There is almost nothing that creates more controversy in hockey than discussing whether or not a player is “elite”.
We experienced another round of it when TSN’s Darren Dreger recently appeared on an Edmonton radio station to discuss the Taylor Hall trade. As part of a much larger point on Hall’s trade value at the time of the deal, Dreger made the simple observation that he views Hall as more of a support player than an elite one.
It sparked an immediate reaction on Twitter, and mostly they were overwhelmingly negative. This type of thing is pretty common these days because nobody can ever seem to agree what elite even means. With no consensus defenition, it’s nearly impossible to decide which players fit that description, and why.
Team success makes or breaks a reputation
One of the most thankless spots in sports is being a great player (or simply the best player) on a bad team.
When the team does not win, that player is going to take the brunt of the blame. This is especially problematic in hockey because it is a sport where one great player is not enough to elevate an otherwise bad team.
For great players that are fortunate enough to be in a winning organization, things are dramatically different.
Hockey is not a sport like basketball where the best players play 90 percent of the game and the team with the best player always has the best chance to win. It is not like the NFL where having a franchise quarterback almost instantly makes you a playoff team, if not a championship contender.
In hockey, unless your best player is a goalie, they are usually only playing a third of the game. Without a decent supporting cast, one great player is not enough to consistently impact the outcome of a game.
Even when that player is a goalie that temporarily lifts a team, it still is not going to be enough to win a championship (looking at you, Montreal).
Here is what the team success mindset does to this type of discussion.
Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews is one of the game’s best all-around players. But there is nothing about his individual production that puts him on the same level as Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Nicklas Backstrom, or Joe Thornton.
Since entering the NHL he is 26th in the NHL in points per game (minimum 100 games played) and has had just one top-10 finish in goals or total points in any one season.
But if you take a poll of sports writers, fans, and even people within the league and ask them who they would pick to start a team, a large number of them will take Toews over almost any of the guys mentioned above.
It is almost entirely because he has played on a team that is consistently one of the deepest and most talented in the league.
If you put that same player, with the same style of play, and the same production on a worse team that doesn’t win a championship every other year, the reputation of the individual significantly drops. Poll those same people and see where another one of the game’s best defensive centers that is also 60-point scorer but “only” has one Stanley Cup (like Patrice Bergeron, for example) gets picked.
Probably not anywhere near as high.
Heck, just look at all of the nonsense Thornton, a future Hall of Famer and one of the best players of his generation, has had put up with in his career because he has not won a Cup.
The point here is not that Toews isn’t a great player — he is. It is simply that his reputation has been disproportionately boosted because of the environment he has played in.
On the other side, a player like Thornton has probably had his disproportionately reduced because of his.
When it comes to building a hockey team the focus is almost always on the positions down the middle of the lineup. Centers. Defensemen. Goalies. These are the priorities.
In today’s game, unless you are Alex Ovechkin, Jamie Benn or Patrick Kane, it is almost impossible to get any recognition as one of the game’s best while playing on the wing. You pretty much have to lead the league in goals or points to get noticed on any type of meaningful level.
To a point, this makes sense. Centers do tend to have more responsibility than wingers and will usually make a greater impact. It is nearly impossible to win without a true No. 1 defenseman. If you have the right goalie (or the wrong goalie) it can and will have a huge impact on what your team is able to do.
This, unfortunately, allows some of the truly great players that also happen to play on the wing slide under the radar.
We will call this the Marian Hossa rule.
At his peak, Hossa was the best two-way winger in hockey. He was consistently one of the best defensive forwards — regardless of position — in the league and also one of its most productive scorers.
He plays the complete 200-foot game we scream for, and having also played in five Stanley Cup finals and been a part of three teams that have won (while playing a major role in all of them), he has the team success.
He should be a slam dunk Hall of Famer. Depending on who you ask, he might not be.
He should probably have a Selke Trophy sitting in his trophy case at this point in his career, or at the very least have been a finalist for one. He has finished higher than seventh in the voting just once and never higher than fifth. Until five years ago he almost never received any consideration in the voting. At all.
For a player that has been as good as he has been, it is an incredible development.
It is almost certainly because he is a winger instead of a center.
Players that excel in one area but are flawed somewhere else
A player like Sidney Crosby is much better, so much more talented, and so much more productive than everybody else in the league that we just know he is an elite player.
Then you have players that have an elite skill.
Take Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson as an example.
He is one of most game-changing defenseman the league has had in decades, and he has the numbers to back it up. He is the engine that makes the team go offensively, and is pretty much a one-man breakout coming out of the defensive zone. Nobody at his position in the league can match his offensive output.
But because he does not kill penalties and on occasion looks bad defensively (just like any other player in the league can at any given time), his obscene skill level and production seems to be underappreciated.
It might be a difficult sell to call a two-time Norris Trophy winner underappreciated, but this is a player that we should be looking at as one of the best players of his generation. Instead there is more ink spilled and more hot air wasted over what he does not do instead of the almost unheard of level of production he puts on the board.
We used to go through this same thing with Mike Green when he was at his peak in Washington and scoring 30 goals (in only 68 games!) and there was outrage over him being a Norris Trophy finalist.
This also ignores the likelihood that if he did try to focus on becoming better in other areas it might weaken — or at least lessen — the very skill that makes him such a game-changer. Just look at what happened to Ovechkin’s reputation during the Dale Hunter/Adam Oates era when they tried to improve his defensive play and his goal scoring was nearly cut in half. Things ended up getting crazy, and fast.
It only gets worse if you take this type of player and stick them on a bad team. Or in the case of Hall, or even a Phil Kessel during his days in Toronto, if stick them on a bad team where they also happen to play a position that is not considered to be a premium spot in the lineup. That is when you have two of the best wingers in the league and they get the reputation for only being support players.
All of these things, whether it is fair or not, will impact a player’s status in the NHL no matter how good they actually are among their peers.
Basically, a reputation for being elite all comes down to being on the right team, in the right position, and playing the one “right” way. Exceptions aren’t allowed. And that’s a problem.