Think back to April 2009 (only 20 months ago). As the regular season drew to a close, there was little doubt that Alex Ovechkin would win his second consecutive Hart trophy as league MVP. After all, Ovechkin had been the runaway league leader in goals for a second year and had probably lost the overall scoring race to Evgeni Malkin because he missed three games. Four years after his NHL debut, Ovechkin had established himself as the NHL's undisputed No. 1 player, ahead of his rival Sidney Crosby.
Today, though, it seems every NHL GM except George McPhee would choose Crosby as his franchise player if given the chance -- and fans and media would agree with this assessment.
This change in opinion has been largely driven by four events.
First of all, the Penguins' 2009 Stanley Cup win established Crosby as a winner and a big-game player. True, the Conn Smythe went to Malkin, but it was Crosby who led the Penguins to the finals, with 28 points in the first three rounds, and it was Crosby that the Deroit Red Wings were most worried about, shadowing him with Henrik Zetterberg as much as possible. At 21 years of age, Crosby became the youngest Stanley Cup captain in history.
The second big feather in Crosby's cap was the Canadian victory at the 2010 Olympics. Yes, Canada had more depth as well as home-ice advantage -- and Crosby was not saddled with second-rate defensemen from the KHL like Ovechkin was. But the 7-3 shellacking that Canada gave Russia in their head-to-head game, as well as the instant legend of Crosby's clinching overtime goal, cemented Crosby's reputation as a champion.
The third important factor that has worked against Ovechkin has been the Capitals' playoff struggles. Up two games to none against the Penguins in their 2009 series, the Capitals proceeded to lose three in a row, and when given the chance at a deciding Game 7, they failed to show up and were massacred 6-2. While goaltending was partly to blame, any team that gets outshot 16-5 in the first period of a Game 7 doesn't deserve to win. Last season, the effort was there, but the results again were not. Up 3-1 against the Montreal Canadiens, the Capitals were stonewalled by Jaroslav Halak, scoring only three goals in three games -- on 134 shots -- and leaving in stunned disbelief as the Canadiens eliminated them. That the Habs would do the same to Crosby and friends two weeks later did nothing to soothe the wound.
Put together, all of these would simply be "team arguments."
Some would say Crosby has had better teammates, a better GM, or better luck; Ovechkin has put up better numbers. A player can only control his own play: To penalize Ovechkin for the poor play of his teammates would be ludicrous.
This is why Crosby's offensive dominance since the Olympics has been key in turning the debate around.
When the NHL paused for its Olympic break in February 2010, Ovechkin was tied with Crosby for the league's goal-scoring lead and comfortably placed to win his second Art Ross as the league's leading point scorer. Since then, however, their respective results have been night and day. While Crosby has put up 91 points in 56 games, an average of 1.63 points per game, Ovechkin has managed only 59 in 55 games for 1.07 points per game.
To a certain extent, this career progression was inevitable. Because they entered the NHL at the same time and have been linked in our minds by the natural rivalry that has emerged and been encouraged by fans, the media and the NHL, it's easy to forget that Crosby is two years younger than Ovechkin. While each player's development curve is different, almost all NHL players improve markedly every year until age 22 or 23; Crosby just turned 23 in August. Ovechkin also no longer has the benefit of the "Southleast" division; for years he padded his stats on cellar-dwellers in Tampa Bay and Atlanta, but these teams are now earning respect.
It's still too soon to write Ovechkin off. This is a player who, until this season, was putting up goals like nobody since Brett Hull. But to even turn the Crosby-Ovechkin "debate" back into a debate instead of a settled question, he will have to do two things. First of all, Ovechkin needs to reclaim his edge. After he was suspended twice last season, many questioned whether Ovechkin would lose the edge to his game that makes him such a dangerous player, and this seems to have happened. He's sniffing around the scoring areas less. Last season Ovechkin got to the net for 20 rebounds at even-strength; this year it's only three. He's even shooting the puck less overall: 4.4 shots per game this season, after averaging 5.5 over his first five years.
Ovechkin will also need to win in the playoffs. Like it or not, another playoff disappointment will cement the Capitals' reputation as underachievers and make it impossible to keep Alexander Semin. Such questions are asked of every generation's great players: while Crosby has touched the Cup very young, Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman, Hull and Chris Pronger were questioned for years until they brought their teams to the promised land.
Both Crosby and Ovechkin are still young, and with all due respect to Steven Stamkos, nobody else can be considered for the title of best player in the world right now. For now, we have an answer: Crosby is the league's preeminent offensive force, and barring injury will win the scoring title, becoming only the fourth player in the last 30 years to win it more than once. For now the question is closed. But we will revisit it again in June.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Tom Awad is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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