Jesse Connolly's recent article, entitled "Why Alex Ovechkin Will Never Be the Face of the NHL" really got me pondering this question again, as I have so many times in my life. There has always been a player regarded as the face of the NHL, and that player was generally recognized as the best in the league at that time: Players like Richard, Howe, Orr, Gretzky and Lemieux were all regarded as the undisputed heavyweight for a significant part of their career.
Usually the face of the NHL is the player who is "most extremely proficient" at what he does. There were many great players in the 80s with different skills and qualities, but Gretzky was so unbelievably great at what he did there was little argument that he was the best player in the league while he was in his prime, and certainly no mixed messages sent on the topic as far as the NHL public relations machine was concerned- every egg went into the Gretzky basket for a good decade.
Another factor that's helped keep the debate fairly clear and easy to market over the years has been the fact that it always seems that as one star's glow begins to fade a bit due to age or injury, another rises from the glare to fill the spot- not many twin star systems in the NHL universe. Luckily for the NHL, this happened with the parallel decline of Wayne Gretzky and the rise of Mario Lemieux.
This type of clarity (or scarcity) of elite talent made it easy to identify and promote stars, but there was always concern about who would be the next Great One, who could continue to sell the game in places where it should have never gone and take the game where it should never go- further into the non-caring southern and mid-western US, Europe, Asia and anywhere else numbskull NHL execs can imagine. Things of this nature have little effect in hockey hotbeds like Montreal and Toronto, where teams have always been successfully promoted rather than individual league stars.
Nowadays, before you decide who the best player in the league is, you may first have to decide whether he's even the best player on his given team- of course I am referring to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin who have pretty much been equals since Sid's return from injuries that sidelined him for 29 games in 07-08. Malkin took his game to another level in Crosby's absence and never looked back- the rest is history as the momentum propelled the Pens to the Stanley Cup final where they were dispatched by the Detroit Red Wings, a team that has no less than three superstars of their own who could be successfully argued as the leagues best player.
For the first time in history, a combination of many great players near the same age, and a redefinition of what makes a player truly greatest makes this debate the most difficult it has possibly ever been. I would say that a truly solid, convincing case could be made for no less than 9 players: Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Jarome Iginla, Vincent Lecavalier, Evgeni Malkin, Henrik Zetterberg, Niklas Lidstrom, Roberto Luongo, and Joe Thornton.
Beyond that, there is a superb sub-group of veterans and youngsters that could easily be entered into this debate with as much as another season of development, to as little as a successful return from injury or even a strong second half to this season and good playoff run: Martin Brodeur, Patrick Kane, Pavel Datsyuk, Chris Pronger, Dion Phaneuf, Alexander Semin, Johnathan Toews, Ilya Kovalchuk, Zdeno Chara. I could easily add another half dozen players but for the purpose of this blog Ill stop there.
All of these players have enough ability and skill alone to lay claim to the title as league's best, but the coolest thing is that they are all really great at different things that make them unique and equally special in their own right.
The other element is the unprecedented proximity in age of so many great players.
Of this group of 18 players, 6 are under age 25, 10 players are close to or under 30 and only Lidstrom and Brodeur south of 35. What does this mean? It means that the debate could rage on for years, and long before it is settled amongst this group there could be another dozen or so that could be entered into the fray while a huge chunk of the aforementioned are still in their prime.
Maybe in retrospect, 20 years from now there will be a universally accepted answer to this debate...its also possible that the answer will never be crystal clear and this could be the first era in NHL history with a committee of NHL superstar "faces" rather than an undisputed champion of the cause.
This is an exciting time to be a hockey fan, and for all the gloom and doom of the economic crisis and how it is affecting several struggling teams, at least the argument that the product is at fault can be finally thrown out the window.
Who do you think is the best overall player in the league and why?