Ending the Crosby-Toews Debate

crosby+toewsI’ve heard many people suggest that that Jonathan Toews is a better hockey player than Sidney Crosby. Not more talented, perhaps, but they usually start with the premise of “if you could pick one player to build a team around”, “yatta-yatta-yatta…”, it has to be Toews.

I disagree. And I’d like to show you why. But first, here’s my perception of what the argument is in favour of Toews:

Jonathan Toews is a winner. He’s won at every level – gold medals at the World Juniors, and the Olmypics, and 2 Stanley Cups. He was named the top forward at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, and won the Conn Smythe in his team’s inaugural cup victory in 2010. He’s a “200-foot” player, clutch some playoff time, and hands down the best captain in the league, who simply wills his teams to victory. For his part, Crosby is very talented, but he hasn’t been very good in the playoffs since their 2009 cup win (where Malkin actually won the Conn Smythe), and he hasn’t been as good as Toews in the Olympics either. Toews may not be more talented, but he’s more well-rounded, was better than Crosby at the Olympics – where they played on the same team – and is the best player on a more successful NHL team. Harrumph.

Perhaps there are are angles to the argument that I haven’t fully captured, but I think that’s the gist of it. Here are some counter-arguments:

(1) Defence

Chicago has an incredible group of defencemen. They have the steady, shut-down play of Niklas Hjalmarsson, the leadership and clutch play of Brent Seabrook, and a dynamic, two-time Norris winner in Duncan Keith – each of whom form a crucial part of their team’s success. Keith and Seabrook get most of the attention, but Hjalmarsson is vastly underrated, as is his partner, Johnny Oduya. Pittsburgh’s defence was good when they won the cup in 2009, but since losing Gonchar and Scuderi many years ago, it’s been nothing more than average.

(2) Wingers

Toews normally plays with Patrick Kane. When they want to switch things up, he has the luxury of playing instead with Marian Hossa. On the other wing, he often has another great player, Patrick Sharp, or the option of an up-and-coming left-winger, Brandon Saad. No centre-iceman in the league has better options on his wings than Jonathan Toews. Meanwhile, Crosby has been toiling away with a 2nd line, complementary player – Chris Kunitz – whom he’s made a star – and Pascal Dupuis – a guy that could barely hold down a spot in a team’s top-9 until he got to Pittsburgh and made friends with Sid.

(3) Goaltending

The single biggest cause of Pittsburgh’s recent playoff struggles has been the goaltending of Marc-Andre Fleury. For three straight years, Fleury has floundered, most notably against Philadelphia in the first round of the 2012 playoffs.

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The Pens should have made it through that series – in fact, they were the favourite to go all the way to the finals. Instead, it was shock, disappointment, and a feeling of being let down by their keeper. By contrast, Corey Crawford has provided solid goaltending for Chicago in most of his 4 playoff years with the club, and tremendous goaltending in their 2013 cup win.

Summary: If you accept points 1-3, it’s clear that Toews’ team is much better than Crosby’s, and teams win Stanley Cups, rather than individuals.

(4) Olympic Play

Crosby is the top centre for Canada at the Olympics, and draws the toughest assignments, against world-class competition. Toews is an important part of the team, but he usually plays further down the lineup – in 2010, he played on the 3rd line, where he matched up against lesser defencemen. And while Toews was named the top forward in 2010, 34-year-old Pavol Demitra was also unbelievable in that tournament, (a tournament all-star), and  36-year-old Bryan Rafalski was named the top defenceman. In other words, the Olympics are a very small sample size, so maybe we can’t infer as much from Toews’ performance as some might think.

(5) Regular Season Stats

Comparing stats between Toews and Crosby is a brief exercise, as Toews’ simply don’t compare – 440 points in 484 games, versus 769 points in 550 games versus.  Toews’ career high in a season is only 76 points, while Crosby has never gone below 100 points in a season where he played at least 77 games. Enough said.

(6) Playoff Stats

Everyone knows Crosby has better regular season stats, but would it surprise you to learn that he also has better playoff stats? Toews has 81 points in 94 career playoff games, whereas Crosby has 114 points in 95 games; Crosby has 33 more points in only 1 extra playoff game. Interesting.

(7) Captain Clutch and his Playoff Success

While the Hawks won 2 cups in 5 years, and almost won another this past year, people are quick to forget that they actually lost in the first round two years in a row – 2011 and 2012 – the second time, to an underdog Phoenix Coyotes team. And in 13 first-round games, Toews mustered only 3 goals on his way to that early exit. Do the Hawks lose as a team, but win because of Toews? It can’t be both. Furthermore, even in their 2013 cup win – where Kane won the Conn Smythe – Toews had only 3 goals in 23 games. If we’re basing the label of “best player in the world” on his playoff success, how do we reconcile that with 3 goals in 23 playoff games? I thought he was clutch? Is he only clutch some of the time? Five players on his team scored more goals in the 2013 playoffs, and another seven had just as many goals as Toews -who again, scored just 3. So if we’re keeping track, that’s 1 Conn Smythe in 2010, two disappointing playoff years – both personally and team-wise – in 2011+2012, and a lackluster performance in 2013 – for the best player in the world at least. (To be fair, he was very good in 2014.)

(8) Simple Insights into Chicago’s Playoff Success

In the two years where Chicago has won the Stanley Cup, their greatest source of strength has been their depth. In 2010, they had a third line of Ladd-Bolland-Versteeg, and Brian Campbell was on their third defensive pairing. But when the salary cap caught up to them, they decided to keep their high-priced core intact, and ditch some of their depth – i.e Ladd, Versteeg, and Byfuglien. The team suffered through a pair of first-round playoff exits, but it was the right move. In only a couple of years, they were able to build the depth up through the draft, and by making a few smart pick-ups like Victor Stalberg and Michael Frolik. They hoisted the cup a second time in 2013. But again, the salary cap got in the way, and they were forced to shed excellent depth players in Frolik and Bolland. This past year, they ran into LA – a team prized for their depth – and the Hawks lost in a tightly contested, 7-game affair. While the Chicago defence was roughly as good as LA’s (and neither goalie played particularly well in that series), they just couldn’t match LA’s depth up front. Had they had Frolik and Bolland, it probably would have been a different story. In a round-about way, all that is to say that Chicago’s success goes far beyond Jonathan Toews – he can’t will his team to victory whenever he feels like it. He doesn’t “put them on his back”. What he may do is take a great team, and help them become a championship team, but he doesn’t make a good team great, or at least he hasn’t so far.

(9) Offensive Capabilities

Crosby is the best playmaker in the world, and makes players around him better as a result (again, Kunitz and Dupuis). He runs the powerplay, has great one-on-one moves, controls the puck down low with incredible lower-body strength, and is also a great goal scorer. As a forward, Toews’ primarily responsibility is to create offence, and while he’s an extremely well-rounded player, he’s neither a great goal scorer, nor a great playmaker. In fact, if you lined up the top-10 offensive players in the NHL, not only would Toews not be on the list, he wouldn’t be anywhere near it. But suddenly, when you add in his “clutch” play, and two-way ability, he becomes the consensus second best player in the world. Which is particularly interesting because…

(10) Is Toews Really the Most Well-Rounded Forward in the NHL?

Toews is lauded as a tremendous two-way player. The best two-way player in the NHL is awarded with the Selke Trophy. To date, Toews has won the award once, so it’s obvious that he’s very good. But the Bruins’ Patrice Bergeron has won the Selke in two of the past three years. Interestingly, Bergeron’s regular-season stats are also fairly comparable to Toews’, – at least, they’re much closer than Toews’ are to Crosby’s – and that’s despite Bergeron suffering a severe concussion in his prime scoring years. (He was coming off two straight 70-point seasons when disaster struck.)

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Furthermore, since his healthy return, the Bruins have had a penchant for rolling all 4 lines, which means their best players don’t get as much ice time. (David Krejci leads the league in playoff scoring every second year, and he only gets 60-65 points in the regular season). Like Toews, Bergeron has won at every level – World Juniors, Olympics, the Stanley Cup – the guy is a leader, a winner, and based on the awards, indisputably the best two-way player in the league today. His advanced stats are also off the charts, and he’s the best face-off man in the league to boot. Given that all the attributes we use to describe Toews also apply to Bergeron, why don’t we talk about Patrice as one of the best players in the world? If my goal was to build a team with a very good offensive player, who’s a great leader, a proven winner, and the best two-way player in the NHL, I’d assume you were talking about Patrice Bergeron. But if you asked Bergeron who the best player in the NHL is, he’d probably laugh and say Crosby, because he knows that Crosby can do things that he could never do, while he (Bergeron) can do basically everything that Toews does, and in some cases – penalty killing, face-offs, take-aways, preventing zone entries, etc – do it better.

 

* Like Bergeron, Crosby has achieved tremendous success despite a near-career ending injury in roughly the middle of his career. Not only did the concussion affect his career stats, it also had a big impact on at least two playoff runs (2011, 2012). If not for that injury, he might have added another Stanley Cup to his resume, which probably would have removed the need to even entertain this debate in the first place.