For the next few seasons, every Penguins – Oilers game preview will ask “Who’s better? Crosby or McDavid?” That is because most sports fans gravitate toward rivalries, created or genuine, especially those that remind or connect them to remarkably similar past rivalries from a generation ago.
To many eyes, Crosby vs. McDavid, 2017, is analogous to Lemieux vs. Gretzky, 1987.
The all-star Penguins captain, the first-line center, the Art Ross Trophy winner.
The all-star Oilers captain, the first-line center, the Art Ross Trophy winner.
Many will remember that when Lemieux ended Gretzky’s eight-year chokehold on the points-scoring race with two consecutive seasons atop the league, Penguins fans strongly felt Lemieux had a rightful claim to the crown of NHL’s best player. Edmonton fans disagreed, citing Gretzky’s much longer record of excellence.
Therein lies the dilemma: exactly how do you make a fair comparison between two players who are different ages? Gretzky already had six years of professional experience before Lemieux debuted and the gap is even larger between Crosby and McDavid, a full decade.
Most comparisons start off as friendly debate, but quickly veer off into arguing about team awards like Crosby’s three Cups and two gold medals to zero and zero for McDavid. Online debates usually devolve into a cesspool of sexually-disgusting/racially-motivated name-calling in the comments section of any article, or even in a Best of Crosby/Best of McDavid YouTube.
I decided to take the most dispassionate, objective look possible at Crosby and McDavid, using relevant categories. That’s right. Cold, hard numbers in order to isolate some individual stats, team performance when they’re on-ice and finally, some stats relative to their teammates. However, one may disagree with the choice of statistical categories used here. Also, be wary of drawing conclusions after just 1 1/2 seasons played by McDavid. You might favor different stats. It is simply a snapshot of Crosby and McDavid in the present time.
All data is regular season only, from the start of 2015-16 through last Saturday’s games, for 5-on-5 situations. All figures from Corsica.hockey except scoring chance figures, from Natural Stat Trick. The relevance of xGF% (expected goals for %) and its superior predictive power on future goal scoring is explained by Hockey-Graphs.
Does the data prove one is better than the other? No. It says nothing about Crosby’s precision passing nor McDavid’s phenomenal speed but it does describe to a certain extent, the factors adding up to each player’s success. One category that stands out is scoring chances. While Crosby has a slight edge in scoring chance percentage for the Penguins when he is on the ice, McDavid has the clear edge in contributing to high danger scoring chances, generally defined as the slot from the hashmarks of the faceoff circles inward to the goal line.
As always, there are countless hockey attributes that cannot (yet) be captured on a stat sheet. Superior intelligence, instinct, decisiveness and calm focus under pressure, all play a part in separating Crosby and McDavid from most everyone else on the ice. Just as McDavid dazzled when he inverted Duncan Keith and created a successful in-close scoring chance against Chicago last week, it was equally astonishing to watch Crosby’s quick thinking moments before the tying goal in New York last Tuesday during the high-stress final minute of regulation. Seeing the hand-pass from Hornqvist; instinctually retracting his stick to not touch the puck first; rotating his body to shield the puck; baiting Shattenkirk into touching it; visualizing where Lundqvist was positioned, then firing a no-look centering backhand.
Rest assured that if McDavid drops a four-point game in Pittsburgh tomorrow night and Crosby is held off the scoresheet, Oilers fans will crow for weeks about their boy being better. McDavid could score 10 points tomorrow night and it shouldn’t bother Pens fans all that much. We can debate endlessly whether Crosby or McDavid is better, and much like the number of Cups the two franchises have won, it’s pretty even. However, we’ll always have this, the Chug that Launched a Thousand Memes:
It could have been you Edmonton… It could have been you.