Crosby, Malkin, Ovechkin: Who Is Today's Best Hockey Player?

Tim SteinContributor IDecember 27, 2008

This is an argument I have had with several hockey fans from around North America: Who is arguably the best player in the game today?
Unfortunately, living in the West, I have to deal with fans in the East who are inundated with all the hype and glory of Eastern-based players such as Sid Crosby, Malkin, and Alex Ovechkin. 
There is very little news from Western teams, and players such as Peter Forsberg, Patrick Marleau, Shane Doan, and Jarome Iginla get secondary notice from the Eastern-based media.
In fact, the outstanding players on western-based teams that do get real notice are either players that have previously played in the East or are so special that they simply cannot be ignored.
Sid the Kid is a very impressive young talent. He will likely become a very big-name player in a few seasons, provided he goes about his craft the way he has done since breaking into the league. But is he the best of the league so far?
What about his teammate Evgeni Malkin? Fifteen goals and 59 points after 35 games played, he's currently leading the race by 12 points, which happens to also be the number of points he has over his teammate Crosby. But is he the best out there on the frozen surface?
The third of this impressive trio is of course the "new" Russian Rocket, Alexander Ovechkin. He's also got 47 points, is tied for second in the points race, and when he winds up, is one of the more exciting players out on the ice today. Both he and Crosby are definitely worth the price of the ticket. Is Alex the best player out there?
What have Malkin and Crosby done? Well, they went to the Stanley Cup finals with the Penguins against Detroit. That in itself is an accomplishment deserving merit, even if they lost in their quest for the hardest pro sports trophy to acquire.
Ovechkin has invigorated a team stuck in the middle of "There's nothing else to do, let's go watch ice hockey." He's brought interest and excitement to a team that was promised this and let down by Jaromir Jagr a few years ago.
All this makes it fun to watch these players play the game. One day Sid will likely have to contend with comparisons to The Great One himself, even more than he already has.
But like it or not, truth of the matter is Mark Messier was a better all-round hockey player than his teammate of so many years was. I've gotten grief over this statement as well, usually form fan-boys and puck bunnies who aren't into the game itself, just the individual player's razzle-dazzling.
So what makes one "the best" at his game? Goals? Points? Certainly these factor into the formula heavily. But they are just two factors. There are several other things you need to take into account when deciding on the best. Everything fits into one general category: Overall leadership.
What comprises overall leadership? You need drive, determination, grit, talent. You have to despise losing, hate the other team, get not just angry but truly pissed off at someone or something, no matter how trivial.
You have to bring everything to every game and leave it all on the ice. You lead your teammates by example more than by encouraging words in the dressing room before the game or between periods.
You have to be ready to at least figuratively spit in the faces of the other team and its fans. You want the puck more than the other guy does, and will do everything you can to take it.
You need all of this to the point where you say to your teammates "Let's go", and they not only follow you but get inspired by your play.
Overall leadership goes hand-in-hand with being able to tell the rest of your team, "Hop on my back guys! We're going through that wall of theirs."
I have to admit, I have not seen enough of this type of game-changing ability in most of the NHL's team leaders. Oh sure, most of them show flashes here and there, don't get me wrong. I just have not seen this consistently over a player's career for the last several years.
When was the last time you saw a headline in the sports pages like those written regularly in rags like the Montreal Gazette back when Henri Richard was playing? Game stories led with titles such as: "Richard 3, Red Wings 1"?
When was the last time you saw a player so thoroughly dominate a game that he literally changed the course and the flow of a game, and did this not just for a contest or two or for a month's worth of games, but literally for a full season? It's a real rarity nowadays. It has always been hard to come by, actually, throughout the seasons.
I think I'm one of the lucky ones who has witnessed this kind of leadership for the last dozen years. Up to this season, game in and game out, Jarome Iginla has led by example.
Countless times he has taken his team, the Calgary Flames, on his back and refused to lose. He is one of the nicest guys off the ice with his "Aww shucks" attitude and extreme humility.
He literally transforms into the irresistible force when he is on the ice, in the game, and there are very few immovable objects that can stand in his way. Jarome doesn't get into "the zone". He IS "the zone".
Flames fans absolutely love it when Iginla is hit, when he is taunted, aggravated, creamed into the boards or leveled with an open-ice check. Not because the fans dislike him, or think it makes the game more interesting, but because these incidents actually further motivate him.
We collectively encourage other teams to take a run at our captain because we know how he'll respond. Jarome, already playing the game at the elitist of levels, finds an extra gear when he gets pissed off, elevating his game even further.
Thus, for a decade, he has dominated the game. He has been the quintessential leader you want your team to have. Take no prisoners, drop the gloves at the slightest insult, set up or score the timeliest of goals, that IS Jarome Iginla.
This season is a little different than Flames fans have been used to. Some are even saying Iginla's been invisible for a lot of games. The reason is simple and a very good one.
This year, Iginla finally has the supporting cast he's been lacking for the rest of his NHL career. He is not needed to be the force he has been for every game as he has been in past seasons.
Yet, he "invisibly" has tied for sixth in league-scoring this season. The last few games, he has shown how dominant he can be, helping lead his team to victories, being the catalyst for most of the club's December wins.
I've converted several Penguin, Philadelphia, and Sabres fans to my way of thinking concerning Iginla, simply by getting them to watch him play games. Once you see him play regularly, thanks to NHL Center Ice, you get to see just how truly good he really is at his craft. Jarome Iginla is arguably the best player in the game today.