Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Crosby's Unreal Season

This seems like the ideal time to breach this subject on this blog...Sidney Crosby's 2010-2011 season. At the halfway point of the season, he is having not only one of the finest seasons in recent memory, but in NHL history as well. To be honest, I really didn't think of it in these terms until recently when I came across a great article on ESPN Insider. Occasionally, ESPN will have great articles written by Hockey Prospectus. On Dec. 22nd, Kent Wilson wrote a gem about the season Sid is having.
To give you some background, hockey prospectus articles create a great union of sensible, logical writing with the emerging knowledge of sabermetrics. In many of barroom debates, I have argued for Lemieux as the finest player of his age. Many times, people would simply quip that Gretzky's mind-boggling statistical campaigns are far-and-away the best and I am an idiot for even arguing anyone other than him in the G.O.A.T. But in my mind, comparing seasons or statistics from decade-to-decade is arbitrary. Finally, one day hockey prospectus verified what I've always felt; Mario was comparable statistically. I would argue also, as a blatant homer, that he was superior because of the talent he had to work with and the lack of breaks he got as a Francophone. How did they determine this? By considering the scoring on a league-wide level from year to year. In other words, according to Wilson:
"Keep in mind, however, that Lemieux and Gretzky were operating at a time when scoring was significantly higher. For example, in Gretzky's peak season of 1985-86 (215 points in 80 games), the NHL averaged about 7.94 goals per game (or 3.97 per team per game). For Lemieux's 199-point effort in just 76 games in 1988-89, scoring was around 7.48 goals per game (3.74 per team). In contrast, this season the NHL is at just 5.53 goals per game (2.76 per team)."

This last sentence sets the stage for Crosby to enter stage right. Using these adjusted metrics, Gretzky's best season (85-86) adjusts to 166 points, Lemieux's best season (88-89) adjusts to 172 points. At his current pace, Crosby is on pace for 149 points, based on these same metrics. At this point, you may be where I was when I read this the first time..."cool, what a great season he is on pace for!"
Still, there is more to consider here, as Wilson aptly points out.
"The absence of Staal in particular has caused coach Dan Bylsma to deploy Crosby primarily as a defensive option through the first 34 games of the season. The Penguins captain has spent most nights matched against the opposition's best players at even strength, with the difficulty of his assignment reflected in his ratio of offensive zone faceoffs to defensive zone faceoffs (or zone start), which currently sits at 46 percent. More often than not this season, Crosby is starting his shifts inside his zone. To put that number in context, Malkin's zone start is 54.7 percent, while Ovechkin has started in the offensive zone 52.0 percent of the time this season. Henrik Sedin, last season's Hart trophy winner, has been privileged with a 70.6 percent zone start so far."

The article continues by expressing how Crosby's season measures up to any in history, simply based on the fact he has fringe top-six forwards flanking him for most of his shifts. This is hardly earth shattering to Pens fans. Wilson also makes fine points about how Sid is currently defying norms, and that may change (as we've seen this week so far). However...he leaves us with some optimism.

"There are reasons to believe Crosby will eventually fall off his current pace, though. His shooting percentage is a career-high 20.6 percent -- well above his normal rate of approximately 15.0 percent. The Penguins' combined on-ice shooting percentage (12.35 percent) and save percentage (9.12 percent) with Crosby on the ice (103.5) is above the league mean (100) and also bound to regress over time. However, it's also possible that Crosby's circumstances will improve as the season progresses, primarily when Staal returns from injury and starts shouldering the defensive responsibilities up front. Bylsma may also choose to play Malkin on Crosby's wing with the return of Staal, which will also improve Crosby's chances to sustain his lead for the scoring title."

Of course, anyone who is not an unabashed Crosby hater is hoping to see Sid get an honest shot at a career season. Based on his career to this point, the biggest threats seem to be injuries/health and being schemed against by opposing coaches (somehow I guess?). We're halfway there, can he do it? I am going to sit back and enjoy. You know why? Its probably not going to get better...Soak that in; Sid's prime in his early 20's? At first glance it does not seem to make sense. However, consider the abbreviation of some good work from John Buccigross on a few years back (2-24-2009):

As we have mentioned before, hockey is a young man's game. Wayne Gretzky scored 92 goals when he was 21. He was 23 when he had his most astounding season -- 87-118-205 in 74 games. Had he played all 80 games that season, we can assume a line of 93-130-223...Mario Lemieux had his 85-114-199 season at age 23....Bobby Orr's peak years were from ages 22 to 27...His career high in assists came when he was 23...Maurice Richard had his 50 goals in 50 games campaign when he was 23, during the 1944-45 season. Steve Yzerman's best season was 1988-89, when he had a line of 65-90-165. He was 23. So, as you can see, age 23 was arguably Gretzky's best statistical year, Lemieux's most prolific season, Orr's best assist year, The Rocket's iconic season and Stevie Y's best season.
Ovechkin is 23, so we can assume his peak came last season or will come this season or next (whoa, Nostradamus alert!)
So far, Crosby's best season came when he was 19. His points per game have decreased each of the past two seasons, although he was injured last season and the Penguins have been a bit of a mess in 2008-09. He also is shooting less. His shots per game have decreased from 3.43 in his rookie season to 3.00 this season. He is 21, so his monster season could be coming (I'd say its here...). If he shoots more (!!!!) and gets good linemates, I imagine his peak in the next couple of years could read 45-101-146, although 38-94-132 might be more realistic given the parity, the continued evolution of better skaters and a net size that hasn't changed.

So whats the big point here? Should we go nuts and keep on "Crosby Watch". NO...we need to appreciate the moment. As Buccigross continued (in reference to Crosby, Malkin, and Ovechkin - again keep in mind this is 2 yrs ago):

Appreciate these three now while you can. You are seeing just about the best they have to offer, and it will be gone before you know it. With their physical style of play and the quickening of the NHL's pace, I also worry that their peaks could be shorter, more along the lines of an NFL player's.

Agreed. Lets keep hoping Sid stays healthy and his linemates can help him keep this great season going. Will he top this season? Maybe, but I wouldn't bank on it.

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