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Penguins' Crosby early leader in Hart Trophy race

by Arpon Basu

With the first quarter of the 2014-15 season complete, looks at some of its biggest storylines and award contenders.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have been a picture of stability since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009.

But their lack of success in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since that time led to an offseason of drastic change.

General manager Ray Shero, coach Dan Bylsma and assistant coach Tony Granato were let go, while Bylsma's other assistant, Jacques Martin, was reassigned as senior advisor of hockey operations. Jim Rutherford was brought in as general manager and Mike Johnston as coach, defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik were allowed to leave as free agents, and James Neal was traded to the Nashville Predators for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. In all, eight players who took part in at least 41 games last season were not on the opening night roster this season.

It was an overhaul the likes of which the franchise had not seen in years.

Adding to the uncertainty surrounding the Penguins was offseason wrist surgery for captain Sidney Crosby.

Sidney Crosby
Center - PIT
GOALS: 8 | ASST: 18 | PTS: 26
SOG: 59 | +/-: 4
But Crosby, already in his 10th season in the NHL, has successfully steadied the ship, making him the leader for the Hart Trophy as the League's most valuable player a quarter of the way through the season.

"I think we wanted to be patient with a new coaching staff, so many new faces," Crosby said last week. "You wanted to be focused, you wanted to work hard, but you knew that it may take time. I think you have to evaluate everything based on that, but I think guys were pretty eager and adjusted quick and the coaching staff was pretty clear on how we wanted to play. I think everybody deserves a lot of credit for making that pretty smooth."

Crosby probably deserves a bit more credit than most.

He's been a model of consistency in leading the NHL's top offensive team with 26 points in 19 games, split evenly with 13 points at even strength and 13 playing on the top power play unit in the League, and with 12 points at home and 14 on the road. He has not gone more than two games without a point, a "drought" that has happened on two occasions this season, including his past two games heading into Pittsburgh's game at the Boston Bruins on Monday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, Sportsnet, TVA).

All this while averaging 18:53 of ice time per game, the lowest total of his career aside from the 18:28 he received in 22 games during an injury-plagued 2011-12 season.

The managed minutes is part of Johnston's plan to make sure Crosby's excellence can last throughout the season and, more importantly, into the postseason.

"Maybe the minutes of our top guys have gone down one or two minutes per game, but I think that's going to help them in the long run," Johnston told the National Post recently. "You don't have to overplay them…If you save two or three minutes a night, over even 60 games that's a lot of minutes you save on the wear and tear."

A fresher Crosby should be a scary thought for the rest of the League, especially considering what he's been able to do at the quarter-mark of the season.


Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning It was right around this time last year that Stamkos was lost to the Lightning with a broken leg, but his teammates, particularly defenseman Victor Hedman, were able to pick up the considerable slack left by his absence and keep Tampa Bay in the playoff hunt without its best player. This season it is Hedman who has been missing, and Stamkos is returning the favor. With 14 goals in 22 games, seven at home and seven on the road, Stamkos has scored 39 goals in his past 59 games since the start of last season. He is a big reason why the Lightning have been able to overcome Hedman's absence, and Stamkos should become that much more dangerous once Hedman returns in the coming days or weeks.

Mark Giordano, Calgary FlamesOne of the biggest surprises in the League has been the Flames with 28 points in 22 games. But the play of Giordano should come as no surprise, because he's been trending towards elite defenseman status for quite some time. Giordano is the top scoring defenseman in the League with 23 points in 22 games. He has 70 points in 86 games since the start of last season, the second-highest points per game average for a defenseman over that span, behind only Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators. Giordano's impact on the Flames is massive as an elite possession-driver who logs big minutes in all situations.

ALSO IN THE MIX: Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues, Jakub Voracek, Philadelphia Flyers, Tyler Seguin, Dallas Stars.

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