Sidney Crosby has widely been regarded as the NHL’s best player since he burst on the scene as a rookie in 2005. He led the league in points during his second year (120) and was voted the league’s most valuable player by the Professional Hockey Writers Association — an award he would win again seven years later — and the league’s most outstanding player by his peers — an award he would win back to back in 2013 and 2014. Crosby also led the league in goals with 51 during the 2009-10 season.

In the playoffs, he scored 118 points in 100 games plus got to hoist the Stanley Cup in 2009, making him the 26th member of the triple gold club: a player or coach who has won an Olympic Games gold medal, a World Championship gold medal and the Stanley Cup.

But Crosby just hasn’t been himself this season, scoring just six goals in 29 games and sitting with a plus/minus of minus-seven.

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All players go through slumps, but it is clear that the Crosby we knew has been on the decline for some time. At even strength, the percentage of unblocked shot attempts that have gone in Pittsburgh’s favor has declined, taking a sharp downward turn this season. It’s even worse than that though, as those same linemates have seen an uptick with Crosby on the bench.

His points per game has had an even steeper decline, going from a career-high 1.68 point-per-game rate in 2011-12 to 0.66 this season, which is a 54-point pace over an 82-game season.

Crosby’s decline has even reached a point where he isn’t even considered “public enemy No. 1” for the rival Washington Capitals anymore. This all raises the question: If Crosby isn’t the NHL’s best player, who is? A look at the candidates:

Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

The Great Eight has been regarded almost as highly as Crosby in recent MVP voting and Ovechkin’s performance puts him at the top of the list in terms of advanced stats. Ovechkin is tied for points (281) with Crosby over the past four full seasons and has the most goals over that span (174), 17 more than the league’s other best goal scorer, Steven Stamkos. Ovechkin also has 1,304 shots in this four-year period, 260 more than Rick Nash, who is in second place with 1,044. And unlike Crosby, Ovechkin’s overall game has been improving over the past two seasons under Coach Barry Trotz.

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However, you could argue he isn’t the best skater on his own team right now, with Evgeny Kuznetsov and John Carlson both making major contributions to the team’s success. And let’s not forget goaltender Braden Holtby, who could also be considered Washington’s most valuable player.

Patrick Kane; Jonathan Toews; Duncan Keith, Chicago Blackhawks

The 27-year-old Kane leads the NHL in scoring (46) and had points in 26 straight games, the longest streak since 1992. However, he is also benefiting from some puck luck right now. For example, at even strength, Kane and his linemates are scoring on 11.4 percent of their shots, well above the league average of 7.2 percent. We have seen Kane and his linemates score at this high of a rate before, only to come down to the league average or worse the following season. In other words, this isn’t some transformation we are seeing with Kane — it’s just good fortune.

Toews is considered one of the leagues best two-way forwards, putting 57 percent of all shot attempts in Chicago’s favor when on the ice while producing 0.88 points per game over his career. For some reason, he never got traction as the league’s best player. He does have four top-10 finishes for the Hart trophy, but never received higher than the fourth most votes. And this year he doesn’t have the stats at just a 45-point pace.

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Keith won the Norris trophy as the league’s top defenseman twice in the past six years, but has seen his even-strength scoring rate per 60 decline when skating without Kane, Toews, Patrick Sharp or Marian Hossa over the past eight years. Plus, most of his points are secondary assists, which are sometimes arbitrarily given out.

Together, these three turned the Blackhawks into a modern dynasty, but it is hard to decipher their value apart, let alone make a case for any one of them to be the league’s best player.

Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens

Price is the reigning MVP but had his season cut short due to injury, and if you have to put the disclaimer “if healthy” into the argument, it isn’t built on solid footing. Still, Price has posted save percentages of .927 or better for three straight seasons, getting him in the conversation, but a lack of impact on the offensive end of the ice will keep him — or any goalie — out of the top spot. For those who would instead tout Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers goaltender (45.1) is second to Price (47.7) in goalie point shares — an estimate of the number of points contributed by a player due to his play in goal — from 2011-12 to 2014-15. So if not Price, it’s hard to make a case for another netminder.

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Tyler Seguin; Jamie Benn, Dallas Stars

These are the players of the moment, fueling the Stars winning ways and putting the league on notice that the Stars are a contender.

Seguin’s candidacy is easy to dismiss: in his three years on the Stars, his goals per 60 minutes at even strength takes a huge hit when he is apart from Benn, whereas Benn sees no such downturn.

Benn has a stronger case, leading Canada to the gold medal in Sochi in 2014, plus leading the NHL in points last season (87). He’s currently the NHL’s leading goal scorer this season (20), and unlike Kane isn’t benefiting from an abnormal amount of puck luck.

In fact, Benn is doing everything you’d like to see from a star player in the NHL:

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  • His points per game has been steadily rising for the past four seasons
  • The percentage of even-strength shots in his team’s favor has shown the same trend and currently sits at 54.6 percent, indicating a strong foundation of puck possession
  • He is the best player on one of the league’s best teams

John Tavares, New York Islanders

The superstar from Mississauga, Ontario, has finished third in the Hart voting twice over the past three seasons, so there is support for him being considered one of the most valuable players in the league, but his production, like Crosby’s, has also taken a downturn.

Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues

Tarasenko is on pace to score close to a point per game for the second straight season. And the 24-year-old also has puck possession numbers that are as good as you could expect from a top-six forward.

If there is a knock on his resume it is two-fold: lack of a track record and questions about his ability on the defensive side of the puck. When he is on the ice the Blues allow over 38 even-strength shot attempts per 60 minutes, but those same linemates allow 34.6 when he isn’t skating with them. A similar trend exists on goals against: 2.3 per 60 with Tarasenko, 1.7 without.

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Tarasenko’s trajectory certainly suggests he is deserving, but he still has some work to do before getting consideration for No. 1 overall.

Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators

Erik Karlsson has won two Norris trophies in the past four years and should get serious consideration for a third — so we know we are already talking about the best defenseman in the league. But his 38.9 point shares — an estimate of the number of standings points contributed by a player — from 2011-12 to 2014-15 trail only Ovechkin’s (39.6). That gives him a resume that can stand up to any skater in the NHL, not just blueliners.

If all-in-one metrics aren’t your thing, consider the Senators put 49.1 percent of shot attempts in their favor with Karlsson on the ice but just 43.8 percent without him — a reduction that comes in the face of easier competition as Karlsson skates against the opposition’s top forwards.

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But can a defensemen truly be considered the best or most valuable player in the league? History suggests no. It’s been 15 years since a blueliner was awarded the Hart trophy and there was a 27-year drought before that, so it would take a monster season from Karlsson and the Senators to get him to the top spot.

As of today, I’d probably go with Benn or Karlsson if pressed to give the NHL’s top player, with Tarasenko on the radar for future seasons. But as you can see above, none enjoy the luxury of having a bulletproof argument. So perhaps the NHL doesn’t have a best player right now.

Agree or disagree with any of the above? Have another player in mind? Let us know in the comments.

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