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

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).

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