It’s not something to which Pittsburgh Penguins fans are accustomed. Pittsburgh not being home to the best player in the world? It happened for a few years just after the turn of the 21st Century when Mario Lemieux’s career was winding down. However, there wasn’t another consensus “best in the world” during that chaotic period which led to a lockout, until the Penguins drafted Sidney Crosby in 2005. Otherwise, whenever you count Lemieux accepting the torch from Wayne Gretzky is the moment from which Pittsburgh has had the unquestioned greatest player on the planet.
That’s nearly 30 years.
Every run must come to an end. Penn State football no longer turns out Hall of Fame linebackers, annually. The Detroit Red Wings 25-year playoff streak ended in 2016. And eventually, the Red Sox beat the Yankees when it mattered.
The Sidney Crosby vs. Connor McDavid debate is just heating up. The unprecedented Pittsburgh run of having the greatest player in the world is coming to a close. Or has it already closed?
Last season, in the final weeks of the season, McDavid ran away with the scoring race. He exploded for 108 points (41g, 67a). The second leading Edmonton scorer was Leon Draisaitl, who had only 70 points, followed by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins with 48. Ryan Strome was the team’s fourth-leading scorer with a whopping 34 points.
McDavid only scored 20 power-play points and it was the second consecutive season he reached the 100-point plateau. Those simple factors make McDavid’s run even more impressive.
Crosby has scored at least 80 points in each of the past four seasons and scored 104 points in the season prior. Statistically, Crosby trails his new peer, especially when factoring the Penguins had five players score more than 20 goals, last season.
McDavid also generated more scoring chances (775) than Crosby (705) and had 358 high-danger chances against Crosby’s 300 chances.
From a purely statistical argument, McDavid is well ahead.
Thousands of words could be written to break down the best two players in the world. Both play at full speed with trendsetting footwork. Both challenge defenders directly and are able to skate past those defenders. However, McDavid has superior speed which allows him to play off the wall, whereas Crosby excels on it.
Crosby’s stocky frame allows him to be more successful in the dirty areas, whereas McDavid can skate through them, around them, or at least tries to do so.
Crosby is the best player in the NHL in front of the net. His hand-eye coordination and ability to re-direct pucks is extraordinary. And he has the strength to get to those areas. Crosby also has a great backhand shot.
McDavid’s skating and playmaking ability are a touch above Crosby. McDavid now makes those jaw-dropping plays around defenders, or through the neutral zone which a younger Crosby made, except McDavid’s edgework is otherworldly.
Crosby is also a grittier player than McDavid, which is a trait learned over years of absorbing a beating by the rest of the NHL. Perhaps someday McDavid will get there, too.
Three Stanley Cups, four Prince of Wales trophies and two Conn Smythe victory laps. Those are the trophies which matter when you wear the “C”.
Crosby was an immediate winner as a captain before injuries and organizational disorganization put up a large orange detour, but he gathered his team and franchise for unprecedented back-to-back Stanley Cup championships.
McDavid’s Oilers have made the playoffs once in three years, and have one series win. Just as the Penguins sideways turn can’t be pinned on one player and certainly not Crosby, nor can Edmonton’s foibles be laid on McDavid. However, in the cold reality of “best in the world” consensus, just as Lemieux was severely penalized by the 1980’s Penguins lack of success, so too should McDavid be penalized for Edmonton’s terrible records.
McDavid had the great surge in the final weeks last season after his team was eliminated from the postseason. Teams out of the playoffs are different teams. They’re able to play loose. Opponents don’t attack them in the same way. And mistakes aren’t as costly, so a player or team can take more chances.
When the Stanley Cup was within reach, Crosby was an indomitable force. He plowed through the San Jose Sharks and Nashville Predators, in 2016 and 2017, respectively. McDavid will have to gain entry to the big stage to display his intangibles.
Big Edge: Crosby
Judge’s Scorecards: Crosby vs. McDavid
Intangibles matter when determining the best player in the world. Great leaders and teams are disproportionately awarded. If skill is all that matters, players like Evgeni Malkin and Nikita Kucherov would also be in the conversation. Lemieux was better than Gretzky but he had to prove it by doing more than scoring points.
The entire body of work matters.
So, for the moment, McDavid will have to settle for being the most talented player in the game, but not the best in the world. By the slimmest of margins, that title still belongs to Sidney Crosby, for at least a little while longer.