Who belongs on the NHL’s Mount Rushmore in 2020?
Alongside the sculptures of four U.S. presidents, let’s pretend hockey has won the right to carve the faces of four superstars. The hockey gods have awarded the first three spots to Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr. They have also eliminated from consideration such worthy candidates as Bobby Hull, Mario Lemieux and Maurice Richard. Connor McDavid is deemed to be too young. It’s down to Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals. Both have firmly established their positions as all-time greats during their 15-year careers. Both are guaranteed first-ballot Hall of Famers. Which one of them deserves to be the fourth face of hockey on Mount Rushmore?
Both Ovechkin and Crosby have completed 15 NHL seasons. Ovechkin’s Mount Rushmore candidacy is based on his ability to score goals – always the most important attribute in hockey. He has led the NHL in goals nine times, more than any player in history. Ovechkin is a volume shooter who has led the NHL in shots 11 times. He has been incredibly durable, playing in almost 98 percent of his team’s games while being a consistent physical presence. He has a Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy among his playoff accomplishments, and he’s one of only eight players in NHL history to have won the Hart Trophy at least three times.
Crosby is a two-time NHL scoring champion who has finished among the league’s top three scorers seven times. His 1.28 points-per-game average puts him among the all-time leaders. He has twice been named regular-season MVP and has finished in the top three in Hart Trophy voting on seven occasions. He has two Olympic gold medals, with his dramatic overtime goal deciding the 2010 tournament in Vancouver. Crosby has led the Penguins to four Stanley Cup final appearances, winning three titles. Twice, Crosby has been awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy. There’s no doubt that these illustrious credentials qualify both Ovechkin and Crosby for Mount Rushmore consideration.
This is a study in contrasts. Ovechkin has been remarkably consistent throughout his career. The only statistical drop-off occurred in 2011-12 when he clearly did not see eye to eye with coach Dale Hunter. He has been a scoring machine who plays a physical game, and there’s not much variance in his approach from night to night. I’d compare Crosby’s career to that of Muhammad Ali, who was suspended for more than three years during the peak of his career. Ali was a great boxer both before and after the suspension, but he was not the same boxer. Crosby missed the better part of two years at the peak of his career due to concussion-related problems.
Like Ali, Crosby was able to reclaim his position as an elite player, but his present game is significantly different than how he played before the concussions. The young Crosby was a dynamic player who always seemed to be in motion. He was aggressive, averaging more than 70 penalty minutes per season. The post-concussion Crosby is a much more deliberate player. His legs are spread wide, and he’s more conscious of his defensive positioning. Very rarely do you see him in full flight. He protects the puck well in the offensive zone, makes terrific plays and has great hands in tight situations. He is as smart as any player in the league, but he’s not nearly as aggressive as his younger self. He is snarly with his stick – and his mouth – if anybody invades his space, but he has far less aggression pursuing the puck or trying to beat defenders. He now averages around 30 penalty minutes per season.
Ovechkin may be remembered as the greatest goal-scorer in the history of the NHL. He’s a threat to score every time he shoots the puck. Crosby is an elite goal-scorer, but he is not in Ovechkin’s class. The only area in which Crosby may exceed Ovechkin in goal-scoring is his lethal backhand shot – it’s as good as any I have ever seen. However, Ovechkin is not close to Crosby as a playmaker. Crosby’s wide margin in assists makes him a more productive offensive player both in the regular season and the playoffs.
This category is not close. The pre-concussion Crosby was often an indifferent defender. He was always looking for any chance to take off from the defensive zone. After his concussions, Crosby’s commitment to defensive play improved dramatically. His positional play and anticipation in the defensive zone are excellent. Ovechkin doesn’t lack for effort, but he often can’t figure out where he should be positioned. His anticipation in the defensive zone is average at best. Crosby is used in key defensive situations. Ovechkin is not.
Hockey is the consummate team game. Even the greatest and best-conditioned players are only on the ice for less than half of the game. Nobody expects one player to lead a mediocre team to a championship. The question I want to address is what if the two teams are relatively equal? Let’s be objective here. Ovechkin and Crosby both entered the NHL in 2005. Each has remained with his original club for his entire 15-year career. Their two teams have attained almost identical regular-season results over this period.
It’s a different story in the playoffs. The Capitals won the 2018 Stanley Cup in their only trip to the final during this period. The team has won a total of 10 playoff series since 2005. Meanwhile, the Penguins won three Cups in their four trips to the final in the past decade-and-a-half, and the team has won a total of 20 playoff series in that time. Let’s also look at the 2010 and 2014 Olympics. Crosby was the hero in the dramatic overtime victory for Canada in 2010 and a key member of an almost flawless Canadian defensive performance in the 2014 Olympics, where the host Russian team, with Ovechkin as the captain, were the pre-tournament favorites and performed poorly. Crosby’s teams have a better track record of success. Edge: Crosby
Ovechkin is truly a generational player. In NHL history, his combination of skill, power and durability is matched only by Howe. He gives the fans full value every time he steps onto the ice and will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame as soon as he’s eligible. However, Crosby has been a better player. He’s more productive offensively, better defensively and has had a greater impact on winning championships.
Crosby and Ovechkin entered the NHL together. It would be fitting if they retire at the same time and then enter the Hall of Fame together. They both deserve the honor. However, Mount Rushmore only has room for one of them. I award Sidney Crosby the vacant position beside Howe, Orr and Gretzky. He has earned it.