By stuhackel
January 31, 2011

Penguins captain Sidney Crosby commands great respect among his peers as their smartest and toughest player to face, best role model, and top franchise building block. (Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)

By Stu Hackel

Among the most interesting news out of All-Star Weekend -- certainly more interesting than the game -- was the Hockey Night in Canada-NHLPA Players' Poll in which Sidney Crosby was recognized as the game's top player. The players polled also said, almost unanimously, that they want to keep fighting in the game, but they also strongly support the current instigator rule.

(Here's video of a discussion of the results, led by Ron MacLean with Kelly Hrudey and Glenn Healey, from the CBC telecast of the All-Star Skills competition.)

A total of 318 respondents answered questions in a number of categories, giving the most clear indication available of what NHL players really think about arenas and cities, coaches, rules, other players' skills and other issues.

Crosby was named the smartest player, toughest forward to play against, toughest player overall to face, best role model, and -- overwhelmingly -- the top player with which to start a franchise. Detroit's recently activated Pavel Datsyuk, who'd been sidelined with an injury and could return this week, ranked right behind Crosby in the first three categories and was also named cleanest player and the hardest to take the puck off. Goalies said that Alex Ovechkin of the Capitals is the most difficult to stop (Crosby was right behind him), while skaters chose Roberto Luongo as the goalie most difficult to beat, (barely ahead of Buffalo's Ryan Miller, Boston's Tim Thomas and the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist).

Ovechkin had his team cited as the league's most overrated. ( The Nashville Predators were most underrated.) The Red Wings are the team that players would most like to play for (the Blackhawks and Canucks tied for second) while the Islanders are the NHL equivalent of being condemned to Devil's Island (with the Oilers not far off).

Pittsburgh's Dan Bylsma, a star of HBO's "24/7" series, was hailed as the coach players would most like to play for (followed by Detroit's Mike Babcock) while Ron Wilson of the Maple Leafs was singled out as the one most of them would rather avoid.  The Rangers' John Tortorella was second in that unfortunate category, followed by Marc Crawford of the Stars. Tortorella was also cited as the coach who demands the most of his players (Babcock ranks second), while that other "24/7" star, Washington's Bruce Boudreau, is easiest to play for. Canadiens assistant Kirk Muller is the assistant most players thought should be a head coach, with Bob Boughner just behind.

In other categories, Marian Gaborik of the Rangers was named the fastest and best skater. His teammate, Derek Boogaard, who has been out of the lineup since Dec. 9 when he had this fight with the Senators' Matt Carkner...

... was named toughest player. (Boogaard was originally said to be suffering from a shoulder injury, but he developed concussion symptoms, and Andrew Gross of The Bergen Record reported recently that Boogie may be done for the season.)

As the All-Star skills competition confirmed...

... Boston's Zdeno Chara deserved his poll citation as the NHLer with the hardest shot, with Shea Weber runner-up. (There may be something of an uproar in Nashville, as excellent Predators fan blogger Dirk Hoag of On The Forecheck points out that Weber was not named the All-Star MVP even though, with four assists, he outscored award-winner Patrick Sharp (goal, two assists) and was a miraculous plus-6 in a game that had a football scoreline).

The Stars' Loui Eriksson is the most underrated player, followed by the Islanders' Frans Nielson, Chicago's Sharp, New Jersey's Travis Zajac and the Canadiens' Tomas Plekanec.

The strongest opinion in the entire poll was on the question of fighting, with 98 percent of the players saying they want it to stay in the game. However, when asked if they favored abolishing the instigator rule, two-thirds said they like the rule as it is.

"If there is one result that is surprising," commented the CBC, "this is it. The belief has always been that the players would rather police themselves than live under the threat of a penalty."

As for arenas, the Bell Centre in Montreal was the clear winner as favorite rink to play in. Rexall Place in Edmonton has the best ice (the Bank Atlantic Center in Sunrise, FL has the worst). The worst boards and glass? They can be found in Detroit's Joe Louis Arena, followed by Montreal's Bell Centre, probably because the boards are so lively in those buildings.

More than half the players who answered said they felt that Quebec City is the place that most deserves an NHL club, a quarter cited  Winnipeg, and 16 percent favored a second team in Toronto. Hamilton got six percent of the vote.

And when asked which referee was best in the league, while Kelly Sutherland got 15 percent, Bill McCreary got 10, Wes McCauley nine and Tim Peal seven, the most common answer was "None" with 15 percent.

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