Originally posted on Red Light District Hockey  |  Last updated 1/11/12

The NHL's biggest star hasn't played in over a month. Overall, that star has been in the lineup just eight times in the last calendar year. Is it time for the NHL to locate a new superstar to market as the face of the league?

The suspense is renewed.

Sidney Crosby has not played in an NHL game since December 5th, 2011. His status remains "out indefinitely" and his timetable for return simply does not exist. (Though the Penguins reported today that he will rejoin the team.) Diehard fans will tell you he began light workouts but his absence from both practice and media availability is telling. He won’t be back for a while, leading to recent speculation of getting shut down this season and possibly retirement.

His return on November 21st was arguably the highlight of the season's first half. Scoring just 5:24 into the game in an iconic, picturesque manner, the hockey world witnessed the return of a true great. Whether you like the Pittsburgh Penguins or despise them, you probably can close your eyes and recall him using bursting through the offensive zone, fending off an Islander defender with one hand on his stick before scoring on a miraculous backhand roof-job over unprepared rookie netminder Anders Nilsson.

As the poster boy of the League, he brought a type of dynamic skill and domination that the hockey world rarely gets to see. His combination of that elite skill coupled with winning the Stanley Cup and scoring the game-winning goal during the 2010 Olympics make Sidney an icon capable of rising into the one-named ranks – Mario, Wayne, Gordie, Bobby, etc.

Generational superstars obviously do not grow on trees, but the NHL needs someone to help carry the load in time of need. They need someone to help become the ambassador of a sport that carries a ‘niche’ label in North American countries that don’t start with a C.

While Crosby has been out, the sport has carried on. Their product remains faster, more skilled and possibly the most dynamic we’ve seen in years. But trying to market the sport to non-hockey fans becomes an issue without that on-ice presence.

One of the bigger problems since Sidney went down is formerly having that star in Alexander Ovechkin. The ‘Great 8’, as he is affectionately referred to by the hockey world, would need to channel his former ways in order to get back into those good graces.

After posting a career-low 32 goals and 85 points last season, many assumed Ovechkin would rise back to his 50-goal average. At just 26 years old he has struggled to regain that scoring touch, potting 17 goals over the first 40 games this season. Even though he remains the best player on the Washington Capitals as their captain and leader, that dominant goal scorer of the past looks like a mortal, above-average 30-goal scorer. In fact, many thought he might not even hit 30 goals before he scored five goals in his last five games.

The NHL can center their commercial breaks on Ovechkin, but the ship may have sailed on his ascension into the land of the greats.

Nobody expected Ovechkin to burst on the scene the way he did during the 2005-06 season. Despite being selected as the first overall pick in 2004, hockey fans grew accustomed to 18 and 19-year-olds breaking into the League and finding their legs in their rookie year.

Before there was Crosby and Ovechkin, there was Eric Staal and Rick Nash – the top offensive selections in the 2002 and 2003 NHL Entry Draft. Both players broke into the League directly following their draft year and both players produced modestly as they acclimated to the speed and intensity of the game at its highest level.

When Crosby and Ovechkin immediately began dominating the opposition on should-be rebuilding teams we held them to a higher standard. We expected them to battle over the Stanley Cup every season as well as fight to the bitter end for personal accolades like the Art Ross and Rocket Richard. However, only Crosby has elevated his game when it matters the most.

It has been apropos that with Sidney sidelined, Ovechkin has done nothing to prove himself better than his nemesis, as he’s done in the Stanley Cup playoffs over his five-plus years in the NHL. As a ‘playoff bust’ on the decline, it may be difficult for him to reestablish himself as the game’s biggest attraction. His previous letdowns are now in everyone’s minds. It would take a Stanley Cup ring to avert attention away from his past failures.

Furthermore, the rivalry between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins has all-but-evaporated with both stars losing their prominence in the ever-changing sky. Playoff series and the no-longer natural rivalry have evolved a once-promising matchup into a different kind of rivalry.

“I wouldn’t say it’s just another game.” Penguins backup goalie Brent Johnson explained to Lindsey Applebaum of The Washington Post. “The rivalry is still good, but it’s just different. Things have changed. We’ve had injuries this year, and now we have other teams I hate.”

These two teams remain fun to watch, but Johnson is right -- the rivalry is different. It clearly has not been the same since the 2011 Winter Classic.

Nevertheless, ratings remain steady according to Steve Lepore of Puck the Media, a website centralized on hockey’s TV ratings. “Well, there's indeed a definite void, but in their absence (or at least absence of greatness in Ovechkin's case) ratings have been quite fine,” Lepore explained via email. “The Bruins-Canucks Final was a slow build, but when it finally built to Game 7, it was another record audience for the league.”

Despite neither player delivering on the promise of a pure superstar, the League continues to produce a product worthy of the fairweather fan. “The NHL survived (and thrived) before them, and can do so without them,” said Lepore.

We know the game will go on without them, but with the recently-recognized concussion epidemic and the game continually speeding up, it’s hard for the league to invest in another up-and-comer and realistically expect that they will play, and dominate for their entire career.

“Perhaps a new ‘face of the league’ needs to be groomed,” Lepore later added. “Crosby was promoted as a once in a lifetime kind of guy, but can you find another? That may be the next step depending on how Sid comes back from this next concussion.”

Lepore acknowledges the need for a new ‘face of the league’ regardless if it is a necessity with regards to their record-breaking ratings. The League could get that with expected number one pick Nail Yakupov this coming summer or Nathan MacKinnon the year after. They may already have it in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Or they may choose to look at the top of their League Leaders.

Henrik Sedin, along with brother Daniel Sedin, have quietly dominated the aforementioned leaders for years now. Their dominance on the ice has been almost as impressive as their lack of fanfare.

Playing in Vancouver, the entire city stands behind their play and cheers perhaps louder than any province when they score. Their chemistry is undeniable, playing on the same team for most of their life yet they fail to translate to the ‘East Coast elitists’ that follow the sport so intently. Considering their games typically end in the early-morning hours – where the NHL has main offices in New York and Toronto – their dominance gets swept under the rug.

Moreover, the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals made them the bad guys. They were goaded as players who couldn’t stand up for themselves in scrums. Their lack of goal scoring further labeled them as ‘playoff busts’ and much like Ovechkin they will have trouble shedding such a doomed description. Again, the idea is already in people’s mind, making it hard to get behind them.

At 31, their window to become the face of the sport has likely expired. With two of them, it would actually be faces which further knocks them out of the running for the elite distinction. Even though they already have the pleasure of being referred to by their first name it comes more out of necessity than greatness.

The candidates we should be looking at are those who dominate the NHL and still have room to grow. Ideally that face would play in a market that either has a great deal of media coverage like New York, Philly or Toronto, or previously held a great to compare him to like Chicago, Edmonton or Pittsburgh. Furthermore, that face needs to be a dynamic personality -- one loved and respected much like Crosby and the previous incarnation of Ovechkin.

That leaves names like Jonathan Toews, Phil Kessel, Claude Giroux, along with Nugent-Hopkins. You could, and should argue that Steven Stamkos enters the mix, but Tampa Bay isn’t exactly what you would call a traditional hockey market which makes it difficult to put him on the nationwide map.

Giroux sticks out like a sore thumb as a name to market. Philadelphia Flyers GM Paul Holmgren traded away two franchise cornerstones because he believed Giroux could carry his team to the Cup. And so far, the Hearst, Ont., native has not disappointed.

Just last month, Giroux fell victim to the concussion bug but returned after missing only four games. His return came in epic fashion, having a say in all four goals the Flyers scored that night. Four games later he scored a momentum-swinging goal in the second period of the 2012 Winter Classic, putting his team up 2-0. He has the flair for the dramatic and the durability to withstand whatever the NHL throws at him.

We recently sat down with Dustin Leed of The Intelligencer Journal, discussing whether Giroux has that ‘star power’. "It's not often that a team as hated as the Philadelphia Flyers have a star come along that could potentially be a league-wide superstar; but Claude Giroux is just that,” Leed opined.

Giroux is silky smooth in the offensive zone, but for me it's his competitiveness that sets him apart. He's one of the most chippy Flyers and truly dislikes the players he is playing against. He is one of, if not the best Flyers' penalty killing forwards and he never takes a shift off in the defensive zone. When you combine that with his raw offensive skill it's a deadly combination that could find Giroux bound for NHL stardom sooner rather than later."

Clearly those who see him on an everyday basis speak very highly of the 24-year-old. And even though this year is his first with a point-per-game pace, he tallied 38 points in his first 40 playoff games which includes a Stanley Cup run. If the League needs to peg their hopes on one guy right now, it would be him.

But does the NHL need to crown its next superstar? That is a question that still hinges on Crosby and if he returns this season. Many speculated last week that No. 87 would sit out the remainder of the season in order to prevent a fourth concussion in less than a year which would classify hockey as a sport without a face, or at least a producing one.

As the schedule inches closer and closer to June the games will only continue to be played and hockey will survive with or without Crosby. But until/if he returns, we are left pondering who the next superstar will be.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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