Time to fly

Sidney Crosby (87) of Pittsburgh Penguins warms up prior to taking on the Ottawa Senators in...

Sidney Crosby (87) of Pittsburgh Penguins warms up prior to taking on the Ottawa Senators in pre-season NHL action at the Corel Centre in Ottawa on Sept 29, 2005. (SUN/Sean Kilpatrick)

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 6:07 AM ET

Sidney Crosby is about to make watching the NHL fun again.

How much fun, how soon, will be answered beginning tonight when Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins open their season in New Jersey.

Will Crosby be the league's best rookie?

Maybe not. Washington's Alexander Ovechkin is two years older and has been playing against men in the Russian Elite League.

Defenceman Dion Phaneuf is a glittering prospect on the Calgary Flames blue line.

Buffalo Sabres forward Thomas Vanek is 21, three years older than Crosby, and coming off a 42-goal season in the American League.

But Crosby failing would be more entertaining than an efficient player thriving. He is like Reggie Jackson striking out.

Crosby is fast, so fast you want to check his citizenship papers.

Canadian superstars usually are good but not great skaters.

Wayne Gretzky used his own unique genius to offset so-so-skating skills.

Mario Lemieux used a comparable sense of the game and an overpowering reach.

Before injuries took their toll, Eric Lindros brandished otherworldly strength and terrific skating to stake his claim briefly as the game's best player.

Crosby is exciting. He is an electrifying skater with top-drawer acceleration and balance. Although Lemieux likes to compare him with Peter Forsberg, Crosby's skating puts him in the Scott Niedermayer, Paul Kariya category.

Nor is there any doubt of Crosby's intention.

"I want to be the best so whatever comes with that I have to accept that," Crosby said.

"I don't think there should ever be a time where I step back and say I wish I was doing something different."

Being the best is what Crosby has been readying for, at least since he left Cole Harbour, N.S., at 14 to attend Shattuck St. Mary's High School.

It's the job he was training for when, at 16 years and four months, he became the youngest player to score for the junior national team.

It's the role he readied himself for when he carded 135 points to become the highest scoring 16-year old in major junior since Wayne Gretzky 27 seasons before. Crosby followed that up with 66 goals and 168 points in his second and final season of junior in leading the Rimouski Oceanic to the Memorial Cup.

There seems little doubt that Crosby has the raw materials to reach his goal.

He is about 5-foot-11, 192 pounds, perhaps a little small for a player who aspires to play like Forsberg in the most contested areas of the ice. The rest of the package, short-burst speed and longer acceleration, solidness on the puck, vision and shot, all those are probably already among the NHL elite.

So too is Crosby's maturity. His poise, both on the ice and off, was like that of a veteran at the Penguins training camp.

"I don't know how a guy like Sidney Crosby comes in at 18 and does what he's doing," 20-year-old forward Erik Christensen said. "It's just incredible."

Crosby is in it for the long haul. He doesn't get caught up in short-term predictions.

"I don't think I'm someone who thinks too far ahead and it's the same here," he said at training camp. "I'm just going to take every day at camp to prepare and make sure when that time comes for me to play, I'm ready."

"That's one of his great strengths," agent Pat Brisson said. "He prepares for things, it's like he visualizes, and then he gets them done."

The confluence of events that brought Crosby to Pittsburgh is already storied.

A 6% chance in the draft lottery resulted in a windfall for the Penguins who were awarded their third first overall (Mario Lemieux, 1984, and Marc-Andre Fleury, 2003).

That prompted the Penguins, who are lobbying for a new arena, to reload immediately.

"Getting Sidney allowed us to get (skilled defenceman Sergei) Gonchar right off the bat and that was a key signing for us," Lemieux said. "Once we did that, the players realized we wanted to put a great team on the ice and it gave us the chance to go after (Ziggy) Palffy and all the other guys we got."

Those guys included goalie Jocelyn Thibault and veteran wingers John LeClair and Mark Recchi. Instead of inheriting a cast of losers, Lemieux has surrounded Crosby with a mix of veterans and up and comers such as Ryan Malone and in 2005-06, super prospect Evgeny Malkin.

Crosby is being mentored by the great Lemieux on a good team, in an era of liberalized rules to improve scoring chances.

Put it all together and Crosby's chances for stardom, if not now, then soon, are remarkable.

"To be honest with you, I don't think there could be a better spot for him," said veteran winger Mark Recchi, who is on his second go-round as a Penguin. "It's a terrific city. The people will embrace him. He'll be able to come in and play hockey, enjoy Pittsburgh and let the people enjoy him."


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