Through the first half of the 2013 NHL season, it has become more clear with each passing day that Chicago Blackhawks forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and Pittsburgh Penguins centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin make up the two best duos in hockey.
All four of these players have won the Stanley Cup, participated in the Winter Olympics and regularly finish among the league leaders in scoring.
These superstars have extraordinary individual talents, but which duo is more important to its team's success?
There are a number of different factors to consider when determining which set of players are more important to their team. I have compiled a number of charts to help show how these duos compare in several notable offensive and defensive statistical categories, and offer some analysis for each.
Let's take an in-depth look at which duo is more valuable to its team.
Let's start with each players' stats for the current 2013 season.
|2013||GP||G||A||PTS||PP||Games With 0P|
As the table below shows, all four of these players have had a tremendous impact on their team's ability to score goals at even strength and on the powerplay this year.
|Player||% of Team's Goals||% of Total Offense ||PP Points|
|Toews||13 percent||28 percent||4 |
|Kane||17 percent||37 percent||10|
|Malkin||5 percent||25 percent||14 |
|Crosby||13 percent||47 percent||15|
Crosby's performance this season has been nothing short of amazing. If we were playing a normal 82-game season, he would be on pace for 141 points, which would be the most by any player since Mario Lemieux scored 161 points during the 1995-96 season. That kind of offensive production is extremely valuable, largely because very few players in the history of the league have been able to score at that kind of rate.
Would Crosby be able to tally points at his current rate (1.73 points/game) for an entire season? Yes, he most certainly could. He's a once-in-a-generation offensive player who's in the prime of this career, and he has never failed to score 100-plus points in any season that he's played more than 53 games.
Crosby ranks first in the NHL in scoring, and it's likely he will win the second Art Ross trophy of his career. Even if you took away his 12 goals this season, his 33 assists would still place him fourth in scoring.
Malkin has not scored as many goals as he did in his Hart Trophy and Art Ross-winning campaign last year (his goals/game average has dropped 0.43 from last season), but he's still averaging over a point per game.
To no one's surprise, the Penguins lead the NHL in goals scored and have the third-best powerplay. The team's superstar duo is the major reason for this success because Crosby is tied for first in the league in powerplay points, while Malkin is tied for the second-most points with the man-advantage.
As for Kane and Toews, both players have exceeded expectations from an offensive standpoint this season, which is one reason why the Blackhawks rank fifth in goals scored.
Kane is averaging 1.15 points per game this season, which is the best scoring rate of his career. He's also one of four NHL players who currently have 14 goals and at least 16 assists. Not only is he scoring goals consistently, he's also finding the back of the net at important times, and his partnership with Toews is arguably the best center/winger tandem in the league.
Since only three players on the Blackhawks have scored more than six goals this season, Kane and Toews' goal scoring and and playmaking has been critical to the team's record-setting start to the season. Dave Bolland has missed several games due to injury this season and star winger Patrick Sharp has only scored five goals, which has forced Toews and Kane to carry the team offensively for most of this season.
There has been only one game this year (February 24 vs. Columbus) in which Toews and Kane have both failed to tally a single point.
The common denominator of all great players is the ability to elevate the performance of their teammates. How do these four stars impact the offensive production of their usual linemates? Let's take a look.
|2013 Stats||Goals||Goals Assisted by Crosby|
|Goals||Goals Assisted by Malkin|
|Goals||Goals Assisted by Crosby|
|2013 Stats||Goals||Goals Assisted By Toews/Kane|
Advantage: Crosby and Malkin
Not only do Crosby and Malkin have better individual stats than Toews and Kane, they are also making a slightly better impact on their teammates' success. I would give a slight edge in this category to the Penguins duo. It's quite possible that the Penguins will have back-to-back Hart Trophy and Art Ross winners if Crosby takes home these awards later this year.
Crosby and Malkin are by no means a liability in their own zone, but they aren't top-tier defensive forwards. If there is one aspect of their game that's not at an elite level, it's their defense.
That isn't the case for Toews, who is one of the best defensive forwards in the game and a top candidate for the Frank J. Selke Trophy this season (he was nominated for the award in 2010-11).
Here's how the four players compare in several key defensive categories.
|Player||+/-||Takeaways||Blocked Shots||Hits||SH TOI/G||Faceoff %|
Toews plays an important role on the league's sixth-best penalty kill, and his strong defensive play is also one reason why Chicago ranks second in goals against.
His 34 takeaways are the most in the NHL, and he ranks fifth in faceoff percentage among all players who have taken 200 or more draws.
Very few superstars give as much effort in the defensive zone as Toews, and the only other player who can be considered as a better two-way forward than the Blackhawks captain is Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings.
What hasn't gotten a lot of attention this season is the improvement that Kane has made defensively to become a better two-way forward. He's battling for the puck in the corners more often, he's back checking consistently and he's using his great hands and quickness to force turnovers, which usually result in scoring chances at the other end of the ice.
In regard to leadership, both Toews and Crosby were give the "C" at a young age. Both players are well respected, lead by example and also play at a high level in high-pressure moments during the playoffs.
However, Toews (aka Captain Serious) gets the advantage because he gives more effort defensively, his intangibles (will to win, work ethic, effort in all three zones, etc.) and willingness to play every single shift like it's his last. He was given the captaincy at age 20, and in very little time, he's led an Original 6 franchise from the bottom of the standings to one of the top teams in the league.
His game-tying shorthanded goal (video below) late in the third period in Game 7 of the Blackhawks' first round series against the Vancouver Canucks in 2011 was a good example of what he brings to the ice each night.
Toews' maturity, poise and ability to motivate his teammates at such a young age is just remarkable, and he will likely go down as one of the best captains in NHL history.
Advantage: Toews and Kane
As the premier two-way forward in the league and an elite No. 1 center, Toews' contributions defensively are vitally important to the Blackhawks' success. Don't be surprised if Toews and Kane are one of the league's top defensive forward duos in the near future, which is something the Penguins duo will never become.
Could These Teams Win the Stanley Cup Without Each Duo Fully Healthy?
Over the last two years, we have seen the Penguins have to deal with Crosby or Malkin being out of the lineup for an extended period of time. Most teams would struggle to win games without players of Malkin and Crosby's caliber, but that hasn't been the case with Pittsburgh.
The Penguins went 51-25-6 last season even though Crosby played in only 22 games, and in 2010-11 when Malkin played in just 48 games, they went 49-25-8. Pittsburgh is fortunate enough to have one of the best scoring defensemen in the league in Kris Letang, a top goal scorer in James Neal and a legitimate No. 1 goaltender in Marc-Andre Fleury, which certainly helps them stay competitive when Crosby or Malkin are out of the lineup.
They have also had good center depth to help replace these stars. Not many teams have a third line center as talented as Brandon Sutter (or Jordan Staal before this season) to move up to the second line.
Could the Penguins win the Stanley Cup with Malkin or Crosby out of the lineup? No, but they would still be a difficult team to beat because of their scoring depth and strong goaltending.
As for the Blackhawks, not having Toews and Kane in the lineup would give them no shot to win a round in the playoffs. Chicago doesn't have a lot of depth at center, especially since Dave Bolland has not stayed healthy consistently (he's missed 113 games over the last five seasons).
If Kane were to ever miss a lengthy period of time with an injury, Chicago would have just one reliable winger in Marian Hossa. Sharp has struggled this season and young players such as Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw have very little NHL experience.
With Kane playing a full season and Toews missing 23 games last year, the Blackhawks finished with the sixth seed in the West. They barely made the playoffs in 2010-11 as the defending Stanley Cup champions with a 44-29-9 record when their star duo missed a combined 11 games.
The Blackhawks would have no chance to win the Stanley Cup if either Toews or Kane was not in the lineup because they too important to the team's success at both ends of the ice and on special teams.
Since both teams have no chance to win the Stanley Cup without one or both of these four superstars, it's unfair to give either duo an advantage in this category.
There's no question that both duos have immense value to their respective teams, and without them these franchises would not be legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.
While Crosby and Malkin are arguably more talented than both Toews and Kane, the Blackhawks duo is more important to their club.
The advantage that Toews/Kane have over Crosby/Malkin from a defensive perspective is larger than the advantage the Penguins duo has offensively. When you also add Toews' exceptional leadership and intangibles to the equation, the Blackhawks stars narrowly edge the Penguins center tandem as the NHL's most important best duo.
Do you agree, are Toews and Kane more valuable to their team than Crosby and Malkin? Share your opinion in the comments section below.
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.