With the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference Finals and the Pittsburgh Penguins having been eliminated again, one of hockey’s most tedious topics of discussion is back: “Star Player X isn’t as good as Star Player Y because of a recent small sample of playoff results.”
In this case, Star Player X is Sidney Crosby. Star Player Y is Jonathan Toews. Crosby didn’t produce at his usual level in the playoffs, scoring just one goal and eight assists in thirteen games. Toews actually hasn’t been that much more productive — he has five goals and five assists through twelve games — but his team is in the conference finals for the fourth time in six seasons so that kind of gets glossed over.
There isn’t really an argument to be made that Toews is in Crosby’s league in terms of offensive production in the playoffs. Sid’s averaged 1.2 points per playoff game; Toews has averaged just 0.85 points per playoff game. For whatever reason, Toews’ 4-19-23 over 41 games stretching from 2010 to 2013 is now overlooked when this topic comes up. There’s actually a very good reason to overlook this. Toews has done other things extraordinarily well, he plays the other team’s best and keeps them off the scoreboard. There’s a huge element of chance in accumulating points, even over 41 games.
If you’re judging Crosby by that standard though, why not judge Toews by it? In all likelihood, it’s because Toews has come through an extraordinary portion of his career in which he’s won two Stanley Cups to go along with his pair of gold medals, while Crosby has just the pair of gold medals to go along with a series of embarrassing playoff exits.
If we look just at the period from 2010 to present, when Toews has made his reputation as a winner while Crosby’s reputation has been tarnished, Crosby has still piled up points in the playoffs – he’s second in playoff scoring on a per game basis since 2010 amongst players with a minimum of 20 games played, a hundredth of a point behind Mike Cammalleri.
Crosby’s Penguins have scored 5v5 goals at a greater rate when he’s on the ice since 2010 than Toews’ Blackhawks, although it’s very close: 3.05 GF/60 to 2.99 GF/60. The big gap between the two players arises when we look at the goals against when they’re on the ice – Chicago has allowed 2.14 GA/60 with Toews on the ice and Pittsburgh has allowed 2.89 GA/60 with Crosby on the ice.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that Toews has played that much better than Crosby though. The save percentage with Toews on the ice has been .915, which is right about what we’d expect from a top centre playing against top competition. For Crosby, it’s been .897. That’s a terrible figure for anyone and the reason that Crosby hasn’t generated the big goal difference when he’s on the ice that we’ve come to expect from him. This has to be taken with a grain of salt though: we’re only talking about 46 games.
If Crosby’s a terrible defensive player who was responsible for that number, as opposed to it just being one of those things that happens sometimes, we’d expect to see the same thing in the regular season. But we don't. If you look at the 5v5 save percentages with Toews and Crosby on ice from 2009-14, Toews is at .913; Crosby’s at .912.
Chicago has, unsurprisingly, also gotten a lot more from their team at 5v5 when Toews is on the bench than Pittsburgh has without Crosby. Chicago has played 2506 minutes with Toews on the bench and outscored their opposition 106-87. Pittsburgh’s played 1569 minutes (ignoring the 2011 playoffs, which Crosby missed due to injury) without Crosby and outscored their opposition 60-56. This is all the more telling because Pittsburgh’s second-best centre – Evgeni Malkin – is probably the second-best centre in the NHL, after Crosby. It’s awfully suggestive about the problems Pittsburgh’s third and fourth lines have given them.
Looking at other aspects of play, the Pens power play has been its usual transcendent self in the playoffs since 2010 -- Pittsburgh has scored 8.5 GF/60 at 5v4. Chicago’s PP has scored 5.6 GF/60 at 5v4. It’s hard to find fault with Crosby’s work here, as he’s an integral part of the Penguins power play. Chicago’s penalty killing has been much better than Pittsburgh’s and, although it’s fair to credit Toews for his work on it, it’s hard to blame Crosby for Pittsburgh’s shortcomings.
Taken as a whole, it’s sensible to ascribe Pittsburgh’s playoff problems over the past five years to factors that are outside of Crosby’s control: bad depth, mediocre penalty killing and bad goaltending. When Crosby isn’t scoring at his customary rate -- as happens to all players from time to time -- Pittsburgh can’t overcome those things. When Toews isn’t scoring at his customary rate, Chicago can. How you conclude that Toews is the better player from that is beyond me.