If you were to go onto the streets of any hockey-crazed city with the intent of asking random bystanders who they think the greatest player the game has seen this century is, two answers would overwhelmingly greet you: Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid. These two names are among the most recognizable the hockey world has ever boasted, and for good reason. They are perhaps the two most purely talented individuals to ever lace up a pair of skates (we can go over the debate between the old and new NHL’s skill level another time).
But which of these two all-time greats takes the cake and leaves the other to lick the leftover icing? Well, who can be sure if there really is an objective answer? I’m not, at least not yet, but if you follow along below, you’ll witness my inner turmoil as I go over each aspect of their game and do my best to outline the arguments for both.
Starting with a relatively simple comparison, I don’t think it’s hard to see that McDavid has a higher level of pure puck skill than Crosby. Pull up the highlights from any Edmonton Oilers game he’s ever suited up in, and I guarantee there will be a clip or two of #97 razzling and dazzling his way around a defender, or even multiple. Whether it results in a goal or not, these highlights are always extremely entertaining to watch.
Now, of course, a lot of this has to do with his speed, which we’ll touch on soon. However, he can stickhandle in a phonebooth, as evidenced by his ability to protect the puck whilst being mobbed by upwards of three or four opposing players on some rushes. Think of his goal of the year contender in which he dismantled the entire on-ice Toronto Maple Leafs squad, or his famous one-on-three toe-drag goal against the Columbus Blue Jackets upon returning from his rookie season injury.
Crosby is certainly no slouch when it comes to puckhandling, either. He has plenty of highlights throughout his career to back up his case for taking this category. Still, his style is very different, much less flashy, and a large proportion of his ability in this area is thanks to the next category we’ll go over.
Crosby takes this one easily. It’s not that McDavid is weak, but again, his speed often acts as a cushion and allows him to avoid physical play simply by being too fast to hit. Crosby has never had that luxury. In fact, it’s well documented that he was a target of excessive foul play throughout his amateur career, such as slashing, tripping, cross-checking, you name it. Players on other teams would completely ignore the puck and entirely attack the body instead. He was at such a higher talent level than his peers, so it was really the only way they could hope to stop him.
As a result, Crosby developed a strong physical edge to his game. He learned how to use his body to shield the puck from attackers and properly and effectively balance himself to absorb and roll away from hits without being knocked off the puck. He’s great at using his shoulders to create shot space when driving with the puck and isn’t afraid to go to the dirty areas of the ice to battle it out with larger opponents. Crosby has also earned a reputation for being a sneaky dirty player throughout his career, especially when slashing. Remember the Marc Methot incident where the top digit of his ring finger was severed and needed to be surgically stitched back on? Referees used to seldom call that a slashing penalty, but it’s been a penalty nearly every single time since then. However, McDavid’s also garnered this sort of a reputation (he’s been suspended twice for illegal checks to the head), although certainly to a lesser degree.
Continuing with another somewhat straightforward category, I don’t think anyone will argue with the fact that McDavid is a better skater. He has the wheels of a 2000 horsepower built-for-the-drag-strip Lamborghini with a twin-turbo kit slapped on it. His pure acceleration is unmatched. It almost seems superhuman as he blasts from 20 to 40 kilometers per hour, roughly the same speed as an old Honda Civic.
As previously mentioned, this speed is a large part of McDavid’s game and allows him to maximize his other elite abilities. Beyond pure speed, though, I would say these two are essentially equals. Both have fantastic edge work and agility, allowing them to position themselves exactly how they should be in any scenario they find themselves in. They also have fantastic conditioning that allows them to keep their performance consistent throughout a game, even when playing 20+ minutes against the other team’s top players.
The main question is: can McDavid maintain his unbelievable speed and acceleration over the course of his career and into the later years that Crosby finds himself in right now? Only time will tell.
This is a tough one. Crosby and McDavid are predominantly playmakers who facilitate opportunities for their teammates far more often than for themselves. Still, being at such an elite level of talent, they’re inevitably both top-tier goal scorers as well. They both have very similar career goal per game played rates (0.47 for Crosby and 0.48 for McDavid) and similar career shooting percentages at 14.6% and 15.2%, respectively. McDavid’s numbers are obviously slightly better, but could this be a result of playing more than twice the number of games?
If you watch them on the ice and look at their analytical shooting data, it’s clear they tend to get their shots off in two very different ways, with Crosby shooting more shots from difficult areas and deflecting the puck on net much more often, yet their effectiveness doesn’t fall too far in either players’ favor. This could be a testament to Crosby’s abilities to turn low-threat chances into more dangerous ones or possibly a testament to McDavid’s wherewithal to hold onto the puck until he’s within a better scoring area.
McDavid’s shot looks cleaner in terms of their actual shooting mechanics, and his release is inarguably quicker. It seems like Crosby has to use his upper body more to get off the shot he wants. Whether that determines who’s a better shooter or not is in the eye of the beholder.
For our final category, we have the all-encompassing hockey IQ level. This one’s nearly impossible to determine a clear-cut winner, as both of these guys are at the tip-top of the all-time hockey IQ pyramid. Defensively, Crosby is considered smarter, therefore, better, but how much of that is recency bias? When Crosby was McDavid’s age, he was also criticized for not being a fantastic complete player. Over time, though, he honed his craft, fixed his flaws, and in recent years, he’s been considered one of, if not the best, 200-foot players in the league.
McDavid doesn’t even turn 25 until midway through this coming season; there’s still plenty of time left for him to work on his game and improve defensively, especially for a player with such a naturally high hockey intelligence. On the other hand, offensive IQ is where things get even murkier. Each of these guys thinks the game on the fly at such a higher level than most hockey fans could even dream of. They both create plays where none seem to exist, leaving you scratching your head, thinking, “how did he do that?”. Each of them has a myriad of highlight goals in which they effortlessly pick corners most human eyes couldn’t even detect while moving at such speeds. Both will find minuscule seams, and complete tape-to-tape passes with the same level of accuracy as professional archers hitting the bullseye.
I suppose one could argue that Crosby has better positional awareness, but that harkens back to the defensive argument and could be a result of more time spent in the league. It’s perfectly feasible that when McDavid is 34, he’ll be miles ahead of where Crosby is currently. Similar to the shooting category, without conclusive evidence leaning in one direction or the other, I have to call this one a wash.
Conclusion – So Who’s Better?
There really is no obvious answer. Based on who I chose as superior in each category, you could assume it’s McDavid, as the only section Crosby’s truly a clear-cut ahead is physicality. Yet, I hesitate to use this as the basis of my conclusion. Hockey is such an intangible sport that it’s almost irrelevant who is better in more areas. In this case, Crosby has three Stanley Cups. Yes, McDavid’s a decade younger, but Sid had one of his rings on his resume already when he was McDavid’s age. Did he have a stronger team? Yes. Was his team stronger because he’s a better leader? Maybe. People can’t use the excuse that Crosby had Evgeni Malkin as a second-hand man. McDavid has Leon Draisaitl to back him up, who’s arguably better or at least just as talented right now as Malkin was at his absolute peak. The rest of the 2009 Penguins’ supporting cast was certainly stronger than the Oilers teams Peter Chiarelli and Ken Holland have built around McDavid, but fans tend to be quick to point out how McDavid’s play in the playoffs hasn’t really elevated beyond how he plays during the regular season. It’s a necessity for the team as a whole to experience success.
On the contrary, that’s been a narrative for nearly every all-time great in every sport, not just hockey. People had doubts about Gretzky until 1984 when his squad finally took down the four-time reigning champion New York Islanders. NBA fans didn’t believe in Lebron James until he won the championship in 2016 with a non-superteam. In conclusion, I have no conclusion. Crosby and McDavid are two of the greatest ever to play the game. In ten years, we can come back to this with a larger sample size for their careers (probably, barring a Jaromir Jagr-Esque back half) having come to a close. Until then, we’ll have to watch and have fun doing it.