In Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Pittsburgh Penguins have two of the best forwards in the game today. Crosby is the youngest player to ever win the Art Ross trophy, bagging 102 points in his sophomore season while still a teenager, also becoming the 7thplayer in NHL history to win the Art Ross, Hart and Lester B. Pearson award in the same season. His brief absence to injury the following season gave 2nd-line center Evgeni Malkin his first chance to truly shine, and Geno made the most of it, finishing 2nd in the race for the Hart Memorial trophy.
Together, the two superstars have taken their team to the Stanley Cup Finals in back-to-back seasons. There is very little to choose between them, both having been top 2 picks, born one year apart, and have eerily similar stats at first glance. Generally, distinctions can only be made after a more careful analysis using more advanced statistics.
Crosby has 132 goals and 265 assists in 290 games, compared with Malkin's 115 goals and 189 assists in 242 games. That gives Malkin a slim 0.48 to 0.46 goals-per-game advantage and Crosby a 0.91 to 0.78 assists-per-game advantage. We can adjust for playing time and take a closer look at the numbers.
ESG: Even-Strength Goals, normalized to 75000 seconds
ESA: Even-Strength Assists, normalized to 75000 seconds
GvA: Giveaways per 60 minutes
ValO: Offensive GVT (Goals-Versus-Threshold)
MPD: Minor Penalties Drawn per 60 minutes
SHOT: Shots per 60 minutes
CORSI: Corsi Rating per 60 minutes
ESGFA: Even-Strength Goals-For-Average
Player ESG ESA GvA ValO MPD SHOT CORSI ESGFA
Sidney Crosby 27.0 37.4 2.8 16.7 0.9 8.5 -0.2 3.57
Evgeni Malkin 18.2 49.0 2.6 18.9 1.4 9.4 -7.6 3.75
At even-strength, Crosby has the advantage in goal scoring, generally sitting between 25 and 28 normalized goals throughout his career. Malkin was normally much closer, and even barely out-scored Crosby at even-strength last season, but became more of a playmaker in 2008-09. Crosby is equally consistent with his assists, setting up between 37 to 41 goals, whereas Malkin broke through from his standard level around 35 to an amazing 49 this season.
While Crosby may have been a slightly better offensive player over-all, 2008-09 was Malkin's year. He out-scored Crosby, there was more Pittsburgh scoring with Malkin on the ice than Crosby, and he had the edge in Offensive Goals-Versus-Threshold, too. He even averaged fewer giveaways, took more shots, and drew more penalties than Crosby.
Still, the two players are very close offensively at even-strength, and even closer with the man advantage.
PPG: Power-Play Goals, normalized to 25000 seconds
PPA: Power-Play Assists, normalized to 25000 seconds
PPGFA: Power-Play Goals-For-Average
Player PPG PPA PPGFA
Sidney Crosby 7.1 33.2 7.68
Evgeni Malkin 12.8 24.7 7.24
Crosby is more of a playmaker with the man advantage, scoring between 7 and 12 normalized PPG over his NHL career. Malkin had his worst season with power-play goals as well, but he's always outperformed his celebrated teammate. Over-all the two play slightly different roles on the power-play, both exceptionally and possibly equally well.
Who is the better defensive player? With the offensive figures so evenly matched, a significant difference in defensive play is all we would need to establish which of these two amazing young talents is the better player.
RPM: Relative Plus/Minus
HIT: Hits Thrown per 60 minutes
BKS: Shots Blocked per 60 minutes
TkA: Takeaways per 60 minutes
ValD: Defensive GVT (Goals-Versus-Threshold)
MP: Minor Penalties Taken per 60 minutes
ESGAA: Even-Strength Goals-Against-Average
SHGAA: Short-Handed Goals-Against-Average
Player RPM HIT BKS TkA ValD MP ESGAA SHGAA
Sidney Crosby 4.4 2.8 1.5 2.0 2.0 1.0 3.00 6.09
Evgeni Malkin 18.1 2.6 1.3 3.1 4.5 1.3 2.53 6.07
Crosby took a big step back defensively in 2008-09. After an RPM of 17.6 and a ValD of 4.0 in 2006-07, he dipped slightly to 16.2 and 3.9 respectively in 2007-08 and finally to the merely average numbers he posted this past season. If Crosby holds any major advantage defensively, it would be discipline. Malkin throws fewer hits and takes more penalties.
Malkin's trajectory has been the opposite, rising from a ho-hum RPM of 7.9 and ValD of 2.5 in 2006-07 up to very solid totals of 13.6 and 4.0 respectively in 2007-08 (albeit in more games than Crosby). Hits and blocked shots follow the same pattern. Most hockey analysts see it the same way, having given Crosby the edge defensively at first, calling it roughly even for a while, and finally coming out and giving Malkin the nod today.
If the two players appear roughly even offensively, and if Malkin now has the edge defensively, why is Crosby always the Penguins' first line center? Their coaching staff is either ignoring the numbers, or else Crosby has certain intangibles that aren't recorded in the statistics we're using.
QCOMP: Quality of opponents (competition)
QTEAM: Quality of teammates
FO%: Faceoff Winning Percentage
Player QCOMP QTEAM FO%
Sidney Crosby 0.05 0.03 51.3%
Evgeni Malkin 0.06 0.06 42.4%
Some analysts argue that playing on the top line means Crosby is matched against higher quality opponents, but the numbers indicate that both players played with roughly the same caliber of linemates, and roughly against the same quality of opponents.
There is certainly one intangible that Crosby offers. He has always been the better faceoff man, partly due to his own talents, but primarly because Malkin can't win draws. That's hardly enough to keep him off the top line, though.
It's hard to find comparables for Crosby and Malkin due both to the limited amount of data, and the relative rarity of such elite players. Punching Crosby's numbers into the database to look for players with similar back-to-back and career statistics, names like Denis Savard, Bryan Trottier, Peter Forsberg and Peter Stastny top the list. These were all dominant first-line centers with closets full of awards. As for Malkin, the closest matches included players like Bernie Nicholls, Ron Francis, Glenn Anderson and Sergei Fedorov. Choosing which list of comparables is better would be almost as engaging as our current discussion.
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are both incredible talents, and the Pittsburgh Penguins are fortunate to have them both. If they did have to choose between them, it would be very difficult to say which one is currently playing at the higher level. Crosby has an almost imperceptible advantage offensively, but Malkin has recently surpassed him defensively. Their futures are both very bright, but for today it's impossible to tell which of these two will have the better career.
Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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