Some big early-season performances have ignited the debate as to which NHLer is the world's best hockey player: Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby or Auston Matthews?
TORONTO — Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews? Auston Matthews or Connor McDavid?
With debate ramping up about which player sits atop hockey's throne - after some remarkable early performances - Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock's goes in a different direction - Sidney Crosby.
''This is what I think,'' Babcock began as he made his case for the Penguins captain before Pittsburgh's 3-0 victory over Toronto on Thursday. ''I think one guy's got two Olympic gold medals and three Stanley Cups.''
And the other guys?
McDavid, the Edmonton Oilers captain with blazing speed, has won back-to-back NHL scoring titles and the Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player. Matthews, the Maple Leafs' deadly sniper, has the most points in the league, 16 in just eight games.
McDavid set an NHL record this week by becoming the only player to either score or assist on the first nine goals of his team's season.
Matthews has a lethal shot that often leaves a goalie looking up at the replay for a glimpse at a puck that just whizzed by him. He is just the fifth player to have seven straight multipoint games to start a season.
Babcock is quick to acknowledge what these 21-year-old phenoms have done. But he says personal accolades matter only so much.
Crosby is 31 and has been on top of the hockey world for the better part of the last decade. He won the Cup in 2009, 2016 and 2017 to go along with gold medals for Canada at the 2010 and 2014 Olympics.
Had it not been for the concussions that limited him to 63 of his team's 164 games between 2010 and 2012, the two-time Hart and Conn Smythe Trophy winner might own even more hardware.
Babcock coached Crosby at the Vancouver and Sochi Games, and again at the World Cup of Hockey in 2016, which Canada also won.
''Team success in the end, that's how you're measured,'' he said. ''When you've been the best player on the best team, to me that's totally different than being the best player on a team that's not as good. As you've got people around you to raise your game and set a standard ... to me, it's not even close.''
Mike Sullivan became Pittsburgh's coach during the 2015-16 season and immediately grew to appreciate Crosby's gifts.
''Sid's the most driven athlete I've ever been around,'' he said. ''Not only is he an elite player, but he's willing to put the work in to continue to try to be the best player he can be. ... I have the privilege of watching him on a daily basis put the work in to be the player that he is.''
Toronto center Nazem Kadri says it's tough to pick among Crosby, McDavid and Matthews.
''I still think Sid's an incredible player and McDavid's definitely up there,'' he said. ''(Matthews) is creeping up there. ... To me, McDavid's speed is just incredible and so hard to stop. You can't necessarily make a mistake when he's on the ice because when you're beside him you're going to be behind him.''
Maple Leafs center John Tavares went head-to-head with Crosby for nine seasons while with the New York Islanders.
''He doesn't take anything for granted and his work ethic's tremendous,'' Tavares said. ''He puts a lot of commitment into being the player that he is.''
Crosby has five assists in six games this season playing on a line with Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust - the first time he's gone without a goal this long. But Sullivan's admiration is undiminished.
''He leaves no stone unturned,'' Sullivan said. ''He takes care of himself physically. He trains so hard, both off the ice and on the ice. We learn as much from Sid as I think he does from our coaching staff with just the way he thinks the game.''