Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby could do for the NHL what Magic Johnson and Larry Bird did for the NBA or what Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa did for Major League Baseball.
Ovechkin and Crosby are the best NHL rookies since Mario Lemieux came aboard in 1984. Nowhere will I suggest they aren't worthy of the praise that has been heaped upon them. Ovechkin is en route to becoming only the fourth rookie to score 50 goals, and he could be the most dynamic left wing since Bobby Hull. There is a buzz in the arena when he's at full throttle. Trying to stop the muscular forward when he is driving to the net is like trying to register a take-down against a charging rhinoceros.
Crosby has been almost as impressive, already owning 35 goals playing for what is undeniably the most disappointing team in the league.
Truthfully, Crosby has been treated unfairly by those criticizing him for acting like a leader on the Penguins as a mere teenager. First, he didn't ask to be an alternate captain earlier in the year. Second, this kid has been told since he was 15 that he had maturity beyond his years and that he was going to instantly become one of the league's greatest ambassadors.
Now, he is criticized for acting like a veteran and for yapping at officials in the name of trying to get some calls for his team. Since when do you have to be a certain age to whine in this league? If we are going to hang people for whining about calls, the gallows would have a standing-room crowd every day. Picking on Crosby for that it like finding fault with the frame holding the Mona Lisa.
Everyone in the league should just thank this kid for handling enormous pressure with a high performance level and remarkable patience. No matter how much talent you think Crosby has, he has exceeded expectations in his rookie year.
But having said all of this, there are other rookies around the league who might deserve the Rookie of the Year award as much as these two, or who at the very least deserve more consideration than they are getting. Here's a case for 10 other rookies who aren't getting their proper representation in the Rookie of the Year race:
Calgary's Dion Phaneuf: Heading into the playoffs, this 20-year-old rookie defenseman is probably as crucial to his team as Jarome Iginla. Everyone expected he would instantly become one of the most intimidating hitters in the Western Conference, but no one suspected he would flirt with a 20-goal season. He's already netted 19. His hitting prowess is such that he could change the momentum of a game or a playoff series, much like Scott Stevens could do in his heyday. In other years, Phaneuf would be a runaway winner for the Calder.
New York Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist: With Jaromir Jagr rightfully drawing Most Valuable Player consideration, goaltender Lundqvist is getting slighted as perhaps the largest reason why the Rangers are in the playoffs for the first time since 1997. He has 30 wins, a 2.18 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage, which puts him second in the league. The Rangers aren't exactly blessed with great defensemen. No offense to Andrew Raycroft, but Lundqvist has been more impressive than Raycroft was when he won the award two years ago.
Buffalo's Ryan Miller: Not that goaltending was an issue for Team USA in Torino, but the consensus is that he should have been the Americans' netminder. The Sabres' rise this season has been aided significantly by Miller's intelligent goaltending. He has 26 wins and a 2.69 goals-against average. He's a student of the position and it shows.
Colorado's Marek Svatos: Before he fractured his shoulder, he was headed toward a 40-goal season. He still has 32 goals, which would have put him at the top of the list in other seasons.
Ottawa's Andrej Meszaros: He's leading the league in plus-minus at plus-39. Some point out that Meszaros is playing on a high-caliber team. OK then, why aren't some of his more high-profile teammates leading the league in plus-minus? He has also scored seven goals this season. He certainly is playing as well as Barret Jackman when he won the Calder in 2003.
Ottawa's Ray Emery: If Dominik Hasek is unable to come back from his adductor muscle injury, the Senators will be counting on Emery to help them win the Stanley Cup. With 22 wins and a 2.55 GAA, he could get his team to the Stanley Cup Finals and find out in June that he didn't get a single vote for Rookie of the Year. That's the strangeness of this year's unbelievably deep rookie crop.
New York Rangers' Petr Prucha: He has 29 goals, and he would have 35-40 if not for an injury earlier in the season. He's right behind Jagr in terms of his goal-scoring importance on the Rangers. He's going to score hundreds of goals in the NHL.
Montreal's Chris Higgins: With the Canadiens playing superbly and heading toward the playoffs with loads of confidence, it should be noted that Higgins is now playing on the team's top scoring line with Saku Koivu and Michael Ryder. He is undoubtedly going to be a superb two-way player when he's done developing.
Atlanta's Kari Lehtonen: You can make a case that the Thrashers would have been vying for first place in their division if Lehtonen had been healthy and in net the entire season. Imagine if he had 35 wins now, instead of 20. The Calder race would be even wilder than it is now.
If I had to fill out my ballot today, it would probably be Ovechkin, followed by Phaneuf and Lundqvist. If that's how I vote, I feel like I should apologize to Crosby and the rest of the cast. The rookie class of 2005-06 could be the best of all time.
Hockey loses a top youth coach:
The sport of hockey suffered a huge loss when New England youth coach Gary Dineen, 62, died this week after a long illness. Hundreds of players went on to play college hockey after playing for Dineen in the Springfield Olympics program, which was also called the New England Junior Whalers, Junior Coyotes and Junior Falcons.
Dineen was also highly respected in the NHL community. His former players who made it to the NHL include Bill Guerin, Scott Lachance and Dan LaCouture. More than 25 of his players were drafted by NHL teams.
Earlier this season, during Dineen's illness, Guerin credited Dineen for laying the foundation for his success. Guerin believes he was probably better prepared for the NHL life than most young players because he had been tutored by Dineen.
"He was easily my biggest influence — no one is even close," Guerin said. "He was a Canadian guy who played at St. Mike's, and for Canada's national team and he played pro. He knows the game. He knew how to develop young players. When college scouts and pro scouts came into the picture, he knew what to do. I wouldn't have had a clue if it wasn't for him."
Playing for Dineen was like earning a degree in hockey, according to Guerin: "I took so many things with me. He taught how to win at a young age, and he taught me how to win with class. He treated us like pros even when we were junior players."
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