What to expect from Crosby in his third NHL season

For a kid who can't legally buy a beer in Pittburgh, Sidney Crosby (he won't be 21 until next August!) has done pretty well for himself in the NHL.

In his first season at age 18 (and 253 days), he became the youngest player in league history to reach the 100-point plateau, totaling 102. He accomplished the feat by finishing the season with a fantastic flurry, racking up 37 points in his final 23 games.

Last season at age 19, Crosby took his game to another level. Despite missing three games and playing the final 2½ weeks with a fracture in his left foot, the Penguins pivot became the youngest player in league history to win the scoring title, totaling 120 points. More impressive, Crosby led the young Pens to their first playoff appearance since 2001.

Six weeks after a disappointing first-round postseason loss to the eventual Eastern Conference champion Senators, Penguins management decided to make Crosby the youngest captain in league history.

Less than a month later, in recognition of his sophomore accomplishments, Crosby was awarded the Hart Trophy. In this case, he was the second-youngest player (Wayne Gretzky was five months younger) to win the league's MVP award.

With all this already behind him, Crosby enters year No. 3. And we, like you, expect more great things from him. But (there's always a "but," right?) while he's a very unique athlete and he's mature beyond his years, Crosby just turned 20. We shouldn't forget that. Sometimes, when someone is this good, this fast, we tend to lose sight of that. We shouldn't.

On the flip side of that statement is a frightening message to opponents -- he's getting better. In fact, after rehabilitating his injured left foot, Crosby got back to some serious training. And, according to one source, Crosby feels he'll be stronger and faster as a result. Now there's some good news for the other 29 teams, eh? I guess they all should be happy that he's not 25 yet, when he'll be approaching his prime as an athlete.

For the record, though, Crosby's improved strength and speed will make him tougher to catch and harder to knock off the puck when you can get to him.

In Year 3, Crosby should crack the 40-goal club. He finished with 39 and 36 goals, respectively, in his first two seasons. A great playmaker because of his tremendous puck skills and ability to see the ice, Crosby makes his linemates better with his passing wizardry. Still, he can beat goaltenders with a variety of shots. He won't win a fastest-shot competition, but he possesses a hard, accurate shot. A little faster and a little stronger, he has a great chance to get 40 or, perhaps, 50 goals in the coming season.

At the other end of the ice, Crosby's competitive nature makes him more of a factor than some other high-scoring centers. His two-way game, in my humble opinion, is mature beyond his age and experience level. His desire to win, which clearly overrides his desire to compile individual statistics, makes him a solid two-way player. Does he make mistakes? Sure. But his experience should help in that regard. And, in this case, a good offense is a good defense. When Crosby has the puck, the other team doesn't.

If there's one area Crosby would like to make significant improvement, it would be in the faceoff circle. Last season, his 49.8 win percentage ranked him 52nd in the league. That was better than the 45.5 faceoff win percentage he posted during his rookie campaign. So, he is getting better on the draw. As he gets older and stronger (good faceoff guys use their experience and strength), we suspect his faceoff percentage will improve. Crosby understands the details of the game and knows the value of winning key faceoffs.

For someone so young, Crosby has shown to be a good leader. He works hard, which seems to endear him to both veterans and peers in the dressing room. As captain, we would expect that to continue. He says he's just going to be himself. That should work just fine. If the club meets any significant adversity during this season, though, his leadership abilities will be tested.

Crosby also has done a good job at handling his celebrity status. That can be a problem in a hockey dressing room, where the emphasis should be on "team" rather than the individual. Crosby hasn't let the hype interfere with his focus. It's another reason why he's earned the respect of his teammates.

With two seasons of experience behind him, Crosby figures to have an even bigger impact on the game. The kid from Nova Scotia will continue etch his mark on the NHL.

This season, he'll again do everything for the Penguins … except buy the beer.

E.J. Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ej.hradek@espnmag.com. Also, click here to send E.J. a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.