What it Takes

Sidney Crosby returned to the NHL last night and scored 2 goals and 4 points after missing nearly a year of action. 

There is no question that Crosby is the best player in the NHL, and last night was just another piece of evidence.  There are definitely other tremendous players in the NHL, but none have the three-zone dominance of Crosby. 

After the last two seasons, I find it almost comical to think that people could still believe that Alex Ovechkin is the world’s best player.  Ovechkin’s numbers have been down the last two years, but that’s not why he doesn’t match up to Crosby.  Ovechkin is only the best player on his team when he allows one of his teammates to get him the puck in the offensive zone.  He is in fact one of the worst players on his team in his own end because he is terrible defensively. There are a number of players I would rather have on my team than Ovechkin.  Two of the easiest to name are Pavel Datsyuk and Martin St. Louis.   

Datsyuk has great vision and is surprisingly strong on the puck.   He is a magician with the biscuit in the opponents end and one of the best defensive centermen in the game today.  Pavel won the Selke trophy, given to the league’s best defensive-forward, in 2008, 2009 and 2010.  Datsyuk plays a three-zone game just like Crosby, but with less explosive power.

Martin St. Louis is another player who is equally strong in each zone.  He has scored 80 or more points in each of the last five NHL seasons including 2007-2008 when his Lightning team put up the league’s worst record.  He is the main reason Steven Stamkos is the scorer that he is and I am willing to bet Steven would agree with me.  It has always been said that your best players should be your hardest workers and that is definitely the case for St. Louis.  He is a heart and soul player and a leader on his team.

The bottom line is Sidney Crosby is the best hockey player in the world and will be for as long as he plays.  Truly great players must be devoted to excellence in all three zones, for the whole shift, every shift.  That is the case with Crosby as well as with Datsyuk and St. Louis.  Until Ovechkin figures this out, he and his team will continue their losing ways.

The ‘Newer’ NHL

At the start of this preseason, the NHL introduced a few new rules and instituted a much stiffer system of supplementary discipline in all situations.  The league appointed Brendan Shanahan to become the NHL’s new Director of Player Safety and Hockey Operations.  He is now in charge of all supplemental discipline, including the new amendments to rule 48 which now makes it illegal for any player to deliver a body check “..in which the head is targeted and the principle point of contact.”  “However…the circumstances of the hit, including whether the opponent put himself in a vulnerable position immediately prior to, or simultaneous with the hit…on an otherwise legal body…check can be considered.”

Since the adoption of the rule there have been nine suspensions, inculding eight during preseason play.  This rule is a good step in helping to curb concussions in hockey and I do think that eventually the players will be able to tell when they have a chance to make a legal hit, and when to avoid an illegal one.  There will always be a few instances in which myself and others disagree with Shanahan’s rulings but that is inevitable with the change.

However, one suspension that I don’t understand at all is the recent two-game ban that Pierre-Marc Bouchard of the Minnesota Wild recieved for a high-stick/slash on Matt Calvert.   The video shows that while battling for position, Calvert initiates contact and Bouchard.  He responds by trying to lightly slash Calvert on his glove but Calvert lifts Bouchard’s stick and the slash rides up Calvert’s stick into his face.  In the video, Shanahan explains the suspension, but does not explain that this is an occurrence that, without the stick lift, happens on a nightly basis with no negative consequences. This is not to say that Calvert is to blame, but a series of legal plays worked together and went bad.  This is unfortunate, but not suspendable in my eyes.  I am concerned that suspending players in situations like this, where an injury occurs while no one is to blame, will hurt our game by discouraging competetive play.  It will confuse the players and make them more unhappy heading into the summer where another lockout is possible.

Hockey is a physical game where injury is possible and in some situations, likely.  Hockey players take these risks into account when they lace up the skates at any level.  Sometimes players deserve to be suspended because they have made an illegal play that results in an injury in a situation that injury was avoidable.  But there are also plays where players are injured where, based on the competetive nature of the game, the injury is unavoidable.  This is a fine line that Shanahan and the NHL must be able identify it if they are to keep our game safe while allowing its players to perform and put their best product out on the ice.