Sidney Crosby Is Still the NHL's Best Player, but He May Not Be for Long

Adrian Dater@@adaterNHL National ColumnistFebruary 7, 2017

Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid battle during a recent game.
Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid battle during a recent game.Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — Sidney Crosby is still the best player in the NHL

That was the opinion, anyway, of a player they called The Great One, Wayne Gretzky, during the recent 100 Greatest Players ceremony at the NHL All-Star Game in Los Angeles. Sitting two seats over, with Bobby Orr sandwiched between them, Pittsburgh Penguins owner Mario Lemieux said the same thing. Orr, a player agent now with a client named Connor McDavid, didn't seem to disagree with Gretzky and Lemieux's opinion either.

One thing is for certain, however: Crosby might still be the best, but players such as the 20-year-old McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers are already nipping at his heels. As the 2016-17 NHL regular season enters its final two-month stretch, Crosby and McDavid not only have their teams pointed toward the playoffs, but they have quite a race going for the league points title. Entering Monday, McDavid had a one-point lead (60-59) on Crosby for the top spot, though Crosby has played 10 fewer games (55-45).

McDavid has received some gaudy compliments in his brief time as an NHL player. Legendary former coach Scotty Bowman told Bleacher Report that McDavid has the quickest first step of any player he's seen since Orr broke in as a rookie with the Boston Bruins in 1966. In October, Gretzky called him "the best 19-year-old hockey player I've ever seen."

But, until he can do what Crosby has done and is still doing—winning championships and MVP playoff trophies—McDavid has to bow to his throne.

"Sid is the best player in the game," Gretzky said. "He's earned that mantle. I know Bobby is very close to Connor. That's the guy he's chasing. Connor sees him in his vision. Right now Crosby is the best player. You have to earn your stripes. Until someone knocks him off the castle, that's the way it's going to be."

Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, left, teamed up to win the All-Star Game for the Metropolitan Division.
Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, left, teamed up to win the All-Star Game for the Metropolitan Division.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Said Lemieux: "Whether it's practice or three-on-three, [Crosby] wants to be the best. His skating ability is second to none. His strength is unbelievable. If he goes in the corner, he's able to come out and make a play. His passing ability is the best in the league. Now he's starting to score goals this year. He's a special player that comes along not too often."

In one sense, the Crosby-McDavid scoring battle greatly mimics the ones between Gretzky and Lemieux in their heydays. It was always the Oiler (Gretzky) in a fight for the Art Ross Trophy with the Penguin (Lemieux). What's different is how much older Crosby, 29, is than McDavid and other young sensations such as Auston Matthews (19), another player vying for the crown as the game's best.

When he met the media prior to Jan. 29's All-Star Game at the Staples Center, Crosby acknowledged that the emergence of young stars such as McDavid and Matthews might have pushed him to work even harder at maintaining his status at the top of the heap.

"I'm pretty competitive, I'm pretty motivated. There's probably different things that motivate you every year. I think it's good that they're doing well; it's great to see young guys come in, with the expectations that they have, playing the way they are. ... But seeing that, it's definitely fun and maybe in a way it does push you to be better," Crosby said.

How does Crosby, the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner of the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins, maintain his edge over kids a decade or so younger? By outworking everyone else, especially off the ice, NBC analyst Pierre McGuire said.

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 13:  Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates with the Stanley Cup before the game against Washington Capitals at PPG Paints Arena on October 13, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

"His training regimen, with [Penguins director of sports science] Andy O'Brien, is just sick. He's constantly working to make his body stronger, and he's mastered how to treat his body and what to put in it," McGuire said. "He's just never satisfied. He has that constant thirst for excellence that all the great athletes have, and there's no way he wants to relinquish his mantle [as the game's best] to anybody else anytime soon."

Crosby enters Tuesday's game with Calgary three points shy of 1,000 for his career. If he gets them against the Flames, he would become the 12th-fastest player in history to do so. All the native of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, cares about right now, though, is accomplishing a much-desired goal: playing on a team to win back-to-back Stanley Cups for the first time since the 1997 and 1998 Detroit Red Wings.

"We're learning how tough it is to climb back up the mountain," Crosby said. "But I think we're learning in the right way."

The more you win, the more compliments you get. Crosby cares most about the former than the latter, although he was quick to remain humbled by Gretzky's and Lemieux's words.

"You get a compliment like that from two guys you grew up idolizing, it's pretty special," he said.

And, he's quick to remind people that the ascension of players like McDavid and Matthews are vital to the NHL's growth. In that way, as the de facto ambassador of the game as a current player, Crosby is mindful to pay it forward to the next generation.

Connor McDavid teamed with Auston Matthews at September's World Cup of Hockey.
Connor McDavid teamed with Auston Matthews at September's World Cup of Hockey.Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

"I can relate to kind of being in that situation, and I know what comes with that, so you really do want to see them have success. When they're playing well, I think that energy and enthusiasm, even though you're not on the same team, is a good thing," Crosby said.

McDavid so far has played the deferential understudy to Crosby's title as the game's best and biggest star. He has said all the right things, paying all the proper homage.

"It's pretty clear that Crosby is the best player in the world," McDavid said in Los Angeles.

For now, anyway. For how much longer—that remains an interesting topic of debate.   

                    

Adrian Dater covers the NHL for Bleacher Report.

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