Ranking the Top Three Players in the NHL: Pt. 3 of a Six-Part Series

jonathan staub@JStaubSportTalkCorrespondent IFebruary 24, 2009

They are currently one, two, and three in the NHL scoring race.

Between the three of them they won the last two MVP awards, as well as the last two scoring titles.

There is absolutely no question as to who the three best hockey players in the world are.

Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, and Evgeni Malkin are the current triumvirate that rules the hockey world.

Most sports have a struggle amidst two players that are striving to be recognized as the best. In the NHL there are three players that are widely regarded as being that much better than everyone else.

In the spirit of this series I will still attempt to identify which player should gain recognition as the third-best in the sport.

Instead of analyzing a second tier of player in the NHL, I will instead analyze these top three players, since they are so widely regarded as the three best, and we are attempting to find the third best.

We will start with the human highlight reel, the best goal scorer in the NHL today, and the defending NHL MVP.


Alexander Ovechkin: LW, Washington Capitals (77 points: 43 goals, 34 assists)

Alexander Ovechkin is the best goal scorer in the league today. When it comes to putting the puck in the net, he is the best in the world, hands down.

He mixes a ferocious shot with a tenacious physical style of play that makes him very hard to defend. He is not afraid to put body on body and go after a puck deep in the offensive zone.

Ovechkin has also shown the uncanny ability to score with a wicked wrist-shot, a scintillating slap-shot, sliding on his butt across the crease, shooting from his back behind his head, from the circle, from the blue line, between a defender’s legs, and a variety of other ways that other players could only dream of.

Alexander Ovechkin is the reigning Art Ross Trophy winner (scoring leader), Hart Memorial Trophy winner (MVP), Lester B. Pearson Trophy winner (most outstanding player), and Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy winner (goals scored).  

He is a former Calder Memorial Trophy winner (rookie of the year). He has also won the Kharlamov Trophy the past three years (best NHL Russian player).

Ovechkin currently leads the league with 43 goals. He is well on his way to another 60 goal season and Maurice Richard Trophy.

The Capitals currently sit second in the Eastern Conference with 81 points. They also have the third-ranked power play in the NHL at 24.1 percent—first in the Eastern Conference.

Washington has scored the second-most goals in the NHL (201) behind only Detroit of the Western Conference (228). Ovechkin accounts for 21.4 percent of Washington’s goals scored.

Ovechkin has factored in on 38.3 percent of Washington’s goals; he has 77 points on the season.

Ovechkin also holds seven Washington Capitals records, as well as eight NHL records. He is a three time All-Star and has established himself as the most-dangerous goal scorer in the league.

If there is a negative part to Ovechkin’s game, it is that he doesn’t get nearly enough assists for a player of his caliber. In fact, excluding the 2005-'06 season, where he had 54 assists and 52 goals, he has had more goals than assists in each season of his career.

He seems to be focused only on scoring goals. The debate as to who is the best player in the NHL would not even be close if Ovechkin were to work on his on-ice vision.

If he were to improve his playmaking ability in regards to setting up his teammates when defenses lock down on him, he could become one of the most dangerous players in the history of the league.


Sidney Crosby: C, Pittsburgh Penguins (79 points: 23 goals, 56 assists)

He started playing hockey in his parent’s basement at two years old, learned to skate at age three, and gave his first newspaper interview at seven.

He has been nicknamed “The Next One,” and is commonly known throughout the city of Pittsburgh as “Sid the Kid”.

Sidney Crosby has been widely regarded as the face of the NHL since he was drafted first overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2005.

He is the best assist man in the NHL today. The strong-point of Crosby’s game comes from his on-ice vision. His ability to make the perfect pass to an open teammate is second to none.

He is like a great chess player in that he sees things happening two moves ahead of time. He prides himself on being able to make passes that other players couldn’t dream of; much like Ovechkin with his goal-scoring.

Crosby is the youngest player in NHL history to be named a full team captain, be voted into the All-Star game, be selected as a first team All-Star, record 100 points in a season, record back to back 100 point seasons, reach 200 points for his career, and he is the first rookie to record 100 points and 100 penalty minutes in a season.

The highlight of Crosby’s career thus far, aside from leading the team into the Stanley Cup Finals last year, is that he is also the youngest player in NHL history to win the Art Ross Trophy and Lester B. Pearson Trophy. He accomplished this in 2007.

In 2007 Crosby also won the Hart Memorial Trophy as league MVP.

Crosby won a gold medal in the 2005 World Junior Championships where he became the fifth player to represent Canada at the games as a 16-year old.

Crosby has also done something else that is unheard of for a player of his caliber. He accepted less money when negotiating a contract extension with the Penguins. He was more concerned with building a championship team than padding his wallet.

Crosby and the Penguins are struggling this year. After coming within two games of winning the Stanley Cup last year, the Penguins currently sit in tenth place in the Eastern Conference—four points out of a playoff spot.

The Penguins have fallen well short of meeting the high expectations they had at the beginning of the season. People were beginning to talk about the Penguins and their potential to become a young dynasty similar to that of the Edmonton Oilers of the early ‘80s.

His unselfishness is what makes him not only a great leader for the Penguins, but a great role model for young hockey fans all over the world.

It is within his unselfishness that the major flaw in his game presents itself. Crosby has shown the ability to score goals, he recorded a career high of 39 goals his rookie season and followed it up with 36 the next year.

Crosby, however, takes to much pride in his passing ability and often passes up open shooting lanes in favor of setting up a teammate. Once he rediscovers that there is no shame in taking the open shot, any question as to who the best player in the NHL is will instantly vanish.


Evgeni Malkin: C, Pittsburgh Penguins (87 points: 27 goals, 60 assists)

The often-overlooked second half of the Pittsburgh Penguins two-headed monster, Evgeni Malkin is the current points leader in the NHL and perhaps the most valuable member of the Penguins’ roster.

Last season when Sidney Crosby went down with a high ankle sprain we were witness to a transformation of a good hockey player, to a great hockey player that has entered the discussion as one of the three best in the league.

While it remains to be seen if the Penguins are able to win without Malkin, he is the primary reason that the Penguins have shown they can win without Crosby. He single-handedly took the team on his back and carried them through the Crosby injury.

Like Ovechkin and Crosby, Malkin is a Calder Trophy winner as rookie of the year in the NHL. He was also second to Ovechkin in last year’s Hart Trophy race for league MVP. If not for a late surge by the Capitals to make the playoffs, Malkin would be the defending league MVP.

If the Penguins find a way to make it into the playoffs this year, Malkin will do to Ovechkin what Ovechkin did to Malkin last year. He will steal the Hart Trophy right out from under him.

Malkin may not have the records, awards, and accolades of Crosby and Ovechkin, but what he does have is perhaps the best all around game out of the three players atop the hockey world.

Last season he emerged as a true star. He showed that he is fully capable of scoring goals (47) and that he has phenomenal on-ice vision (59 assists). This season he has already eclipsed that assist total with 60 thus far, and has an outside shot at recording 40 goals again.

Malkin is the biggest physically of the three, and he uses his size to play a fierce physical game. He is not afraid to use his body to gain possession of the puck and you are just as likely to see him uncurl on a ferocious slap shot as you are to see him down in the corner working the boards for the puck.

Malkin was the second overall pick behind Ovechkin in 2004. These two have established a rivalry amongst each other that is already looking to become one of the fiercest rivalries in decades.

“Geno,” as he is commonly referred to in Pittsburgh, is still working on his command of the English language. This makes communication tricky sometimes, but not detrimental to his game.

It is, surprisingly, on the shoot-out where Malkin’s main weakness is evident. For someone that has the ability of “Geno,” he is absolutely horrendous in breakaway scenarios.

The primary concern with Malkin’s game was that he seemed timid to play at his full capacity with Crosby in the line-up. It was almost as if didn’t want to do anything to detract attention from Crosby.

Malkin has shown that this is no longer a factor in his game. He has emerged as a true leader on a young Penguins team. Malkin has been consistent all year for the Pens and seems well on his way to a scoring title and another shot at league MVP.



All three of these players bring something unique to the table. They are clearly the three best hockey players in the world.

Ovechkin is the most-dangerous goal scorer.

Crosby is clearly the best set-up man.

Malkin plays the best overall game and would be considered second best in each goal scoring and assists.

As a Pittsburgh native it would be easy for me to say that Ovechkin is the third-best player in the world. I would be lying to myself, and all of you, if I said I truly believed that.

His ability to score goals is just too much to ignore. His physical play and blue-collar attitude make him a force to be reckon with on the ice.

Crosby’s child-like enthusiasm for the game, mixed with his other-worldly ability to set anyone up from anywhere on the ice, makes him easy to cheer for.

Malkin has emerged as a quiet assassin who is not the best at any one thing, but great at everything.

For my money, based on what has happened the past two seasons, I have to say that Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin have emerged as the two best hockey players in the world.

“Sid the Kid” is still the face of the NHL. He may still break all of Gretzky’s records. He is the unquestioned leader of the Penguins and he has more potential than either Ovechkin or Malkin.

Crosby, however, is the third-best hockey player in the world today. Until he silences the critics in regards to his health, and he starts to put the puck in the net more often, he has fallen to the back of the pack in this three-headed race for recognition as the best player in the world.

I, however, would not bet against Crosby to overcome the odds and quickly re-establish himself as the top dog in the sport.


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