Sidney Crosby, the bedrock on which the Pittsburgh Penguins built their three most recent Stanley Cup-winning clubs, turns 35 Sunday.
Although Crosby’s game has evolved over the years, he is no less valuable to the franchise — on and off the ice — that he was in the days when he had only a casual acquaintance with his shaving kit.
One thing Crosby can’t do, however, is to halt the advance of time, and it’s inevitable that getting older affects even the most accomplished athletes. The only uncertainties are, when and how much.
It turns out that, most of the NHL’s premier centers in recent decades performed at a high level when they were Crosby’s age — and most did it for several years after that,
Comparing players who were in the league at different times is imprecise, at best — for example, the game is far more structured and goalie equipment much larger than it was in the 1980s, when composite sticks were the stuff of science fiction — and players today have the benefit of better information about conditioning and nutrition than many of their predecessors did.
That means it’s not unreasonable to believe they can continue to play well beyond the point at which great players of early generations had given up the game.
The most recent elite center to join Club 35 is Evgeni Malkin, who hit that benchmark on July 31, 2021 and had mixed results in the season that followed.
Malkin, who teamed with Crosby on the NHL’s most formidable 1-2 center punch for many winters, missed the first 34 games in 2021-22 while recovering from major knee surgery and only occasionally performed at his customary level once he rejoined the lineup.
He finished with 20 goals and 22 assists in 41 regular-season games — 20 of those 42 points came on the power play — and added three goals and three assists in seven playoff appearances.
Management, it must be noted, remains sufficiently confident in Malkin’s ability that he was signed to a four-year contract last month.
What follows is a look at 10 other elite centers who reached age 35 in the mid-1980s or later.
They are listed in alphabetical order, with the date on which they turned 35, their team at the time and how they fared that season. (Ranking them can be an exercise for another day.)
*** Patrice Bergeron (July 24, 2020, Boston) — He’s the only one on this list who hasn’t been inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame, but that will change a few years after he retires. Bergeron is one of the game’s great two-way centers and, while anchoring the Bruins’ No. 1 line, put up 23 goals and 25 assists in 54 games during the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season.
*** Marcel Dionne (Aug. 3, 1986, Los Angeles) — The Kings’ celebrated Triple Crown Line, on which Dionne was flanked by Charlie Simmer and Dave Taylor, was a memory by the time Dionne turned 35, but he still put up 24 goals and 50 assists in 67 games in 1986-87. It was his last season in Los Angeles; he spent his final three with the New York Rangers.
*** Peter Forsberg (July 20, 2008, MODO) — He was, as usual, a point-per-game guy in 2008-09, but there were a few catches: Forsberg spent that season in the Swedish Elite League, not the NHL, and only played in three games.
*** Ron Francis (March 1, 1998, Penguins) — Francis, who received a lot of attention for not receiving enough attention over the course of his career, turned 35 as his final season with the Pittsburgh Penguins was winding down. He went out in style, accumulating 25 goals and 62 assists in 81 games before going to Carolina as a free agent.
*** Wayne Gretzky (Jan. 26, 1996, Los Angeles/St. Louis) — Although his 18 games with the Blues at the end of the season were less than legendary, Gretzky still finished 1995-96 with 23 goals and 79 assists in 80 games.
*** Mario Lemieux (Oct. 5, 2000, Penguins) — Lemieux was three-plus years into retirement on his 35th birthday. A few months later, he launched a comeback with the Pittsburgh Penguins during which he generated 35 goals and 41 assists in 43 games. Yeah, after not playing since 1997.
*** Mark Messier (Jan. 18, 1996, New York Rangers) — Messier had a lot of hard miles on him by the time he reached 35, but it wasn’t evident in his 1995-96 stats: 47 goals and 52 assists in 74 games.
*** Joe Sakic (July 7, 2004, Colorado) — Although a lockout snuffed out the season during which Sakic was 35, having a year off didn’t seem to bother him much. He had 32 goals and 55 assists in 82 games in 2005-06, effectively mirroring his pre-lockout totals of 33 and 54 in 81.
*** Bryan Trottier (July 17, 1991, Penguins) — Trottier was the New York Islanders’ No. 1 center during their run of four consecutive Stanley Cups in 1980-83, but accepted a bottom-six role when he joined the Pittsburgh Penguins as a free agent in 1990. He was a key member of the supporting cast during their first two Cup- winning seasons, chipping in with 11 goals and 18 assists in 61 games as a 35-year-old in 1991-92.
*** Steve Yzerman (May 9, 2000, Detroit) — Yzerman, a role model of sorts for Crosby, excelled at both ends of the ice for many years, but saw his offensive output begin to dip a bit in 2000-01, when he had 18 goals and 34 assists in 54 games.