Sports

Sidney Crosby's Brilliance Was the Hockey Story of 2016

The future Hall of Famer had one of the greatest calendar years of his career.
December 30, 2016, 8:32pm
Illustration by Ben Ruby/VICE

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.

Sidney Crosby is not only leading the NHL in points with 42, but he's just 10 goals off his total from last season with a league-high 26 (seven more than the next closest) through only 31 games.

Crosby's goal scoring isn't quite unprecedented, as he popped 51 in 2009-10, and 32 in 41 games in 2010-11, but having a career-scoring year at 29 years old is strange to say the least, especially with a shooting percentage of nearly double his career average.

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More than just this season, though, Crosby's calendar year for 2016 is flat out incredible. All those hot takes that were published early last season when he was struggling to score seem like they were written ages ago. The Penguins' captain has since gone on one of the greatest stretches of his Hall of Fame career.

READ MORE: Why Sidney Crosby Is This Generation's Wayne Gretzky

No player put up nearly as many points as Crosby did in 2016, a year in which he won a Stanley Cup, the Conn Smythe Trophy, World Cup gold with Canada, and World Cup MVP.

In the playoffs, Crosby was keyed on by opponents, but the Penguins' strategy of splitting up him, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel onto three separate lines at even strength created three scoring lines, and Crosby's work against the best checkers, scoring 19 points in 24 games, earned him the Conn Smythe.

Even in a hockey hotbed like Canada, there's one player who stands out among the best. Photo by Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

In the World Cup, he was the best player in the tournament from puck drop, leading his line with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand into nearly legendary status for Hockey Canada—they were that dominant. Crosby's ten points in six games paced Team Canada, and his dominant performances in the elimination round cemented his MVP honours.

It's at the point where in terms of hockey, Crosby didn't really have any comparables, so I thought, why not compare him to himself?

Looking at Crosby's calendar year by year instead of season by season gives us a different perspective, though I eliminated 2011 and 2012 here because he played just 30 games between those two years.

Chart by Andrew Berkshire. Photo by Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Using Corsica Hockey, we can see that at even strength, Crosby has had two years where his goal scoring at even strength was even higher than this season (2009 and 2010) and a third year in 2013 that was equivalent. Knowing what we do about aging curves for scoring, and looking at the overall point production, it's likely fair to say that Crosby's prime was between 2009 and 2013, which makes his 100-plus lost games over that period a true tragedy for the game.

The focus, however, should be that Crosby's even strength goal scoring and overall production isn't beyond his usual level of performance. He seems to have traded some playmaking to focus on scoring, and has seen a slight uptick in overall offence since Mike Sullivan was hired as head coach.

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Even strength play, though, doesn't really go far to explain Crosby's sudden 60-plus goal pace, so let's look at the powerplay.

Chart by Andrew Berkshire. Photo by Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Here is where the biggest difference has been for Crosby, who really hasn't been a great powerplay goal scorer throughout his career aside from his rookie season. He's been decent, for sure, but he's mostly preferred to set goals up on the powerplay.

This last year, though, Crosby has vastly changed his approach to the powerplay, shooting more often, passing less, and most importantly deflecting a ton of pucks near the net. His overall point production on the powerplay is once again not far off his career average, but his scoring is off the charts.

It's possible that his struggles to find the back of the net early last season led to a renewed focus on goal scoring, and when combined with Sullivan's vastly more aggressive offensive scheme, created the beast of goal scoring we're currently seeing.

Whatever the reason in Crosby's changing on powerplays, he's just seven goals short of his career high in powerplay goals of 16, with 45 games left in the season.

It's not the 1980s, so Crosby obviously won't go on to score on nearly a quarter of his shots on goal for the rest of the season. But the highest shooting percentage in a single season with 200-plus shots since the 2004-05 lockout was Brad Boyes at 20.8 percent in 2007-08, so theoretically Crosby could have an outlier year of that magnitude.

After a year of bringing home hardware, a third Hart Trophy could be in store for Crosby in 2017. Photo by Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

If he somehow manages to keep this scoring pace, it would be the highest-scoring season since Alex Ovechkin's 65 goals in 2007-08, in an NHL that has less scoring than it did then. Further, if he scores 7 more goals by game 39 (which would get him to 33 goals), it would be a bigger scoring streak, when adjusting for era, than Wayne Gretzky's absurd 50 tallies in 39 contests during the 1981-82 campaign.

When you consider that this season began with only question marks after Crosby, who has a very bad history with head injuries, started out on the sidelines with a concussion, what he's doing right now is truly spectacular.

Crosby topped off his incredible 2016 year with one of the greatest starts to a season in his career. As No. 87 has shown us with what might turn out to be a season for the ages, the discussion of best player on the planet continues to begin with him.

All due respect to the red-hot Blue Jackets, but Crosby's dominance is the story of this young season so far.