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Who would you choose?

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Cover Story Who would you choose?

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They were the three best rookies in the best rookie class of all-time.
Before long, the hockey world might be talking about them
as the three best players in the NHL.

And we mean soon.


Like, check back with us in a couple of months.
That kind of soon.

HARRY HOW/GETTY IMAGES

Crosby, Ovechkin and Phaneuf reign supreme

14 thehockeynews.com

J. SCHECHTER/GETTY IMAGES; BRUCE BENNETT/GETTY IMAGES; DALE MACMILLAN/GETTY IMAGES


L-R: ELIOT J

By Ken Campbell
Theres a better-than-average chance Alexander
Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Dion Phaneuf, in many
ways the cornerstones of the new NHL, will emerge as
the undisputed elite of the league as early as this season.
Owners of the most remarkable freshmen seasons in
years, all three are poised to continue their upward trajectories and presumably, drag their teams along with
them.
Yup, the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins
and Calgary Flames are sure lucky to have these guys.
And heres a scary thought: The Penguins could have
actually had Phaneuf, too, who inexplicably fell to ninth
overall in the 2003 entry draft, eight spots after the
Penguins took goalie Marc-Andre Fleury first overall.
Oh well, you cant have em all. But a hockey guy can
dream, cant he?
And thats exactly what we asked a bunch of them to
do when we posed the following question: All right,

youre starting your franchise from scratch and you can


choose one of Ovechkin, Crosby or Phaneuf as your
cornerstone. Which one would you choose?
The NHL fraternity being the NHL fraternity, a good
number of them turtled, either refusing to answer the
question or coming up with such gems as, Golly gee,
you cant go wrong with any one of them.
Well, duh. We knew that already because we tend to
watch an awful lot of hockey around here. Evidently, so
do readers of thehockeynews.com. In a poll conducted
in early September, Internet surfers were asked the
same question. Of the 8,594 who responded, 3,597 (42
per cent) went with Ovechkin, followed by 3,541 (41
per cent) for Crosby. Phaneuf was the choice of 938 (11
per cent) and New York Rangers goalie Henrik
Lundqvist, who was part of the online query, but not
the one to NHL personnel, garnered 518 (six per cent)
of the votes.

October 3, 2006 15

Who would you choose? Cover

Cover Story Who would you choose?

The GM in me is

Chelios broke into the league, or the


year earlier when Steve Yzerman,
Doug Gilmour and MacInnis were
rookies. For the Ovechkin-Crosby
comparison only, the best one might
be 1957-58 when Frank Mahovlich
and Bobby Hull finished 1-2 in voting for the Calder Trophy.

screaming

PHANEUF.
Just screaming,
but I have to go with Ovechkin.

Anaheim Ducks GM Brian Burke

16 thehockeynews.com

player, Hitchcock said. His


strength is in his legs and theyre
going to carry him forever.
Ovechkin is a special scorer, but to
me Crosby has the Forsberg personality on the ice.
That doesnt mean he necessarily
thinks Crosby is better than
Ovechkin, though.
You asked me about building a
team, Hitchcock said. You didnt
say top-end player. You said building
a team.
And nothing that Shero saw early
in training camp discouraged him
from thinking Crosby is capable of
retaining his status as one of the
leagues best players and improving
upon it. In his first scrimmage in
camp, Crosby took a pass from a
Penguins defenseman in his skates
in the neutral zone, split a pair of
blueliners and fired the puck to the
top of the net.
All right, the defensemen were
Ryan Lannon and Michal Sersen
and the goalie was Andrew Penner,
but you get the idea.
We were sitting there afterward
saying to each other, Can you
believe that defenseman is going to
get an assist for putting it in
(Crosbys) skates? Shero said.

iscuss amongst yourselves
whether Crosby, Ovechkin
and Phaneuf represent the
top three impact rookies ever, but
consider that Crosby and Ovechkin
became the first two true rookies to
finish in the top 10 in scoring in
NHL history. (In 1926-27, six rookies are listed among the top 10 scorers, though all but one of them
came to the NHL from the Western
Canadian League, which according
to many hockey historians was on
par with the NHL at the time.)
Consider also that last years
double cohort of rookies could have

OVIE AND OUT Alexander Ovechkin


passed a lot of opponents on his way to
the net last season, and in our poll he
passed two more Crosby and Phaneuf.

BOTH: BRUCE BENNETT/GETTY IMAGES

Dion Phaneuf wasnt quiet about


introducing himself to the rest
of the league last year.

tance of 20-year-old Paul Coffey


(29) and Ray Bourque (27).
What made it that much more
impressive was Phaneuf did it while
finishing sixth in the league in hits
with 203, something that caught the
attention of Los Angeles Kings assistant GM Ron Hextall, who was a
pro scout with the Philadelphia
Flyers last season.
For me its Phaneuf because I
think the most important guy on
your team and the hardest one to
find is a No. 1 defenseman, Hextall
said. I just think the physical and
offensive package this guy brings is
too hard to pass up. I think this kid
can be better than Scott Stevens. His
offensive game is much better than
Stevens and the rest of his game is
very similar.
Penguins GM Ray Shero, whose
choice was not included for obvious
reasons, said theres no reason to
believe Crosby will not go on to do
great things. Shero said prior to
training camp, Crosby had a oneword answer when the GM asked
him what his conditioning level was
like compared to last seasons training camp.
He just said, Pfffft, Shero said.
Were guessing that means hes in
pretty good shape. And that will be
bad news for teams trying to stop
him as he speeds through the neutral zone or that try to knock him
off the puck in the corner. At just 5foot-11, Crosby has one of the
strongest trunks in hockey and it
makes him almost impossible to
separate from the little black thing.
Combine that with a sublime level
of skill and competitiveness and you
have something very special.
Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock saw
Crosby play eight times last season
and often thought he was looking at a
player who occupied his own bench.
Crosby, to me, has everything
(Peter) Forsberg had as a young

PHANEUF: BRUCE BENNETT/GETTY IMAGES; BURKE: LISA BLUMENFELD/GETTY IMAGES

WESTBOUND TRAIN

It was almost as close among NHL


experts. In all, we asked the question
of 14 GMs, coaches and pro scouts.
Of the 12 who gave definitive
responses, six chose Ovechkin, five
Crosby and one Phaneuf. Most on
the panel provided us with answers
without giving their names, but several, such as Anaheim Ducks GM
Brian Burke, werent afraid to make
their choices known.
The GM in me is
screaming Phaneuf, Burke
said. Just screaming. But I
have to go with Ovechkin.
What he did last year just
cant be ignored.
Hockey people are often
loathe to compare young
performers to the all-time
great players in the game,
as if mentioning similarities between Ovechkin and
Mario Lemieux, Crosby
and Bryan Trottier, and
Phaneuf and Scott Stevens
is going to wreck their
careers or something.
But consider the following. When Lemieux broke
into the NHL in 1984-85,
he averaged 1.37 points
per game in a league that
was producing 7.8 goals
per game. Last season,
Ovechkin had 1.31 points
per game and Crosby 1.26
in a league that averaged
6.1 goals per game. As for
Phaneuf, his 20 goals was
the third-highest all-time
for a rookie defenseman
and represented just one
fewer than Bobby Orr
scored as a 20-year-old. He
scored substantially more
goals than Al MacInnis
(11), Phil Housley (16) or
Denis Potvin (17) scored
at the same age and was at
least within shouting dis-


ut back to the original question. Obviously, having any
one of the three would be a
boon to any team looking for a
franchise player. One Western
Conference GM who has seen an
awful lot of Phaneuf said he doesnt
put the Flames defenseman in the
same superstar category as
Ovechkin and Crosby.
With the other two players, you
could probably flip a coin, he said.
They certainly bring different
things, but at the end of the day, you
get the same result star.
And while there seems to be the
notion Crosby brings more physical
play and perhaps more passion to
the game, Ovechkin has exhibited
both those characteristics in abundance as well. You want passion?
You ever watched this guy celebrate
a goal?
Physical play? Well, Ovechkin did
finish 14th in the league in hits with
172 last season, second only to
Phaneuf among rookies. Crosby,
meanwhile, finished well back in a
tie for 203rd in the NHL with 66
hits, a little more than one-third the
number of hits Ovechkin dished
out.
It is a vexing question indeed.
Some, such as Toronto Maple Leafs
pro scout Craig Button, who chose
Crosby, would just as soon have that
decision made for them.
Is there any way I can pick third
in this one? Button said.
Theres no way I can go wrong
with that pick.

comprised an actual all-rookie roster, not just an all-rookie team.


Along with Lundqvist in goal, there
was Ryan Miller. Phaneuf was
joined on defense by the likes of
Andrej Meszaros, Brent
Seabrook and
Duncan Keith.
Marek Svatos

would have scored 40-plus goals


had he not missed 20 games with
an injury; Jussi Jokinen made a
mockery of the shootout; Brad
Boyes put up what would have been
a Calder-worthy season if it had
happened any other year; and,
Patrick Eaves scored a remarkably
quiet 20 goals.
Certainly the top end rivals the
depth of talent the league boasted in
1980-81 when Peter Stastny, Larry
Murphy, Jari Kurri, Denis Savard,
Glenn Anderson and Dale Hunter
made their debuts. Or nine years
earlier when Marcel Dionne, Guy
Lafleur and Ken Dryden were rookies. Or in 1990-91 when Sergei
Fedorov, Mats Sundin, Jaromir Jagr
and Rob Blake were rookies. Then
there was 1991-92 when Dominik
Hasek, Nicklas Lidstrom and
Pavel Bure all entered the league.
Perhaps the best comparison
could be made to 1984-85
when Lemieux, Pat
LaFontaine and Chris

Story

Best
Rookie
Crops
2005-06 might turn out to be
the best rookie season in
NHL history. Here are others:

1980-81

Peter Stastny
Larry Murphy
Jari Kurri
Denis Savard
Glenn Anderson
Dale Hunter
Tons of depth, tons of talent,
tons of scoring, tons of nastiness, tons of savvy

1971-72

Marcel Dionne
Guy Lafleur
Ken Dryden
Two greats who won a multitude of Cups and best player never to win one

1990-91

Sergei Fedorov
Mats Sundin
Jaromir Jagr
Rob Blake
Ed Belfour
Hart, Selke, Norris, Vezina
winners and a franchise cornerstone in Sundin

1991-92

Dominik Hasek
Nicklas Lidstrom
Pavel Bure
Who knew Hasek and
Lidstrom would turn out to
be this great?

1984-85

Mario Lemieux
Pat LaFontaine
Chris Chelios
Will contain three Hall of
Famers once Chelios finally
decides to stop playing

1983-84

Steve Yzerman
Doug Gilmour
Al MacInnis
Tom Barrasso
All were instrumental in
their teams winning the
Stanley Cup
October 3, 2006 17