Who's the Better Bet for 2013-14 Hart Trophy: Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin?

Rob Vollman@robvollmanNHLContributor ISeptember 28, 2013

PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 19:  Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins tries to get past the defense of Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals on March 19, 2013 at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)
Joe Sargent/Getty Images

There are a number of ways to compare Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin to each other. You can evaluate who is the better player overall, who is more valuable to their team, who is the greater scorer or who is more likely to win the Hart Trophy. This last one is the topic of this particular article, and is a matter of figuring out who will avoid certain criteria that is commonly used to rule a player out and then determining which player will provide the most offense.

Even though the Hart Trophy is defined as the player most valuable to his team, don’t confuse that with an article about which player is more valuable. The winner of the Hart Trophy is decided by the voters of the Professional Hockey Writers Association (PHWA), and they all have their own level of exposure to the various teams and players and their own perspective on how players provide value to their team. That’s often why the Ted Lindsay Award, which is awarded by the players of the NHL from their own perspectives, selects a different player on a reasonably common basis.

February 3, 2013; Washington, DC, USA;  Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8) checks Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) into the net in the first period at Verizon Center. The Penguins won 6-3. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Looking at the history of the Hart Trophy, the key is to avoid certain criteria that enough members of the PHWA use to rule out certain players, and then to generate the most offense out of those that remain. The criteria include: 

  1. Playing for a team that both qualified for the postseason and, to a lesser extent, exceeded preseason expectations.
  2. The absence of another player of roughly equal value to the same team.
  3. Staying healthy (also known as the Sidney Crosby rule).

Before looking at a player’s offensive contributions, examining these three criteria will determine which of these superstars has the advantage.

Team Criteria

No matter how great a season a player has or how valuable he was to his team, qualifying for the postseason is a necessary precondition for many PHWA voters. This certainly affected Sergei Bobrovsky last season.

Having won the Eastern Conference in 2013, very few (if any) preseason projections suggest that there is any likelihood of the Pittsburgh Penguins missing the postseason. While Washington is generally seen to be a postseason team, it’s not considered to be a lock.

Players can also get a boost if their team exceeds preseason expectations, something that essentially can’t be done by Pittsburgh, the defending Eastern Conference champions. Deciding who gets the edge here depends on whether you think the chance of the Washington Capitals finishing right at the top of the conference is equal to or greater than their chance of missing the postseason. My opinion is the latter.

Advantage: Sidney Crosby

Another Star

If there is another explanation for a team’s success, there are enough PHWA voters that will overlook an otherwise amazing season and vote for someone else. That is potentially what happened to Jonathan Toews last year, thanks to Patrick Kane’s strong season.

This obviously works strongly against Sidney Crosby, who happens to share the lineup with a superstar of comparably elite talent, Evgeni Malkin. This is not likely to be an issue in Washington.

Advantage: Alexander Ovechkin


Staying Healthy

Finally, the PHWA takes a strict view against those who miss significant portions of the season. Obviously this requirement works against Sidney Crosby, who has played just 99 of the 212 regular season games over the past three years.

Advantage: Alexander Ovechkin


WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 03: Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins battles for the puck against Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals at the Verizon Center on February 3, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Ovechkin starts with an edge in two of the criteria, giving him a good chance of receiving more Hart Trophy votes regardless of who generates more offense. Therefore, it won’t be enough to establish Crosby as Ovechkin’s equal to be more of a Hart Trophy favorite, he will clearly need to be superior.

When dealing with two comparable elite scorers, determining who will have the better season involves more than a simple look at goals and assists. First we can establish who will enjoy more favorable playing conditions, and then determine who is more likely to create the most opportunities in those conditions. The rest, as they say, is up to the hockey gods.

Player usage is more important than most fans realize. Recently the Hart Trophy has been awarded to the superstar that has enjoyed the most advantageous playing conditions, with lots of time in the offensive zone, with top linemates, against more mediocre competition and with lots of time on the power play. This is very much how Henrik Sedin, Evgeni Malkin and even Alexander Ovechkin vaulted themselves up the ballot in recent seasons.

Offensive Zone Starts: Advantage Ovechkin

Alexander Ovechkin has a slight edge here, starting a higher percentage of his shifts in the offensive zone than Sidney Crosby in three of the past five seasons and two of the past three. Indeed, Crosby has been used in the defensive zone more often than the offensive zone in two of the past three seasons. This is based on the information available at Behind the Net and Hockey Analysis, who draw such data directly from NHL game files.

Quality of Linemates: Even

Ovechkin plays with star playmaker Nicklas Backstrom on the wing and someone like Troy Brouwer on the other wing. Crosby generally plays only with the likes of Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz, but has enough ice time with Evgeni Malkin over the season to draw even.

Quality of Competition: Advantage Ovechkin

Using a metric developed by Gabriel Desjardins of Behind the Net that measures the average quality of a player’s competition essentially based on their attempted shot differential (Corsi), Ovechkin faces roughly average competition and even below average in two of the past five seasons. Crosby’s quality of competition is always above average. We see the same results when judging a player’s quality of competition based on their average ice time, as pioneered by Eric Tulsky. We can even see Ovechkin’s advantage when looking at their most frequent opponents over at Hockey Analysis. As suggested by the other two metrics, the players he’s mostly facing are checking line players, while Crosby is about the same, but with several elite players mixed in.

Power Play Ice Time: Even

Both Crosby and Ovechkin get all the power play ice time they can handle. Even if one team enjoys more power play opportunities than the other, a man can only skate so much, and any extra minutes will have diminishing returns. Playing with Malkin and Kris Letang, however, may give Crosby a slight edge.

Nevertheless, adding it all up once again increased Ovechkin’s advantage even further.

Advantage: Alexander Ovechkin

Having established Crosby’s big disadvantage in turning off PHWA voters with either injuries or with Malkin’s heroics, and establishing Ovechkin’s advantage in playing conditions, the number of offensive opportunities Crosby generates will have to clearly exceed Ovechkin’s.

Unfortunately, comparing Crosby to Ovechkin is like comparing apples to oranges. Crosby is a playmaker, after all, and Ovechkin is a shooter. Comparing the two would require establishing how many assists equaled a goal or how many set-up passes equals a shot.

For what it’s worth, Ovechkin has taken 2232 shots in 438 games over the past six seasons, a great deal more than Crosby’s 1069 in 310. The NHL doesn’t officially record how many times a player has set up a shot, but an estimate that uses primary assists and shooting percentages estimates that Crosby has set up 1345 passes over this time span, barely more than Ovechkin’s 1314 (in over 40 percent more games, granted).

Add those two together and Ovechkin either takes or sets up 8.1 shots per game, a little more than Crosby’s 7.8. The gap becomes even wider depending on how much more highly one values a shot over a set up (and, by proxy, a goal over an assist).

Advantage: Alexander Ovechkin

PITTSBURGH, PA - JANUARY 01:  Sidney Crosby (R) #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins shakes hands with Alex Ovechkin (L) #8 of the Washington Capitals prior to the 2011 NHL Bridgestone Winter Classic at Heinz Field on January 1, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Dave Sandford/Getty Images

There are a number of ways to compare Alexander Ovechkin to Sidney Crosby, and as it relates to who has the greater chance of winning the Hart Trophy, the winner is Ovechkin. Crosby is at a disadvantage in a number of areas of consequence to PHWA voters, doesn’t receive playing conditions quite as favorable for generating offense as Ovechkin and indeed generates fewer scoring opportunities.

That’s not to say that Ovechkin actually is more valuable to his team, that is he is a better scorer or that he is a better player. But his chances of winning another Hart Trophy is definitely greater.


All advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted. 

Rob Vollman is author of Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract, co-author of the annual Hockey Prospectus guides and a featured ESPN Insider writer. @robvollmanNHL


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.