What We Learned: Is Jonathan Toews better than Sidney Crosby?

Photo by Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images


Photo by Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images

Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.

It's very en vogue these days to think Sidney Crosby, the best hockey player in the world, isn't as good as people think he is.

Mark Spector thinks Toews has “surged” ahead of Crosby. Michael Traikos says it's Toews now, but to check back in a few years. Kevin McGran “may well overtake Crosby for the title in these playoffs.” Daniel Friedman thinks Crosby's attitude is the reason he can't be taken seriously. A recent TSN panel with Jeff O'Neil and Claude Noel conceded the lack of clutch performances from Crosby is hold him back from being the best any more. I did a radio show in Pennsylvania the other day when a host told me Crosby is overrated. I've gotten a bunch of emails saying the same thing over the last few days.

Every one of these people is almost unbelievably wrong, as is anyone else who thinks anyone other than Crosby is the best player on earth. The reason that we're having this discussion at all is that Crosby went 1-8-9 in 13 playoff games for the Penguins' overall poor playoff performance and eventual collapse.

Meanwhile, Toews entered the Western Conference Final with 5-5-10 in 12 games, and four of those goals were game-winners, which his new backers will tell you is the most important aspect of all. And it conveniently ignores that Toews has gone up against Ryan Miller — who was abject from the second he got to St. Louis — and Ilya Bryzgalov, while Crosby faced the reigning Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky and Henrik Lundqvist, a top-three goalie in the game.

Because that's the thing with this new Crosby versus The World debate: It's predicated first and foremost on specious reasoning which largely cannot be proven to have any impact on the game at all.

Crosby didn't score a lot over a 13-game span, we can all agree on that. Toews scored more often, obviously. But the ability to score game-winning goals is not one that anyone can repeat. You can't will the puck into the net in only high-leverage situations; obviously some goals are worth more than others in terms of win expectancy — i.e. a goal in the first five minutes of a game doesn't have as much of an outcome on your team's chances for winning as much as one scored in the final five minutes — but if Toews or anyone else was actually able to “rise to the occasion” and so on, then why would he wait until overtime to score? Saying that overtime points or game-winning goals.

Toews is seen as more of a “winner” these days, too, and that's a big part of it. As Spector pointed out in his dross on the subject, the Penguins have won just four playoff rounds since Crosby lifted the Cup in 2009, while Toews has won four playoff rounds in a single postseason twice. The argument then is that Toews is more of a leader than Crosby, since he was the captain of those two teams, but it obviously ignores the fact that Crosby's team has been slowly and steadily getting worse in that time. You can tell because his GM just got fired. If you put Crosby on a line with Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp, his point totals would be much higher than if Toews were playing the bulk of his minutes with Chris Kunitz and Lee Stempniak. That goes without saying, and everyone knows that. It's easy to lead when you have the best army in the world. Crosby — along with Evgeni Malkin — has basically carried the Penguins to being a very good regular-season team in the last few years all by himself while the walls crumbled.

But there's also the fact that Toews is a “better two-way player,” according to those who would put him ahead of Crosby. This is of course very difficult to say with certainty apart from The Eye Test, which allows bias to come into it — such bias, of course, typically goes against Crosby — because viewers will often see what they want to see. If Crosby hypothetically loses an own-zone faceoff that ends up in the back of the net 15 seconds later, then it's his fault, but if Toews loses one and the opponent doesn't score, then he has done more to prevent it. If it happens the other way around, no one seems to make much note of it.

People have also been quick to point to usage charts from this postseason, which show that Toews is a good ways behind in terms of corsi share (Crosby at 61.8 percent to Toews' 53.3 percent), but also that Toews has started fewer shifts in the attacking zone, and faced stiffer competition. They might not want to look at those from the regular season, or last year's playoffs, or the lockout-shortened 2013 season, or the 2011-12 playoffs and regular season, which show the gap is much narrower in this regard, because Toews usually gets easier zone starts, and Crosby the easier competition.

Of course there's also the question of possession, and over the last five years, Toews' fenwick share is at 58.3 percent compared to Crosby's 54.8 percent. That's a noticeable difference in that regard, but it's also important to keep in mind that Crosby's fenwick for per 20 minutes of ice time (16.4) is much higher than Toews' (15.8) but he's been hampered by a larger number of attempts against (13.5 versus 11.3). Perhaps Toews' aforementioned significant edge is offensive zone starts over the last five years is the difference. Perhaps his teammates, and particularly the quality of defensemen playing behind him, help as well.

But what you'll notice from all these arguments is that they're not based on anything actually tangible, and have to be couched in so many different ways to acknowledge that they're saying, “No obviously Crosby is a world-class talent,” before adding in that ludicrous, “but.”

You can't quantify leadership or clutchness or even, to a certain extent, own-zone play.

What you can quantify, though, is production, and here Crosby has it all over Toews despite a generally lower quality of linemate. Over the last five seasons, the time from which Crosby last won the Stanley Cup to right now — when the world started questioning whether he was a true leader and Toews started dragging his team to a Stanley Cup — Crosby has 372 points in 260 games. Toews has 317 (55 fewer than Crosby) in 338 games (78 more). Toews' career-high points per game of 1.02 would be the worst of Crosby's (1.26) by nearly a quarter of a point per game, when he was a rookie. Toews' next 100-point season will be his first. Crosby's will be his sixth.

This is of course not to say that putting up points is the be-all, end-all of a player, but it is very safe to assume that the goal differential when Crosby is on the ice vastly exceeds that of Toews. That, ultimately, tells you everything you need to know about who is better, by way of contributing more to his team's chances for winning. Over the last five years, Crosby's team has scored 62.1 percent of the goals when he's on the ice. For Toews, it's 61.1 percent. Not a huge difference, but a difference nonetheless.

Ahh, but they mean the postseason only, don't they? That's when real winners show up. From 2009-10 to present, Crosby has just 51 points in 46 games (1.11 per game, down from his regular season career average of 1.4). In that same time, Toews has 61 in 70 (0.87 per, down from his career average of 0.91). But you have to account for the fact that in two of those postseasons, the Blackhawks were eliminated in the first round, and Toews put up a feckless combined line of 3-5-8 in 13 games. One has to wonder where his leadership went during that time.

It's not unlikely that in a few weeks' time, Toews will be raising his third Stanley Cup in five years. But that only means he's on the best team. Crosby, demonstrably, is not. Funny how when it comes to these debates the sports world only ascribes team success to individual greatness when it suits them, but if a team ever missed the playoffs, all the personal stats would be dismissed as hollow and meaningless.

Ask 2001-02 Jarome Iginla, who scored 52 goals on a line with Dean McAmmond and Craig Conroy, but did not win the Hart Trophy, about how much sense that makes.

One has to keep in mind that no one is saying Crosby didn't struggle this postseason, nor that Toews isn't a phenomenal player worthy of having praise heaped over him for days. It just doesn't mean the latter has passed the former as the best player in the world. Only one person gets to be that guy. And right now it's the guy who's career points per game numbers trail only those of Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and Mike Bossy.

Toews has yet to crack the top 250 in this regard.

That difference alone more than papers over one bad spring, as well whatever deficiencies people might all of a sudden see in Crosby's game. And boy if they didn't have to go hunting to find them in the first place.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: I'm so sad.

Boston Bruins: Really great stuff from Fluto Shinzawa in the Globe about how the Bruins' fourth line let them down in the postseason, and how that's reflective of a league-wide trend away from Shawn Thornton-type (or, if you prefer, “bad”) players.

Buffalo Sabres: Here's Zemgus Girgensons spearing Alex Burmistrov at the World Championships, and hey look, the IIHF suspended him for it. The NHL could learn a lot here. Pretty easy call.

Calgary Flames: The Flamiest thing in the world about the new Adirondack Flames unveiling event was that the banners behind the dais spelled “Caca.” Of course they did.

Carolina Hurricanes: Should Eric Staal continue to be captain of the Hurricanes? Interesting question, I guess, but the real issue is if it's not him, who is? Jeff Skinner?

Chicago Blackhawks: A man arrested for selling fake Blackhawks playoff tickets on Craigslist is accused of doing so during the regular season as well, and authorities now say there's a greater profit margin in this field than in selling drugs.

Colorado Avalanche: The Avs have some very good young prospects in the pipeline but the real question is are any of them No. 1 NHL defensemen right now? No? Guess they are gonna spend a ton of money on one this summer then.

Columbus Blue Jackets: If the Blue Jackets lose RJ Umberger to a trade, who's going to be both weirdly expensive and not very good for them next year? James Wisniewski?

Dallas Stars: The implication here is that the Stars might spend a decent amount of money this offseason. We'll see how that goes.

Detroit Red Wings: I thought it was very funny in the last few days how everyone was talking about Mike Babcock being on the market soon as though it were some sort of certainty. Yeah, the Penguins want to get Babcock to coach for them. Lots of teams probably also want Crosby and Malkin to play for them. Can't always get what you want.

Edmonton Oilers: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins owns a race horse, and his mom and dad met at a track in Vancouver. No one tell Eddie Olczyk about this or we'll never hear the end of it.

Florida Panthers: This has to be the end of the line for Scott Clemmensen. An .896 save percentage in 17 games with the Panthers this season, and he's turning 37 this summer.

Los Angeles Kings: The stats and circumstances surrounding the Kings' last Cup run are starting line up a little bit with this postseason. That must be statistically important. Drew Doughty has a secretary named Lincoln, too.

Minnesota Wild: Let's slow down here.

Montreal Canadiens: Well thanks to Chris Kreider getting tripped up on a breakaway against Carey Price, it looks like the netminder is questionable for tonight's Game 2. That's prompted the city to start breaking down video of the collision like the Zapruder film and in no way contributes to the idea that Habs fans are giant crybabies.

Nashville Predators, America's Favorite Hockey Team: Seth Jones is demolishing the competition at Worlds, with seven points in five games from the blue line. Of course, Viktor Tikhonov is the leading scorer in the tournament with 6-6-12 in five games, so take these totals with a grain of salt, I guess.

New Jersey Devils: If Mike Sislo and Tim Sestito are getting a serious look at a full-time gig there's something very wrong in New Jersey.

New York Islanders: Looks like that prospective Islanders buyer is finally getting his money together. How soon this team might be free from the curse of Charles Wang's terribleness.

New York Rangers: Jimmy Fallon is suddenly the world's biggest Ranger fan, as he's now made a bet with the Canadiens that would see him wear a Habs jersey if New York loses. If Carey Price is out of the picture, it seems like he's pretty safe.

Ottawa Senators: Know what's going to really turn things around for the Senators? A 72-year-old defenseman.

Philadelphia Flyers: With Erik Gustafsson bolting from the NHL this summer, you're probably going to see a lot of Shayne Gostisbehere next season.

Phoenix Coyotes: If they don't improve this summer, this team that didn't make the playoffs will probably not compete for a Stanley Cup. Solid reasoning. Can't argue it.

Pittsburgh Penguins: You can also say this of Jay Feaster in his time with the Lightning.

San Jose Sharks: Dan Boyle says he's very upset that the Sharks won't bring him back next year. Sure, but can you really blame 'em?

St. Louis Blues: Seriously, is there anyone at all who thinks Ryan Miller is re-signing in St. Louis? Can't be, right?

Tampa Bay Lightning: The Lightning look like they have a terribly good goaltending in prospect in Andrei Vasilievsky, whose .975 save percentage at worlds is in my opinion pretty good.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Who should the Leafs target in free agency? Does “a real coach” count?

Vancouver Canucks: If the Canucks lose Jim Benning to Pittsburgh that might cement this as the most embarrassing lost year in franchise history.

Washington Capitals: Yeah, hire Ray Shero. What a great idea. He's used to managing teams with no depth, but the tricky part is he's more used to being the one responsible for that problem.

Winnipeg Jets: The improvement of the Jets, and the rest of the Central, is probably going to make it the best division in hockey for years to come.

Play of the Weekend

This feed from Dominic Moore to Martin St. Louis was gross.

Gold Star Award

Teemu I will miss you forever.

Minus of the Weekend

I mean I understand things are tough in Montreal all of a sudden, but giving up a goal to Rick Nash? Come on. You're better than that.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week

User “BoldNewLettuce” is trying to figure something out here.

To Edmonton:

Henrik samuelsson
Nick bjugstad
Rob klinkhammer

To Phoenix:
Florida 1st overall 2014
Darnell nurse

To Florida:
Keith yandle
Sam gagner
Arizona 1st 2014

Yeah Edmonton's going to be all over this.


Get my hands off your upper butt.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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