It's nice to come back to a debate that had lost nearly all of its muster and vigor the past few years, that debate that rages between Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. At one time the top two players in the NHL playing for two of the best teams in the league, the rivalry between the two was matched only between that of fans and media who were forced to choose a side. Unfortunately, due to injury and diminishing returns, both players dropped out of the conversation for a time with Ovechkin taking an incredible amount of heat as the Capitals struggled to find the success of Crosby's Penguins.
Now, with the Capitals surging ahead in the standings and threatening to enter the postseason as the league's hottest team, the debate begins anew. This time there are different and more significant mitigating factors than ever before -- which should make the argument over which player deserves the NHL's top honor as Most Valuable Player more entertaining than ever.
On Tuesday, Capitals coach Adam Oates let his ringing endorsement for Ovechkin be known. Per the Washington Times:
"I'm obviously very biased about that, so my answer would be yeah, absolutely," Oates said. "Obviously Sidney Crosby is another candidate, for sure. He had such a scoring lead, but I think you've got to factor in the fact he's missed a lot of games."
"That's not for me to say though, it's you guys."
The problem, of course, is that for the first half of the season the Capitals were one of the worst teams in the NHL and Ovechkin one of the more underwhelming star players performing at an exceptionally low level -- for his standards and for his team. In his first 19 games, Ovechkin had just eight goals and 15 points; certainly a respectable number but far below the production expected of the superstar player when compared to that of Steven Stamkos or Sidney Crosby -- two other players routinely at the top of the list of Hart candidates.
Just a few months later, and Ovechkin leads the league with 28 goals and now has 48 points in 43 games. The Capitals have shot back up the standings to No. 3 in the East and will likely win the Southeast division title. The turnaround for both the team and the player are remarkable and have led many to speculate that Ovechkin's incredible second half of the season should be enough to warrant the title as the league's Most Valuable Player.
The problem, of course, is that the award is generally awarded to the player who was at his best for the entire season. The "Most Valuable Player" award is always one that is up for much debate as the definition of the award itself is fairly ambiguous; the title would infer the award should go to the player that a team would never be successful without, while the award is generally given to the "best player on one of best teams" -- a fact true for all major sports, and not just hockey.
If we're talking about the true "most valuable player" in the NHL, then you'd have to look no further than Columbus' Sergei Bobrovsky -- there's no way that the Blue Jackets would be fighting for the postseason without. Or perhaps Ryan Suter in Minnesota, or John Tavares with the Islanders. All of these players have been consistently great for much of this season and their team's success rides directly on the shoulders of these players.
That's not to take away from what Ovechkin has accomplished this season. He's proven wrong an incredibly biased hockey media that seems to take pleasure when he struggles, and his willingness to do what his coach has asked of him has led to a career resurgence when many felt that he was no longer capable of the greatness we witness just a few short years ago.
At the heart of this matter is Sidney Crosby, who continues to lead the league with 56 points in 36 games; an incredible pace, even for Crosby's standards. The Penguins were the best team on the planet during the month of March is almost unstoppable and Crosby was leading the way from the very first puck drop of the season.
Unfortunately, Crosby has been out for more than two weeks now with a broken jaw and there's no certain timeline for his return; can a player who missed nearly a quarter of the season be looked upon as the NHL's MVP? Is that any different than Ovechkin's struggles to start the season and should the injury actually be held against Crosby, compared to that of a player who was actually playing and performing below expectations?
The Hart Memorial Trophy is voted on each year by the members of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association, who have shown to be generally biased when it comes to selections such as these. There are outliers, of course, such Henrik Sedin in 2010 and Corey Perry in 2011. It's not like Ovechkin hasn't won the award before; the Russian superstar was awarded the Hart in consecutive seasons in 2008 and 2009.
So, once again we'll have a vote on an award in which there really is no clear-cut winner and the debate will rage about biases and what the award really means. What should really matter, however, is that the NHL once again has its two best players at the top of their game and facing off for the league's top honor -- and that's certainly a good thing.