Who is the Best: Crosby, Kopitar, Toews or Bergeron? by @ChicksDigHockey - PensInitiative | Pittsburgh Penguins Blog | Rumors | News

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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Who is the Best: Crosby, Kopitar, Toews or Bergeron? by @ChicksDigHockey

Penguins' fans have languished in frustration since winning the Cup in 2009. While the team has managed to be successful in the regular season, they have failed to return to the dance: the Stanley Cup Finals. Accordingly, the Penguins' collapse against the New York Rangers in last spring's playoffs marked the end of the organization’s patience with not contending for the cup.

The changes the Pens made have been well documented, but I think the key to winning the cup is something Pittsburgh has possessed all along. 

What is one thing the last four teams to hoist the Stanley Cup have in common?  Several similarities exist, but these teams (the Penguins, Blackhawks, Bruins and Kings) have all rostered a strong center who is the glue that holds the team together. If a team wants to win the Cup, it had better possess an elite center.

I’d like to take a look at Sidney Crosby, and compare his particular skillset against that of Jonathan Toews, Patrice Burgeron and Anze Kopitar.  None of the other three centers put up the points Crosby does, but their play elevates their teammates in other ways.

If you consider Crosby the best player in the world, you might argue that Toews is the best all-around player.  He has worn the “C” with renowned seriousness since he was 20 years old. Now that he’s 26 — with two Stanley Cups, two Olympic gold medals, a Conn Smythe Trophy and a Selke Trophy—  Captain Serious has lightened up considerably.  He’s been in the MVP discussion but has yet to win.

Anze Kopitar has been called Toews in Malkin’s body.  In the 2011–12 season Kopitar led the Kings in scoring with 76 points, including a career-best 51 assists. At the end of regular 2013–14 NHL season Kopitar led the Kings offense for the 7th consecutive season with 70 points. During the Kings' Stanley Cup playoff run, Kopitar was yet again Los Angeles' top scorer and tallied 26 points in LA's 26 games.  Kopitar may not have led the league in scoring as Crosby did, but he led the Kings scoring when it mattered for his team.  He is offensively skilled but he will win the Selke; it’s only a matter of time.

Patrice Bergeron may be underrated offensively but his two Selke trophies (given to the best defensive forward) speak volumes about Bergeron's play in his own end. So far this season, Bergeron has faced quite the challenge with No. 1 center David Krejci in and out of the lineup, and top defenseman Zdeno Chara has missed a large chunk of time due to injury. Bergeron remained a top player while also taking a ton of defensive-zone faceoffs, killing penalties, and, well, doing it all other than driving the Zamboni. Bergeron also earned a reputation for toughness in the hockey world when, in the Stanley Cup finals, he played through a punctured lung, separated shoulder and a broken nose.

All three of those centers are very defensively-minded. Crosby, while possessing defensive skills, is decidedly fixated on offense. He’s a gifted passer (as many elite centers are), but as evidenced by his Rocket Richard trophy, is also an accomplished goal scorer. Crosby finished the 2013-14 season with 104 points. By contrast, Kopitar, whose team lifted the cup, finished next highest among the centers listed with "just" 70 points, highlighting the statistical canyon between Crosby and his colleagues.   

2014-15 thus far
The ability to consistently win timely faceoffs is also critical for an elite center and his team. A face off win asserts control, allows the team to dictate tempo, and increases puck possession time. Statistically, Bergeron and Toews are close in this category. You might think that a skilled center like Crosby would lead the way in face off wins but he isn’t even the best Penguin on the draw: Brandon Sutter is.

Power play sets can be quite varied from team to team so, the center's role can also vary.  That Crosby leads the league in 5-on-4 on-ice shooting percentage is no surprise as the Pens currently have the league's number one power play. In 2013-14 season Pittsburgh's PP ended the season ranked 2nd, Chicago and Boston 7th (tie) while the cup winning Kings ranked 24th.

It's also no surprise that the most defensive-minded centers don't stand out on the power play. However, it was impressive to see that Kopitar scored 23% of the Kings power play goals.

To try to further illustrate Crosby’s contrasting contribution  relative to other elite center’s contributions to the overall team, I chose to look at Cori REL.

Corsi REL is a comparatively simplistic way of measuring how effective a player is in driving possession relative to the rest of his team. A quality of competition stat.
A limitation unique to the quality of competition arises in coaching tactics. Crosby is the only center in this comparison playing under a new coach. Johnston has promised to manage Crosby’s ice time (TOI), has shuffled Crosby's linemates, and is allowing him to be more defensive. Crosby, however, is dealing with the long-term loss of line mate Pascal Dupuis to a blood clot. Kopitar has battled an upper body injury this season and Bergeron's role has been elevated in the absence of David Krejci out with a lower body injury. While Patrick Sharpe is out with an injury, Toews has enjoyed a relatively stable season.

So far, this season, these center's Corsi relative looks like this:
So, what conclusions did I draw from all of this information?
  • All four centers are remarkable in their individual abilities as well as in members of the team.
  • Johnathan Toews is a well-rounded center who contributes in all situations but does not dominate any one given category. 
  • Patrice Bergeron is the quintessential example of a defensive center. His play this year, in Krejci's absence, is testimony to his strength and ability to fill that top center's role.
  • Anze Kopitar is far better than I gave him credit for. He makes a difference when a difference needs to be made, namely in the playoffs. 
  • Sidney Crosby is in a class by himself. His offensive ability, in most cases, eclipses his peers. As this season under a more progressive thinking coach unfolds, I look for his domination to continue...hopefully throughout the playoffs.
*All stats, except where noted, via NHL.com

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