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Analysis: Somehow, Crosby is now an underrated player

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Sunday, Nov. 21, 2010
 

No athlete should benefit as much from a TV show as Penguins center Sidney Crosby will from HBO's "24/7" next month.

The hockey world is about to get a behind-the-scenes reminder of just how valuable the NHL's biggest name is to his club. That value has been overlooked lately, as Crosby has become to his sport what Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant is to his: underappreciated.

Crosby, 23, and Bryant, 32, are generally considered the most insatiably competitive, fundamentally flawless and steel-nerved players in their sport — in addition to being perennial top-five scorers on championship contenders. Yet, each owns just one just one regular-season MVP award.

It hasn't seemed to matter that both athletes have come close to doing the impossible by living up to their "next" tags. Bryant is one title from matching Michael Jordan's six. Crosby was the youngest captain of a Stanley Cup champion.

It hasn't seemed to register that each player has changed the core of his game. The aging Bryant, now primarily a deadly post-up shooter after years of slashing to the hoop, has averaged 27 points the past three seasons despite playing about four fewer minutes. Crosby, his legs still young, has averaged 0.64 goals per game since the start of last season compared to 0.46 in three prior campaigns.

Historically, the elite players adjust their styles — not to preserve, but to continue thriving. Bryant and Crosby have done exactly that. Crosby is skating on untested ice by dramatically morphing from playmaker to scorer at this early stage of his career.

Still, even off to the best goal start of his career (14 in 21 games) and with 10 of the 25 individual multipoint games recorded for a club with a bottom-third power play, Crosby is not the quarter-pole favorite for MVP.

That spot belongs to Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos, the NHL leader through Friday in goals and points, according to rankings by ESPN.com and USA Today. Those are subject to personal bias — not that Hart Trophy voting by select members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association eliminates that possibility.

(Full disclosure: This reporter, a voting member for the PHWA year-end awards, didn't have Crosby in his top five for MVP two weeks ago in USA Today's biweekly rankings.)

Crosby is astonishingly undervalued by the media, even some members who are around him daily. But not anymore. Not after the past two weeks.

The Penguins were 6-6-1 before he scored twice to nearly rally them to a win at Anaheim on Nov. 5. That was the first of his eight straight games with a point, six of which were multipoint efforts. He has eight goals and 18 points in the span, and the Penguins have gone 5-2-1.

Crosby elevated his performances with his team seemingly at a crisis point. No. 1 goalie Marc-Andre Fleury's confidence was nowhere to be found. No. 2 scorer Evgeni Malkin was inconsistent at best. Elite two-way center Jordan Staal had yet to play. The defense was leakier than Civic Arena's pipes.

Crosby boosted Fleury with public support. He produced while Malkin, who found his groove and has 10 points in his past five games. He won 90 of 136 faceoffs, nearly a 10 percent improvement on his 56.7 average.

He has done this after a season that was arguably his most impressive. In his fifth campaign, Crosby bested his single-season goal total by 12 on his way to 51 markers; finished tied for second in the NHL with 109 points; won 55.9 percent of faceoffs; and led the Penguins in scoring by 32 points — the greatest margin between a No. 1 and 2 scorers on a playoff team.

All that got him was a third-place finish in the Hart Trophy voting, his 720 points behind Henrik Sedin's 894 and Alex Ovechkin's 834 — even though Ovechkin and Sedin played with a teammate in the top 15 in scoring.

Crosby has 121 goals and 317 points in 232 regular-season games since winning his lone scoring title and MVP three years ago. He hasn't become any less valuable — just better every year.

"The type of game he plays, you really need to see every day to appreciate it," Penguins left wing Pascal Dupuis said.

HBO's camera crew will arrive in two weeks to spend a month for "24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the NHL Winter Classic." Along that road, everybody will get to see how valuable Crosby has been all along.

Additional Information:

Give thanks he's here

The NHL's top scorers between Nov. 28, 2009, when Penguins center Sidney Crosby had a hat trick against the New York Rangers, and Friday:

Sidney Crosby, Penguins : 76 games — 53 goals, 64 assists, 117 points

Henrik Sedin, Canucks : 76 — 17, 93, 110

Alex Ovechkin, Capitals : 73 — 43, 64, 107

Daniel Sedin, Canucks : 75 — 41, 63, 104

Steven Stamkos, Lightning : 78 — 54, 47, 101

Nicklas Backstrom, Capitals : 77 — 35, 64, 99

Alexander Semin, Capitals : 75 — 45, 47, 92

Martin St. Louis, Lightning : 78 — 32, 60, 92

Eric Staal, Hurricanes : 74 — 35, 51, 86

Brad Richards, Stars : 74 — 26, 59, 85

Source: Penguins media relations

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