Mark Madden: Penguins’ Sidney Crosby, hockey’s best 3rd-line center |

Mark Madden: Penguins’ Sidney Crosby, hockey’s best 3rd-line center

Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) skates after the puck during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the New Jersey Devils, Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018, in Newark, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Conor Sheary beat the Predators' Scott Hartnell in the third period Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Dominik Simon fights to get past the Golden Knights' Pierre-Edouard Bellemare in the first period Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018 at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Sidney Crosby checks the Kings' Alec Martinez off the puck in the third period Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2018 at PPG Paints Arena.
Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson, right, controls the puck against Blackhawks right wing Tommy Wingels during the first period Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018, in Chicago.

The Penguins have the best third-line center in hockey.

It’s not newly acquired Derick Brassard. It’s Sidney Crosby.

In his effort to balance the Penguins’ offense by dividing Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel among three lines, coach Mike Sullivan has, in effect, made Crosby the team’s third-line center.

Crosby has spent way too much time skating with Conor Sheary and Dominik Simon lately.

Sheary has four goals in his last 40 games and none in his last 11. Simon has zero goals in his last 12 games.

If you compare the talent of the wings on each line, Crosby is centering the third line. Who would you least prefer to skate with: Sheary and Simon, Carl Hagelin and Patric Hornqvist, or Jake Guentzel and Phil Kessel?

Crosby also has skated with Bryan Rust lately. Rust has six goals in 14 games since returning from injury in late January and is a preferred Crosby linemate because of his speed.

Guentzel is another preferred Crosby linemate. The two have played well together in the past.

Guentzel has 20 goals on the season and five goals and four assists in his last nine games. But Guentzel has another gear, and Crosby could help him find it.

Crosby should skate between Guentzel and Rust. Malkin should stay with Hagelin and Hornqvist. Brassard should center Kessel and either Sheary or Zach Aston-Reese. Simon should be scratched or returned to the minors.

The Penguins need to take a good, hard look at Sheary and whether he merits a spot in the lineup. When Sheary doesn’t score, he doesn’t help. At 5-foot-8, 175 pounds, he’s not equipped to be a bottom six.

Crosby is the best player in the world and can be counted on to elevate linemates. But that burden only can be so heavy, and Crosby can be asked to carry it only so long.

Crosby’s production hasn’t fallen apart: He’s got three goals and nine assists in 12 games this month. Not explosive, but not terrible. Eight of Crosby’s 12 points have come at even strength.

But Crosby needs better to work with. Sullivan’s vision of balance can be realized just fine with Brassard, Kessel and whoever on the third line. It’s silly to give Brassard weaponry that’s superior to what Crosby gets.

If Crosby is unhappy about his linemates, I haven’t heard about it. Oh, wait, maybe I have.

Crosby long has gotten the short end of this particular stick. He only has had one linemate of comparable skill: Marian Hossa for 32 games in 2008.

Part of that is Crosby’s fault. He constantly lobbied to skate with third-line talent Pascal Dupuis because of Dupuis’ speed.

Talent isn’t everything. Chris Kunitz didn’t have pedigree. But Kunitz was a perfect fit for Crosby, as Kunitz’s production confirmed.

Odd things have happened. Then-GM Ray Shero traded for Jarome Iginla in 2013, the intent being to play him on Crosby’s line. That didn’t happen. Current GM Jim Rutherford traded for Phil Kessel in 2015, the intent being to play him on Crosby’s line. That didn’t happen, either.

All of that is OK. Crosby doesn’t need all-star linemates to excel.

But he needs better than Sheary and Simon.

Crosby also deserves the respect that goes with not having to settle for leftovers after the other centers get theirs.

Mark Madden hosts a sports talk show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.