Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Crosby/Kessel Conundrum

The big splash of the off season, in perhaps all of hockey, was the Pittsburgh Penguins acquiring Toronto Maple Leafs sniper Phil Kessel.  For a team that had seen their goals dry up in multiple play off losses, he seemed a savior.

When it was announced he would be paired with superstar Sidney Crosby, it seemed to be a revelation.  "Finally!  A winger for Sidney Crosby!  Someone of his caliber!"  Indeed, in Kessel Crosby would have the best winger he'd had since Marian Hossa at the end of the 2007-08 season.

But is this really a pairing made to last?

Through two games, Sidney Crosby had registered exactly zero shots on goal.  It took until 15:47 of the first period in the third game for Sidney Crosby to register his first shot on goal.  It was a move that made Penguins play-by-play man Paul Steigerwald say, in a slightly surprised manner, "He didn't pass."  For the first time in his career, Sidney Crosby has no points through the first three games.

Any Penguins fan knows this stat by now.  It's only three games in to the season, and over-reactions such as deeming the Penguins season over are generally justifiably scoffed out, though some should cause concern.

Another cause for concern, something that shouldn't be overlooked, is the new Sidney Crosby.  He is still one of the best players in the game, but injuries have taken some toll.  As has been written about before, he seemed hesitant to truly attack as he used to.

The once rabid Sidney Crosby was slowed by concussions and injuries.  Still fast, still aggressive, he's no longer hungry for the front of the net.  His shots per game have declined (though not a great amount) and his goals per season pace has dropped steadily.

Once scoring at a .52 goals per game clip, since concussions have taken their toll, he's down to .4 goals per game.  It may not seem like a lot, but over the course of a season it's the difference between a 42 goal season and a 32 goal season.

The league has clamped down on scoring, so perhaps a drop in goals per season shouldn't be a shock. Even the best players in the league have seen their scoring clips decrease.  Perhaps a shooting percentage comparison would be a better look at how he's changed?

Prior to his first concussion, in the 2011 Winter Classic, Sidney Crosby was sitting at an astonishing 15.5% in his shooting percentage.  What seemed an unsustainable pace for any human was his average over a five year period.

Four years since?  His shooting percentage has dropped to 12.1%.  For a player who is taking the same amount of shots per year (averaging 3.39 shots per game pre-injury compared to 3.29 shots per game post injury), the issue becomes shot placement.

In Sid's 50 goal campaign, the majority of his goals came from in front of the net:

From this Ryan Wilson article, his goal scoring heat chart from 2013-14 show a player still doing the most damage from in front of the net:

Now ask yourselves: How often have you seen Sidney Crosby streaking down the lane with an open shot on net, just to pass it off to a teammate with a lesser shot?  The Crosby of the past, while still known as a pass first kind of guy, would not have been afraid to take that shot.  Since his injuries, the shooting percentage has dropped on a heels of him passing up these shots and not going to the net with the hunger he previously had.  His ability, perhaps desire, to go to the dirty areas to take shots has decreased.  His target distance has increased.  His shooting percentage has suffered as a result.  So have the Penguins.

The problem with Phil Kessel on Sidney Crosby's line becomes that desire, or that lack of desire.  Sidney Crosby has transformed into a player who seems hesitant to take it to the net as constantly and consistency as the past.  Having a perimeter shooter, and such a talented one, such as Phil Kessel on his line can possibly make him see passing off as more and more of a better option.

Suddenly, Sidney Crosby isn't the best scorer on his line.  Suddenly, the better option may be to defer to his line mate.  Suddenly, the line can become all about Sidney Crosby passing and Phil Kessel shooting.  Suddenly, that line becomes singular in its approach.

There is a long season ahead to play out.  There are many games to go in this campaign.  There is time to see how things play out.  It is not a time to panic.  However, there is almost too much time to wonder.

Sidney Crosby will get shots on net.  Phil Kessel will score goals.  The two have shown chemistry and superstars don't go whole seasons without breaking out.  The question becomes how effective can they be?  A motivated, and fearless, Sidney Crosby as well as a typical Phil Kessel will put the league on notice.  A tepid Sidney Crosby reduces the line a dimension and makes it easier to shut down.

To really succeed, the Penguins need the Sidney Crosby of old.  And they need him now.

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