Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/NHLI via Getty Images)
Hard to believe this generation's top two players joined the NHL 10 years ago. After a decade of debate…who's better?
It will be 10 years this week since Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin debuted in the NHL. The 2004-05 lockout produced the happy accident of two No. 1 overall picks commencing their careers simultaneously and, fair or not, they were destined for constant comparison. It didn’t matter that they played different positions, Crosby center and Ovechkin left wing. They were the most exciting young forces in a league desperate for new flag bearers, and they've delivered on that hype time and again.
Who’s better? The pendulum seems to swing back and forth year to year:
It’s Ovechkin, the big, fast, energetic man-child who helps Russia to world junior gold and goes first overall in the 2004 draft.
No, it’s Crosby, the generational talent who torches major junior like no player since Eric Lindros and goes first overall in 2005.
No, it’s ‘Ovie,’ the 2005-06 Calder Trophy winner. He outscores Crosby with 52 goals, many of them with jaw-dropping beauty.
No, damn it, it’s ‘Sid the Kid.’ He explodes for 120 points as a 19-year-old sophomore to win the Art Ross and Hart Trophies in 2006-07. Youngest MVP in league history. Youngest scoring champion in major professional sports history.
Come on. It’s Ovechkin. Sid sits out with a bum ankle for a large chunk of 2007-08 while ‘Alexander the GR8’ becomes the first player to score 65 goals in 12 years. He wins two straight MVPs.
Crosby's turn. The pair face off in the 2009 Eastern Conference semifinal between Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins and Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals. Both stars notch hat tricks in Game 2. The best player torch passes back to Crosby, whose Penguins play for the Stanley Cup for the second straight year and this time take it home. He’s the youngest captain in league history to hoist the chalice. A year later? Golden goal in overtime at the Vancouver Games to crown Canada Olympic champion.
Then it’s Ovechkin again, by default. His game slips under coach Dale Hunter, but at least Ovechkin is on the ice. Crosby misses bushels of games with concussion woes. He plays just 63 times from 2010-11 to 2011-12. His career is in jeopardy. Ovechkin scores 32 goals in an abbreviated 48-game season, and 2012-13 yields his third MVP.
Surprise: it’s Crosby again. He’s back healthy. He wins the 2013-14 scoring crown by 17 points. Another MVP. Ovechkin answers in 2014-15 with his second straight 50-goal campaign and fifth Rocket Richard Trophy.
And on it goes.
After a decade of constantly mentioning them in the same breath, where does the debate rest? Does one finally have an edge over the other? And is the answer still relevant as they approach the end of their primes?
THEIR SKILL SETS
There’s no denying Crosby and Ovechkin are the top offensive players of their generation. Even juxtaposed with legends who played in higher-scoring eras, Crosby ranks fifth in NHL history in points per game at 1.36, between Bobby Orr and Marcel Dionne. Ovechkin sits 15th at 1.18, between Dale Hawerchuk and Pat LaFontaine. Crosby’s and Ovechkin’s marks will slide a bit as they age, but they’re all-timers in production, especially when you take into consideration the era in which they played.
And they've gone about it in different ways. Don Cherry, long-time Coach’s Corner analyst on Hockey Night In Canada and 1976 Jack Adams Award winner as coach of the year, has watched both their careers intently. And there’s a clear No. 1 for him.
“Right now, Crosby is the best player in the National Hockey League – there’s no question,” Cherry said. “He just wants the team to win. It doesn’t matter if he scores or anybody scores. He really is a team guy. He has been the best ambassador for the game. Never ducks an interview, win or lose. He reminds me of Wayne Gretzky, the way he used to sell the game.”
Cherry says Ovechkin has always been distinct from Crosby in that Ovechkin only ever has one thing on his mind: a burning desire to score. It’s reflected in his 0.625 goals per game, which ranks fifth all-time. Ovechkin has also produced three of the top six single-season shot totals in NHL history, including two of the top three. He and Phil Esposito are the only two players to fire 500 shots on goal in a season.
“Ovie’s numbers are just overwhelming, especially in the way the game is played,” said TSN game analyst Ray Ferraro, who had 408 goals and 898 points as a player. “There’s just nobody who does what he does.”
Washington Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen and his teammate Brooks Orpik are the rarest of pairs in that they’ve both been teammates of Crosby and Ovechkin recently. Niskanen and Orpik left Pittsburgh for Washington for free agency after 2013-14 and, a year later, they have a stronger sense of Crosby and Ovechkin’s styles than any other players do.
“Sid is one of the best distributors of the puck, and Ovie has got to be the best finisher in the game right now,” Niskanen said. “So it’s been really cool for me being on both sides of that, playing with them and being on the ice at the same time, as they have different spots on the ice that they like to be in.”
Ovechkin has the edge in perceived “wow” factor over Crosby. He has one of the hardest wrist shots in the game and still manages to zip it through defenders while contorting his body and using his speed to blow past them. He loves to hit, and Cherry describes him as someone players hate to hit back, as even that hurts every time. An informal social media fan vote asked THN readers who the better player is today, and Ovechkin won in a landslide.
Statistically, Crosby has been the more versatile NHLer. He can crank up the offense and score goals when needed – he has a 51-goal season and Rocket Richard Trophy – but he’s been primarily dominant as a playmaker, twice topping 70 assists and racking up 84 in 2006-07.
Ferraro doesn’t think it makes sense to compare Crosby and Ovechkin, as one simply has a lot more to do on the ice.
“Crosby, he’s such a complete player,” Ferraro said. “I look at him in a different way than that I look at Ovechkin. Ovechkin has to put numbers on the board. Sid does, too, but because of his position, he’s got to do other things. I’ve never coached a game in the NHL in my life, but I would tell Sid, ‘Stop playing 200 feet. We’ve got other guys to play 200 feet. We need you to put up 115 points’…Ovie doesn’t play a 200-foot game. He doesn’t have to. His position is different.”
Puckalytics.com tracks advanced statistics as far back as 2008-09, giving us a seven-year sample of data from which to compare Crosby and Ovechkin. For all the knocks on his defensive play, Ovechkin had a pronounced edge on Crosby from 2008-09 to 2010-11 in Corsi Close percentage relative to teammates. Corsi Close measures the percentage of shots directed toward the opposing net during games within one goal in Periods 1 and 2 or tied in Period 3. Since team play has a strong influence on that stat, factoring in how far or above the team percentage one finishes can give us a better perspective of individual two-way play. Ovechkin generates so many shot attempts that it boosts his Corsi numbers. He’s defense by offense. Interestingly, his worst Corsi season was 2011-12 under Hunter, who tried to refine Ovechkin’s defensive game and even cut his ice time. Ovechkin finished with a Corsi Close 4.4 percent below the team average, easily the worst mark of his career. He also failed to lead the NHL in shots for the first and only time. Hardly a coincidence.
From 2011-12 to 2013-14, Crosby dusted Ovechkin in Corsi Close relative to teammates. Crosby ranked among the league leaders, more than eight percent above his team’s Corsi Close percentage in 2012-13 and 2013-14. Why does that matter? It shows evolution. Crosby’s coach and system didn’t change – it was Dan Bylsma for six straight seasons – but his impact on possession did. Crosby devotes himself to tinkering and improving every little detail of his game.
Crosby won fewer than half his faceoffs in each of his first two seasons before hovering around 51 percent in his next two. He won at least 52.5 percent of his draws in four of five seasons after that, topping 54 percent three times and 55 twice. He slipped last season, but that doesn’t shake the overwhelming perception that Crosby works hard at every facet of the game. That’s one of the reasons our other Crosby vs. Ovechkin vote went so differently. Informally polling former players, executives and coaches produced a massive Crosby victory. No hockey minds, save for a few, said they’d take Ovechkin over Crosby. Some said it wasn’t close. So while Ovie wins the crowd, the experts haven’t wavered in their support for No. 87.
That doesn’t mean No. 8 can’t evolve, too, of course. Last season marked the first time in four years Ovechkin posted a better Corsi Close relative to his team than Crosby did. Ovechkin found something closer to a two-way game under new coach Barry Trotz. Interestingly, Trotz delivered on his promise to improve Ovechkin defensively without sacrificing offense, as his goals and shots actually increased year over year.
“A few years ago they said he was finished, and Ovie came back strong and sensationally,” Cherry said. “Now he’s a superstar again. Ovie must realize they’re either at your throat or your feet.”
Ferraro played with electric Russian sniper Ilya Kovalchuk in Atlanta and sees a similarity between Kovalchuk and Ovechkin, not just in the goal-scoring trait but also in their emotional approaches to the game.
“Whenever there’s a problem, they both have always appeared to think they’re the only solution,” Ferraro said. “They want to win so bad, and when it doesn’t happen they get frustrated. And I thought some of that left Ovechkin this year. He didn’t look like he had the need to solve everything himself. And that’s a big difference in how you play.”
So if Trotz has molded a more mature Ovechkin, it’s no wonder he caught up to Crosby in the public eye and on the scoresheet in 2014-15. Crosby, though, deserves a pass for relatively underwhelming numbers considering the support he had. He no longer centered Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz on the league’s most dominant line. Dupuis succumbed to blood clots and the suddenly declining Kunitz played his way off Crosby’s wing for extended stretches. On a Penguins team that barely made the playoffs, Crosby cycled through David Perron, Patric Hornqvist, Daniel Winnik, Steve Downie and Blake Comeau. As Ferraro points out, the Pens became too top-heavy, and adding grinding forwards in an effort to become harder to play against watered down their skill. That suppressed Crosby’s numbers. Meanwhile, Ferraro added, Ovechkin has spent virtually his entire career on a line with all-world center Nicklas Backstrom.
“You can’t name me five players in the league more underrated than him,” Ferraro said.
It’s safe to say Crosby’s numbers will spike back up if newly acquired sniper Phil Kessel stays on his wing all year.
Crosby and Ovechkin can retire today as slam-dunk Hall of Famers. Their resumes impress for different reasons. Ovechkin owns a significant edge in individual accolades. He’s a seven-time first-team All-Star. He won the Calder, which Crosby can never win. Ovechkin has one scoring crown, three Harts and three Ted Lindsay Awards for MVP as voted by the players.
It’s not like Crosby’s individual trophy case is barren: three first-team All-Star selections, two Art Rosses, two Harts and three Lindsays. But Crosby’s accolades have a much stronger team slant. There’s the 2009 Stanley Cup and 2008 appearance in the final. The Hall of Fame factors in international accomplishments, and there’s no contest there. Crosby has two gold medals and scored the winning goal for Canada in two straight Olympics. The fan vote and hockey-mind vote apply here again, as fans slant toward the guy with the eye-popping solo numbers and the industry folk champion the team guy.
Crosby and Ovechkin have spent their entire careers in the same conference and share a division nowadays, too. Do they think about besting each other every time the Penguins and Capitals play? Yes and no, according to Niskanen.
“I never notice them acknowledging or comparing each other,” he said. “They both kind of just stay away from that. With that competitive nature, they have just a little bit of hate for each other, but I think at the same time they both respect each other’s game. One probably wishes he had the other’s skill set at times. I bet Sid wishes he had that kind of shot, that kind of threat from a distance that Ovie has, and I bet you Ovie sometimes wishes he had Sid’s vision or his playmaking ability."
The most intriguing question in the Crosby/Ovechkin debate today isn’t who’s better. It’s who’s better than both of them. For the first time since they joined the league, neither is the automatic choice for world’s premier player. Drew Doughty, whom Ferraro likens to a hockey savant, dominates the defense position with effortless zeal. Jonathan Toews is the NHL’s most respected captain. And one star player in particular elevated from star to superstar in 2014-15, transcending his position to capture the Hart Trophy.
“The goalie can impact the game greater than anybody else,” Ferraro said. “I don’t think that’s even up for debate. And Carey Price is the best goalie. So, right now, I would say there’s nobody that can impact the game like Carey Price can. Montreal got to where they got to on his back. And unfortunately he couldn’t score on the power play, and so that was it. They were done.”
We’ll soon finish debating Crosby versus Ovechkin as the game’s best player, if we haven’t already. Both men will begin to decline as they reach their 30s. And, fittingly, Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel arrive this season as the most hyped prospect tandem since Crosby and Ovechkin. Trying to pick Sid or Ovie as the best player of his generation, however, will endure as a popular barroom exercise. Here’s hoping they retire the same year and ignite the argument again as Hall of Fame inductees on the same day.
It would be all too fitting.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin