Sports history is riddled with terrific player rivalries. The debates that follow often last for decades, and each league seems to always have two significant figures battling for “best player of their generation.” For the NHL, this modern-day tug-of-war is as enticing as any.
Who has been the best player since the 2004 lock-out, Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins or Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals?
This argument was recently brought into discussion by former NHL centerman Brandon Dubinsky. The one-time Columbus Blue Jacket went on a podcast and let his opinions fly. While adding a particular four-letter word, Dubinsky said he would choose Ovechkin over Crosby.
While this might seem like a former player adding some insight, it should be noted Dubinsky is far from starting a Crosby fan club. He has opined that Crosby is a dirty player and complains to the referees too much for his liking. He also dropped the gloves with Crosby and earned a one-game suspension for cross-checking the Pittsburgh captain in 2015.
While Dubinsky’s take is dripping with bias, he re-ignited the fire around the Crosby-Ovechkin debate.
Throughout his career, Crosby has been nothing short of sensational. He has been a terrific two-way player since he came into the league in 2005. He corralled more than 100 points in four of his first five seasons. And in 2009, he led Pittsburgh to their first Stanley Cup since 1992. Crosby was first in postseason goals (15) and even-strength goals (10), and he played all 24 games in the Penguins’ run.
Unfortunately, concussions would derail a significant portion of his 2012 season. It was possible his career would be finished because of brain trauma. Luckily for him and NHL fans, Crosby would return to form and continue to wow the hockey world.
Strangely enough, his silky-smooth hands do more damage to any team’s will than the grizzled gloves of a fighter ever could. His play-making ability is second to none, evidenced by his 832 assists in 1,024 games. And his wrists might as well be made of concrete — he gets more force on his backhand than some players produce on their forehands.
Crosby’s legacy was cemented in the spring of 2017, when he won the Stanley Cup for the second straight year and third time in his career. During those 48 games, he potted 14 goals and snagged 32 assists. He became just the third player in NHL history to win the Conn Smythe Trophy, as playoff MVP, in back-to-back seasons.
Now over to Ovechkin, who has quite the resume of his own. He came into the league at 20 and has been a dominant offensive force ever since. His goal-scoring ability is exceptional and flat-out absurd at times. His NHL reference page is littered with bolded ink, indicating the number of times he led the league in a particular category.
He has come in first in games played three times, goals nine times, even-strength goals five times, power-play goals six times, game-winning goals three times and shots on goal 11 times. His combination of power, speed and skill make him a nightmare for any opponent.
While he is not as well-known for his stout defensive ability, he is not scared to throw his weight around. Ovechkin has accumulated more than 200 hits in a season on nine occasions, which is significant since most star players of his caliber do not make a habit of putting themselves in those violent situations.
Despite his success, for the first 12 years of Ovechkin’s career, the knock on him was he could not be the best player without a championship. Despite putting up at least a point per game in five postseason runs, critics believed he was responsible for Washington’s lack of hardware.
However, in 2018 he captured that elusive title by putting up ridiculous offensive production. In 24 games, Ovechkin finished with 15 lamp-lighters and 12 helpers to propel the Capitals to their first Stanley Cup in franchise history, while being awarded the Conn Smythe.
The debate between these two transcendent players is multi-layered. Crosby has put up significantly more assists (832) than Ovechkin (587). He also has a better points per game clip (1.28) compared to his Washington counterpart (1.11). Crosby has 189 playoff points in 168 games, while Ovechkin has 131 points in 136 postseason contests.
Ovechkin has Crosby beat in two categories: goal-scoring and durability. Seven hundred twenty-seven goals for number 8 vs. 478 for number 87. Even with fewer playoff games under his belt, Ovechkin still has a slight edge in postseason goals, at 69 to 68. Also, Ovechkin has been able to stay on the ice more consistently than Crosby — Ovechkin has never missed more than 10 games in a season, while Crosby’s been out at least that many on five occasions.
However, the real difference between the two is that Crosby plays a beautiful 200-foot game and helps his team win even if he is having an off night offensively. Ovechkin needs to be on the score sheet to affect the outcome.
Ovechkin may be more likable than Crosby because his aggressive, abrasive style is much more pleasing to watch as a neutral observer compared to Crosby’s meticulous, oftentimes agitating persona.
Ovechkin supplies what hockey fans adore: goal-scoring and hitting. But Crosby brings so much the average viewer takes for granted, such as keeping your stick in the passing lane, back-checking without drawing a penalty and snapping a tape-to-tape pass to clear your zone.
Ovechkin will go down as the greatest goal-scorer in league history, even if he does not pass Wayne Gretzky’s record. That is how prolific he is. But Crosby is one of the best two-way players the game has ever seen. And while Ovechkin can lay claim to a more exciting highlight reel, Crosby’s skill set is more conducive to winning hockey.