Editor’s Note: Welcome to the first edition our new Throwback Thursday feature. Each week we’ll find something from The Hockey News archives — now with 70 years worth of stories — to share with you as it originally appeared in the magazine.
This week, a story from 2006 looking at the fantastic rookie seasons of Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, and Dion Phaneuf. Ovechkin won the Calder Trophy over Crosby, with Phaneuf third, and in this story Ken Campbell asked NHL insiders which of the three players they would choose to build their team around. More than a decade later, the debate about Crosby vs. Ovechkin rages on. Phaneuf, meanwhile, didn’t exactly live up to his billing as the next Scott Stevens.
There are certainly some parallels here to what’s happening with an impressive crop of rookies this season. Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine, the top two picks from the 2016 draft, have performed brilliantly through the first half of their first seasons. Meanwhile, much like in the 2005-06 season, a defenseman, Zach Werenski, is making his own case for the Calder. Already pundits and fans are debating which player they would prefer to build around.
‘Three Kings — Crosby, Ovechkin, and Phaneuf reign supreme’
October 3, 2006 — Vol. 60, No. 4
By Ken Campbell
There’s a better-than-average chance Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Dion Phaneuf, in many ways the cornerstones of the new NHL, will emerge as the undisputed elite of the league as early as this season. Owners of the most remarkable freshmen seasons in years, all three are poised to continue their upward trajectories and presumably, drag their teams along with them.
Yup, the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and Calgary Flames are sure lucky to have these guys. And here’s a scary thought: The Penguins could have actually had Phaneuf, too, who inexplicably fell to ninth overall in the 2003 entry draft, eight spots after the Penguins took goalie Marc-Andre Fleury first overall.
Oh well, you can’t have ’em all. But a hockey guy can dream, can’t he?
And that’s exactly what we asked a bunch of them to do when we posed the following question: All right, you’re starting your franchise from scratch and you can choose one of Ovechkin, Crosby or Phaneuf as your cornerstone. Which one would you choose?
The NHL fraternity being the NHL fraternity, a good number of them turtled, either refusing to answer the question or coming up with such gems as, “Golly gee, you can’t go wrong with any one of them.”
Well, duh. We knew that already because we tend to watch an awful lot of hockey around here. Evidently, so do readers of thehockeynews.com. In a poll conducted in early September, Internet surfers were asked the same question. Of the 8,594 who responded, 3,597 (42 per cent) went with Ovechkin, followed by 3,541 (41 per cent) for Crosby. Phaneuf was the choice of 938 (11 per cent) and New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who was part of the online query, but not the one to NHL personnel, garnered 518 (six per cent) of the votes.
It was almost as close among NHL experts. In all, we asked the question of 14 GMs, coaches and pro scouts. Of the 12 who gave definitive responses, six chose Ovechkin, five Crosby and one Phaneuf. Most on the panel provided us with answers without giving their names, but several, such as Anaheim Ducks GM Brian Burke, weren’t afraid to make their choices known.
“The GM in me is screaming Phaneuf,” Burke said. “Just screaming. But I have to go with Ovechkin. What he did last year just can’t be ignored.”
Hockey people are often loathe to compare young performers to the all-time great players in the game, as if mentioning similarities between Ovechkin and Mario Lemieux, Crosby and Bryan Trottier, and Phaneuf and Scott Stevens is going to wreck their careers or something.
But consider the following. When Lemieux broke into the NHL in 1984-85, he averaged 1.37 points per game in a league that was producing 7.8 goals per game. Last season, Ovechkin had 1.31 points per game and Crosby 1.26 in a league that averaged 6.1 goals per game. As for Phaneuf, his 20 goals was the third-highest all-time for a rookie defenseman and represented just one fewer than Bobby Orr scored as a 20-year-old. He scored substantially more goals than Al MacInnis (11), Phil Housley (16) or Denis Potvin (17) scored at the same age and was at least within shouting distance of 20-year-old Paul Coffey (29) and Ray Bourque (27).
What made it that much more impressive was Phaneuf did it while finishing sixth in the league in hits with 203, something that caught the attention of Los Angeles Kings assistant GM Ron Hextall, who was a pro scout with the Philadelphia Flyers last season.
“For me it’s Phaneuf because I think the most important guy on your team and the hardest one to find is a No. 1 defenseman,” Hextall said. “I just think the physical and offensive package this guy brings is too hard to pass up. I think this kid can be better than Scott Stevens. His offensive game is much better than Stevens’ and the rest of his game is very similar.”
Penguins GM Ray Shero, whose choice was not included for obvious reasons, said there’s no reason to believe Crosby will not go on to do great things. Shero said prior to training camp, Crosby had a one-word answer when the GM asked him what his conditioning level was like compared to last season’s train ing camp.
“He just said, ‘Pfffft,’ ” Shero said.
We’re guessing that means he’s in pretty good shape. And that will be bad news for teams trying to stop him as he speeds through the neutral zone or that try to knock him off the puck in the corner. At just 5- foot-11, Crosby has one of the strongest trunks in hockey and it makes him almost impossible to separate from the little black thing. Combine that with a sublime level of skill and competitiveness and you have something very special.
Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock saw Crosby play eight times last season and often thought he was looking at a player who occupied his own bench.
“Crosby, to me, has everything (Peter) Forsberg had as a young player,” Hitchcock said. “His strength is in his legs and they’re going to carry him forever. Ovechkin is a special scorer, but to me Crosby has the Forsberg personality on the ice.”
That doesn’t mean he necessarily thinks Crosby is better than Ovechkin, though.
“You asked me about building a team,” Hitchcock said. “You didn’t say top-end player. You said building a team.”
And nothing that Shero saw early in training camp discouraged him from thinking Crosby is capable of retaining his status as one of the league’s best players and improving upon it. In his first scrimmage in camp, Crosby took a pass from a Penguins defenseman in his skates in the neutral zone, split a pair of blueliners and fired the puck to the top of the net.
All right, the defensemen were Ryan Lannon and Michal Sersen and the goalie was Andrew Penner, but you get the idea.
“We were sitting there afterward saying to each other, ‘Can you believe that defenseman is going to get an assist for putting it in (Crosby’s) skates?’ ” Shero said.
Discuss amongst yourselves whether Crosby, Ovechkin and Phaneuf represent the top three impact rookies ever, but consider that Crosby and Ovechkin became the first two true rookies to finish in the top 10 in scoring in NHL history. (In 1926-27, six rookies are listed among the top 10 scorers, though all but one of them came to the NHL from the Western Canadian League, which according to many hockey historians was on par with the NHL at the time.)
Consider also that last year’s double cohort of rookies could have comprised an actual all-rookie roster, not just an all-rookie team. Along with Lundqvist in goal, there was Ryan Miller. Phaneuf was joined on defense by the likes of Andrej Meszaros, Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith. Marek Svatos would have scored 40-plus goals had he not missed 20 games with an injury; Jussi Jokinen made a mockery of the shootout; Brad Boyes put up what would have been a Calder-worthy season if it had happened any other year; and, Patrick Eaves scored a remarkably quiet 20 goals.
Certainly the top end rivals the depth of talent the league boasted in 1980-81 when Peter Stastny, Larry Murphy, Jari Kurri, Denis Savard, Glenn Anderson and Dale Hunter made their debuts. Or nine years earlier when Marcel Dionne, Guy Lafleur and Ken Dryden were rookies. Or in 1990-91 when Sergei Fedorov, Mats Sundin, Jaromir Jagr and Rob Blake were rookies. Then there was 1991-92 when Dominik Hasek, Nicklas Lidstrom and Pavel Bure all entered the league. Perhaps the best comparison could be made to 1984-85 when Lemieux, Pat LaFontaine and Chris Chelios broke into the league, or the year earlier when Steve Yzerman, Doug Gilmour and MacInnis were rookies. For the Ovechkin-Crosby comparison only, the best one might be 1957-58 when Frank Mahovlich and Bobby Hull finished 1-2 in voting for the Calder Trophy.
But back to the original question. Obviously, having any one of the three would be a boon to any team looking for a franchise player. One Western Conference GM who has seen an awful lot of Phaneuf said he doesn’t put the Flames defenseman in the same superstar category as Ovechkin and Crosby.
“With the other two players, you could probably flip a coin,” he said. “They certainly bring different things, but at the end of the day, you get the same result – star.”
And while there seems to be the notion Crosby brings more physical play and perhaps more passion to the game, Ovechkin has exhibited both those characteristics in abundance as well. You want passion? You ever watched this guy celebrate a goal?
Physical play? Well, Ovechkin did finish 14th in the league in hits with 172 last season, second only to Phaneuf among rookies. Crosby, meanwhile, finished well back in a tie for 203rd in the NHL with 66 hits, a little more than one-third the number of hits Ovechkin dished out.
It is a vexing question indeed. Some, such as Toronto Maple Leafs pro scout Craig Button, who chose Crosby, would just as soon have that decision made for them.
“Is there any way I can pick third in this one?” Button said.
“There’s no way I can go wrong with that pick.”