OK, by now you’ve read the headline.
And, presuming you’re a resident of neither Pittsburgh nor Nova Scotia, you’ve gotten past the initial shock, replaced any blunt or sharp instruments to where you’d found them and taken the requisite deep breaths that will enable you to proceed through the rest of this piece.
Here’s the latest: Team Canada coach Mike Babcock said recently that he’d begun pondering a captain for the Olympic squad whose roster will be announced in December.
That captain, according to Babcock, will be chosen prior to the roster unveiling—a process that will begin with him making an offer to a player well in advance of the holiday season deadline.
The safest selection is the Penguins’ Sidney Crosby, a 26-year-old who’s already lifted the Stanley Cup, been the league’s Most Valuable Player and was an assistant captain to Anaheim’s Scott Niedermayer in 2010 en route to scoring the gold-medal winning goal against the United States.
The best selection, though, is Chicago’s Jonathan Toews.
There’s no argument that a case for Crosby is easy to make. He’s the most recognized player in the league. He gets the most air time in games and endorsements. And he was christened the next big thing before emerging from two seasons—in which he scored 303 points—in the Quebec Major Junior league.
If Babcock goes with him, no one from British Columbia to the Maritimes will cringe.
Nonetheless, if he goes with Toews, we think Babcock gets a little more.
Toews is Captain Clutch
On the league’s premier clutch team, Toews remains the premier clutch player—as evidenced by a Conn Smythe Trophy effort as a 22-year-old in 2010 and another starring role this spring.
Though the Blackhawks entered the 2013 playoffs as an odds-on choice for a second Cup in four years, they found themselves in a 3-1 hole against Detroit barely three weeks later.
With the season on the line in Game 5, Toews’s second period power-play goal gave Chicago a two-goal lead in a 4-1 win. Heading back to Detroit for another elimination date, he assisted on a Bryan Bickell’s tally in the third that provided a Game 6 edge the visitors never relinquished. Then, in Game 7, he played more shifts than any Chicago forward in his team’s 2-1 overtime clincher.
He scored just one point, but was a plus-4 player in the first four games of the Western final against the Los Angeles Kings, then set up Patrick Kane on the double-OT goal that KO’d the champs in Game 5.
Back in the Cup final, Toews was back to his old self. He scored a goal in the crucial Game 4 win that evened matters at two games apiece, had two assists in a 3-1 win in series-turning Game 5 and set up Bickell again to trigger the improbable rally that yielded a Game 6 title before a stunned Boston crowd.
He's an International Man of History
Oh sure, he’s only played in one Winter Olympics and was named best forward of the tournament while playing on a team with Crosby among others, but that’s hardly the extent of Toews’ accomplishments while wearing the red and white Team Canada sweater.
Whenever he's worn it, he's won.
He first struck international gold as a precocious 16-year-old while suiting up for Canada West in the 10-team World U-17 Hockey Challenge, won again in both the 2006 and 2007 World Junior Championships—he was a tournament all-star in the latter—and again in the 2007 World Championships, where he became the first Canadian to win gold at both world events in the same year.
Three years later, at the aforementioned Olympic win in Vancouver, he opened the scoring in the gold-medal game that Crosby ultimately finished. Everything Crosby has done on an international level, Toews has done equally well, if not better.
A Two-Way Street to Chicago Success
If the captaincy is based on offensive prowess alone, it’s a slam dunk for Crosby compared to nearly anyone in the NHL—Toews included. But if the competition is opened up to consider a player’s all-around value to his team, the argument just as quickly sways the other direction.
While Toews trailed Patrick Kane in scoring on his own team and 11 others throughout the league in 2012-13, the numbers aren’t wholly indicative of his importance. He plays on the power play, kills penalties, takes important faceoffs on both ends and has been a double-digit plus player in each of six seasons.
As mentioned earlier, he saw more shifts than any other Chicago forward at crucial times throughout the 2013 playoff march, and during the team’s 49-year drought ending run in the 2009-10 season, he had seven goals and 22 assists in 22 games—as a 22-year-old.
But it's a one-way trip with Crosby. When he's dominant offensively, he's the best player on any ice. But when he's kept off the scoreboard—as he was for four consecutive games in the Penguins' Eastern Final flame out against Boston and could be again with high-end international competition—he's closer to irrelevant.
Lead Me On
While no one has ever labeled Crosby as a sub-par influence on a top-end team, many have gone quite a ways further in the other direction to laud Toews’ leadership prowess.
Where the Penguin is merely good, the Blackhawk is great.
A Yahoo.com article in the midst of the tumultuous Detroit series labeled him a “legendary leader” in its headline, while going to the following lengths in the narrative text:
True leaders in sports rise to the occasion; and so it was that when the Chicago Blackhawks needed a win to keep their Stanley Cup hopes alive in this postseason, they turned to somehow-still-young captain Jonathan Toews. I swear that Toews seems like he's been in the league for a decade at this point even if he's just 25, but maybe it's a result of all the talk for how wise-beyond-his-years he is and how much respect he commands and how clutch he is.
Off the ice, he took a lead role defending the players’ cause during the lockout that preceded last season, saying after the fact that there was resentment among the players that the dispute was allowed to fester for months before an owners’ sense of urgency finally appeared near the cancel-the-season deadline.
It’s a versatility rarely seen from Crosby in any sweater, or many other of Toews’ contemporaries for that matter, and it shows a willingness to be the one in the locker room ready to take a stand—a vital ingredient in a medal push. In an ESPN article, Toews said:
It's frustrating that not everything is as simple as it should be. But hopefully this is something for now it kind of has hurt our game a little bit, but in the long run and decades from now is going to make it one of the best leagues in the world. We know it's the best sport. Hopefully in the long run, it's going to help everybody.
The Final Argument for Toews
In the end, it’s a simple realization and reminiscent in some ways of the great Edmonton Oilers teams of the 1980s. Though Wayne Gretzky was the premier offensive record-setter and magazine cover boy, followers of the team long contended that Mark Messier was the glue and set the tone in both the locker room and on the ice. Once the two separated, Messier won two more Cups, Gretzky won none.
The premise carries over to Crosby and Toews. The former is the unquestioned face of the league and the signature player to a casual fanbase. But take a poll of the hardcore fans and there’s a very good chance the latter—based on central roles in a pair of gritty Cup runs— is a lot closer to the top when the question comes to “who’s the best player in the world.”
If Babcock is honest with his own assessment, he’ll deduce the very same thing.