When Sidney Crosby stayed on the ice late after practice, Marc-Andre Fleury saw the best player in the world constantly looking to improve.
But who is the best player in the world right now? McDavid led the Edmonton Oilers to the playoffs and the league in scoring last season and won the Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award as MVP. Crosby scored the most goals and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP for the second consecutive year in pushing the Pittsburgh Penguins to back-back Stanley Cup titles.
“Crosby or McDavid,” Columbus Blue Jackets defenceman Seth Jones said. “I think McDavid is what Crosby was when he was 20. ... Obviously they're the best two players in the world.”
An Associated Press survey of 30 of the NHL's top players gave the nod to Crosby. When the players were asked to pick the best player in hockey, excluding current teammates, Crosby received 21 votes, McDavid six and Ottawa Senators defenceman Erik Karlsson one. Two players couldn't choose between Crosby and McDavid and one said there were too many good choices to pick one.
Crosby spent the first decade of his career being compared to Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin, the best goal-scorer of this generation, because they entered the league together. Now No. 87 will spend the next several years fending off comparisons to No. 97 because even the players who picked Crosby know McDavid is on his heels.
“I think you've got to say Crosby because of his resume and the year he had last year, what he did in the playoffs the year before, what he did in the World Cup, where his game's at right now,” three-time Cup winner Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks said. “But it's tough to pick against McDavid, too. He's just an explosive player. Just kind of watching him last year, he kind of floats around a little bit and then he's just gone and he's got a scoring chance and it's just like, 'How did that happen so quickly?' It's between them two.”
Crosby's accomplishments and work ethic make him respected if not revered around the league. In addition to his three Cup rings, Crosby has two Olympic gold medals and won the Hart Trophy twice.
“What more can you ask of Crosby?” San Jose Sharks goaltender Martin Jones wondered.
But the mantle of best player in the game right now isn't a lifetime achievement award. That's OK: Crosby just turned 30 and scored 44 goals, the second most in his career, and players still see him still in his prime.
“Every year he brings something new to the table and tries to improve,” Montreal Canadiens forward Jonathan Drouin said. “Even though he's getting a little bit older, every year he seems to get an edge on something or get better at something.”
Winnipeg Jets centre Mark Scheifele gained more respect for Crosby during the playoffs, and he and others say the Penguins captain is the best around at making his teammates better and coming up big when it matters most.
“He's proven that in big-time games in the last two years especially that he can perform,” New York Rangers defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk said. “I know a lot of people love Connor McDavid, but I think Sid is at the peak of his career and someone who has lived up to every expectation that he's been given.”
“Sid the Kid” was considered the heir to Wayne Gretzky well before he was the first pick in 2005. Concussions cost him almost two full seasons' worth of games in his prime, and Crosby still has 1,027 points.
“You look at Sid and how much he was injured there and what he could've done if he wasn't injured,” Los Angeles Kings forward Tanner Pearson said. “It could be scary what his stats could really actually be like if he was healthy that whole time.”
McDavid missed half his rookie year with a broken collarbone but didn't lose a step. The NHL's only 100-point player last season is so fast that his contemporaries marvel at how quickly the 20-year-old can do everything on the ice.
“He was coming at high speed, and he almost ran into me just stickhandling,” Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask said. “I had to tell him, 'Hey, slow down kid, don't run me over,' because he just skates and he stickhandles and it's something I've never seen before as a goalie.”
McDavid skates a little like Crosby and said, “If you want to model yourself after someone, I think he's as good a guy as you can get.” He also has a little bit of Crosby in him that he sees plays most others can't envision and executes them before a lot of opponents realize it.
“His speed is such a weapon that it's insane, but no one realizes how smart he is as a player,” Philadelphia Flyers defenceman Shayne Gostisbehere said. “He's thinking two or three plays ahead of everyone. It actually is amazing to see how he thinks the game and how good he is.”
Crosby is the best, but several players said McDavid is on the cutting edge of revolutionizing hockey. Kane said the Oilers captain's 2016-17 performance made a lot of other players train to get faster in the off-season.
Speed is the future of hockey with McDavid leading the way.
“Connor's that next generation, the way hockey's going: that full-speed game at all times,” Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby said. “You can see young kids are being taught that, and I think he's the poster child for it.”
WHAT THE PLAYERS HAVE TO SAY
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
The Associated Press asked 30 top NHL players to name the best hockey player in the world. One catch: players couldn't pick a teammate. Sidney Crosby received 21 votes, Connor McDavid six, Erik Karlsson 1, two players couldn't choose between Crosby and McDavid and one couldn't choose anyone. A look at some of the answers:
JAMIE BENN, DALLAS STARS: CROSBY
“It's hard not to pick Sid. Just the last couple years that he's had and his career. I'd have to say he's the best player in the league right now. ... He's done some great things, Sid. He's a great player and a great leader. It's going to be tough to catch what he's done, but I'm sure somebody will get there one day.”
CHARLIE COYLE, MINNESOTA WILD: CROSBY
“Best player in hockey? I would say Sidney Crosby. I think there's obviously new talent coming up, but I think just his experience now that he's probably in his prime. He's got that experience under his belt, he's been in the league for quite a few years now. Just the way he thinks the game, the way he can move, he's just such a smart player. I think he's the best in the game.”
MAX DOMI, ARIZONA COYOTES: CROSBY
“I think you've still got to go with Sidney Crosby. I'm a big Pat Kane fan and good friend of Connor's and thrilled with how well he played (last) year. I think Sid, he's won back to back Cups, still. At this point in his career, he's just continuing to get better and better. It's unbelievable to watch. I don't think you can go against Sid.”
JORDAN EBERLE, NEW YORK ISLANDERS: CROSBY/MCDAVID TIE
“I've played with both. It's tough to pick between the two. Obviously Sid and Connor are kind of the best players in my opinion in the game right now. And they're two different styles. Sid, the work ethic that he has and the way he plays, he's almost like a very, very skilled grinder. He works that hard. And Connor with his speed just kind of outskates everybody and that's kind of his main talent.”
JONATHAN HUBERDEAU, FLORIDA PANTHERS: MCDAVID
“Connor McDavid, for sure. So electrifying and on the ice so fast. I play against him once. ... He can flip a switch so quick that you're not ready for it and, boom, he's gone. The thing I was surprised (about) is you can be like 40 seconds in their zone and you get a little tired and he would take the puck and just fly with it.”
ERIK KARLSSON, OTTAWA SENATORS: CROSBY
“It's a tough one. A lot of them obviously, but I've always said pretty much and probably always will as long as I play, to me Crosby is the best player. Being able to play against him as much as I have and seeing him as close as I have, I think that he's someone that year in and year out, ever since he's got in the league has been the top player.”
DYLAN LARKIN, DETROIT RED WINGS: CROSBY
“He makes the players around him better, more than anyone, I think, and is a winner, wins at everything he does. He's won the past two Stanley Cups the past two years.”
T.J. OSHIE, WASHINGTON CAPITALS: MCDAVID
“It's a toss-up and I hate saying a Canadian's name for the best player, but in my opinion it has to be Connor McDavid. Just the way that the NHL is trending, the speed game, what he's able to do at his top speed, which is faster than a lot of guys' top speed is just something I've never seen before. ... I think Sid's in the talk. With what he's been able to do continuously throughout his career, his resume I think speaks for itself.”
TYLER SEGUIN, DALLAS STARS: CROSBY
“Sid. He's a winner. He's a competitor. I think Connor's a close second, and I think he'll get there, but I don't think anyone still can touch Sid yet.”
CHRIS TANEV, VANCOUVER CANUCKS: MCDAVID
“It's incredible. There's no one better at it in the game that picks up more speed when he has the puck and can make moves at such a high speed. He's a phenomenal player, and he's very tough to defend. McDavid, Sid's just won the last two Cups. It's 1A, 1B. You could take either/or.”