What Debate?  by: Matt Witting 22 June 2006

In a show of near-unanimous acclamation, Alexander Ovechkin was awarded the Calder Trophy as the best rookie of the 2005-2006 NHL season.  124 first place votes and 5 second place votes are pretty convincing evidence that there was no question on the subject of who deserved the award.  It wasn’t always that way, though…


Prior to the season’s start, Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby was assumed to be the best rookie talent in the league.  The voracious Canadian hockey press had followed his every move since his Pee-Wee days.  Annointed as the next Wayne Gretzky during his junior hockey days, Crosby did nothing to discourage the comparison.  After Pittsburgh won the ‘Crosby lottery’ and selected him first overall in the 2004 draft, there was no question that Sid the Kid would have a spectacular rookie season playing next to stars such as Ziggy Palffy, Sergei Gonchar, John LeClair and Mario Lemieux. 


Alexander Ovechkin, by comparison, had been drafted two years ago in 2003 by the Washington Capitals and had his prospective rookie season washed out by the NHL and team owners’ lockout.  He remained in his native Russia, playing on the best team in the Russian Elite League, out of sight of the North American media and fans.  When he was mentioned, it was inevitably in conjunction with the “miserable Capitals” who were predicted to win 10 games in 2005-06 thanks to a roster full of journeymen and rookies, backstopped by an ageing goalie past his prime.


The season approached, and the comparisons started to fly in earnest.  Crosby, the next Gretzky, and Ovechkin the next…um…Pavel Bure?  Ovechkin received attention, certainly, but almost always as a runner-up candidate, one who would play well in a terrible team situation and gracefully fall behind the new savior of the NHL. 


Then came Opening Night, October 5th 2005.  Ovechkin took the ice in Washington D.C. for his first shift and promptly checked 6’2”, 200 pound Columbus Blue Jackets’ defenseman Radoslav Suchy with such force that the glass needed replacing.  In the second period Ovechkin came out blazing, erasing 1-0 and 2-1 deficits with perfectly placed one-time goals and sending the Caps on to a 3-2 victory. 


Just up I-95 at the Continental Airlines Arena in New Jersey, the Penguins opened on the road against the New Jersey Devils.  As ESPN described it, “Crosby, the NHL's most-awaited rookie in a generation and the 18-year-old poster child of the new-look league on its first opening night in two years, [played] in a long-awaited unveiling game that drew as much attention in his native Canada as a Stanley Cup final.”  Crosby played well, but, in a sign of things to come, wasn’t the best rookie in the game much less in the league: Zach Parise, New Jersey’s 17th overall pick in 2003, scored 2 goals to go with an assist in the 5-1 Devils’ victory.  Crosby had a third period power play assist for his first NHL point, a good start for most rookies but not quite what the fans, media, and league expected.  Devils fans, underwhelmed by this first impression, periodically rained an “over-rated” chant down upon the Penguins. 


By the end of the month of October it was obvious that Crosby was not going to run away with this race after all.  He was performing very well, after opening night, scoring 2 goals and 12 assists in 11 games in October but his Penguins won only one of those eleven games.  For the Capitals, Ovechkin scored 8 goals and 6 assists for the same number of points in the same number of games as the Caps won only four.  Out in Calgary, the 9th pick in 2003, defenseman Dion Phaneuf, was opening eyes as he demonstrated maturity and skill far beyond his 20 years.  In New York, rookie goaltender Henrik Lundqvist posted a 5-3-1 record in October including a shutout as the Rangers were off to a hot start. 


In November Crosby and the Pens warmed up.  The Pens won 6 of 14 games and Crosby went on a goal-scoring team, potting 10 in 14 games to go with 4 assists.  The Caps and Ovechkin were sliding, as AO scored 7 goals and 5 assists in 12 games, winning only four but matching Crosby’s point-per-game pace.  November also featured the first Sid the Kid/AO head-to-head match on the 22nd in Pittsburgh.  Crosby dominated the game, scoring a brilliant goal past Olaf Kolzig and assisting on Ziggy Palffy’s eventual game winner late in the second.  Ovechkin played well but couldn’t convert his chances, garnering a single secondary assist in the Pens’ thrilling 5-4 victory.  In New York, Lundqvist won five more games and Phaneuf scored 9 points in 13 games as the surprising Flames won nine times.  Crosby led all rookie scorers at this point with 12 goals and 28 points, but Ovechkin’s 15 goals and 26 points were just behind.


December marked a turning point in the season.  Ovechkin scored 8 goals and 19 points in only 12 games as the Caps went 5-6-1.  Crosby’s Penguins lost 9 of 12, including a 6 game losing streak, despite his strong 7 goals and 14 points.  Lundqvist won another five games for the Rangers, while previously overlooked Rangers rookie Petr Prucha scored a whopping 12 goals in 13 games.  Calgary’s Phaneuf only got better, helping the Flames to a 9-3-1 record with 9 more points and smothering defensive play.  Ovechkin had passed Crosby for the rookie points lead, 45-42, a lead he would never relinquish.


January, the month when most NHL rookies start to wear down under the grind of an 82-game season, seemed to have no effect on the stellar rookie class.  Crosby picked up the slack for his injured and ineffective Penguins as much as he could, scoring 6 goals and 18 points in 15 games.  Even these heroics couldn’t stop the Pens from losing 12 in a row and 13 of 15 games in the month.  Ovechkin’s Caps weren’t much better, losing six in a row and 10 of 15 (though he missed a game with an injury).  AO did have his highest scoring month to date, though, potting 11 goals and 21 points.  Unfortunately for him, Crosby and the Pens beat the Caps in Pittsubrgh by an 8-1 margin to snap the 12-game losing skip.  Crosby scored a goal and assisted on three others including the game winner, while Ovechkin scored the lone goal for the Caps on the power play early in the second period.  Ovechkin was dominating in the standings, for goals, points and team points, but couldn’t seem to eke out a head-to-head victory.  The Caps did put together a four game winning streak mid-month, and one that featured the defining moment of Ovechkin’s young career.  The game after scoring his first NHL hat trick in a 3-2 overtime win in Anaheim, Ovechkin scored The Goal, the constantly replayed falling, twisting, backwards perfect shot against the Coyotes that led even Phoenix coach Wayne Gretzky to say “That was pretty sweet”.  It was actually his second of the game as he led the Caps to a 6-1 win that night in the desert.  Phaneuf kept up his consistent pace with 10 points, keeping the Flames in the playoff hunt.  Lundqvist had seven wins in the month, including two against the Penguins, and Prucha knocked in seven goals of his own.


February was a quiet month with each team playing only six games as the players went off to Italy for the Olympic Games.  Crosby and Ovechkin posted identical 3 goal, 5 point months, but both shined for their respective nations in Turino.


In March the NHL cranked back up again with the playoff hunt in full swing.  Crosby righted the ship somewhat in Pittsburgh as the Pens won 5 times in 14 games thanks in part to Sid’s five goals and eighteen points.  In Washington, though, Ovechkin just got better and better with eleven goals and 13 points.  The Caps, though, suffered an eight-game losing streak, their worst of the year, winning only four times in fifteen contests.  The only bright side for the Caps was that they finally beat Pittsburgh on the 8th in DC.  Ovechkin broke out for a goal and two assists, including one on the game winner, as the Caps beat the Pens 6-3.  Lundqvist continued to play well in New York, though Prucha slowed down, and Phaneuf continued his fantastic play in Calgary as the Flames won the Northwest Division and clinched the #3 seed in the West.  At this point, though, it was obvious that Ovechkin would win the rookie scoring race, with a 12 point lead over Crosby, and was challenging for the overall NHL goals lead.


Washington ended the season strong, going 5-3-2 in April as Ovechkin notched four goals and twelve points in those 10 games.  The Pens ended the year with a whimper, going 3-4-2 in their last nine, but Crosby posted his best month of the year, scoring six goals and nineteen points, better than two a game, to cut Ovechkin’s overwhelming lead in the rookie scoring race to 106-102 at season’s end.  Crosby finished sixth in the NHL in points, his 39 goals were good for a 12th place tie, and 63 assists for 7th.  Ovechkins 54 assists were only good for 20th in the NHL, but his 52 goals were third best (four behind San Jose’s Cheechoo for the lead and tied with countryman Ilya Kovalchuk), and his 106 points placed him third overall.  More importantly, the Capitals won twice as many games as they were expected to, finishing with 29 wins and 70 points, still fourth worst in the NHL.  The Penguins, expected to be a playoff contender before the season, narrowly edged out the Blues for the worst record in the league, finishing one point ahead with 22 wins and 58 points.  Lundqvist was a key cog in the Rangers team that stunned the league by winning 44 times (100 points) and reaching the number 6 seed in the East (to be swept out in the first round by the Devils).   The Flames and Phaneuf won 46 times for 103 points, a division crown and #3 seed before losing in 7 games to Anaheim in the first round.


Dion Phaneuf and Henrik Lundqvist deserve no end of praise for their roles in leading their teams to the playoffs and were the best rookies at their positions this year.  Sidney Crosby would win the Calder virtually any other year, but the fact that he helped the Penguins underperform by roughly 30 points counts against him, as does his reputation for complaining and the perception that he is an assist man more than a goal-scorer (an unwarranted assumpion, in this writer’s mind, the Kid can shoot with anyone).  Ovechkin, on the other hand, took a team of rookies and journeymen (plus Olie Kolzig and Jeff Halpern) and led them to a 29 win season when they were expected to win 15 games…maybe.  He finished third in the league in scoring, third in goals, and with a +1 rating on a team that gave up 69 more goals than they scored.  He played in all situations, scoring three shorties on the year, and stayed out of the box.  His highlight reel goals, board rattling hits, constant enthusiasm and omnipresent beaming smile endeared him to the fans and media alike.   His team mates had nothing but glowing things to say about the young Russian, on and off the record.  The rest of the league so respected him that the NHL players voted him one of three finalists for the Lester B. Pearson trophy, the player’s MVP award.  Crosby is a brilliant player and will dominate the league for two decades.  Phaneuf already reminds this writer of Ray Bourque.  Lundqvist played extraordinarily well in net in the pressure cooker that is Madison Square Garden.  Ovechkin, though, was far and away the best rookie in the league last season, and had the best rookie year of anyone since Teemu Selanne’s never-to-be-equalled season almost 15 years ago in Winnipeg.  That’s why he received 124 of 129 first place votes in the Calder Trophy voting and was awarded the trophy last night.  The players know it, the writers know it, the league knows it and the fans know it.  Whatever debate there was in December, whatever debate was briefly re-ignited when Crosby went on his last-minute scoring spree, it just can’t be argued now.  Thank goodness for these kids, though, they may just end up saving the league.