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Respect growing for Sidney Crosby’s all-around game

Jonathan Bombulie
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Pittsburgh Penguins forward Sidney Crosby, front, controls the puck during the first period of an NHL hockey game against Los Angeles Kings Thursday, Jan 12, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

Jack Johnson cocked his head and squinted his eyes, pausing for a moment as if he had been asked a trick question.

Should his Pittsburgh Penguins teammate and longtime friend Sidney Crosby be considered for MVP honors this season as sports writers around the league begin to contemplate their Hart Trophy ballots?

“Well, he’s the best player in the league, so …” Johnson said, feeling no need to finish his sentence.

As Crosby prepares to play in the NHL All-Star Game for the fourth time in his career Saturday night, the sentence does need to be finished.

The 31-year-old Crosby won’t have to look too hard around SAP Center in San Jose to find younger players who could be considered the league’s best, depending on how the question is framed.

No one is faster or more dynamic than Edmonton’s two-time defending scoring champ, Connor McDavid. Tampa Bay star Nikita Kucherov is the best player on the league’s best team through the first half of the season. Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau and Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon and a handful of others are having magnificent years.

Why should Crosby still be considered their superior?

“When you look at his overall game, it’s the most complete game, I think, that any player possesses,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “He’s the best 200-foot player in the game.”

It doesn’t require a particularly rigorous analysis of the numbers to find a metric that supports Sullivan’s claim.

When Crosby has been on the ice in five-on-five situations this season, the Penguins have outscored their opponents 53-21.

Breaking that down a little further, Crosby has been on the ice for 4.57 goals for and 1.81 goals against per 60 minutes of ice time.

The 4.57 goals-for figure is the best in the league, better than Kucherov (4.38), better than 37-goal scorer Alex Ovechkin (3.91) and way better than McDavid (3.17).

The 1.81 goals-against number is the best among all players who have recorded at least 50 points this season, including Calgary’s Mark Giordano (1.88), the odds-on favorite to win the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman.

There are variables involving shooting percentage, goaltending and quality of teammates that stop the stat from being a be-all, end-all, but it is tangible evidence of what teammates and Penguins fans have thought for a while now. Taking both sides of the puck into consideration, it is fair to assert Crosby is the top all-around player in the game.

“He’s always been playing on both sides of the puck,” teammate Derick Brassard said. “Early on in his career, I think faceoffs were an issue, but now, he’s really, really strong. He’s solid everywhere.”

While Crosby’s offensive production has declined slightly since he hit his late 20s, his defensive acumen seems to be getting stronger.

The 1.81 goals-against figure is the best of his career. It’s well ahead of Boston’s Patrice Bergeron (2.93), Florida’s Aleksander Barkov (3.18) and Ottawa’s Mark Stone (2.63), the three leading vote-getters when the Professional Hockey Writers Association released its midseason Selke Award ballots this week.

Add in the fact that he has begun to kill penalties regularly, and Crosby is a legitimate contender to win the award given to the league’s top defensive forward.

“I don’t see why not,” Brassard said. “It’s always (Anze) Kopitar, Bergeron, those guys that are winning it, but he could get recognized for how well he’s playing away from the puck.”

What impresses his teammates most isn’t the minutia of goals-against numbers. It’s the fact that Crosby plays against the world’s top players every single night, and much more often than not, his line is the one doing the scoring.

“That’s just part of it when you’re playing with him,” linemate Jake Guentzel said. “You’re going to get their top players and their top ‘D’ pair. It’s a challenge, but I think it’s something he likes to live up to. Play that 200-foot game, and he can control the play.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.