Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby is the best player in the NHL right now, but Tampa Bay Lightning forward Steven Stamkos has the potential to challenge him for that title in just a few years.
The two superstars met on Monday night at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, where the Penguins won 4-3 despite a two-goal performance from Stamkos.
Before the contest, the Lightning center was asked to name the league's best player (via Josh Yohe of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review):
Josh Yohe @JoshYohe_PGH
Stamkos on who the best player in NHL is: "It's pretty hard to argue with a healthy Sidney Crosby."2013-3-4 17:19:05
Crosby isn't the best goal scorer, the fastest skater or the toughest defensive forward in the league, but nobody does a better job of doing everything at a high level than the Penguins star. He's the most complete player in the game.
Even though Stamkos is not on Crosby's level yet, they have quite a few similarities. Both of them are extremely competitive, great goal scorers and exceptional playmakers, and both perform at a high level in the playoffs.
Stamkos won the Maurice Richard Trophy last year when he led the NHL with 60 goals, and he will probably win the award for the third time in his career unless Jeff Carter, James Neal or John Tavares can keep up with him for the entire season.
The Lightning star will also be a top contender for the Art Ross Trophy as the league's top scorer, but Crosby leads everyone in points thus far.
Here's how they compare as we approach the halfway point of this 48-game shortened season:
After four seasons in the NHL, Stamkos' offensive statistics compare pretty well to Crosby's first four seasons, although he does lead the Penguins star by a considerable margin in games played.
|First 4 Years in NHL|
If this season used a normal 82-game schedule, Stamkos would be on pace for 120 points (60 goals, 60 assists).
Even if he didn't continue putting up points at that rate for an entire season, it's likely that he would have tallied his first 100-point season if 82 games were played in 2013, especially since he is a very durable player (He has played in all 82 regular-season games in each of the last three years).
Stamkos has 10 goals in his last 10 games and has tallied a point in 19 of Tampa Bay's 23 games this season. His one-time shot is the best in the league, and he's a better sniper than Crosby. There's no question that Stamkos is the best pure goal scorer in the league.
For a player who looks for his own offense first and usually plays off the puck by getting into scoring position instead of handling it and breaking defenses, Stamkos racks up a lot of assists.
Stamkos doesn't have the same playmaking ability, puck-handling skills or vision that Crosby brings to the ice, but he's progressing at an impressive rate in those three areas.
The 23-year-old's passing skills don't receive enough credit, because his fantastic goal scoring totals steal a lot of the headlines, but Stamkos is quickly becoming one of the league's most complete centers.
He has averaged 37.5 assists per season since entering the NHL in 2008-09, which is impressive for a pure goal scorer.
The fastest way for Stamkos to approach Crosby's level and become one of the top two players in the world is by improving the defensive aspect of his game.
Stamkos doesn't have to become an annual contender for the Frank J. Selke Trophy, but if he becomes a better all-around defensive forward and contributes to the Lightning penalty kill, he will be even more valuable to his team than he is right now.
Here's a look at how Stamkos has progressed in a few important defensive statistics since he made his NHL debut five years ago.
Not many players work as hard as Stamkos in the offseason, and when you watch him play right now, it's easy to see how much stronger he has become when possessing the puck, as well as battling opponents for it in the defensive zone, along the boards and in the corners.
Anyone with a work ethic as strong as Stamkos' is going to improve, especially since he is just 23 years old and several seasons away from the prime of his career.
He has taken great strides over the last few seasons to get better defensively, but there's still plenty of room for improvement in this area of his game.
To say that Crosby is miles ahead of Stamkos would be unfair to the Lightning star. He certainly has a lot to work on before he's a complete player like Crosby, but the gap between the two of them isn't a gigantic one, and it will get smaller as Stamkos continues to improve in all areas of his game.
For the record, this is how I would rank the league's best players in March of 2013:
- Sidney Crosby (PIT)
- Pavel Datsyuk (DET)
- Jonathan Toews (CHI)
- Evgeni Malkin (PIT)
- Steven Stamkos (TBL)
Winning a Stanley Cup and helping Team Canada win another gold medal at the 2014 Winter Olympics would certainly help Stamkos' resume, since Crosby and Toews have already won both of those awards, but he can only do so much to help the Lightning be successful in the playoffs.
If Stamkos continues to score 45-plus goals per season, rack up 90-plus points, and become a better two-way player (all of which are possible), he will enter the NHL's best-player conversation in a few years.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs.