Who's the best player?

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:18 AM ET

Every so often, when all is quiet on the labour front, the agents are hibernating, and the National Hockey League has somehow managed to be controversy-free for a day or two, hockey writers have to avoid their usual pursuits and write about an uncommon topic -- hockey players.

So here we go with a question to which there is no indisputably correct answer, but which should prompt a good old hockey debate -- which is what hockey fans used to do before the NHL forced them to become accountants and labour lawyers.

Who is the best player in the game today?

Let's start with a premise or two. It would have to be the first player you would take if you were building a team for one year only, and the entire league was available in a draft.

In the past, it would have been Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, or someone of that ilk.

But today, there is no runaway choice.

Maple Leafs fans might go for Mats Sundin who, until he got hurt on Monday, was playing as well as he has ever played in the NHL. But Sundin can probably play even better, as those who have watched him closely in international play can attest.

Some might suggest that the choice would have to be a goalie, probably Martin Brodeur. But even if you accept that Brodeur has been the dominant goalie since Patrick Roy retired, is he indeed the best goalie today? And we're talking about the best player in hockey at the moment, not necessarily the best goalie over the last decade.

Some fans would like to look into the future and give the young stars their support. After Alexander Ovechkin's crackling rookie season, many would see him as the best player in the game. Others would opt for Sidney Crosby, clearly a budding superstar who is getting better every time out. Even Evgeni Malkin, with a career that is comparatively only the blink of an eye, might be seen by some as the best player in the game.

The NHL scoring leaders also deserve some consideration -- guys like Marian Hossa, Ilya Kovalchuk and Jaromir Jagr. Each of them can dominate a game and make the difference between winning and losing.

But if a player is to be judged the best in a time when there is no clear-cut megastar, he probably has to excel at the most difficult position. That would mean he's a defenceman.

It's not that the other positions are easy. But the modern equipment helps goaltenders to the point that their position is not as challenging as it used to be.

Forwards, even though they have defensive responsibilities, don't have to be as versatile as defencemen. Skating skills are a primary asset in both positions, but the defencemen have to be equally adept whether they're going forwards or backwards. They have to be able to read plays, react instantaneously and, on occasion, rely on sheer strength to persevere.

And the best defenceman? The two guys in Anaheim, Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer are certainly on the list. Young Matthew Carle in San Jose is opening a lot of eyes in the hockey world and the even younger Dion Phaneuf in Calgary is a phenomenal talent.

But in this corner, the vote for the best player in the world at the moment would go to Nicklas Lidstrom of the Detroit Red Wings.

There is nothing that Lidstrom cannot do, but he does his job so effectively, so completely and so efficiently that he doesn't garner the attention that accrues to some of his colleagues.

He has won four Norris Trophies and even though career distinctions are not the criteria here, he won the most recent one last season, which should indicate that he's still at the top of his game. He was voted the best defenceman in the game six months ago, and a player as dedicated as Lidstrom isn't likely to go into a precipitous decline.

He's not a physical player, so he stays out of the penalty box, but he has a superb hockey sense, so that when he's on the ice, the opponents rarely get a sniff. That fact is borne out by Lidstrom's plus-minus rating. At the moment, he's on pace to end the season at a phenomenal +82.

He's also right up there among the league's defencemen scoring leaders, and he quarterbacks the power play, making sharp, pinpoint passes when he needs to do so, or unloading a blistering, astonishingly accurate shot.

He's got it all. And he's got the honour of being the best player in the game.


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