Definition of best player in hockey: Crosby

PITTSBURGH – Sidney Crosby(notes) sniffed, clearing his thoughts as much as anything, buying some time. He had been asked to define, in his mind, the phrase “best player in the game.” He was reluctant to do it.

“I don’t know,” Crosby said. “I don’t really think about it. Everyone …”

Crosby stopped himself.

“I don’t know.”

But he must think about it. He must know. So he was pressed. What kind of qualities would the best player have?

“Well,” Crosby said, relenting a little, “there’s a lot that goes into being a hockey player, depending on what you play. I mean, I could sit here for two minutes and tell you things. Faceoff. Shot. Passing. Leadership. Defensive play. Being a good teammate. There’s a ton of different things. But it’s pretty tough to do. That’s why everyone is always arguing who it is.”

Crosby won’t come out and make a case for himself. That’s about as close as you’re going to get. At least in an interview.

On the ice? That’s different. The captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins is playing better than ever before, and this is someone who has won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player, the Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold medal already at age 23.

Crosby scored two more goals Wednesday night in a 5-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs. He has posted 20 goals and 15 assists during a 17-game point streak. He has factored into nearly 60 percent of the Penguins’ goals during an 11-game winning streak. A team that started 6-7-1, that has played the past three games without No. 2 center Evgeni Malkin(notes), that has played the whole season without No. 3 center Jordan Staal(notes), leads the NHL with 42 points.

All of this has come while the NHL is using Crosby and the Washington CapitalsAlex Ovechkin(notes) – his biggest rival in the best-player debate – to market the sport to a broader audience. Vanity Fair features a photo spread of the two stars in its latest issue. HBO began embedding camera crews with their teams this week for a behind-the-scenes miniseries leading up to their meeting in the Winter Classic, the league’s annual outdoor game on New Year’s Day.

And it just so happens that Crosby caught fire as another player started to steal the spotlight. The Hockey News features the Tampa Bay Lightning's Steve Stamkos on the cover of its latest issue. The headline: “The NHL’s NEW BEST PLAYER.” The key line from the story: “Without a doubt, Stamkos is the best offensive player in the NHL right now.”

Oh, yeah? With 26 goals and 24 assists, Crosby now has 50 points in 30 games. He has a 10-point lead over Stamkos – and a 15-point lead over Ovechkin – in the scoring race. He’s on pace for more than 71 goals and 136 points, numbers the NHL hasn’t seen since the early to mid-1990s.

That’s a pretty strong case.

“M-V-P!” the fans shouted Wednesday night in Pittsburgh. “M-V-P!”

We can’t climb into Crosby’s head and heart. He guards his privacy. He said he didn’t think he would allow HBO cameras to follow him home, as much as the NHL and the Penguins would love to show more shades of his personality, so good luck getting him to open up on his deepest motivations.

But no one works at his craft as hard as Crosby does without a burning desire to be the best. Crosby has spent thousands of hours training since he was a teenager. He obsesses about the biomechanics of his stride. He always shows up for skates – even the optional ones – trying to improve some skill.

“It still amazes me everything he does,” Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury(notes) said. “I swear at him sometimes in practice.”

Crosby has said that last season was the best of his career. He scored 51 goals, a career high, tying Stamkos for the league lead. He recorded 109 points, same as Ovechkin and only three fewer than the league leader, the Vancouver CanucksHenrik Sedin(notes). And he did it without the support the others have.

Stamkos has Martin St. Louis(notes). Ovechkin has Nicklas Backstrom(notes). Sedin has his twin brother, Daniel. Crosby has Malkin, but they don’t play together as much as those other sets of teammates do.

Still, Henrik Sedin won the Hart, making it three years in a row that Crosby didn’t win the MVP award. The players – Crosby’s peers – also picked Ovechkin as the NHL’s most outstanding player for the third year in a row. There are whispers that deep down, in places Crosby doesn’t talk about at parties (or in the media), that hurt.

What does it mean to be the best?

“Everybody’s different,” Crosby said. “Some guys choose to work on specific things and really make sure that they have those skills perfected. Other guys try to work on all types of different things and might not be the very best at them, but they bring a lot of different things.”

That might be another way of saying this: If you’re looking for the best shot in the game, it belongs to Stamkos. If you want the best combination of power and skill, that’s Ovechkin. But if you define the best player the way Crosby does, well, it’s Crosby.

Faceoff? Shot? Passing? Crosby once struggled on faceoffs; he has become one of the top faceoff men in the league. Crosby once was more of a set-up artist; he concentrated on shooting more last season and ended up scoring a dozen more goals than he ever had before.

Leadership? Defensive play? Being a good teammate? Crosby sets the example for his teammates with his work ethic. He’s a two-way player who does the little things. And he impacts the game and his team in so many ways.

One reason Crosby is so successful offensively is because of how responsible he is defensively. Say there is an important faceoff in the Penguins’ zone. Coach Dan Bylsma sends out Crosby. “It’s an offensive-zone faceoff for the opposition,” Bylsma said. “They send out their best line, and we have Crosby’s line. I’m not sure their focus is at that point in time shutting down [No.] 87 and his line.” Next thing you know, Crosby is headed the other way against players for whom defense is not the top priority.

At the same time, one reason the Penguins have improved defensively this season is because of how prolific Crosby is offensively. The Penguins felt they had been scoring enough goals but giving up too many. So instead of spending salary-cap room on a winger that Crosby didn’t really need, they spent it on defensemen Paul Martin(notes) and Zbynek Michalek(notes) (letting offensive defenseman Sergei Gonchar(notes) go as a free agent). While Crosby has lit it up with Chris Kunitz(notes) and Pascal Dupuis(notes) as his linemates, the Penguins have allowed less than 1.6 goals per game during their winning streak.

The key is Crosby’s all-around game. He lacks one defining skill, but that means opponents can’t take away his strength. They try to match defense pairings against him. They try to get physical with him. They try to take away his time and space. They try to keep an eye on him at all times. “If you don’t know where he is,” Leafs defenseman Mike Komisarek(notes) said, “it’s probably not a good thing.” And he just does his thing, excelling in several areas, from flying through the neutral zone to going hard to the net.

“You know, I don’t see him making adjustments to what people are trying to do,” Bylsma said. “He’s just playing the game and playing within our structure, playing the right way.”

This is not like when Crosby focused on faceoffs or his shot.

“I don’t feel like I’m that much better in any area,” Crosby said.

Nope. Not any one area. All areas.

Brent Johnson(notes), the Penguins’ backup goaltender, looked back at the beginning. He recalled one night when he was playing for the Capitals at the Penguins’ old home and Crosby introduced himself.

“I remember a time in Mellon Arena when he had no room to score whatsoever on me, and he got a backhand up from a foot out and put it right under the bar on me,” Johnson said. “I was like, ‘How the heck did that kid do that?’ ”

Then Johnson paused and looked to the future.

“There’s no end to him,” Johnson said.

No one knows how good Crosby can become. No one knows how the horse race will develop over the coming weeks, months and years between Crosby, Ovechkin, Stamkos and others, either. But the Penguins’ past 17 games have proven at least one thing.

“I try to be my best,” Crosby said.

And by his own definition, that can make Sidney Crosby the best player in the game.