Tim Benz: Sidney Crosby’s comments on his long-term future should get us thinking

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Because Pittsburgh Penguins star center Sidney Crosby is so consistent with his pragmatic, stay-in-the-middle-lane approach to dealing with the media, he rarely lets any quote slip that’s surprising.

Frankly, the one he uttered Tuesday may not be all that remarkable either, but, during the Penguins breakup day interviews, the team’s captain did say something that made my ears perk.

Crosby took to the podium after teammates Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. Because so little is known about the new ownership’s interest in keeping the franchise icons together, many questions were asked about how the three individuals see their careers playing out as they advance through their mid-30s.

Malkin will turn 36 in July. Letang just turned 35 in April. Crosby will be 35 in August.

Letang said he can see himself playing another four or five years. Malkin said three to four.

Surprisingly, Crosby would not commit beyond three more seasons when asked how much longer he’d like to play.

“Three for sure,” Crosby replied quickly. “And then we’ll see after that. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. But three, definitely. ”

Per the norm, Crosby was being pragmatic in that response, too, because he has three years left on his contract. But if Crosby wants to work on an extension, he could do that with one year left to go, which means maybe some of whatever decision-making Crosby seems to be aware of is actually a year closer to happening.

Decisions such as, if he wants to retire at 37. If he wants to play longer, how many more years? Does he structure the next contract to be the last one? Does he hit the open market as a free agent for the first time in his career and play out his remaining years in a city besides Pittsburgh?

Yeah. I know. Blasphemy, right?

Well, Marc-Andre Fleury has already been on three teams since he left. Jaromir Jagr played for half the league. Letang and Malkin may both retire in different cities. Ron Francis played seven more years in Carolina and Toronto after leaving Pittsburgh.

Even Wayne Gretzky ended up playing more seasons away from Edmonton (11) than he did with the Oilers (9). Not everyone is one city, one team like Mario Lemieux and Steve Yzerman.

Then again, those were two of Crosby’s heroes as a youngster, and it’s clear he sees the value of consistency when it comes to legacy building. It’s part of the reason why he’s never lobbied for an overhaul of the roster even in the wake of the team’s postseason struggles since 2018.

In a perfect world, I bet he does play beyond that three-year window he just opened. Or, maybe better said, the window that his contract is propping open. Crosby is big on routine, habit, familiarity. I’d also wager that window stays open in Pittsburgh.

Unfortunately, the world isn’t perfect anymore, is it?

Crosby’s mentor no longer owns the team. The organization’s president and two general managers who built the teams Crosby captained to championships are gone. So are Fleury, Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz. Soon, too, perhaps Malkin, Letang and Bryan Rust.

So is the familiarity of playing beyond the first round of the playoffs. That hasn’t happened since 2018.

What are the odds Mike Sullivan is still coaching the team after 2025? Crosby has already worked under five coaches in Pittsburgh. Does he want to break in a sixth or seventh before he’s done?

The mortality of the Penguins franchise in this era is something we’ve always been able to state off in Pittsburgh. That’s because the players have been good enough to never let it die. It looked to be on the cusp of doing so at the end of 2015. But then “cusp” became “Cups,” as in two more for the trophy room in 2016 and 2017.

Now, though, it’d just be nice to get to a conference semifinal again. Or, given the rebuild that’s likely in 2022-23, maybe even just make the playoffs for a 17th straight year.

We live in hockey’s “Neverland” because the sport’s Peter Pan lives here. Sid is still “The Kid” to us. But we only look at him on television and the ice. Crosby is the one who has to look at himself in the mirror and see the lines on his face.

And the concussion history. And the places where he has taken countless slashes, trips, elbows, cross-checks and cheap shots. He’s the one who has to look in his own eyes and see the memory of teammates long since gone.

Ben Roethlisberger just went through it. He was “the kid,” too. Before Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward retired. Then other kids like Maurkice Pouncey, Heath Miller and David DeCastro came along after him.

Then they all retired before him, too.

There has been a presumption foisted upon Crosby that he’s a hockey lifer. He’ll be the skating version of Tom Brady. Still playing and excelling well into his 40s. He loves the game, and he loves to train for the game. He’ll never want to leave. Plus, he’ll always do it in Pittsburgh.

I’ve always bought into it myself. But Brady doesn’t play in New England anymore, does he?

What drove the point home about Crosby’s time frame versus Malkin’s or Letang’s was how Crosby sort of chuckled at how confident those two were at projections beyond the three years he had discussed.

“Glad to hear that Geno said three (or four) and Tanger said… five-plus, probably,” Crosby joked. “I’m not surprised at either of those answers. Those are pretty much par for the course. But I’m glad they are looking to keep playing. They can. And they are playing at a high level. That’s great to hear. ”

It was almost as if Crosby was saying, “Those guys can go there. I’m not ready to say that, though. ”

However, of those three players, if you were to ask me which one is still going to be closest to the top of his game in 2025, it’s Crosby by a mile. I would’ve been less surprised if Crosby replied, “I’m aiming for another 10 years” than “three and we’ll see.”

Let’s hope it’s the former. And let’s hope that it happens here.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at tbenz@triblive.com or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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