Sky's the limit for Crosby

STEVE SIMMONS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:09 AM ET

The comparisons between Sidney Crosby and Wayne Gretzky may be terribly unfair yet are remarkably compelling.

For every this there is a that and in a different time, playing a different game of the same sport, the challenges for Crosby grow annually, the similarities between he and Gretzky's early years remain striking from afar.

Crosby had his first 100-point campaign at the age of 18, in his first National Hockey League season, winning his first scoring title one year later.

Gretzky was 19 in his first NHL season, scoring 137 points, and took home his first scoring title outright at the age of 20.

Crosby won his first Hart Trophy at the age of 19, the very same age Gretzky was awarded his first most valuable player award.

And now comes the newest and maybe greatest challenge for the much-hyped Crosby, who has been everything he was advertised to be and more: How long before Crosby leads the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup?

In an NHL that hardly is predictable -- the past three Cup champions have been Anaheim, Carolina and Tampa Bay -- Crosby's Penguins are the must-watch team of the new season.

Oh the usual suspects -- Detroit, Ottawa, San Jose, and defending champ Anaheim -- will be worth monitoring, but no team offers a more fascinating blend of young and old than do the Penguins.

Gretzky was 22 years old when he first took the Oilers to the Stanley Cup final, 23 when he carried the Cup for the first time. Crosby won't be old enough to drink from the Cup until next August.

It isn't the mere presence of Crosby that makes the Penguins the team to watch, if not necessarily pick, to win the Cup. It is, again making the Gretzky comparison, the cast that surrounds him that makes this a race for the Cup before salary cap interferes with the Penguins futures.

Evgeny Malkin is only 21; Jordan Staal turned 19 the other day; goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is 22; defenceman Ryan Whitney is 24.

No one else in the NHL has anything resembling a cast of kids like this one.

They're not the Gretzky kids, but it's not as far a reach as some might think. Gretzky, Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson and Jari Kurri were all 23 when the Oilers swept their way to their first of five Cups in 1984. Paul Coffey was 22; Grant Fuhr was 21. All but Anderson, who remains overlooked, are in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

The Penguins don't quite line up that way -- not yet anyhow -- but in a league with more teams and talent spread wider and thinner, the possibilities are nonetheless intriguing.

The race for Crosby, owner of a new long-term contract, isn't only about time, it's about history.

Gretzky isn't the only great to win a championship early in his uncanny career. If you do the math, many of the greatest players the game has known were premature Stanley Cup winners.

Patrick Roy was a champion at 20. Bobby Orr won his first Cup at 22, the same age as Gordie Howe and Rocket Richard. Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy were 23 when they won their first of four Stanley Cups. Playing together, Scott Niedermayer was 20 and Martin Brodeur was 22 when they first won while playing for New Jersey.

Even to make the Pittsburgh comparison, where Mario Lemieux joined an inept Penguins team in 1984, the team won a Stanley Cup in his seventh NHL season: The wait may have seemed long at the time, but Lemieux was just 25 when he hoisted the Cup above his broad shoulders.

Of those who would be considered the top 10 to ever play, all won Cups before their 26th birthday.

Which means the clock already is ticking for Crosby, and knowing him, he will be well aware of all the history. He will not and cannot score at a Gretzky-like pace. No one before Gretzky did: No one ever will again.

But that doesn't mean Crosby won't lead the league in scoring, doesn't mean he won't increase his scoring by the same 17% he went up from his freshman to his sophomore year in Pittsburgh. A 140-point season may not be out of the question.

Whether anyone else is chasing will be up to Joe Thornton or Alexander Ovechkin or Jaromir Jagr or Jason Spezza to answer.

The Penguins won't be favoured to win the Eastern Conference, not with the Ottawa Senators having dispatched of them with relative ease last spring. And not with the improvement made by the cheque-happy New York Rangers, adding Scott Gomez and Chris Drury to a lineup that already sported Jagr and the best goaltender nobody talks about, Henrik Lundqvist.

One of those three teams should find their way out of the Eastern Conference and into the Stanley Cup final.

The race in the West, as always, should come down to the Red Wings, Ducks (who will have Mathieu Schneider back and could have Scott Niedermayer as well) or the perennial favourites from San Jose, who always look better on paper than on the ice.

But no star burns brighter than Crosby's. This is his league, his game, his SportsCentre. The Stanley Cup awaits. It's only a matter of when.

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WONDER KIDS

Age that some of hockey's greatest players won their first Stanley Cup:

Wayne Gretzky 23

Bobby Orr 22

Gordie Howe 22

Rocket Richard 22

Mike Bossy 23

Mark Messier 23

Guy Lafleur 24

Jean Beliveau 24

Dave Keon 22

Scott Niedermayer 20

Patrick Roy 20

Mario Lemieux 25


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