Much like the man who drafted him, Sidney Crosby saved hockey in Pittsburgh. Now, just like Mario Lemieux, Crosby is likely to spend his entire National Hockey League career with the Penguins.
Crosby, the most recognizable player in the NHL, signed a 12-year, $104 million extension with the Penguins on Sunday, July 1 — the very first day he could do so. The contract locks up Crosby through his age-36 season.
As reasonable as the deal appears for a player of Crosby’s stature — his average annual salary over the life of this deal will be the second-highest in the NHL behind Washington’s Alex Ovechkin — it comes with some risk for the Penguins. Crosby has been limited to just 63 games the last two seasons because of concussions, and the deal is reportedly not insured in the event Crosby’s career ends due to a concussion.
However, the Penguins basically had no choice but to re-sign Crosby, who has lived up to the considerable hype throughout his career. Lemieux, the one-time Penguins superstar who bought the team out of bankruptcy court in 1999, put the Penguins up for sale in 2006 — Crosby’s rookie season — when he became frustrated by efforts to build the team a new arena. In March 2007, with Crosby on his way to leading the NHL in points (120) and the Penguins on the verge of returning to the playoffs for the first time since the 2000-2001 season, the Penguins and Pittsburgh reached agreement on a deal to build Consol Energy Center.
The Penguins reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 2008 and won it all in 2009 — their first title since 1992. In 2010, Crosby solidified his status as a Canadian icon by scoring the winning goal in overtime for Team Canada in the Winter Olympics gold medal game against the United States.
Crosby’s meteoric ascent came to a screeching halt in January 2011, when he suffered concussions in consecutive games. After effects have forced him to miss 100 of the Penguins’ last 122 regular season games, and with Crosby limited, the Penguins have been knocked out of the playoffs in the first round in each of the last two years.
Despite missing the final 41 games of the 2010-11 season, Crosby still led the Penguins in scoring. Last year, he racked up 37 points in just 22 games. USA Today reported that Crosby is averaging 1.63 points a game in his last 63 games — a better clip than the one produced last season by teammate Evgeni Malkin, who averaged 1.45 points per game in winning the NHL’s MVP award last season.
Most importantly, the Penguins have filled Consol Energy Center and its predecessor, Pittsburgh Civic Arena, to at least 99 percent of capacity in each of the last five seasons.
Now, with Crosby in the fold well into his 30s, the Penguins must hope the parallels between Crosby and Lemieux don’t continue to include careers marred by injury and illness. Lemieux, who arrived in Pittsburgh as the no. 1 pick in 1984 and directed the Penguins — who got as far as the NHL semifinals just once in 17 seasons prior to Lemieux’s arrival — to their back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992. But Lemieux also missed more than 500 regular season games due to a bout with cancer as well as back and hip injuries and an irregular heartbeat.