Wayne Gretzky: Crosby ‘just took his play to another level’

NHL insider Chris Johnston discusses his time with 'The Great One,' Wayne Gretzky, who knows a thing or two about the superstar treatment that Sidney Crosby goes through.

SAN JOSE, Calif. – A long playoff run has put Sidney Crosby back under hockey’s biggest spotlight and reopened some discussion about his legacy and place in the sport.

But for Wayne Gretzky – arguably the greatest NHLer of all-time – there isn’t much to debate or discuss.

“I watch him play a lot because I admire the way he plays,” Gretzky told Sportsnet in an interview. “It’s not a big secret: I think he’s the best player in the game. He just sees the game the right way, he always has.

“He’s on a different level when he’s playing like he is right now.”

In Gretzky’s eyes, the Pittsburgh Penguins are two wins away from lifting the Stanley Cup because of their captain. He talks of how much comfort it must give coach Mike Sullivan to have an elite player who is as dialled in as Crosby has been these last few weeks.

That’s not a luxury even every good team can count on and it’s made a difference during this Penguins playoff push.

“What Sid has is a little bit of an extra gear as far as his passing ability, his playmaking ability, the ability to make players around him on his team that much better,” said Gretzky. “Guys like Bobby Orr did it and Mario (Lemieux) did it and obviously Crosby’s doing it. He’s just making his team better.”

The one place Gretzky won’t look to determine success is the goal column.

Crosby hasn’t scored during the first three games of this Stanley Cup Final against San Jose, but still enters Game 4 on Monday night as arguably the most impactful player during this series. He’s helped drive possession and fought through tough matchups to create a ton of scoring chances.

“Personally I don’t worry if a guy goes two or three games without a goal – it’s how he’s performing and how he’s playing to help his team be successful and he’s definitely done that,” said Gretzky. “He’s been, I think, terrific. (Chicago Blackhawks winger) Patrick Kane had one of those special years and he’s definitely deserving of all the accolades that he’s getting, but I also felt that the last 40 games (of the regular season) Crosby was again the best player in the NHL.

“He just took his play to another level.”

Since entering the league in 2005, Crosby is the top points-per-game player in both the regular season and playoffs. If he’s guilty of anything it’s arriving at a time when scoring has dried up.

He’s still found the scoresheet plenty this post-season with six goals and 17 points, but those numbers are well off what we once saw from star players when the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s were racking up Cup wins.

“You know, the days of a guy getting 15, 16 or 17 goals in the Stanley Cup playoffs – that’s tough to do now,” said Gretzky. “Eight, nine, 10 is sort of a big number these days.”

Despite putting together a spring worthy of Conn Smythe Trophy consideration, Crosby has also weathered some criticism. In particular, he took a few pointed shots from the Pittsburgh media after the team fell behind Tampa Bay 3-2 in the Eastern Conference Final.

It’s yet one more sign of the rarified air he occupies.

“It’s part of being the best player,” said Gretzky. “You’re going to get a lot of roses when things go well and you’re going to take criticism when things aren’t going so well. It happened to Guy Lafleur and it happened to Mario and it happened to Mike Bossy, that’s just the way the game is when you’re the centre of attention.”

As all of those players found out, a career passes quickly.

Crosby is nearing the end of his 11th NHL season and this is his third Stanley Cup Final. He never imagined that there would be a seven-year wait between trips after becoming the youngest captain to lift the trophy back in 2009.

That’s just how it goes. Gretzky won four championships in his first 10 seasons, and lost in his only other trip to the final during the last 11.

“We all have the same goal as kids – our dream is to make the NHL,” said Gretzky. “That’s always the dream of every young guy that puts on a pair of skates from the time they’re six years old. And then when you make the NHL your dream is to win a Stanley Cup, and when you win that Stanley Cup, you think: ‘OK, wow, this would be fun if we can do it four or five times.’ And then you realize really quickly how hard it is to win that Stanley Cup and that’s what makes it so special.

“I think for the Penguins to be back in the final after a few years of not being there, they know just how much it means to them and how important it is. I think for (Crosby) personally this one probably means as much or more than even the first one did.”

It stands as an important moment for this generation’s greatest player.

He’s learned to handle incredible expectations from the time he was a young boy and is pushing hard to make sure the Penguins don’t squander this opportunity.

“He came in to the NHL under the microscope and with a great deal of pressure on him, and he’s answered pretty much every question there is,” said Gretzky. “He’s made a franchise really strong, he’s won a Cup, he’s won two (Olympic) gold medals and it just seems like the bigger the game the better he plays and that’s always the sign of a true superstar.”

Takes one to know one.

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