by PuckStopsHere on 02/07/10 at 03:13 PM ET
When I wrote that Alexander Ovechkin has become this year’s Hart Trophy leader, a debate started in the comments about the defensive merits of Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. Neither of the two are defensive stars who are likely to be Selke Trophy nominees. Both provide most of their value to their teams as offensive players. More than likely any Hart Trophy race between the two of them (and this year’s race definitely has other strong candidates - I wouldn’t be picking Crosby as runner up at this point) would be decided upon offensive differences and not defensive ones.
Both Ovechkin and Crosby are the top offensive talents on their teams. It would be a waste of their talents for either to be used regularly in top defensive situations. Neither are frequent penalty killers on their teams. Ovechkin has only spent about two minutes killing penalties so far this season. Crosby is more frequently used in penalty killing situations, but is 12th on his team in terms of penalty kill time. That is a choice on how to use players and little more.
If we look at past Selke Trophy results, neither Crosby nor Ovechkin have ever seriously been contenders. Ovechkin has had a bit more consideration. Last year, Ovechkin received a fourth place Selke vote and Crosby was not on any ballot. The previous year, Ovechkin received four votes for fourteen points and Crosby was not mentioned at all. In 2007, neither received votes. Although I would argue that Ovechkin votes are poor choices, the fact Ovechkin gets a few votes and Crosby does not shows that Ovechkin has (at least in past seasons) been seen as the better of the two defensively. Probably this is because Ovechkin is a significantly more physical player and Ovechkin has has better +/- ratings in the past few years (over the past three seasons including this one Ovechkin is +74 and Crosby is +29). Given that Crosby plays on the Stanley Cup champions, this is a not a result that is due to team differences. When we look at Corsi Numbers Ovechkin appears near the top and Crosby is not in the top players list.
Corsi and +/- ratings do not measure defense directly. They both measure offense minus defence to some extent. They are strong evidence that Alexander Ovechkin is a more valuable player than Sidney Crosby, but do not directly address defensive differences.
It is hard to directly address defensive skill. Neither plays against the toughest opponents. It is very hard for either to do so. If you put an Ovechkin or Crosby on the ice, the opposition team is likely to put its checkers on the ice and not a top offensive line. Watching them play, it is clear that both are prone to cheating offensively. Ovechkin is better able to cheat successfully because he is a faster skater than Crosby and because he plays left wing, while Crosby plays centre and thus is more likely to be on the fringe of the play (while in a meaningful defensive situation) than a centre. That merely shows that they play different positions.
The fact that Crosby plays centre is often used as an argument that he is a better defensive player. That isn’t a particularly strong argument. There are many left wingers who play strong defence and many centres who do not. By virtue of being a centre, Sidney Crosby takes faceoffs. Crosby has developed into a very good faceoff man. He is currently 10th in faceoff percentage in the NHL with a 56.9% success rate. Faceoffs are an overrate stat. They are an easy stat to record, but do not correlate with winning well. The best faceoff players are not significantly different from 50%. A 56.9% winning record on faceoffs is not that much better than an average faceoff man at 50% and that difference is very little to any team.
My observation of these two players is that neither are defensive stalwarts. Ovechkin has been the first to develop somewhat as a defensive player, but he is hardly the top defensive player on his team - let alone in the league. Ovechkin’s stronger +/- and stronger physical play is evidence of this. Crosby is catching up and may soon be Ovechkin’s equal, but that is nothing significant as there are well over 100 other NHL players with more defensive value than either of them. In the end, any defensive differences are not nearly as significant as the offensive differences between them. It isn’t big enough to be a deciding factor in an MVP vote today.
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