NHL Under the Radar: Sidney Crosby's workload is in decline, even if he isn't

"Sid the Kid" is finally getting the "Sid the Old Man" treatment.

Every week of the NHL season you can find a column here on everything that may not be making headlines yet — but probably should be.

Father Time comes for every NHL player, but the when and how of that inevitability can be difficult to predict.

Alex Ovechkin is a good example as the legendary goal scorer has had down seasons that seemed to foretell his decline, only to bounce back on multiple occasions. When he scored just 32 goals in 2010-11, it was suggested that even at 25 he could be in for a downturn because his rambunctious style simply wasn't sustainable.

His age-31 campaign was also on the disappointing side by his standards (33 goals), and that seemed like a logical time for his scoring to slow. He scored 264 goals in 426 games over his next six seasons after 2016-17 — leading the NHL during that span.

Right now the 38-year-old isn't looking great with two goals in 10 games, but another second wind isn't out of the question.

This week's "Under the Radar" begins with his longtime rival Sidney Crosby, whose age is showing in a different way.

Sidney Crosby isn't being asked to do quite as much as usual this season. (Kavin Mistry/NHLI via Getty Images)
Sidney Crosby isn't being asked to do quite as much as usual this season. (Kavin Mistry/NHLI via Getty Images)

Sid the Kid finally getting treated like Sid the Old Man

Crosby's game has aged extremely gracefully in recent years as he remains a two-way force into his mid-30s. He may not reside at the top of the points leaderboards anymore, but he drives possession and creates offense at an impressive clip — and he's still not a guy other centers love the idea of playing against.

His raw numbers in 2023-24 aren't overwhelming, but it would be unfair to call them disappointing, either.

They certainly don't provide any indication that Crosby is running out of steam, but the way he's being deployed hints that his age is starting to become a consideration for coach Mike Sullivan.

In the Pittsburgh Penguins' first 10 games, Crosby is averaging 18:47 of ice time per night, a significant downturn from last season's 20:09. The lowest workload he's ever had outside of an injury-plagued 22 games in 2011-12 is 19:53.

Last year, Crosby skated 20 or more minutes 51.2% of the time. He's only done that twice early in 2023-24.

The general pattern of the superstar's usage is the same as ever. He's still a top power-play option, doesn't kill penalties, and gets plenty of offensive-zone starts. The 36-year-old is just playing a couple fewer shifts per night, going from 23.7 last year to 22.0 in 2023-24.

In the grand scheme of things it probably won't affect the Penguins or Crosby in a profound way, but it seems like a nod to where he's at in his career.

Hampus Lindholm is still Hampus Lindholm, but don't bet on Norris votes

Lindholm is undoubtedly one of the NHL's best defensive defenseman, and that was recognized more than ever last season.

The 29-year-old ranked fourth in Norris Trophy voting and was named to the NHL Second All-Star team after a 2022-23 where he was a critical player on the record-breaking Boston Bruins.

That may seem like a win for more nuanced analysis of NHL defensemen that goes beyond offensive production, but it's impossible to ignore that the newfound appreciation for Lindholm was correlated with the Swede scoring 19 more points than he ever had before — and producing an NHL-best plus-minus.

This season, Lindholm is doing many of the same things that made his 2022-23 such a success. He's logging a massive workload (24:25) on a 9-1-1 Bruins team, anchoring one of the NHL's best penalty-killing units (93.6%), and producing strong possession numbers during 5v5 play (57.05 xGF%).

What's missing is the stuff that helped shine a spotlight on him last season.

He has just one point thus far with a surprising minus-1 attached to his name, thanks in large part to an on-ice save percentage at 5v5 (.909) well below the Bruins' season average (.932).

Lindholm was championed in 2022-23 for his contributions that went beyond basic statistics, but it will be interesting to see how his reputation is affected by a lack of traditional numbers — even if many of his greatest strengths remain intact.

The Islanders' offense goes through two players — who aren't really producing

A quick look at the Islanders' scoring numbers shows a team with a relatively balanced attack. Through 10 games there are five players with at least seven points and no one with more than five goals.

The team's overall offensive output is unimpressive (2.7 goals/game), but it doesn't look like a top-heavy group. If anything, the Islanders have a reputation as a team with plenty of solid talent that lacks difference-makers at the top of their roster.

The New York Islanders are getting a massive percentage of their chances from two veterans. (Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)
The New York Islanders are getting a massive percentage of their chances from two veterans. (Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)

While the top-line numbers reinforce the general consensus around the team, a peak under the hood shows an offense that's surprisingly reliant on two players — neither of whom are experiencing sizzling starts,

Anders Lee and Brock Nelson have only combined for nine points this season, but have had far more chances than their teammates.

Nelson leads the NHL in individual 5v5 scoring chances (40), accounting for 17.9% of New York's looks. That's the top share in the league, with Connor Bedard coming in second leading the punch-less Chicago Blackhawks (14.6%). Lee ranks 18th in total chances (28), but when it comes to high-danger opportunities, he stands out more.

The Islanders captain is second in the NHL in individual 5v5 high-danger chances (19), with Nelson ranking third (18). Together the pair accounts for 35.2% of New York's high-danger opportunities. The only teammates who have produced a larger share of their squad's HDCF at 5v5 is Auston Matthews and John Tavares (37.1%).

If you're an Islanders fan the good news is that Lee is probably poised for a mini breakout while Nelson should keep producing. The bad news is the rest of the team could be doing a better job of creating quality looks.

Power-play production looming large over scoring leaders

Looking at the NHL point leaderboard on Monday you'll find many of the names you'd expect to see entering 2023-24. Jack Hughes and Elias Pettersson are building off career seasons, Artemi Panarin and Nikita Kucherov are two of the most talented creators in the NHL, and the Auston Matthews-David Pastrňák duo keeps firing home goals.

Even slight surprises like Quinn Hughes, Dylan Larkin and Jesper Bratt are proven offensive talents who aren't coming out of nowhere.

William Karlsson probably isn't getting enough credit for his stellar season. (Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
William Karlsson probably isn't getting enough credit for his stellar season. (Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

What's intriguing about this leaderboard is how much it changes if you remove power-play points. As it stands the top 12 players in the NHL in even-strength point production are:

  • William Karlsson (12 points)

  • Pettersson (11 points)

  • Casey Mittelstadt (11 points)

  • Pastrňák (11 points)

  • Bryan Rust (11 points)

  • Mason McTavish (10 points)

  • Hughes (10 points)

  • Matthews (10 points)

  • Jake Eichel (10 points)

  • Jake Guentzel (10 points)

  • Ryan Strome (10 points)

  • Jeff Skinner (10 points)

That isn't a collection of scrubs by any means, and some of the big stars do show up.

Even so, this leaderboard gives us a look at some players who probably deserve more credit than they've gotten for their early-season efforts.

While power-play points can't be dismissed outright, reliable production at 5v5 is vital to team success and counting on favorable officiating is a dangerous game. Not everyone who's managed double-digit even-strength points already is a superstar, but everyone on that list is doing a great deal to help their team win.

The line that lives in the offensive zone

One of the new insights provided by the tracking data the NHL debuted to the public this season is a precise measure of how long each player spends in the offensive, defensive and neutral zones.

Some of the results are relatively unsurprising as they tend to correlate with what we already understand about player talent and usage, but there's an interesting outlier on the Carolina Hurricanes as the team's fourth line has set up shop in the offensive zone all season.

The Carolina Hurricanes are getting strong play from their fourth line. (Rick Ulreich/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The Carolina Hurricanes are getting strong play from their fourth line. (Rick Ulreich/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The trio of Jesper Fast, Jordan Staal, and Jordan Martinook rank first, second and third among NHL players in offensive-zone percentage with numbers ranging between 54.4% and 53.3%. The average forward spent just 40.5% of his ice time in his opponent's end.

Looking at those numbers it would be easy to assume that this unit is heavily sheltered, but the trio rank 18th, 19th and 20th, respectively, among Hurricanes skaters in offensive-zone start percentage at even strength. This line is consistently starting in a defensive position and generating sustained pressure at the other end.

None of the three are having excellent seasons from a point-production standpoint as Staal leads the three with five in 12 games, but they provide an excellent example of the value a bottom-six unit can provide even when its not consistently generating goals.