instinct is to pass because that's what's more natural to me. I mean, trying to see the ice, trying to read plays, I'm looking where other guys are. Sometimes I probably should be looking at the net or looking to find a shooting lane.

"I think that's something you have to learn with experience and having that mentality. With time, I'll get better at that."

I don't doubt it, and I'd look at a legendary player from another sport -- Magic Johnson -- as the ideal blueprint.

Johnson, like Crosby, began his career doing things no other player so young had done. His special skill, as with Crosby, was as a distributor.

But in time, as the composition of his team changed, Johnson was called upon to score more. So he refined his post game, developed an outside shot and mastered the art of foul shooting. By his eighth season, he'd upped his scoring average by five points, to a career-high 23.9.

Gretzky is another example. He wasn't a natural sniper in the mold of a Bossy or a Brett Hull, yet he scored more goals than any player in the history of the game. He figured it out.

So must Crosby.

Joe Starkey can be reached at jstarkey@tribweb.com or 412-320-7810.

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