Much hand wringing has been done over the production of star players at the Olympics. Mainly, some grumbles are popping up about Sidney Crosby having no goals and two assists in Canada’s three games so far. To a lesser degree, folks are also pointing out that USA captain Zach Parise hasn’t scored either. Even Patrick Kane hasn’t been immune to some whispers of criticism. And, if Russia gets eliminated early in the tournament, surely it will be a large point of emphasis that mega-stars Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin haven’t scored goals since the first period of the first game against Slovenia.
Is all the criticism justified? Perhaps so, especially if teams are losing, but that really hasn’t been the case so far. Russia did fall in a disappointing (to them) shootout loss to USA, but other than that the major teams didn’t suffer any troubles in the group stage. Winning is the most important thing, and the point of the game, and if a country’s superstar isn’t producing, as long as he’s helping the winning effort that’s one thing. But, that hasn’t been the case when the box score is perused and goose eggs are seen by the top-line players.
As Josh Yohe wisely pointed out in a great blog, in the Canada Cup games in the ‘80’s that Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky lit up with multi-multi-point nights, it was a literally a 6-5 game every night. Goaltenders have come such a long way, in terms of athleticism, strategies, new pads and the works. Same for team defense and coaching concepts designed to slow, fluster and limit the scoring of stars like Crosby, Kane, Malkin and Ovechkin. Greatness isn't the same in this era as it was in a past one, the sport is drastically different, so the elite players are going to be as well.
Roles are another huge difference. Sidney Crosby plays about 15 minutes a night in the Olympics, well off his nightly NHL average. It’s to be expected, as he plays on a very deep and balanced team, where the "4th line" really is a 1st line on any team in the world except that one. Crosby’s role isn’t to play all two minutes of every power play and then double-shift at even strength and pile up the minutes. Same with Malkin and Ovechkin in Russia, who sometimes aren’t on the ice when power plays start for Team Russia, which is about literally unthinkable in the NHL.
It perhaps shouldn’t be surprising that top-line players aren’t shining. The game has evolved to bog them down with lesser minutes and better defenses, goaltenders and goaltenders. It’s also a credit to the special skill that Lemieux and Gretzky had, who are legitimately the two most skilled forwards in hockey history for a reason.
But, as Yohe points out, it’s not about stats for the best forwards in the game now, which Crosby, Kane Malkin, Ovechkin, and even Parise truly are. It’s about who can capture the moment. Parise almost did in 2010, when his goal late in the gold-medal game gave the USA a tie…Then Crosby made the most of his moment and won the gold for Canada. This year, the Russians will also have their chances for greatness. Whether or not a player can bury that big chance in a huge moment is now how to be a true super-star. It’s not putting up 4 points a night like Lemieux or Gretzky did, because the chance to do that just isn’t in the game any longer. Greatness today is about coming through in the clutch and converting an opportunity in a huge moment that directly pushes your team to the top of the medal stand.
All things considered, I like the odds of the guys I’ve named in this article to have the chance to do something special and become a legend. Not with a 4 or 5 point night in the semi-finals, but by being the guy to capitalize on a moment, quiet the nay-sayers and again show just why they’re the best players currently in the sport today.