With Sidney Crosby sporting a 10-point lead over Steven Stamkos in the Art Ross race and a 10-goal, 18-point gap between himself and Alexander Ovechkin, The Kid is pulling away from the pack this season and clearly showing himself to be the preeminent forward of his generation. That greatness becomes even more impressive when put into the context of this season and, if it continues, could rank this campaign as one of the best in NHL history.
To say the Pittsburgh Penguins are a top-heavy club is an understatement: Between Crosby ($8.7 million per season average), Evgeni Malkin ($8.7 million), Jordan Staal ($4 million) and Chris Kunitz ($3.725 million), the club has $25.125 million in cap space invested in four forwards -- or 23 percent of the forward corps taking up more 70 percent of their total forward budget. The club is therefore completely reliant on Crosby and Co. to carry the mail up front.
Top-heavy clubs are naturally susceptible to injury risk, given their structure, and this season the Penguins have been without Staal (successive foot and hand injuries) and Malkin (missed four games at the start of December with an undisclosed "lower body injury"), leaving Crosby, Kunitz and a collection of bargain basement pluggers to propel Pittsburgh to the top of the Eastern Conference.
The absence of Staal in particular has caused coach Dan Bylsma to deploy Crosby primarily as a defensive option through the first 34 games of the season. The Penguins captain has spent most nights matched against the opposition's best players at even strength, with the difficulty of his assignment reflected in his ratio of offensive zone faceoffs to defensive zone faceoffs (or zone start), which currently sits at 46 percent. More often than not this season, Crosby is starting his shifts inside his zone.
To put that number in context, Malkin's zone start is 54.7 percent, while Ovechkin has started in the offensive zone 52.0 percent of the time this season. Henrik Sedin, last season's Hart trophy winner, has been privileged with a 70.6 percent zone start so far. In fact, a zone start ratio below 50 percent is unique for Crosby in his career -- in the past three seasons, his offensive to defensive faceoff ratios have been 56.7 percent, 56.8 percent and 50 percent respectively.
Of course, not only is Crosby leading the league in goals (26), points (54) and consecutive games with a point (21) while facing the opposition's best players and starting in his zone more frequently, he's doing so while skating with Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis at five-on-five. Over 45 percent of Crosby's even-strength ice time has been spent with Kunitz and Dupuis, who are capable enough NHLers but hardly game-breaking offensive talents. In contrast, Ovechkin has spent more than 70 percent of his ice time skating with Nicklas Backstrom, a 101-point player last season, while players like Stamkos, Daniel Sedin, Pavel Datsyuk and Corey Perry enjoy the company of Martin St. Louis, Sedin, Henrik Zetterberg and Ryan Getzlaf, respectively. Most of the NHL's highest-scoring forwards are complemented by one more equally dangerous linemate. Meanwhile while Crosby has a mind-boggling 37 more points than Kunitz, his most frequent winger. In fact, no other Penguin has managed more than 30 points this season.
Crosby's scoring pace projects to 137 points over a full 82-game schedule. No player has crested the 130-point mark since the 2004-05 lockout. Joe Thornton's 125-point effort in 2005-06 comes the closest, though a crackdown on aggressive obstruction spiked penalties and power-play time, aiding Thornton's career-high point total that season.
Crosby's (on-going) 21-game point-streak is also closing in on a "new NHL" best, with only Dany Heatley's 22-game streak from 2005-06 standing in the way. The last players to put together superior streaks were Mats Sundin in 1992-93 (46 points in 30 straight games) and Mario Lemieux in 1989-90 (103 points in 46 straight games). Of course, Wayne Gretzky remains the league record holder with his 51-game streak that helped him garner 153 points in 1983-84.
Keep in mind, however, that Lemieux and Gretzky were operating at a time when scoring was significantly higher. For example, in Gretzky's peak season of 1985-86 (215 points in 80 games), the NHL averaged about 7.94 goals per game (or 3.97 per team per game). For Lemieux's 199-point effort in just 76 games in 1988-89, scoring was around 7.48 goals per game (3.74 per team). In contrast, this season the NHL is at just 5.53 goals per game (2.76 per team).
We can therefore compare each player if we normalize their points-per-game scoring rate against a "constant" of three goals per team per game. Gretzky's adjusted 1985-86 total is 166 points over 82 games. Lemieux's best year adjusts to 172 points over a full modern schedule. Crosby's current point-per-game pace (1.67) adjusts to about 1.77, projecting to a 149-point total. Of the two, Crosby's situation is probably more similar to Lemieux in 1989, given that season's Penguins team was rather thin after Lemieux and Paul Coffey. The 1985-86 Oilers were a juggernaut in comparison, boasting Gretzky, Coffey, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson and Mark Messier.
There are reasons to believe Crosby will eventually fall off his current pace, though. His shooting percentage is a career-high 20.6 percent -- well above his normal rate of approximately 15.0 percent. The Penguins' combined on-ice shooting percentage (12.35 percent) and save percentage (9.12 percent) with Crosby on the ice (103.5) is above the league mean (100) and also bound to regress over time. However, it's also possible that Crosby's circumstances will improve as the season progresses, primarily when Staal returns from injury and starts shouldering the defensive responsibilities up front. Bylsma may also choose to play Malkin on Crosby's wing with the return of Staal, which will also improve Crosby's chances to sustain his lead for the scoring title.
Even if Crosby falls short of setting scoring standards in terms of streaks or totals, the context of his ice time and the superiority of his results, combined with the difficulty of his assignment suggest he has taken another step on the path to becoming the undisputed best forward of the modern era.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .