— Because we live in North America, and because hockey is a business that some (the cynical?) might say masquerades as a sport, our eye has been focused the past four seasons on the Penguins and Capitals. And with good reason. Caps star Alexander Ovechkin was the No. 1 pick in the 2004 draft, and Penguins star Sidney Crosby, proud son of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, was the top pick in the '05 draft.
The obvious debate has been: Who's better? And for every Ovechkin fan, convinced that he is the best player in the world, there has been at least one Crosby tub-thumper to counter the claim. Again, hey, it's North America, home to all 30 NHL franchises, and how in the world could we face Don Cherry if we didn't support our own boys, eh?
For those still undecided, or for those who would like to back their boy, the Pens and Caps go at it again twice more before the 2008-09 regular season concludes. NBC will air the Sunday matinee in Washington, and a rematch is scheduled in D.C. for another matinee on NBC on March 8, four days after the trade deadline.
We'll go out on a limb here and suggest that neither star will be moved at the trade deadline. Sure, there is a risk in that, just as the Statue of Liberty could decide she's had enough of New York and choose to live a quieter life in, say, Des Moines. But who's your NHL Expert if not a incorrigible daredevil? Sid stays, and so does OV.
But back to Ovechkin vs. Crosby. Personally, I'm an Ovechkin guy.
Ovechkin is bigger. He is bolder. He plays with such emotion and passion, charging off the Washington bench like some carmaker headed to Capitol Hill for a bailout, that it's impossible to step away from the TV when he's playing. How many times do you say that when you've got that clicker in your hand, flipping your way through 387 channels until something, anything, catches your eye?
Ovechkin has established himself as the game's Michael Jordan, scoring like no one else. He is the game's ultimate finisher, and he's on course to grip-and-rip his way to 60 or more goals for a second straight season.
Ovechkin also shoots more than ever, projected to land 528 shots on net this season. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him increase that shooting pace down the stretch, especially if the Caps close tighter on the Bruins for the No. 1 spot in the East. He could even top Phil Esposito's all-time mark of 550 shots, set when the hulking center was with the Bruins in 1970-71. It's a good bet that none of Espo's shots was more than a three-footer. Ovechkin fires from all over the building, off the wing and by the pizza stand. Esposito parked down low in the slot, withstood crosschecks and butt-ends, and popped pucks on net sometimes as if they were connected by an elastic string fixed to his stickblade (think: paddle, string and little red bouncy ball).
Meanwhile, Crosby is an exciting player, too, a powerful skater and sublime playmaker, wired with a center's mentality, generally thinking pass first, shoot second. On a points-per-game basis, he and Ovechkin are evenly matched. But in their fourth seasons, at last count, Ovechkin had a sizable lead in career goals (204-120). When their careers end, Ovechkin will have doubled, if not tripled, Crosby's goal-scoring total.
In a game that is all about one team scoring more goals than the other, I'll take the guy who scores more. Simple analysis, but it is a simple game.
Ovechkin should easily pass Luc Robitaille's all-time mark for most goals by a left wing (668), and it's not outlandish to think he could break Wayne Gretzky's all-time mark of 894 career goals. Through his first 300 games, Ovechkin averaged .680 goals per game. Gretzky, who played a career 1,487 games, averaged .601 goals per game. If Ovechkin could maintain his pace and play 1,487 games, he would outgoal the Great One, 1,011-894.
Anyone else get the suspicion that Ovechkin already has the idea of 1,000 career goals floating in his head?
Now, amid the whole “who's-better-Ovechkin-or-Crosby” thing, we've overlooked that a better argument might be between Ovechkin and Crosby's teammate, Evgeni Malkin. Check the NHL point leaders. Malkin, who finished with 106 points last season, is leading the league this season, his third. As of Monday, he had 81 points, followed by Ovechkin (74), then Crosby (72).
Malkin was the second pick in that 2004 draft in which the Caps took Ovechkin first. Malkin remained in Russia for two more seasons before making his NHL debut, and promptly followed Ovechkin's path to the trophy stand, copping rookie-of-the-year honors for 2007. Both Ovechkin (6-foot-2) and Malkin (6-3) are taller than Crosby (5-11). Although we've all been mesmerized by the speed of the new NHL the past 3 1/2 seasons, size is becoming important again.
Ovechkin and Malkin are bigger bodies, which alone doesn't make them better than Crosby. But it appears the game is trending back toward big guys, more teams trying to implement force and size to counter the game's speed demons.
Crosby isn't about to disappear in the forest. It's a good bet he'll be able to challenge for 100 points a season for most, if not all of his career. But given their size and accompanying skill set, and the fact they can bring Russian bragging rights into the mix, I'm betting on Ovechkin vs. Malkin being the much better debate over the next 5-10 years.
As for Lady Liberty? She probably stays on the watch in New York, provided she doesn't have to keep watching the Rangers.
A: Interesting question, Matthew, and I don't think there is a wrong answer. TV rules the day in all sports, and in the matchups you've proposed, the total metro population is about the same per pairing. Based on recent figures, the combined metro population of Detroit and Boston is approximately 8.9 million, while San Jose and D.C work out to about 9.1 million. We'll need a faceoff, or possibly a shootout, to settle that one.
However, size of market is one thing, but the hockey interest in those markets is something else. A Detroit-Boston matchup would pull in solid TV numbers in the respective cities and all their combined "Original Six" history would add much to the broadcast storylines. A San Jose-Washington final couldn't come close in the storytelling department. Mike ''Do'' Emrick would be in hockey heaven with the Wings and Bruins battling every other night for two weeks.
However, Washington has the game's most exciting player in Alexander Ovechkin. No one comes close. As compelling as I would find the historical storylines behind the Detroit-Boston matchup, I might be more excited to see how Ovechkin responds when the Cup is on the line.
All in all, let's hope we see one of your matchups.
A: No way of knowing how things shake out in the desert, be it for the team or Gretzky. In a recent conversation, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the league remains committed to keeping the Coyotes in Phoenix. Meanwhile, club owner Jerry Moyes continues to look for partners/investors, and might end up selling the whole kit, kabootle 'n' Zamboni. The league this year has advanced the Coyotes money to help deal with the club's bleeding on the bottom line.
Now, what does all this mean for Gretzky? Again, no telling. Obviously, he makes a lot of money, about eight times what the higher compensated NHL coaches pull down. As incredible as that sounds, remember, there is only one Gretzky and he was hired as much as a marketing instrument as he was a coach. Has that marketing aspect worked? Not in the slightest. Hockey fans aren't flocking to Glendale to see the Great One. They aren't flocking to Glendale for anything.
Only one thing makes for a better scenario here, and that's for the Coyotes to become playoff-worthy in the West. This is their 12th season in Phoenix (Winnipeg fans could break that down in days, hours and minutes). If they miss the cut again this season, it will be six straight DNQs. Something has to give, and soon. If it doesn't, it's hard to envision Gretzky staying with it, even though some of the franchise's better prospects are beginning to look like impact players.
A: The last scoring champion to play for a club that didn't make the playoffs was Calgary captain Jarome Iginla, who scored 52 goals and collected 96 points in 2001-02 for a Flames squad that was in the midst of a seven-year run in which it did not quality for the postseason.
Otherwise, the only 1-2 scoring tandem not to reach the playoffs was Roy Conacher-Doug Bentley, who led NHL scoring for the 1948-'49 Blackhawks. The Hawks then were in the midst of a six-year run in which they didn't make the playoffs. Conacher finished with 68 points and Bentley with 66.