On Star Power, "Dead Wood", and The Game

by Ryan

Last week the big news in the NHL was Alexander Ovechkin back in Russia spending time with his grandfather. While he was out, another Alexander made some noise with some news of his own, which I’m sure you’ve heard by now.

What’s so special about [Crosby]? I don’t see anything special there. Yes, he does skate well, has a good head, good pass. But there’s nothing else. Even if you compare him to Patrick Kane from Chicago … [Kane] is a much more interesting player. The way he moves, his deking abilities, his thinking on the ice and his anticipation of the play is so superb.

Crosby has since responded to that comment, but what had a few people asking questions was this:

I think that if you take any player, even if he is “dead wood,” and start promoting him, you’ll get a star. Especially if he scores 100 points. No one is going to care about anyone else. No one is going to care whether he possesses great skill. Let’s say you put someone in front of the net and let him deflect pucks in, and he scored 50 goals; everyone will say “Wow!” and then hand him a $10 million per year contract. That’s what they like here.

I hadn’t really nailed down who he was talking about with this, but D.O. at Die by the Blade thinks it may be about Thomas Vanek. After thinking about it for a bit it does make sense to me, and makes what I asked about Vanek after the Caps game all that more interesting. Here’s what D.O. had to say about Atlas.

For those of us who have had the pleasure of watching Thomas Vanek, we know he does more than just stand in front of the net. Vanek is not afraid to stand in front of the net but he is one of the most creative players in the NHL today. He has deceiving speed and wicked wrister. He is also really good with his hands for a big guy that stands in front of the net.

I agree with what he says about Vanek, but I think there is a deeper meaning in what Semin says. There are distinct differences between North American and Russian hockey, and an extension of this is what someone considers a star player. For a very long time the Russian game has valued speed, finesse, and pure talent, while the North American (read: Canadian) game has its origins rooted deeply in defense.

Ken Dryden talked about this a lot in The Game, but in a way this is exactly what Semin is talking about. For him “star power” comes directly from your natural abilities. The way you move on ice, the way you interact with teammates, your foot speed and stickhandling. When all those talents add up it should equal points, and points with grace equal superstar status.

Not to get all Don Cherry on you, but the North American game is about more than that. There is a roughness to it, a grit that makes David Eckstein look like a nancyboy. While we appreciate that electric player as much as the next guy, there is an admiration reserved for that player who is willing to take a cross check for a goal. Standing in front of the net for a tip is not something to dishonor, rather it is a unique willingness that teams and fans value.

Guys like Tomas Holmström and Paul Gaustad are unique in their purpose. Thomas Vanek just happens to have that same drive along with all the other natural talents that make him a star. It doesn’t necessarily make him “dead wood”, just a different style of star. Sure, Thomas Vanek shouldn’t have made $10 million last year, and he’s still not worth $7.5 this year, but 43 goals in a year is more than just standing in front taking a beating. He’s a pretty safe bet for 50 this year, and 50 goals is no laughing matter.

It may not be about Vanek at all, but what Semin is talking about still isn’t without merit. He makes a good point about how the league is marketed, but in doing so displays a major difference between the Russian and North American game. Neither side is completely right, but I don’t think the argument is all that bad of a thing to have.