Evgeni Malkin

Sidney Crosby Michael Jordan comparison The Last Dance
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How valid is a Sidney Crosby-Michael Jordan comparison?

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During this sports-starved pandemic, “The Last Dance” inspired a flood of Michael Jordan and Chicago Bulls-related takes. For those of us who cover other sports, it’s almost inevitable to make comparisons to Michael Jordan, and Sidney Crosby ranks as a fairly obvious choice.

Just because it’s inevitable, and will leave some people rolling their eyes, doesn’t mean it isn’t … well, a lot of fun.

But is the Crosby – Jordan comparison valid?

Current Penguins assistant coach Mark Recchi made the comparison on Sportsnet’s Hockey Central. When asked by David Amber, Recchi cites Crosby’s work ethic. He also states that while Crosby is competitive, he isn’t quite as confrontational as the apparently often-abrasive Jordan was:

Recchi estimates that new teammates take as much as a month to get used to the Penguins’ rigorous practices. Crosby’s competitiveness is a big part of that.

[More: Crosby’s preferred playoff format.]

The basics of Jordan – Crosby

When people compare stars across sports and eras, they often paint with a broad brush. Let’s zoom out before we zoom in, then.

In making a Crosby – Jordan comparison, scale is important:

  • Crosby’s hockey famous, while Jordan is and was a global icon. Also, if people aren’t saying a leader in a field is the “Michael Jordan of ____,” then they’d be using Wayne Gretzky’s name instead of Crosby. That’s not totally Sid’s fault, but it’s true.
  • Crosby piled up plenty of individual accolades, for sure. Jordan just piled up a lot more. (Crosby’s injuries surely had something to do with that.)
  • Both won multiple titles, including repeat championships. Sure, Jordan has more rings (six to three), but both paired individual dominance with team dominance.
  • They both experienced some handshake drama during their careers.
  • Each player created iconic moments, including winning Olympic gold.

“The Golden Goal” is Crosby’s answer to some of Jordan’s best buzzer-beaters:

As unfair as it’s always felt to Scottie Pippen and Evgeni Malkin, you could also say each “Batman” had their “Robin.”

Recchi stated that Crosby isn’t as “confrontational” as Jordan. That might be true, again, in a sense of scale. Even by the demanding standards star players often set, it seems like MJ was on another level.

Naturally, Crosby also hasn’t faced the off-ice drama that hounded the hyper-famous Jordan. (If Crosby made a midnight casino run, would we even find out?)

But there’s no doubt that Crosby can be a downright nasty competitor, yapping at opponents. During his earlier seasons, it made him especially polarizing to many hockey fans.

And, honestly, we only know so much about Crosby. Sure, it seems like he’s wholesome — consider the cheeky hotel room shenanigans from that HBO 24/7 series — but we aren’t witnessing hours of unaired footage of Crosby, behind the scenes.

You don’t need a documentary to see that Crosby is driven in many of the same ways Jordan was, though.

Sneaky strength

Stylistically, you can point to some key differences between Crosby and Jordan. For one thing, Crosby leans toward playmaking, while Jordan’s isolation shooting changed the NBA. (Don’t get me wrong, Crosby can shoot and Jordan most definitely could pass. I’m mainly talking about “first instincts.”)

When you drill down into what made/makes them great, one interesting thing is how they could exert their will.

In watching footage of Crosby and Jordan over the years, it’s striking how abundantly clear how hard they work. To be clear, each star produced some of the flashiest highlights we’ve seen in their sports. Yet, connoisseurs can dig into the details of their games to find even more to appreciate.

Some Jordan clips are secondhand exhausting. Crosby’s ability to possess the puck and overwhelm opponents can often be a delirious sight.

This wasn’t even the sequence I was initially searching for, yet …

Back in late April, P.K. Subban told Sportsnet’s Ron MacLean that strength is what separates Crosby. Subban would know, too, given his multiple playoff battles with Crosby.

Jordan possessed the strength to overpower opponents, particularly as his career went on. Part of that came down to adding 15 lbs. of muscle to combat the Pistons’ “Jordan Rules.” The other part boils down to doing whatever it took to win.

Crosby and Jordan evolve their games

Michael Jordan eventually needed to accept that he couldn’t always be “Air Jordan.” So, as he got bulkier and older, Jordan morphed into a dominant post player.

Much has been made about Crosby improving his face-off skills over the years, and it’s worth mentioning again. But that’s just a part of how Crosby’s found different ways to be dominant during his career.

Despite a predilection for passing, Crosby’s been willing to be more of a sniper at times, too.

Another testament to their will and skill was how proficient both Jordan and Crosby became defensively. It’s unclear if Crosby will ever reach Jordan’s defensive level. Doc Rivers called Jordan “the best superstar defender in the history” of the NBA, after all.

That said, momentum has been building for a Crosby Selke Trophy nod for some time, especially last season.

Final thoughts

Crosby isn’t famous like Jordan. Any GOAT arguments involving Crosby might feel a bit bold considering Gretzky’s impact.

And while Crosby faced mid-career turmoil with his concussion issues, he didn’t face the drama, personal tragedy, and bizarre sojourns that Jordan experienced. In other words, don’t expect Crosby to chase Major League Baseball dreams anytime soon.

… Although:

Personally, I think it’s a fun exercise to explore similarities and differences. How do you feel about the Crosby – Jordan comparison? Is there a better NHL parallel for MJ?

More: PHT picks what could be a hockey documentary version of “The Last Dance.”

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Sidney Crosby donates 100,000 meals to Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank

Sidney Crosby donates Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank
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Sidney Crosby donated 100,000 meals to the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank on Monday, representing one of the best contributions from the hockey community during the COVID-19 crisis. That donation equates to a contribution of a whopping 120,000 lbs. of food.

“Sidney is such an incredible person both on and off the ice,” Food Bank president and CEO Lisa Scales said. “He’s provided great joy to this region during his tenure with the Penguins, and now he is helping us provide food assistance to those who need it most during the COVID-19 crisis.”

For more information about the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank, including ways to donate, click here.

Crosby also ranked among CCM endorsers who helped donate masks, so he’s been busy lending a hand.

Crosby contribution part of several efforts by Penguins

Crosby making that food bank donation is great to see for several reasons, one being that it’s a different way to help. As we saw with David Ayres promoting the Kidney Foundation of Canada’s emergency fund, it’s important to remember that there can be ripple effects from the pandemic. Frontline workers absolutely need immediate help with masks and other forms of protection, but it’s crucial to provide help in other areas, too.

It’s heartening, then, to survey how other members of the Penguins organization have pitched in.

Take, for instance, Evgeni Malkin. In late April, Malkin made a donation to the Ronald McDonald House of Pittsburgh.

There have been donut donations, as the Penguins teamed with Dunkin’ Donuts. Penguins executive assistant Susan Carper personally made 350 masks for a nonprofit organization. The Penguins even helped distribute 1,000 personal pizzas from Fox’s Pizza Den.

Realizing the sheer volume of Crosby’s contribution — 120,000 lbs. — provides perspective on how much others can help. No, you’re not likely to be able to contribute thousands, but perhaps many people could chip in even a small amount, eventually creating another big amount?

Overall, it’s heartening stuff from the Penguins, Crosby, and others.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

What is the Penguins’ long-term outlook?

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

The Penguins’ core is mostly the same as it has been for the past 15 years, and it is the trio of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang.

They are all into their 30s at this point, and there will come a time in the not-too-distant future that they really start to slow down, but for now they remain the foundation of a Stanley Cup contending team.

Along with them there is a pretty strong supporting cast in place, and one that is probably a lot younger than you might realize. Even though they have made a habit of trading draft picks and prospects to strengthen their championship chases (as they should have) they have done a nice job replenishing the cupboard around their superstars. Especially over the past year.

Jake Guentzel (signed for five more years at $6 million per season) has become a star and one of their best home-grown players in years, while John Marino, Marcus Pettersson, and Jared McCann have been strong additions from the outside.

Bryan Rust has shown what he is capable of in an expanded role and carries a very affordable salary cap hit for the next two years, while Jason Zucker seems like an outstanding fit in their top-six while also being signed for three more full seasons after this one.

Brian Dumoulin remains a perfect complement for Letang on the top defense pair (while also being signed for three more seasons) while they have two very good young goalies in Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry that are still under team control for the next few years.

Long-Term Needs

They have some long-term salary cap restrictions, but that has been a constant theme for them for the better part of the Crosby-Malkin era. It just comes with the territory of being a contending team with superstar players. They do have a couple of contracts that will probably get dumped one way or another before they expire (Jack Johnson, Nick Bjugstad, maybe even Brandon Tanev a couple of years down the line).

The salary cap crunch could also create a little headache this offseason as they work to re-sign some key restricted free agents like McCann, Murray, and Jarry.

The latter two also create an interesting situation because both have the potential and ability to be outstanding goalies in the NHL. They also have both showed it (Murray more than Jarry). But juggling that contract situation is going to be interesting, especially as they figure out what sort of financial commitment to make with Murray.

He is a two-time Stanley Cup winner. But he has had some ups and downs over the past two seasons. How much can they commit to him, and for how long?

While they have done a great job of having a steady pipeline of talent come through their system to complement the stars, there is going to come a point where they will need to develop another truly high-end player when Crosby and/or Malkin are no longer able to carry the team. That time is not yet here, but it will eventually arrive.

Long-Term Strengths

The bottom line is the Penguins still have a couple of Hall of Famers and All-Star level players on their roster. They are still players that can take over and dominate games. As long as they have that, they have the most important ingredient for contending.

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Jake Guentzel are the type of players you win championships with. The Penguins have won multiple championships with them and been one of the league’s most successful teams by every objective measure. There will come a time when the window really does close on this core and a rebuild is needed, but that time is not here just yet. It may not be here for a couple of more years.

For as much money as they have committed to their core, and for as tight as their salary cap situation may be, they do have some pretty significant long-term contracts that are team-and cap-friendly. The trio of Guentzel, Rust, and Dumoulin is an outstanding secondary group of stars, and together they account for less than $14 million against the cap for the next couple of years. Even Crosby and Malkin are making far less than they could be. Every little bit of savings counts and helps make the rest of the team that much stronger.

They also have Mike Sullivan behind the bench who has done some of his best work this season.

MORE Penguins:
 Looking at the 2019-20 Pittsburgh Penguins
Penguins biggest surprises and disappointments so far

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Biggest surprises and disappointments so far

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Pittsburgh Penguins. 

The emergence of John Marino

General manager Jim Rutherford faced some intense — and at times very justified — criticism for some of his roster moves before and during the 2018-19 season. He rebounded in a big way this past offseason. The signing of Brandon Tanev turned out better than expected, while they seemed to have parted ways with Phil Kessel at the exact right time. The most important move, though, was the acquisition of defenseman John Marino from the Edmonton Oilers this past summer for the bargain basement price of a conditional sixth-round draft pick.

The Penguins immediately liked Marino’s potential thanks to an outstanding training camp performance, but no one could have possibly anticipated the impact he has made.

Marino has helped completely transform the Penguins’ defense, adding mobility, puck skills, and shutdown defense to the team’s top-four. He has quickly become a significant part of their blue line and given his entry-level contract situation is going to be a steal against the salary cap in the short-term.

He should be considered part of their long-term core.

Justin Schultz‘s tough year

This was always going to be an important year for Schultz and the Penguins.

From a team perspective, they needed him to have a big year to help solidify their defense after he was limited to just 29 games a year ago.

When Schultz has been at his best in Pittsburgh he has been a productive player offensively and a major asset on the power play. He needed to be put into a specific role, but he has at times excelled at it.

He was also entering a contract year with something to prove. A big year for him would have made him a hot commodity on the free agent market this summer. But it did not really work out that way.

Schultz not only missed more time due to injury, but he struggled at times when he was in the lineup at both ends of the ice. He has never been a shutdown player defensively, but his ability to produce offensively was always a positive. But this season even that aspect of his game disappeared for him. It has ended up being his most disappointing season in Pittsburgh and it could not have come at a worse time for him given his contract situation.

Tristan Jarry pushes Matt Murray

The Penguins have always had high hopes for Tristan Jarry and given his draft position (first goalie taken in his draft class) he has always come with a lot of pedigree. The potential has always been there. Still, he was facing an uphill battle when it came to making the opening roster this season with Matt Murray (a two-time Stanley Cup winner) and Casey DeSmith (who had just signed a long-term contract extension) in place.

Because Jarry counted less against the salary cap, he ended up starting the season as the backup to Murray and used that opportunity to start playing his way into the starting position.

Or at least challenging for it.

Jarry has been the Penguins’ most productive goalie this season (.921 save percentage to Murray’s .899), started to get the bulk of the starts in the middle of the season, and played his way into the 2020 NHL All-Star Game.

Both goalies are restricted free agents after this season and it is going to be fascinating to watch how this situation plays out.

The non-stop injuries

It is not just that the Penguins have had to deal with a ton of injuries this season that has been a disappointment for them. It is the fact that it has been their top players.

Just a quick run down on which players have missed games this season.

That is a lot. Through it all, the Penguins have remained in contention for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division, or at the very least, home-ice advantage in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs all season.

Bryan Rust has a breakout season offensively

Since becoming a regular in the lineup during the 2015-16 season Rust has been an outstanding “glue” guy in the Penguins’ lineup. He can play all over the lineup and contribute in any role. He is not out of place on the first line, he can handle himself defensively, he is an outstanding penalty killer, and he just does everything well.

This season his game has gone to an even higher level thanks to a breakout performance offensively, recording 56 points (27 goals, 29 assists) in 55 games. He has set career highs in every meaningful offensive category.

The biggest part of that emergence has just been the simple fact he has been able to take on a bigger role with more ice-time, and especially on the power play, allowing his offense to shine.

MORE PENGUINS:
• Looking at the 2019-20 Pittsburgh Penguins
Examining the Penguins long-term outlook

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Alternate NHL history: If the Penguins won the Ovechkin lottery

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With 2019-20 NHL season on pause we are going to take an occasional look back at some of the alternate timelines that could have existed throughout the history of the league. Here, we contemplate what would have happened had the Pittsburgh Penguins, and not the Washington Capitals, had won the 2004 NHL draft lottery for Alex Ovechkin.

Even before the arrivals of Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals had developed a fierce rivalry throughout the 1990s.

They were old Patrick Division foes. They met in the playoffs seven times between 1991 and 2000 and had some absolutely epic games, including the Petr Nedved four overtime playoff game, the night Jaromir Jagr received a 10-game suspension for making contact with a referee, and the night two coaches nearly climbed over the glass to fight each other, and a bizarre postseason scheduling conflict that infuriated former Capitals coach Ron Wilson.

The two teams were also surprise trade partners in the summer of 2001 when the Penguins sent Jaromir Jagr to Washington for Kris Beech, Michal Sivek, and Ross Lupaschuk.

In short: The two franchise already had a bitter history with each other.

During the 2003-04 season they were involved in a different kind of race. The race to the bottom of the league. The results would forever change the course of the NHL.

Following the trade of Jagr, the Penguins had completely stalled as a franchise and were a couple of years deep into a massive rebuild.

The Capitals, meanwhile, were off to a terribly disappointing start, were unable to get the best out of Jagr, and were preparing to start their own rebuild that would get kicked off with the in-season trade of Jagr to the New York Rangers and several over high profile moves.

Both teams were now in desperate need of a franchise-changing player.

That player was going to be Alex Ovechkin.

Everyone knew Ovechkin was going to be the top pick in the draft, and even though Evgeni Malkin (the eventual No. 2 overall pick) had started to become a favorite of scouts and hockey people there was still a gap between the two players, and it was a slam dunk that Ovechkin was going to be the player. He was so sought after that the Florida Panthers tried — on more than one occasion — to draft him in the 2003 class by arguing that when leap years were taken into account he would have been eligible for that draft (he missed the cut-off for the 2003 draft by four days).

The 2003-04 season ended with the Penguins finishing with the league’s worst record with 58 points, one point back of the Chicago Blackhawks and Capitals. That gave the Penguins the best odds (25 percent) of winning the 2004 draft lottery, while also guaranteeing they would pick no lower than second, meaning they were going to get one of Ovechkin or Malkin. The Blackhawks had the second-best lottery odds (they had fewer wins than Washington), with the Capitals entering the lottery with the third-best odds.

When it came time to draw the ping pong balls to determine the top pick, it ended up being the Capitals that won it, moving from third to first, pushing Pittsburgh to second and Chicago down to third.

The Capitals selected Ovechkin, the Penguins ended up getting one of the best draft consolation prizes ever in Malkin, and the Blackhawks selected … Cam Barker. Ovechkin and Malkin have gone to have Hall of Fame careers and collect a truckload of team and individual honors, while Barker just 200 mostly forgettable games in Chicago.

There are a lot of significant “what ifs” at play here.

Among them…

The 2005 Draft

Those results would have a significant impact on the next draft that would also be headlined by another Hall of Fame talent — Sidney Crosby.

With the 2004-05 regular season wiped out by a lockout, the league needed a way to handle the 2005 lottery and draft with no games producing results.

The solution was a weighted lottery that involved all 30 teams.

The odds were weighted by playoff appearances in the previous three seasons and first overall picks in the previous four drafts. Teams that had no playoff appearances and no first overall picks in those time frames were awarded three lottery balls. Those teams were the Penguins, Buffalo Sabres, Columbus Blue Jackets, and New York Rangers.  The Penguins *did* have a No. 1 pick during that time-frame, but it was via trade … not a draft lottery win.

Teams that had only one playoff appearance or one top pick were given two lottery balls.

Every other team was given one lottery ball.

This matters because if the Penguins had won the Ovechkin lottery they would have only had two lottery balls in the 2005 class and a lesser chance of selecting Crosby. It is not a guarantee that they wouldn’t have won, but they would have a lesser chance.

The long-term direction of the Penguins, Capitals, and Blackhawks

All of these teams ended up going on greatness over the decade-and-a-half that followed, combining to win seven of the 14 Stanley Cups between 2005 and 2019, while also combining for four Presidents’ Trophies and only a handful of non-playoff seasons. They have been the elite of the elite in the NHL.

But had the 2004 draft lottery gone in a different direction there is no telling where all of these teams end up.

If the Penguins had won the the 2004 draft lottery and selected Ovechkin, that means the Blackhawks would have had the No. 2 overall pick and been able to select Malkin, while the Capitals would have picked third and ended up with neither.

Maybe they do not select Barker in that spot like Chicago did, but the rest of the top-10 was Andrew Ladd, Blake Wheeler, Al Montoya, Rostislav Olesz, Alexandre Picard, Ladislav Smid, and Boris Valabik. Other than Wheeler, there is not a top-line or top-pairing player in that group.

It would have given the Capitals a second lottery ball in the Crosby lottery, but that is still no guarantee of getting him. It would have been entirely possible — if not likely — that they would have ended up with none of Crosby, Ovechkin, or Malkin.

Given Ovechkin’s importance to the franchise and hockey in the nation’s capital, it could have been crushing. Would they have remained bad enough to get a top pick in a future year (like a Patrick Kane or Steven Stamkos)? Or would they have settled into long-term mediocrity?

The Blackhawks would have also gone down an entirely different path. Instead of having Barker, they would have a true franchise player and an immediate jumpstart to their rebuild. Malkin would have been an absolute game-changer from the very start and rapidly improved their short-term outlook. But that, also, could have had a long-lasting impact. Would they have been in a position to win the 2007 draft lottery and select Kane No. 1 overall? Would they have been in a position to get Jonathan Toews in 2006?

The Penguins would have almost certainly been able to build a contender around Ovechkin, but the strong likelihood of not having Crosby makes it difficult to believe they would have put three more Stanley Cup banners in the rafters.

Then there is the matter of where Crosby would have potentially ended up. New York, Columbus, and Buffalo would have been the only teams with three lottery balls in the 2005 class, all of which would have been desperate for a talent like him. Would he have turned around the Blue Jackets or Sabres? Would an extra lottery ball in the 2005 draft produced a better result for the Capitals and sent Crosby there? The possibilities are endless.

In the end the Capitals began the 2003-04 season coming off of a 92-point, playoff season the year before and were expected to be back in the postseason. But their season going in the tank and some lottery balls bouncing their way ended up having a profound impact on them, the Penguins, the Blackhawks, and the entire NHL as a whole.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.