Crosby and Ovechkin: Comparing the NHL's two biggest stars

This season's first meeting between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin is on Oct. 16 in Pittsburgh. ESPN.com Illustration

Sidney Crosby. Alex Ovechkin. They are arguably the league's two biggest and brightest stars. They leave fans wondering, "How'd he do that?" or "What will he do next?" As both stars head into their fourth NHL seasons, Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun compare and assess the two superstars:

Player development (how they've progressed)
It goes without saying that the expectations surrounding these young players are as high as for any two players in the past generation, maybe longer. Remember the disquiet that followed Guy Lafleur, who registered 64, 55, 56 points in his first three seasons? No disquiet for Ovechkin and Crosby, though.

Ovechkin is the first player in 55 years to be named to the NHL's first All-Star team in his first three seasons. He has scored 163 goals through his first three years in the league; only Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy scored more.

We know: Canadian hockey icon and curmudgeon Don Cherry figures Ovechkin won't be able to match his superlative 2007-08 season. Well, there seems little to suggest Ovechkin's play will level off. Ovechkin has a stronger supporting cast, which historically has helped make the evolution of elite players more pronounced (see Gretzky in Edmonton and Mario Lemieux in Pittsburgh).

Will Ovechkin ever be considered for the Frank J. Selke Award as the best two-way player? Maybe not yet. But as Ovechkin learns to be more accountable defensively (he was plus-28 last season after being minus-19 the season before), he'll find himself on the ice in more key situations. The one thing about Ovechkin's evolution is that he has the confidence and skill to shoot from virtually anywhere on the ice with terrific success. He has led the league in shots in each of his three seasons and there simply is little that opposing teams can do to defend a player who can shoot in full stride, off his back foot and from a standstill.

Despite being two years younger than Ovechkin, Crosby appears to have evolved as a complete hockey player more quickly. That might be a function of having been named captain of a young Penguins team, or perhaps it's because Crosby has already been through a long playoff run (Ovechkin has been through the first round just once). Still, in last season's playoffs, Crosby showed he is not just a point machine but a player who has the ability to rise to the occasion.

While teammates like Evgeni Malkin seemed to wilt under the pressure, Crosby was the best player on the ice during the finals against Detroit. Although he missed six weeks with a high-ankle sprain that cost him a chance to defend his scoring and MVP titles, Crosby still registered 72 points in 53 games. If he stays healthy, there is nothing to suggest he and Ovechkin won't go head-to-head for this season's title. -- S.B.

Fan perception
In many NHL cities -- especially in traditional hockey markets -- Crosby's arrival lies somewhere between The Beatles and royalty. Crosby usually stays in his hotel room and doesn't venture out with his teammates -- it can be too distracting. He often exits hotels through back doors and service elevators to avoid the throngs of fans who wait for autographs. That's not to say he doesn't sign -- he is gracious with his time as long as it does not impact his teammates' routines. Crosby is especially thoughtful when it comes to children, often asking the Penguins' media relations staff to bring groups of youngsters to a quiet area where he can interact with them. He also leads the way on hospital visits and other team outings.

For Ovechkin, the fan response is significant, but not yet on a par with what Crosby deals with. He does not require extra security on the road but does travel under an alias. Still, Ovechkin has never let his emerging knowledge of English stop him from meeting with fans, signing autographs and the like. At last season's draft, Ovechkin insisted on being there to meet the new Caps prospects. He has his own clothing line (oviestyle.com, if you're interested).

Crosby has been handling media and fan adoration since he was a pup and has developed a moderated, polite style that is reminiscent of Wayne Gretzky at his peak as the NHL's most sought-after star. Ovechkin, meanwhile, has embraced the North American star routine with abandon. He is quick-witted and jovial; Crosby is polite and respectful as befitting the unofficial savior of the NHL. When Ovechkin was feted at a civic ceremony in Washington following the NHL awards ceremony last season, he joked that since he was mayor, there would be no speed limits for the rest of the day. -- P.L.

The team around them
Although it would seem that Sidney Crosby is light-years ahead of Alexander Ovechkin in terms of the teams that have been built around these two superstars, there are a number of parallels between Crosby's Penguins and Ovechkin's Capitals.

People tend to forget the Penguins' miserable performance in Crosby's first season. Then-GM Craig Patrick loaded up on expensive free agents, but it all crumbled like a house of cards. Patrick was fired, and successor Ray Shero has built a strong, young supporting cast that now includes Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Jordan Staal, Ryan Whitney and Kris Letang.

The young cast's sudden maturity over the past two seasons was the catalyst to bold moves last season, foremost of which was the acquisition of Marian Hossa, who played a key role in the Penguins' run to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1992. Although a number of players have left the team -- Hossa, Ryan Malone, Jarkko Ruutu, Georges Laraque and Adam Hall among them -- that youthful core remains and, as a result, the Penguins are viewed by many as one of the top two or three teams in the Eastern Conference.

The Capitals were miserable in Ovechkin's first campaign, as well, finishing with 70 points. But their poor finishes have yielded top players such as Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom. Other youngsters also are starting to mature, like Mike Green, who led all NHL defensemen in goals last season. The Capitals' turnaround under new coach Bruce Boudreau also led to some assertive moves by GM George McPhee, who brought in Sergei Fedorov and Cristobal Huet at the trade deadline as the Caps won the Southeast Division for the first time since 2000-01.

This season, Jose Theodore replaces Huet (he signed with Chicago), but otherwise the Caps look to be, again, one of the most dynamic clubs in the NHL, not just a bad team with a good player standing by himself. It will be a major surprise if both Crosby and Ovechkin don't find themselves in the postseason again next spring, and a major surprise if their respective GMs aren't wheeling and dealing to get them close to the Cup. How long, then, until the two great stars meet for the first time in the postseason? -- S.B.

Channeling emotion, on the ice
Ovechkin, no question, wears his emotion on his sleeve. His wild goal celebrations have now become customary. And the fans love it. But a big goal by a teammate also ignites emotion from No. 8, who will often jump wildly into the player's arms. No player in the NHL shows more emotion after a goal by his teammates, and definitely his own.

Crosby is just as emotional, but it's more controlled. When he scored in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals against Detroit in June, it was pure emotion from Crosby -- his arms in his trademark dual punch, his eyes flaming with intensity, his team fully pumped. Penguins assistant coach Andre Savard -- who played with the likes of Guy Lafleur, Bobby Orr and Gilbert Perreault -- said he has never seen a player with more intensity than Crosby. Because of that, it often appears that Ovechkin seems to have more fun on the ice than Crosby. In the end, both young stars just have different ways of displaying their emotion. -- P.L.

Personality ... around the league
If you asked 100 people in the game which player they'd rather have to start a franchise, chances are you'd get 50 votes for Crosby and 50 votes for Ovechkin. In terms of a singular dynamic force in the game, Ovechkin has no peers given his performance in 2007-08. Opposing players and coaches talk about how difficult he is to defend because of his power and speed. Teams can't expect to get him off his game or intimidate him through physical play. While there is incredible respect for Ovechkin around the league, it pales in comparison to the respect shown him in the Capitals' dressing room and vice versa. Ovechkin is seen as someone who genuinely enjoys the successes of his teammates. His celebrations at a win, regardless of how he has played, suggest a player who is on the verge of becoming a team leader.

Crosby's perception around the league is different, although no less reverent. Through his first season, Crosby was painted in some quarters as a player who complained too quickly to officials and went down too easily in an effort to draw penalties. Those same complaints came up again against the New York Rangers in the second round of last season's playoffs; Crosby dutifully but firmly denied the assertions and then led the Pens to a five-game series victory.

People seem to forget that a guy named Gretzky also was considered a whiner, but that didn't seem to hurt his reputation throughout the league. Part of the reason Crosby draws so many penalties is that he often has the puck, and he has such lower-body strength that he is incredibly difficult to knock off the puck without fouling him. In terms of work ethic, Crosby is without peer -- first one on the ice during optional skates, a role model for his teammates and other players. Both Ovechkin and Crosby have reputations as players who aren't afraid to take the puck to the net or to move into high-traffic areas where they are more likely to be mauled. -- S.B.

The rough stuff
Crosby is definitely more involved defensively, which is only natural since the center carries more defensive responsibilities in the defensive zone. The 21-year-old is just as committed at both ends of the ice, and his plus-28 showing over three seasons shows it.

Ovechkin made strides last season and became a more complete player. On the physical side, Ovechkin is more commonly involved in big open-ice hits. He doesn't shy away from it. Remember his hit on Malkin behind the net last season? Ovechkin can deliver a big hit just like he can take one.

You won't see Crosby often involved in those wild, open-ice hits, but don't underestimate his strength. Take a good look at what happens when there's a battle along the boards for the puck and Crosby is involved. He almost always comes out with it, even against bigger blueliners. His lower-body strength is out of this world. His legs are like tree trunks and he positions himself perfectly in those battles for the puck to shield away opposing checkers. Each star has a different way of showing it, but they are both strong on the physical side. --P.L.

"There's not much difference there; they're both great skaters," said an NHL GM who requested anonymity. "Physically, there's a lower center of gravity with Crosby. But they're both hard to knock off the puck when they're skating. They both have explosive strides. I don't know if they have a fifth gear, like Pavel Bure did or Marian Gaborik does. There aren't many players in the NHL that have a fifth gear. But they certainly have a fourth gear, and both have amazing strength on their skates.

"They both have great changes of speed. There's not much difference between the two other than the physiology and the shape of the legs and that. Ovechkin, I guess, might be just a little faster, just a tad. Crosby has a bit more of a wider stance and that maybe impairs his stride a bit. But it's all relative. He's still a great skater."

It's really a dead heat in this area. They have a different kind of stride on the ice, but they're both among the best skaters in the league. --P.L.

While Crosby is the better passer, Ovechkin wins out easily here. Does anyone in the NHL have a better shot than Alex Ovechkin? In an era when the Michelin Man goaltender leaves very little to shoot at, Ovechkin can pick a spot from almost anywhere in the offensive zone. And he shoots a lot. He led all NHLers with 446 shots last season. Henrik Zetterberg was a distant second at 358. Crosby was hurt for a long stretch in 2007-08, but we can compare the averages. Crosby averaged 3.3 shots per game (a decent 24th in the league), while Ovechkin was first at 5.4 shots per game. Look for Crosby to take more shots this season and try to improve his goal-scoring totals. But right now in the NHL, there is no better sharpshooter than Ovechkin. He is this generation's Bossy or Lafleur. --P.L.

Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun cover the NHL for ESPN.com.