Pittsburgh Penguins forward Sidney Crosby is one of the game's leading offensive forces once again, and coach Mike Sullivan may have a lot to do with that.
When Crosby began the 2015-16 season scoreless in eight of the first nine games, there were some initial concerns his days as a contender for the Art Ross Trophy were over. After 18 games, the Penguins captain had nine points, which ranked No. 155 in the NHL.
Coach Mike Johnston was fired 10 games later, and replaced by Sullivan on Dec. 12. Since that point, Crosby has 48 points in 38 games, which is tied with Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks for most in the NHL in that span.
Crosby has 67 points in 66 games this season, which ranks No. 6 in the NHL scoring race. He leads the Penguins in scoring, nine points ahead of Evgeni Malkin, who has 58 points in 57 games.
That's terrific news for the Penguins, who visit the New York Rangers on Sunday (12:30 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, TVA Sports).
Video: CGY@PIT: Crosby scores in the first minute
Whatever reasons are responsible for Crosby's scoring slump under his former coach have been corrected under Sullivan. In 105 games under Johnston dating back to the start of the 2014-15 season, Crosby averaged 2.3 points per 60 minutes at even strength, a far cry from the dominant scoring rates of 3.1 and 3.5 he achieved under former coaches Michel Therrien and Dan Bylsma, respectively.
In 38 games with Sullivan, Crosby's scoring rate is right back to those previously established heights, with 3.45 even-strength points per 60 minutes.
Even Crosby's shot-based puck possession numbers, which dropped from a Relative SAT of 5.6 percent under Bylsma to 2.8 under Johnston, have climbed back up to 5.2 under Sullivan. Relative SAT is the percentage of shot attempts taken by the Penguins when Crosby is on the ice, relative to the rest of the team.
What happened to Crosby early this season? A temporary scoring slump can be caused by a variety of different factors, such as weaker linemates, tougher matchups, a more defensive-focused assignment, injuries and just plain bad luck. None of those factors fully explain Crosby's slow start, nor his subsequent turnaround.
The underlying numbers show Crosby had largely the same caliber of linemates and opponents when Johnston was coach, and he was assigned more opportunities in the offensive zone, not less.
Specifically, 56.4 percent of the faceoffs outside the neutral zone Crosby took in his 105 games under Johnston were in the offensive zone. By comparison, his zone start percentage was 49.9 percent under Bylsma, and is 53.9 percent under Sullivan. If anything, his scoring rate should have been higher under Johnston, not lower.
In fairness, a fair portion of the scoring difference this season was caused by a complete reversal in Crosby's shooting luck. Despite taking shots at the same rate under both coaches, Crosby scored six goals in 79 shots under Johnston, and 22 goals in 110 shots under Sullivan. That means Crosby has been more than twice as likely to score on any given shot with his new coach.
Overall, the Penguins have become more dangerous offensively with Crosby on the ice. Under Johnston, Pittsburgh averaged 51.3 shot attempts per 60 minutes when Crosby was on the ice, which has risen to 61.8 under Sullivan. A variety of metrics have shown the quality of those chances has increased as well.
Does the rejuvenated Crosby have any chance of catching Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks for the NHL scoring lead and winning his second Art Ross Trophy in three seasons? With a 22-point gap between them, and having made up five points in the past 38 games, it doesn't appear very likely.
However, Crosby is eight points back of Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars, who is ranked No. 2 with 75 points in 69 games. Last season, Benn led the NHL with 87 points in 82 games, three more than Crosby, who scored 84 points in 77 games. If Crosby stays hot, then the race for second place could continue until the final game of the season.
Crosby's resurgence hasn't made much of a difference in the standings as the Penguins picked up 58.9 percent of possible points under Johnston, and 57.7 percent under Sullivan. However, the team's goal differential has improved from plus-1 to plus-14. While the Penguins still are a relatively average team overall, the greater offensive threat posed by Crosby makes them a more dangerous postseason threat.