Wayne Gretzky: Sidney Crosby is 'the best player in the game'

TORONTO -- It was only 10 months ago when people were openly questioning Sidney Crosby's status as the best player in the NHL.

A slow start to last season opened the door for a narrative that now seems so ridiculous -- that at 28 years old, perhaps the Pittsburgh Penguins superstar had begun his descent from owning the sport.

Hockey's a young man's game, the refrain went, and perhaps he has passed his peak.

Or perhaps not.

"I think people can put that all to rest," Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky said with a hearty laugh Sunday morning. "He's proven over and over that he's the best player in the game today. And it seems like the more important the game, the more impact that he makes on a game. He's a tremendous player, and great leaders are the guys who come through in the clutch -- and he comes through in the clutch quite a bit."

Fresh off owning the Stanley Cup playoffs and picking up the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, Crosby -- who turned 29 last month -- went to work Saturday night in Canada's World Cup opener and absolutely willed the Czech Republic into submission with a three-point, plus-4 performance that was as impactful at both ends of the ice.

"He's an unbelievable player. He's a world-class player for a reason,'' said Team Canada netminder Carey Price after the 6-0 crush job of the Czechs. "He plays the game hard. He plays the game with a lot of pride. That's the type of player that if you're a young kid watching how to play hockey, that's the way you do it. That's all I have to say about that."

Everyone will remember his play leading to three goals on this night, including his beauty of a bank shot to open the scoring. But for me, his first-period back check -- in which Crosby thwarted a Czech breakaway -- was just as memorable.

"That back check he had. ... For me, that was his best play of the night, which is pretty crazy because he made so many great plays," Team Canada forward Matt Duchene said Sunday. "He's not a guy who wins Selke Trophies, but he easily could be. I think that part of his game kind of goes under the radar.''

Just three months ago, Joe Thornton, Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic of the San Jose Sharks were slashing and cross-checking away on No. 87 in a Cup finals that went Crosby's way in six games.

On Saturday night, Crosby set up both Thornton and Burns for goals, and his backhand pass across to Jumbo Joe was absolutely sick.

"He was great. He was a leader," Burns said of Crosby after the game. "He's the best player in the world and he dominated tonight. That line was great, they were buzzing, they were working. Not just offensively, but defensively too. I mean, you have to do that to be the best in the world and that's why he is.''

Crosby's three-point output in the opener matched his entire production in six games during the Olympics in Sochi.

"Well, let's not get carried away. He was a star in Sochi. He was a star in Vancouver,'' said Team Canada head coach Mike Babcock after Saturday's win. "What you saw tonight, though, is that he got points. I mean, everyone likes to get points.''

Canada had a whole different approach on the bigger ice in Sochi, where it focused on a defensive philosophy that was meant to keep the puck away from its opponents and play a low-risk game. Crosby was just as effective doing that too, which is what Babcock is saying when referencing that a player can't just be judged on offensive contributions.

That two-way, monster game is also why Crosby deservedly won the Conn Smythe this past spring.

Because of that very short summer and the intense minutes he played on the way to winning his second Cup that one wondered perhaps if fatigue would be a factor for Crosby at the World Cup. Instead, it's as if he just kept his season going from June, and Saturday night was Game No. 25 of his postseason.

"I feel good,'' said Crosby. "The fact that I played late into June and then stepped into this level, I think that helps kind of with adjusting. I think finding chemistry with us as a line really has helped. But with our team we've got so much speed, so much depth, that if we get things rolling everyone kind of helps each other."

His line with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand has been a thing of beauty since the first day of camp. Babcock decided months ago, after the roster was completed, that he would put those three together.

That old storyline from back-to-back Olympics -- of Babcock struggling to find linemates for Crosby -- appears to be a thing of the past. The line has looked unreal.

"I think the chemistry clicked right away, the three of us from day one," said Bergeron. "I'm just trying to read off what he's going to do, and he's usually always a step ahead of everyone, so it's about reading that, and making sure I'm in position to help him.''

For Crosby, this is a chance to add one more title to a trophy cabinet busting out. There's still lots of hockey to be played, but a World Cup of Hockey championship would fit in nicely with his world junior gold, men's world championship gold, Olympic gold and Stanley Cup titles. The final check mark, if you will.

And about that slump last fall?

"Everybody has a bad stretch in your career where you go 10 or 15 or 20 games where, for whatever reason, you don't have that extra gear,'' Gretzky said. "But the good players battle through it and come out on top even better. He's played a lot of hockey over the past years, and that can add up mentally and physically. It can take a toll. But he's got a lot of hockey left ahead of him and he'll be fine.''