Monday, November 30, 2009

Is it possible to be a fan of Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin?

This is inspired by the reaction to Ovechkin's latest high-risk hit and the dicussion I read following it at Habs Inside/Out.

They are the two most visible players in the NHL at the moment. They are also the quickest way to divide a room of hockey fans about who's the best player in the game.

Alex Ovechkin, Alexander the Great, The Great 8, whatever you call him, everyone who watches hockey knows who he is. He is billed as the most entertaining player in the NHL right now and I can't find an argument that holds another player ahead of him. He scores goals in ways that no other NHL player can imagine, let alone recreate, especially the Phoenix goal, the Montreal goal and the Rangers goal. No one else in the NHL has the natural ability Ovechkin has to find the back of the net, he is a pleasure to watch and I have enjoyed watching him ever since I really took the time to watch all the hockey games I could. Ovechkin plays with flair, he loves getting goals and everyone knows it, from at the beginning of his career when he would jump into the glass in celebration or the infamous 'Hot Stick' celebration last season, which I enjoyed because it pissed off Don Cherry.

At the moment, Ovechkin is the most intimidating sniper the NHL has seen in some time, he gives out more hits than Heatley (26), Gaborik(11), Selanne (9), Cammalleri (6) and Kovalchuk(4) combined. He uses his intimidation factor to allow him to muscle through the opposition, make opponents want to avoid his check and use his strength to crunch opponents into the boards to retrieve the puck or simply punish them. He plays a very intense, focused game that is based around taking the puck and scoring goals with it, he is very much a Rocket Richard/Pavel Bure type of player, he wants to score goals more than set up another person's goal, for him it's about the back of the net and nothing else.

Ovechkin has been accused of being a puck hog, but if you have a superstar of Ovechkin's quality on the ice, it seems insane not to let him handle the puck, he can create an opportunity where others are stymied, he can shoot like no one else in the NHL, let him have the puck and shoot, that's how he delivers his 50-goal seasons. His shootout abilities are less than that of Canadian kids Jonathan Toews or Sidney Crosby or his fellow countrymen Pavel Datsyuk, but at times I've also seen him do moves that would make Pavel Datsyuk proud including this one against Nashville.

Another strike against him has been the claims of diving, faking injuries in World Junior tournaments, refusal to fight and of his reckless hits. A lot of NHL players dive, Ovechkin's dives will generally get highlighted more because he is Ovechkin and his detractors want to it as a strike against him. As for faking injuries, Ovechkin's personality just doesn't seem to me as one who would fake an injury and not play, he is too much the competitor from everything I've ever seen of him. His missing out International tournaments with faked injuries seems far and away from his style, for Russian players, representing their nation is the highest honour they can achieve as hockey players. Ovechkin's only significant time missed in International Tournaments was the 2005 World Juniors, when he left the ice with a separated shoulder courtesy of up-and-coming Broad Street Bully Mike Richards, a well-known cheap shot specialist.

When it comes to fighting, I'm against it and I don't care how much of a minority I'm in on that one, I find them boring and rather sloppy affairs that are a holdover from when the NHL was really an amateur league. I applaud players who refuse to fight generally, they know the fight will gain them nothing, their ability in the game lies in other areas and not in some clumsy boxing match on skates. It's nothing to do with a 'Code', 'Honour' or 'Bravery.' From my eyes and I've spoken to my father about this, the Code was something back in the day when the NHL knew each other, back when there were six to twelve teams and you faced the same team up to 14 times a year. I'm tired of hearing Cherry toss around stuff like Honour or Bravery when it comes to NHL fights or when that crap I hear used to describe UFC fighters like George St. Pierre, who is revered for reasons beyond my understanding, I don't want to go off topic really, but I feel this needs to be said. There is no honour that is involved in a fight you can walk away from without any true repercussions and are only engaging in because it benefits you financially or salves your ego. An honourable man might risk his life defending the life of another, he does not gain honour for beating up another man because he will be paid to do so or because he wants to prove he was the better fighter.

In the NHL, one might point out O'Byrne's pummelling of Kaleta for the Pyatt hit in pre-season as standing up for one of his guys during the Montreal-Buffalo game, but to me, there's not much honour in beating up the dishonourable. Kaleta was a dirty bastard who got what was coming to him and the way the NHL is, the team needs a guy like O'Byrne to stand up for his teammates. I don't particularly like it, but I recognize that there was respect for one's teammates in situations such as this and a sense of loyalty, although I do happen to have a very prickly definition of honour that doesn't generally fit into the world of million-dollar athletes.

There is a degree of bravery involved in challenging a known pugilist like Colton Orr or George Laraque I will admit, they are feared NHL fighters but there is also false heroics. Choosing to engage in a contest you can not win gains one nothing, so what does Ovechkin really have to gain from fighting except shutting up his detractors? Shows more intelligence than anything else, it's not a good idea Ovechkin to allow himself to get beaten up by goons because he delivered a hit that the other team didn't like.

For Ovechkin's reckless hits, besides the latest example with Gleason, there are the these hits, which include the playoff knee-on-knee contact with Sergei Gonchar in the Washington-Pittsburgh series in the 2009 semi-finals. Some other examples would be the boarding of Jamie Heward, the Briere boarding or just any one of his jumping hits, you surely must remember some of them if you've ever seen Ovechkin play. I won't try and defend these hits, they are indefensible when I am in favour of a less brutal NHL game than the one I've been watching of late. Ovechkin needs to learn how to control himself and deliver safer, legal hits, the sooner the better. The league's refusal to discipline him is not likely to change anytime soon, if his knee injury from the Gleason hit sidelines him for any length of time, hopefully this might make him pause and reconsider how he plays his game, if his reckless hits are causing him to be injured and prevent him from playing.

Ovechkin clearly loves the game, the attention and the rush he gets from competing and I want him to be in the NHL for as long as he can, he is a magnificent player and a pleasure to watch. His own attitude will probably go against him more than anything else, if he can not adjust his game to keep up with the reality of his situation, that his playing style puts himself and others in danger and he needs to change, I fear his career could be cut short by half a decade or more. Nevertheless, he has breathed life into the game of hockey in Washington, making the Capitals the No. 1 team in the Washington D.C. area. Granted, their popularity is greatly enhanced by the local football, baseball and basketball teams generally being terrible. He entertains, sells the game and is the most dangerous offensive threat in the NHL. Fans love him because he scores and hits and entertains, his detractors focus on his negative attributes which he does have. What is the truth in the matter? I'm not sure, but Ovechkin remains my favourite NHL player. From my view, he is the best player in the NHL for the fact that there is no other skater in the NHL who can single handedly turn a game on it's head with their play like Ovechkin can. With a total of thirty-six skaters in each NHL game, it can be difficult for any man to make a major impact in more than a handful of games, but Ovechkin is always visible and always considered the largest threat on the ice. Team games are supposed to be about the team, but Ovechkin glosses over that fact with his play that makes it seem like everyone else is out there to simply give him a challenge, make it a little bit harder so he must do something even more spectacular to change the outcome of the game.

Note: For some reason I've either hit the number of links I can attach in a blog post or the Blogging software doesn't like me anymore, I can't attach any more YouTube Videos for Crosby so you'll have to rely solely upon my prose from now on.

Now let's consider Sidney Crosby, Sid the Kid as most of us call him, some disparagingly, some lovingly, I like him, but I'm not crazy about him either. He was the most sought-after first overall draft selection in many years, billed as "The Next One" before he'd even really hit puberty. The Next One has been a tricky phrase ever since Gretzky, who has set so many impossible NHL records that it's ridiculous to even imagine any of them being broken. I always have felt Mario Lemieux, with better health and a better Penguins team when he was first drafted might have closed the gap with Gretzky or surpassed him on a few records, but that's idle speculation from a fan's perspective. Crosby I would say models himself more like Yzerman or Gretzky, the playmaker with the scoring touch.

Many have been tagged with "The Next One", First overall picks are the most valuable resource in the NHL, considered can't-miss choices that are highly coveted, the chance to have the next NHL superstar that will lead your team to a Stanley Cup. Ovechkin was selected first overall in 2004, but Crosby. selected first overall in 2005 was the much bigger show. It was the draft following the o4-05 lockout, the Penguins had nearly been handed over to rogue billionaire Jim Balsillie, who has engaged in three battles with the NHL with the intention to bring a hockey team to Southern Ontario. The deal was reneged after Balsillie and the NHL had a disagreement about the conditions attached to the deal. The Penguins were to stay, they acquired the much sought-after first overall pick in the lottery thanks to their horrific standings in the NHL in the past couple of years. They selected Sidney Crosby. It wasn't soon after that they managed to work out the financing to build a new arena, as the Mellon Arena was close to 40 years old at that point and the team needed a new building. Crosby first became fodder for some critics around this point when there was talk that his parents would pressure him to sit out the draft and sign somewhere else, until Lemieux personally negotiated with his parents, stating he would have Crosby live with him if he were to start with the Penguins. The living arrangement has become a striking point against the Penguins captain in itself now, considering the young phenom is now in his 5th NHL season and still living with the Pittsburgh legend.

Sidney Crosby would be off to a rougher start in the NHL than his rival Ovechkin. Crosby was smaller, Ovechkin stands at 6'2" and generally weighed at least 220 pounds, although this season he's bulked up to about 235. Crosby is 5'11" and weighes 200 even and was less than that when he started in the NHL. Despite managing a 102-point season with 39 goals and 63 assists, he recieved a good deal of criticism. He whined too much, teams would target him for hits and he would take dives, gripe every time he was taken down and chirp a lot. Ovechkin would give as good as he got, Crosby far less so.

I won't deny Crosby's ability, he is perhaps the best playmaker in the game and while some might say Thornton is better, but for me Thornton goes down on the chart because he can't pull the trigger in the playoffs the way Crosby can. With Malkin in a mini-slump during the Washington-Pittsburgh series last year, Crosby would take over the scoring and keep his team in the series until Malkin got back into action later in the series. He is notable leader, having worn the C in Pittsburgh since May 31st of 2007. I don't think he's a new Yzerman and he's certainly no Messier, but he definitely has leadership attributes based upon his ability to elevate his play to inspire the team onwards. He's gotten tougher in past seasons, showing more fire and wilingness to give hits and take them, had a couple of fights including the one where after Evgeni Malkin was upended by Keith Ballard and Crosby dropped the gloves.

However I've noticed with Crosby as well that he does get into flights of aggressiveness where he'll be more active physically to no gain, get into a fight or take foolish penalties. I remember when he got into one of those streaks where he really started taking whacks at Ovechkin during a Capitals-Penguins match, they got in close, Ovechkin wrestled him close and I imagine said something like "are you nuts? This will end a lot worse for you than me comrade." It's part of his growing pains in the NHL, but it's an annoying part of the game's premiere young playmaker, I want to watch him score and set up great goals, I don't need him dropping the gloves or picking up foolish penalties because he feels the need to look tough. 'Hockey tough' I've always felt is getting up from the big check, shaking it off and getting the guy later, not a high-sticking or a hooking penalty on the guy because you took it personally or thought you were too important to get hit. However they are streaks and not a dominating measure of his play, I think he'll get over it as he gets older.

I've also found him a bit too arrogant, yes I'm talking about Sid and not Ovie on this one. His team was far too smug about their Stanley Cup run and their general success. All their 'aw shucks' crap and talk about what seemed like an impossible victory over Detroit. Impossible would have been the Carolina Hurricanes winning through perhaps, or Montreal to take it despite their injury problems and aging stars or the Colombus Blue Jackets with 1st-year captain Rick Nash and 20-year old rookie(but definitely not sophomore) sensation Steve Mason. The Penguins have enjoyed a hideous advantage in the draft because of their wretched record for most of the decade, allowing them to draft Marc-Andre Fleury (1st overall), Evgeni Malkin (2nd overall), Sidney Crosby (1st overall) and Jordan Staal (2nd overall). Crosby enjoys having Malkin as his PP partner so success is practically guaranteed on that team at times. They have a hideously stacked team in centres thanks to the draft and these players attract many of the best free agents to sign with the because they want to be part of a team where players like Malkin or Crosby will make them look great and the team will win championships. Crosby is a good leader and a great player, but he hasn't exactly managed the 1990 Oilers Cup victory like Messier did at the same time. He's got a stacked team with him and he owes a lot of success to the fact that for a long time, the Penguins were lousy so the parity of the draft lottery gave them undeserved high picks for their failures.

I'll say one thing about Crosby that I really hate, he shouldn't be allowed to grow any more playoff beards until he can do better than the Liberal Arts grad student look.

Crosby is definitely the less controversial star of course, he is more the clean-cut kid and relies upon a less reckless, more complete game that works with his skill set. Crosby has his fans and he's done well to earn them. He sells the game in Pittsburgh and the rest of the NHL, delivered a Stanley Cup to the city and is the face of the franchise there. He's earned accolades in his youth with his stellar play and will continue to be a defining star in the NHL for a very long time to come. He can change the outcome of a game at times, not as successfully as Ovechkin can but he has the ability and the talent to do so which makes him a true superstar in my mind. A brilliant player, he is good for the game and that can't be argued by anyone.

Would we in Montreal cheer for either of them if they played for Montreal? Definitely, although I suspect we'd be more in love with the constant entertainer Ovechkin than Crosby, as the Bell Centre faithful are a fickle crowd that wants the big play, the impossible goal, the fifty-goal scorer and the outspoken, entertaining players that are fun to interview. He is a natural entertainer and the city is hooked on such players. I imagine if he was one of ours, he'd get all the defenders in the city backing him up on these things because that's the nature of most fan crowds. If Crosby was here with his draft lottery crew, we'd explain away his rashes of angry play, immaturity and arrogance with "we won, you didn't" and so on.

These two will always be rivals and so will their fans, Ovechkin has more sins than Crosby, but Crosby is hardly the perfect player either. I hope they both do well in the 2010 games and if Ovechkin gets Olympic Gold for Russia, I honestly won't hate him because if Russia was the better team than so be it, Canada has more than enough talent on their roster going into the games to win and if they couldn't, that's on their heads and not his. I look forward to another Capitals-Penguins tilt in the Playoffs as that was one of the greatest playoff series of the decade, seeing the league's three best players in an all-or-nothing series.

I'm sure this has been tossed up in hundreds of other hockey blogs and numerous sports articles but I thought I'd take a shot at since the Ovechkin debate has sprung up once more. A star like Ovechkin will always be controversial and I do think he does need to change his game, but I don't think we hockey fans should delude ourselves that most of us wouldn't love to have him on our own team. The same for Crosby, while he's not my favourite star, I certainly wouldn't mind having him in Montreal.

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