One of my least favourite hockey announcers (Pierre McGuire) was on the Team 1200 radio station here in Ottawa this morning like he is every morning. Even though I don’t like him, I often listen to him to see what other rediculous thing he is going to say. Today the discussion turned to Sidney Crosby and McGuire inidicated he thought Crosby was the best player in the NHL because he makes the players around him better. You could certainly argue that Crosby is the most talented player in the NHL, but to claim he makes the players around him better is what I have a dispute with.
When I heard McGuire’s comment I immediately asked myself, who on the Penguins has Crosby made significantly better? Who on the Penguins is having a sigificantly better season this year than expected or than he has in the past? I am not sure there is anyone. Mark Recchi has 33 points in 38 games, but that is no better than he produced last year in Pittsburgh (57p in 63g), or the season before in Philadelphia (75p in 82g). Sergei Gonchar has 29 points in 38 games which is right on last years pace of 58 in 75 games which is on par with Gonchar’s pre-lockout numbers (a time when scoring was lower). The only other Penguin with more than 25 points is Evgeni Malkin. Now, one could argue that Crosby has significantly helped Malkin produce his 37 points in 34 games but is that the case? We don’t really know what we should have expected from Malkin because it is his first year in the NHL so maybe he is better than he would be if not for Crosby. But, Malkin was an elite prospect close to if not on the same level as Crosby and Ovechkin were last season so it probably was safe to assume that he could be a point per game player. On top of that, in the 3 games that Crosby missed, Malkin had 3 goals and an assist so Crosby wasn’t exactly missed.
Pierre McGuire often compares Crosby to Peter Forsberg, but Forsberg has a proven track record of making the players around him better. Prior to last year Simon Gagne had never scored more than 33 goals and 66 points but playing with Forsberg last season he totaled 47 goals, 79 points in just 72 games (7 fewer than his 33g, 66p season). When Forsberg wasn’t in the lineup last year, Gagne’s stats were very mediocre. Forsberg makes the players around him better. As does Jaromir Jagr (look what Straka and Nylander are doing this year), and Joe Thornton (look what he did for Cheechoo last year). This is what made Gretzky and Lemieux so great as well. Wayne Gretzky made Bernie Nicholls a 70 goal, 150 point player and just compare Alexei Kovalev’s numbers when he played with Lemieux and when he didn’t and you will see what greatness Lemieux brought to the game.
There is no doubt that Crosby is an exceptional talent but it is my opinion that he is not yet an elite player as he has not yet fully learned how to make the players around him better and his team a winner. And I do believe this to be a learned skill. Last night we saw the retirement of Steve Yzerman’s jersey in Detroit. Steve Yzerman will be remembered as an elite player in the NHL. He is 6th on the all-time points list, 7th on the all time assists list and 8th on the all time goal scoring list. He led his team to 3 Stanley Cups and Team Canada to an Olympic gold medal (on a wonky leg too). And only 2 other players (Gretzky and Lemieux) have total more points in a season than Yzerman’s 155 in 1988-89. But dispite all his point production and personal success there was some serious doubt in Detroit whether Yzerman was capable of leading the Red Wings to Stanley Cup success and there were often trade rumours surrounging him. But over time he learned to be a leader and learned how to make the players around him and his team as a whole better and last night when his Jersey was retired he was remembered as one of the great leaders the game has seen. Over the course of Yzerman’s career, he learned to become a leader and a true super star of the game.
So, while Crosby is a great talent, he has not yet learned to be a great leader. And because of that, he is not yet, in my mind, deserving of the league MVP (though I expect he’ll likely win it). More deserving are guys like Jaromir Jagr, Joe Thorton, Joe Sakic, Scott Niedermayer, and others who make the players they play with and their team better.