Thank goodness for players like Evgeni Malkin, Claude Giroux and Steven Stamkos, for without them who knows what the NHL would look like. As of right now, one of the league’s poster boys is about to return after missing almost a complete year and a half due to injury and the other is currently 53rd in the scoring race. These two ‘talents’, of course, are Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin respectively. And what is to blame for the last two years without these superstars being the league’s superstars? Simply, it’s because they’ve been trying to play like each other.
After the NHL returned from the first lockout since 1994, it was blessed with the emergence of two rookie superstars who would not only help the fans forget about the wasted season but would dominate the game. Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin entered the game and instantly took control of it, and they did it with polarizing styles of play. Crosby had the speed, precision, defensive awareness, and the intangible hockey sense of a leader shared by legends like Gretzky or Yzerman. Ovechkin had the speed and precision as well, and although he lacked a defensive mentality, he more than compensated with a brute, nasty style that bordered on reckless, only seen in greats like Neely or Messier. But it was this contrast in superstar that allowed them to both thrive as faces of the game. In an almost Cold War-type scenario fans would align with their favourite and absolutely chastise the other. And there were, of course, ample aspects of their game to chastise.
Crosby was immediately labelled a whiner, a soft player who couldn’t defend himself. Brandon Dubinksy summarized the general consensus when he called him “such a little baby sometimes” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1tpS_5uAzFE) and Don Cherry, however controversial his comments may be, also publicly criticized him for his “penchant for embellishing plays” (http://www.cbc.ca/sports/hockey/story/2008/06/02/nhl-hnic-cherry.html). He quickly garnered a reputation as a player who had special status, or expected special treatment, and regardless or not, he appeared to be a player who played the game without a tough, rugged edge. Ovechkin on the other hand was called selfish, a typical flashy Russian who didn’t back-check and lacked respect. The criticisms he endured ranged from his “effectiveness as a leader to his abilities to perform in the clutch to his body mass” (http://sports.yahoo.com/nhl/blog/puck_daddy/post/has-alex-ovechkin-already-peaked-as-an-offensive-force?urn=nhl,wp14743). He has been called a “coach-killer” (http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1192857/index.htm) whose ego was too big to put the team first and whose passion level would fluctuate depending on his personal contentment. It was funny, though, because, without taking into account the jealousy or hate factor, (which made it easy for fans and players to attack them because of their talent, especially if they favoured the other guy), these flaws were mostly justified in their early days.
Crosby kept piling up the points and trophies, however, but couldn’t seem to shake the image of himself as a baby or a whiner. As for Ovechkin, he too piled up the points and trophies but kept losing in the playoffs. And don’t forget, they were constantly being reminded of the comparison between the two of them. Ovechkin was seen as more likeable, more entertaining and hard-nosed where Crosby was seen as boring, robotic, and soft. Crosby, however, kept beating Ovechkin’s Capitals out of the playoffs and ultimately won the Stanley Cup in 2009, only intensifying the criticisms of Ovechkin. They both just couldn’t get out from under the shadow of the ‘better’ attributes of the other. So what did they do? Both players attempted to combat their critics by shifting a little more to the centre of the spectrum, and yes, changing their styles of play to emulate the other. Crosby got tough. He fought, he chirped, he hit, he slashed; he did whatever he could to dispel the image of him as a soft baby. Ovechkin did the same. He attempted to change his game to include a defensive accountability and take on a larger role as team leader. Both tried to move away from the players they were for the first five years of their careers and take on a new identity; and that was one that was similar to the other star. But what were the results? Crosby has been out of the Penguins lineup for the majority of two seasons and Ovechkin, after four out of five seasons with 100+ points, has put up an 85 point season in 2010 and is on pace this year for a meager 61 points.
Now there is no direct evidence that Crosby’s new role as more of an agitator was responsible for his injuries, since several of them were seemingly accidental, concussion-related issues, but some believe he brought it upon himself. Andrew Ference, Crosby’s first sparring partner, summed up Crosby’s new style of play saying “if you give a guy a shot in the face, you better be willing to drop the gloves” (http://sports.yahoo.com/nhl/blog/puck_daddy/post/Fight-Video-The-I-Fought-Sidney-Crosby-societ?urn=nhl-282537). Don Cherry also took notice and hinted that it may not have been a coincidence that Crosby had been knocked out due to hits to the head. Whether you support Cherry or not, he appeared to be expressing the opinion of many when he warned Crosby on Coach’s Corner that if “he’s looking for trouble, and he’s doing stuff like that [cross-checking guys in front of the net], he’s going to get it” and suggested that he should just “be like Guy Lafleur, just play the game” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XeP7m2FVCws). Crosby tried taking on a new role, he tried protecting himself and tried convincing fans and other players that he wasn’t a soft player who couldn’t look after himself. No one can prove that David Steckel or David Krejci actually targeted Crosby’s head on purpose but if you look for trouble, you’ll find it; and he found it.
As for Ovechkin, he too lost focus of what made him successful. He tried to become a ‘captain,’ a more defensively responsible player who put the team first. And the results have been disappointing, not to mention boring. The Capitals still haven’t won any meaningful games in the playoffs and are currently fighting for 8th spot in the Eastern Conference. And Ovechkin himself has looked pathetic, like half the player he once was, and has watched his production decline at the rate of a retiring veteran. But Oveckin didn’t win the Calder, Hart, Art Ross and Maurice Richard trophies by playing defensively responsible hockey. The National Post’s Bruce Arthur declared that Ovechkin’s selfishness was one of the main reasons why he ascended to the pinnacle of the NHL (http://sports.nationalpost.com/2012/01/26/nhl-all-star-game-in-ottawa-can-live-without-alexander-ovechkin/), and he was right. Former Washington Capital great Olaf Kolzig also agrees, saying “he just has to get back to being the way he was in his younger days” where he played that “honest type of exuberant hockey” (http://www.nhl.com/ice/blogpost.htm?id=6487), and, which was, selfish, flashy, and almost entirely offensive. Look at Malkin, he hasn’t veered from his similar offensive-oriented style and is thriving.
The experiment has failed and it is time for Ovechkin to return to his former self. He can’t worry about his game versus Crosby’s because they’re not the same. He was an excellent player because he wasn’t Crosby, he was himself. He did things no one else did and thrived in the role of the explosive Russian superstar who would do anything to score goals, even if it meant running over players. And that’s all he has to do, go back to scoring goals. The Capitals should realize their success lies in Ovechkin scoring goals and should surround him with players who compensate for his defensive liabilities while he focuses solely on offense (or more bluntly, get rid of Semin). And the same can be said for Crosby. He has to go back to simply playing his game, the highly skilled, less rugged style that kept him out of trouble. You never saw Gretzky or Lemieux start taking on agitator roles, so he shouldn’t either. The Penguins should also surround Crosby with players who can do some of his dirty work so he doesn’t have to, but Crosby just needs to go back to the same thing Ovechkin needs to, and that’s scoring goals.
But Crosby has to go back to scoring goals the Crosby way, and Ovechkin has to go back to scoring goals the Ovechkin way. They aren’t the same player and shouldn’t worry about trying to be like the other player. No offense to Malkin or Giroux or Stamkos but those best suited to be the faces of the NHL are Crosby and Ovechkin, and they both still have the capability. They just need to be themselves.