By Frank Pingue
(Reuters) - Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin are the National Hockey League's marquee players of their generation but must now make room in the elite club after enduring a string of playoff misfortunes.
The Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009 with Crosby the centerpiece of a talented team that surely expected to win at least a couple more by now but have since only reached the penultimate round of the playoffs once.
Ovechkin's goal-scoring prowess with the Washington Capitals has made him one of the most dangerous forwards in the game when he wants to be but his team has never advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs since he made his debut in 2005.
In the meantime, Jonathan Toews, who is the 26-year-old leader and lifeblood of a Chicago Blackhawks team that won two of the last five Stanley Cups and was a goal away from competing for another last season, has emerged as an ultimate winner.
The NHL has long since caught on as Toews and the Blackhawks will visit Ovechkin's Capitals on New Year's Day for the outdoor Winter Classic, an annual event that has grown bigger than the Stanley Cup in the eyes of many sports executives.
Crosby came into the league in 2005 billed as "The Next One" and heir apparent to Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky, who was known as "The Great One," and was tearing up the league until missing nearly an entire season from 2010-2012 with concussion symptoms.
But the 27-year-old Canadian has since returned to top form and won the Hart Memorial Trophy last season as the NHL's most valuable player after leading all players with 104 points.
Crosby has Olympic gold medals in 2010 and 2014 to go along with his Stanley Cup while Ovechkin's resume in the team category is slight by comparison.
Ovechkin has developed a reputation for playing more as an individual than a team player which perhaps explains why the 29-year-old Russian has won the Hart Trophy three times but is still seeking the game's biggest prize.
Toews, meanwhile, is just entering the prime of an already glittering career. The Canadian won a world championship gold medal in 2007, gold medals at the last two Olympics and was named most valuable player of the postseason when the Blackhawks snapped a 49-year Stanley Cup drought in 2010.
He won another Stanley Cup in 2013 and earlier this year signed an eight-year contract extension worth $84 million that will go a long way in keeping the Blackhawks in contention.
Heading into the NHL's 2014-15 campaign, which opens Oct. 8, Chicago will have the same core group from last season and some notable upgrades which, according to many experts, makes them the team to beat.
The Penguins, however, are coming off an early playoff exit that led to an overhaul of the team's managerial and coaching staffs in an effort to snap a trend of disappointment in the playoffs following impressive regular seasons.
As for Washington, they are coming off a disappointing season where they missed the playoffs for the first time in seven years, also leading to significant changes in personnel, management and coaching.
The debate about who is the world's best hockey player is not as one-sided as it was before Crosby's career was disrupted by concussions. And while Crosby may still own that title in the eyes of many, Toews is widely considered the ultimate go-to player that a team can count on in the clutch.
Clear evidence of Toews's reputation as a clutch performer is that Crosby, upon learning that he was named captain of the Canadian men's team at the Sochi Olympics, reportedly wanted to get the former's blessing before accepting.
The 2014-15 NHL season could go a long way in settling any debate about who is the game's best player, but if Toews can lead his strong Blackhawks team to a third Stanley Cup in six seasons, it may be hard to deny him the crown.
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Gene Cherry)