It started last December.
After a season and a half of looking decidedly human, Sidney Crosby woke up — or perhaps was shaken back to life by newly minted head coach Mike Sullivan — and proceeded to roll through the rest of the league with ease.
A league-leading 58 points over the back half of 2015-16. A Conn Smythe effort that pushed the Pittsburgh Penguins to the second Stanley Cup championship of their current core’s careers. A tournament-leading offensive performance at the World Cup of Hockey, culminating in a gold medal and a MVP nod.
After a five-year stretch of career-threatening injuries and relative mediocrity (punctuated by a 104-point, scoring title-nabbing effort of course — this is Crosby after all), the Penguins captain had finally regained his place atop the sport’s highest echelon.
Not even a preseason concussion — the be-all and end-all of horrors for the Penguins faithful – could halt his pace. And now, at 2016-17’s quarter mark, it’s clear Crosby is wading into entirely new territory.
Through 16 games, Crosby has already potted an absurd 15 goals, leading the league despite missing the season’s opening six contests.
The Cole Harbour native has proven in the past that he’s no slouch when it comes to putting pucks in the net. He does have one Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy on his resume, having led the NHL with 51 goals back in 2010. But the league hasn’t been treated to this version of Crosby since a Winter Classic concussion nearly cut short his career.
He’s undoubtedly in the midst of his finest stretch of sniping at the moment. Not simply because of his near goal-per-game pace, but because of how exactly he’s earned his impressive sum.
First, he’s scoring in a variety of different ways, showcasing the versatility that’s set him apart from the rest up to this point. The captain has earned four goals by way of tip-ins, one off a deflection, one off a backhand try, and nine off of straight shots (three from snap shots and six from wrist shots).
Watching the now-29-year-old each game, he’s become the same relentlessly advancing offensive force that he was early in his career — moving play forward with bullish attentiveness to detail and tilting the ice towards the opposing net regardless of the circumstance.
That’s shown up in his shooting tendencies, as Crosby is shooting far more than he has in recent years. In fact, his 3.69 shots per game rank as the second-highest pace of his career. The only mark above it — his 3.93 average posted in 2010-11, the year he suffered his most significant concussion, wherein he tallied 32 goals in just 41 games.
Crosby’s current pace sits just a hair above his average from his league-leading 51-goal effort back in 2009-10. And given his currently astounding consistency, he’s on pace to finish with 70 goals to his name this time around.
But let’s back up and look at what a more realistic expectation may be. There’s no denying that Crosby could very well rise to a new level and flirt with 70 goals this season — he’s certainly no stranger to putting up impressive sums, and it’s clear he could achieve that feat if he angled his skill-set more towards this one area and away from his more well-rounded approach.
However, there will always be slumps. There will always be injured linemates causing coaches to shuffle the deck. There will always be weeks when even the most dominant of stars are temporarily stifled.
So assuming Crosby’s season succumbs to these expected obstacles, where might he end up?
Given his current shots per game pace, he’s in line to finish the season with roughly 280 shots. If his shooting percentage holds (it’s currently a bit inflated at 25.4 percent) then he’ll land in that 70-goal range.
If it drops down to a more realistic level — perhaps somewhere between the 17.1 percent from his Rocket Richard Trophy season and the 19.9 percent from his concussion year — he’ll still earn the second 50-goal season of his career, perhaps halting Alex Ovechkin’s run of four straight Rocket Richard trophies.
Of course that assumes Crosby is subject to the same binding conditions that seem to often govern NHL players’ statistical fluctuations. That we can assume a certain level of performance based on his prior numbers.
It isn’t that simple in this case.
Scoring 102 points out of the gate as a teenager proved him to be of a different breed. He surprised all again when he reached the 50-goal plateau and shed the set-up man image. Coming out of his concussion years, he surprised once more with a return to the 100-point club and another scoring title win.
And again, as recently as these past playoffs, when he’d endured months of blatant doubt, Crosby again flipped the script by returning to dominant form almost instantly.
If nothing goes horribly wrong, Crosby will top 50 goals once again with ease. That seems like a given for all who watched him progressively ramp up his play for the past year.
But this could be the makings of something even more impressive. He’s churning along at an undeniably impressive clip, but there’s also the matter of the resources he has at his disposal.
A system that emphasizes his ability to showcase his skill at top speed. Exceptional linemates in Conor Sheary and Patric Hornqvist, who bring a much-needed blend of offensive creativity and brute force at the net-front. And, of course, a potent powerplay unit that features elite scorers like Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Kris Letang.
Through the first quarter of 2016-17, Crosby has been a different animal. He’s been building back up to this point since the day Dave Steckel threw his career into disarray with a blindsite hit in front of 68,000 fans at Heinz Field. And it’s been a long, long process.
Maybe he’ll cool off and this will finish as just another pedestrian, trophy-laden season for Crosby. But as of right now, he’s shown little to suggest he won’t be going for far more. And unless someone figures out how to slow him down — it hasn’t happened since Sullivan took over Pittsburgh’s bench — then another historic showing from the NHL’s leading man may be on the horizon.