January 8, 2015
Sidney Crosby is scoring goals at the lowest rate of his career. What's wrong with the Penguins superstar? (Getty)
Nicholas J. Cotsonika’s Three Periods column appears on Thursdays. This week’s topics include Sidney Crosby’s goal-scoring drought; David Perron’s energy boost; and notes on the Oilers, divers and Phil Kessel.
FIRST PERIOD: Why is Sidney Crosby struggling to score goals?
Almost halfway through the Pittsburgh Penguins’ season, Sidney Crosby is on pace for the same number of assists he had in 2013-14, when he won the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s scoring champion and the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player.
But he’s on pace for far fewer goals. In fact, he’s scoring goals at by far the lowest rate of his career.
Crosby had 36 goals, 68 assists and 104 points in 80 games last season. He has 11 goals, 32 assists and 43 points in 37 games this season, having missed three games with the mumps, putting him on track for 23 goals, 68 assists and 91 points in 79 games.
This is not bad. He’s tied for second in the league in assists and ranks seventh in points. He’s first in assists per game and third in points per game. He’s still Sidney Crosby. (For more, see the Second Period.)
But this is a guy who has won the Rocket Richard Trophy as the league’s goal-scoring champion, a guy who has never scored fewer than 33 goals when he has played at least 77 games, a guy who scored 24 goals in 53 games one season and 32 in 41 another season.
Entering this season, he was averaging 0.49 goals per game over his career. The only time he had averaged less than 0.41 goals per game in a season was 2011-12, when he played only 22 games because of concussion problems. Even then he scored eight goals, averaging 0.36 goals per game.
— Is his wrist bothering him?
Crosby suffered a wrist injury March 23 when hit by the St. Louis Blues’ Ryan Reaves. Since then, he has scored only 14 goals in 60 games including the playoffs.
He had two goals in 10 games down the stretch last season. He had one goal in 13 games in the playoffs. He later admitted the injury affected his shot and limited his faceoffs. “Yeah,” he said in September, “it didn’t feel good.”
He didn’t have surgery and said he was happy to avoid it. He entered the season saying he was pain-free, and the wrist certainly didn’t seem like an issue early. He had seven goals in his first eight games.
But now he has four goals in his past 29 games. He’s averaging fewer shots per game (2.97) than he did over his career before this season (3.37). He’s averaging fewer faceoffs per game (20.86) than he did last season (23.58).
It’s enough to make you wonder if the wrist is an issue again, at least a little bit. But for the record, when asked Wednesday night if he was still happy he didn’t have wrist surgery, he said: “Oh, yeah.”
— Is he getting to the net enough?
Crosby, for all his skill, is a grinder. He buzzes around down low at his best, picking up garbage around the net.
Since he suffered a concussion in January 2011 – and since he suffered a broken jaw from a puck to the face in March 2013 – people have looked for signs of reluctance to go to the tough areas.
Crosby knows he needs to go there. He feels like he is going there.
“Shots are great, but if you get six shots from the perimeter all game, it’s not really helping yourself much, either,” he said. “Try to go to the tough areas. If there’s rebounds, you get them.”
He said the issue is that defenses collapse down low more often now, and there is less garbage for him to pick up.
New coach Mike Johnston has emphasized better puck possession, but he has also eliminated the stretch passes the Penguins used to utilize under Dan Bylsma.
Crosby has not had consistent linemates virtually all season as the Penguins have suffered through yet another rash of injuries. He has played with Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis and Patric Hornqvist and Steve Downie and Evgeni Malkin and …
The last two games, Crosby has played with David Perron, whom the Penguins just acquired from the Edmonton Oilers, and Bryan Rust, whom the Penguins recalled from the minors to make his NHL debut in December.
“I’m looking forward to keep building chemistry with him,” Perron said. “It’s only the start.”
Crosby is a pass-first player by nature. He had to work to become a better shooter. Is he finding his teammates, but are they not finding him, at least to some extent?
— What about the power play?
The Penguins rank sixth on the power play at 21.5 percent, but that’s because they were dominant early in the season. They scored 21 power-play goals in their first 13 games; Crosby had three of them. They have scored seven power-play goals in 27 games since; Crosby has one of them. He has gone 20 games without a power-play goal. He has one in his past 34.
It’s a chicken-or-the-egg situation. If Crosby scored more, the power play would be better. If the power play were better, Crosby would score more.
Again, consistency and chemistry have been issues because of injuries. But the Penguins are starting to get healthy again, and they have added Perron. They can put out a first unit of Crosby, Malkin, Kunitz, Perron and Kris Letang. They generated chances Wednesday night in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Boston Bruins that dropped them to 2-4-2 in their last eight games. They just couldn’t cash in.
“Not to put it all on Sid that he has the responsibility to score,” Johnston said, “but our power play has to respond.”
— What about bad luck?
Crosby’s shooting percentage is 10.0, the lowest of his career within a season and well below his career average of 14.5.
You can talk about the wrist, or the net front, or changes, or the power play, or some combination. If there is really less garbage for him to pick up around the net, that means there are fewer high-percentage shots. That could lead to a lower shooting percentage.
But all of that said, Crosby feels he is still generating offense. The puck just isn’t going in. He said he wouldn’t change much. If he sticks with it, eventually the goals will come.
“I think I’ve probably been guilty of not burying some chances,” he said. “Breakaways or good looks I have had, I just haven’t put it in. I think scoring-chance-wise, I feel like they’re there. I think you evaluate everything based on your chances, and of course you always want more, but I’ve had some good ones I can put in.”
“Sometimes there’s not a great explanation other than the simple one,” he said. “Just put it in the net when you get a chance.”
SECOND PERIOD: Perron gets energy boost from trade to Pittsburgh
Perron wasn’t going to crack the top line in Edmonton, where the Oilers have Taylor Hall on the left wing with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle. He wasn’t going to the playoffs, either.
Perron got a big boost when the Oilers traded him to the Penguins. At least to start, he’s on the top line with Crosby, and he’s on the top power-play unit, patrolling the left circle with a right-handed shot. Making the playoffs is expected in Pittsburgh. Winning in the playoffs is expected in Pittsburgh.
“I think it’ll take a couple of weeks to realize it more and more,” Perron said.
Perron scored in his debut Saturday night in a 4-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens, firing a shot from the left circle off a feed from Crosby. But he sounds like a lot of wingers do when they first join Crosby’s line. It takes some getting used to.
“I noticed a couple times when he drives on his off-wing, he pretends like he’s going to drive the net, and as he stickhandles, he kind of throws a [saucer pass] on his backhand,” Perron said. “It’s pretty nasty.”
Perron got caught off-guard in practice Tuesday. He wasn’t expecting the puck – and Crosby gave it to him. Because he wasn’t ready, he shot the puck just to shoot it, not to score.
“He’s the best player in the world, and he thinks the game in such a fast way,” Perron said. “He finds lanes that a lot of times either you’re not sure they’re available or you’re not even sure he’s going to try it, and when he tries it, he ends up making his play more often than not. For me, every time I’m out there in the (offensive) zone with him, I’m going to have to be ready and try to get myself open. … With him, you have to be ready to score.”
THIRD PERIOD: Notes from around the NHL
— Perron has nothing bad to say about former Oilers coach Dallas Eakins or Oilers general manager Craig MacTavish. He said the losing wasn’t Eakins’ fault entirely. “Of course the coach is normally the first guy to go, but it doesn’t mean he was the problem,” Perron said. “I think guys like to play for him. I still keep in touch with him every once in a while. I don’t know. We’ll see what MacT does over the next little while. It looks like they’re going to have another top draft pick and go from there.”
— Three players have now been fined $2,000 for diving: the Nashville Predators’ James Neal, theDetroit Red Wings’ Gustav Nyquist and the Florida Panthers’ Vincent Trocheck. The NHL is tracking diving and embellishment this season. Do it once, you get a warning. Do it twice, you get fined $2,000 and – more important – named publicly. Do it three times, you get fined $3,000. Four times, $4,000. Five times, $5,000 – and your head coach gets fined $2,000, too. From there, the player fine stays the same, and the head coach’s goes up.
— Goaltenders are being tracked, too. Let’s hope one gets called out soon, because the NHL needs to do a better job of policing goaltenders who embellish goalie interference. The Canadiens’ Carey Price is notorious for initiating contact to draw calls. The Bruins’ Tuukka Rask flopped backward dramatically Wednesday night after he was barely touched, leading to a disallowed goal.
— The question should not be: Can you win with Phil Kessel? You can win with Phil Kessel or a player like him. But it depends on your team. One example: The Dallas Stars and Detroit Red Wings won Stanley Cups with Brett Hull because they had strong rosters, strong structures and strong cultures. The Toronto Maple Leafs have nothing close to that. So the question should be: Can the Leafs build the roster to win with Kessel – and can they do it before he declines? Kessel’s conditioning hasn’t stopped him from scoring at an elite level yet, but you wonder if it will catch up to him.