The Pittsburgh Penguins were basking in the glory of their first Stanley Cup since 2009 at about this point last year, but Kris Letang already sensed Sidney Crosby looking ahead to future feats. Crosby was eager to start training for the World Cup of Hockey, and also believed the Penguins had what it took to go back-to-back.
"The details, what he wants to accomplish, it’s pretty incredible," Letang, Crosby’s long-time Penguins teammate, said with admiration earlier this month.
Crosby just wrapped up a stunning and perhaps unprecedented two-year run — maybe the most dominant stretch in a career that’s long been bound for the Hall of Fame.
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said Crosby deserved mention among the all-time greats and was "arguably" the finest player in his generation, but that debate has long been over. No one really even comes close.
"You have a small window to play and to have a career and I feel fortunate, but I also understand how difficult it is, so you just want to try to make the best of it," Crosby said.
Beyond talent, making the best of it seems to lie in a competitive drive that’s left teammates, coaches and opponents in awe.
After his season ended in April because of neck surgery, Letang said he believed in the Penguins ability to overcome his absence primarily because of Crosby and his determination. Sullivan picked up on that same spirit when he replaced Mike Johnston behind the Pittsburgh bench last season.
"I don’t know that I’ve been around an athlete, not just a hockey player but an athlete, that is as driven as Sid is," said Sullivan, who played more than 700 NHL games before stepping into the coaching realm.
Crosby left no stone unturned when it came to eating right, training right and looking out for his teammates, Sullivan said.
He was among the few regulars to join an optional practice during the final, believing it was "beneficial" to get out on the ice and touch the puck. Never mind that his season started almost nine months earlier with a World Cup of Hockey pre-tournament game.
A Team Canada teammate and NHL rival, Jonathan Toews was amazed at Crosby’s level at that point last fall, how he seemed to pick right up from the Cup and Conn Smythe wins from three months earlier.
Another teammate, Logan Couture, said it was "fun" to watch Crosby up close and lauded his vision, play with and without the puck and ability to burst into open space.
"He really is the best player in the world," said Couture glowingly.
Penguins teammates said the same thing after Game 5 of the final against the Predators when Crosby — within the first 91 seconds — hit a post, drew a penalty and set up the first goal in a 6-0 win.
"He’s pretty inspirational when he plays that way and gets to a level that not many guys can get to," veteran Matt Cullen said.
Sullivan sits young players next to Crosby in the team’s home dressing room for exactly that reason. Out-of-nowhere rookie star Jake Guentzel currently occupies the stall directly to Crosby’s left.
Crosby’s long-time agent, Pat Brisson, believes this two-year run of dominance has origins in the spring of 2015 when the Penguins were dropped by the Rangers in the first round. Crosby so wanted to taste victory after the defeat that he quickly hopped on a plane to the Czech Republic and helped Canada capture gold at the world championships.
Brisson thinks Crosby’s personal hardships with concussions over the years also made him stronger — physically and mentally.
"He is in total control and it’s amazing to witness," Brisson said in an email.
Crosby finished these playoffs with 27 points in 24 games and now is tied for 10th all-time with 1.11 points per-game in the post-season (minimum 50 games). Only 18 players have more than his 164 career playoff points and only 19 have mustered more than his 107 assists — all of them in earlier eras when scoring was higher.
Crosby has averaged 1.31 points per-game in the regular season for his career, a mark that’s bettered only by Wayne Gretzky (1.92), Mario Lemieux (1.88), Mike Bossy (1.50) and Bobby Orr (1.39).
Teammate Evgeni Malkin is his closest statistical peer, but really the best current comparables for his dominance over the sport — with regard to personal and team success –are the NBA’s LeBron James and NFL’s Tom Brady.
His accomplishments since the start of last season include:
— Guiding the Penguins to the first back-to-back Cups of the salary cap era and first in 19 years
— Joining Lemieux and Bernie Parent as the only players to capture back-to-back Conn Smythe trophies
— Back-to-back Hart Trophy nominations
— World Cup of Hockey gold and tournament MVP
— Rocket Richard Trophy with 44 goals this past season
Even Gretzky never won back-to-back Conn Smythe Trophies as playoff MVP nor did he capture a Cup past the age of 27, while Crosby won his last two at 28 and 29.
Lemieux won the second of his two Cups at 26, helping Pittsburgh score repeat wins in 1991 and 1992. He was awarded Conn Smythe both times, but didn’t have Crosby’s regular season dominance to match with one of those two campaigns mostly missed with injury.
Crosby, Lemieux and Gretzky are among the six to win the Conn Smythe multiple times — joined by Parent, Orr, and Patrick Roy. Only Crosby and Gretzky, however, captained three Cup winners with two playoff MVPs.
"He’s just an example to follow," Letang said.