When I set out to compile a list of the best NHL hockey players of all time I figured that making the list up of 50 players, rather than the usual top 10, would make the selection process a little easier. Boy, was I wrong! Yes, such a long list did allow me the leeway to find a good balance between today’s greatest players and the superstars of eras long past, but as I struggled to rank the all-time greats I realized I would still be forced to leave off many of the NHL’s biggest legends.
I guess it shouldn’t have been a surprise, really. The NHL has been around for over 100 years now, and thousands upon thousands of players have graced the rosters of dozens of teams, both current and now defunct. Storied franchises like the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins could arguably have lists of top 50 greatest players just for those individual teams. So, in short, 50 selections was still not enough. Live and learn.
Before I start the countdown I do want to add one caveat: There will be no goalies on this list.
That’s right. No goalies on this list. While I certainly expect some heated debate in the comments, hopefully enough people will have read this paragraph and will refrain from piping up with complaints like, “Where is Dominik Hasek?”, or, “How can Jacques Plante not be in the top 50 of all time?”
Why no goalies? Well, in my opinion the position of goaltender is so fundamentally unique when compared to the other skaters that trying to objectively rank them among forwards and defensemen is really a fool’s errand. It is challenging enough to find a fair ranking system among the different eras and styles of play that the NHL has seen over its century-plus long existence. Don’t worry though. I will be writing a separate article on the greatest NHL goalies of all time, so stayed tuned for that one!
So, now that I’ve got that out of the way, let’s get to the list, shall we?
THE BEST HOCKEY PLAYERS OF ALL TIME
50 – CONNOR MCDAVID
I guess I might as well get the controversy going right off the bat. I’m sure some readers will not like the fact that I’ve put Connor McDavid on this list. Those naysayers may or may not be Calgary Flames fans, but I digress. For those who are protesting because his body of work isn’t yet big enough to merit an inclusion on this list, I 100% understand your point, and it is something I definitely struggled with when making this selection. Ideally he should have more seasons, more games and more points under his belt to justify his appearance on this list, but he’s just too damn good to keep him off of it!
Every once in a while a player comes along that is so truly special in relation to his peers that he forces opposing coaches and players to rethink everything they know about the game in order to try and neutralize him as a threat. Bobby Orr was such a player, confounding the opposition by presenting a style of game they’d never seen before. Connor McDavid’s blazing speed is unparalleled in the history of the game, and his ability to handle the puck and make plays while moving so fast make him an absolute nightmare to try and defend against. He is a generational talent that has taken the NHL by storm since his arrival in the 2015-16 season.
Just 23 years of age at the time of this writing he already has 2 Art Ross Trophies, a Hart Trophy and 2 Ted Lindsay Awards and has already nearly reached the 500 point mark, despite missing nearly half of his first season with injury. There is no doubt he will go on to enjoy an absolutely legendary career, and though some might be sneering to find him on the list at all right now, in a few years those same folks might be wondering why he is ranked so laughably low.
49 – ERIC LINDROS
Speaking of players who were a nightmare to play against, this freight train of a human being definitely caused opposing blueliners many a sleepless night with his rare combination of sublime skill, speed, and ferocious physical style.
Even while he was still playing junior hockey in Oshawa it was obvious that Lindros was going to be a future force in the NHL. He really was a man playing against boys, and in all honesty he probably could have made the leap to the big time at 16 years of age. Scouts were drooling over him as they anxiously awaited his draft year.
Unfortunately The Big E’s draft year was mired in controversy. The Quebec Nordiques owned the number one overall pick in 1991, and Lindros stated unequivocally that he would not report to the team if they selected him with their pick. Thinking to call his bluff the Nordiques chose Lindros anyways, and after a very messy standoff they were ultimately forced to trade him to the Philadelphia Flyers, earning a haul of players and prospects that helped them to become one of the league’s powerhouses in the years following the deal.
Lindros went on to become the dominant force everybody expected him to be, putting up huge points and devastating the opposition with thunderous body-checks as the centerpiece of the Flyers’ vaunted Legion of Doom line. Unfortunately that same physical style would ultimately prove his downfall. Years of massive collisions with equally physical players like Darius Kasparaitis and Scott Stevens took a toll on Lindros’s body and, more specifically, his head. He suffered multiple concussions over the years and those head traumas forced him to adjust his style, much reducing his impact on the ice.
Ultimately Lindros only appeared in 760 games, scoring 865 points over that span. He earned only a single Hart Trophy, never won the scoring race, and didn’t win a Stanley Cup. So why is he on this list? For a time he was the dominant player in the game, a beast that the opposition had no answer to. Few players in history have made the impact that he did, however short it was.
48 – CHRIS CHELIOS
When it comes to longevity in the game none could match Mr. Hockey himself, Gordie Howe, who played to the ripe old age of 52. Some have come relatively close, however. Much was made of Jaromir Jagr managing to stick around the NHL until the age of 45, but even that amazing accomplishment put him three years shy of Chris Chelios on the list of oldest players to ever play an NHL game. Chelios was 48 when he played his last NHL game as a member of the Atlanta Thrashers, and though far from his prime he was still an effective shutdown d-man in the twilight of his career.
He wasn’t always just a shutdown specialist though. In the first decade of his career he put up big numbers from the blueline, starring with both the Montreal Canadiens and the Chicago Blackhawks. He won three Norris Trophies over that span and finished in the top eight in Norris voting for 10 straight years.
In addition to his shutdown ability and his offensive prowess Chelios was also known as one of the meanest, nastiest players to line up against during his heyday. He had almost 3,000 penalty minutes over career, and while that isn’t always a positive stat for players in the case of Chelios it made him even more effective. Opponents feared to screen Chelios’s goalie for fear they might be picking their teeth up off the ice (or picking splinters out of their jock-straps). Like Chris Pronger, Bobby Clarke and Mark Messier, Chelios walked the line between star and thug, and his all-around game is what earns him a spot on this list of the best NHL hockey players of all time.
47 – NEWSY LALONDE
When setting out to make this list I knew it would be skewed towards more recent players. After all, those are the players that I’ve actually seen play and thus can speak with (some) authority on why I believe they belong on this list. That is obviously not going to be the case for players who last stepped onto an NHL rink in the 1920s. Still, I have a duty to these past superstars, and to the history of the game in general, to try and include (and somehow fairly rank) these legends of long ago. In my exhaustive research Newsy Lalonde definitely stood out as a player who merited serious consideration for a spot on this list.
Though this is technically a list of the best NHL hockey players of all time, Lalonde spent the early of his career in the National Hockey Association as a member of the Montreal Canadiens. He was the captain of the first Canadiens team to ever win the Stanley Cup, way back in 1916. He was perhaps the game’s earliest superstar and held several professional hockey records, including most career goals (468 – later broken by Maurice Richard), and most scoring championships (7 – Not broken until a fellow by the name of Wayne Gretzky came along).
Though his NHL stats pale in comparison to most of the others you’ll see on this list his 124 goals in just 99 career NHL games are a pretty good testament to how good Edward ‘Newsy’ Lalonde was in his prime.
46 – GILBERT PERREAULT
The Buffalo Sabres haven’t had much luck lately, missing the playoffs every year since 2011, but the hockey gods were definitely on their side way back in 1970 when they entered the league via expansion. That year both the Vancouver Canucks and the Sabres joined the league and both had an equal shot of landing the coveted number one draft selection in that year’s NHL Entry Draft. A spin of the wheel decided who got the number one pick. If it stopped on an even number the selection would go to Vancouver. Odd, and the Sabres would nab the pick. When the wheel came to rest the number selected was 11. Buffalo went first and chose superstar French Canadian, Gilbert Perreault.
Perreault was a star the moment he stepped onto an NHL ice rink. In his rookie year he racked up 38 goals and 72 points, and won the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year. He was just getting warmed up though. He, Rene Robert and Ric Martin formed the French Connection Line and the trio absolutely tore up the score sheet in the 1970s. Perreault never won a Stanley Cup and that lone Calder Trophy was the only major piece of hardware he ended up with in his Hall of Fame career, but he was undoubtedly one of the most talented and exciting players of his era, and his 512 goals and 1,326 career points definitely back that up.
45 – HENRI RICHARD
Though not as flashy, nor as famous as his brother, Maurice “The Rocket” Richard, the late, great Henri “The Pocket Rocket” Richard managed to shine bright, even in the enormous shadow of his superstar brother.
Henri joined his brother on the powerful Montreal Canadiens team that absolutely dominated the NHL in the latter half of the 1950, winning a record five straight Stanley Cups. Richard didn’t put up a 50 goal season like his brother, or other noted Canadiens’ sniper of the era, Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion did, but he put up steady stats, year after year, always seeming to average close to a point per game. Though his production tailed off at the end of his career, he still managed to put up 1,046 career points, 80 more than brother Maurice.
The numbers are impressive and all, especially considering the relatively low-scoring era he played in, but Henri Richard’s true legacy is that of a born winner. In fact, it can be said that he was the greatest winner in NHL history. No one in the history of hockey – not Rocket, not Jean Beliveau, not Gordie Howe – won as many Stanley Cups as Henri Richard. With the parity in the league today it is extremely likely that Henri Richard’s 11 Stanley Cup victories is a record that will last for all time.
44 – SYL APPS
Syl Apps, by today’s standards would have been a relatively small hockey player, standing just six feet tall and weighing a “mere” 185 lbs. However, back in the 1930s those measurements made him a hulking specimen, almost akin to Dustin Byfuglien or Zdeno Chara in today’s game.
Apps was a star right from the hop, winning the Calder Trophy in the first year it was awarded, scoring 45 points in just 48 games as a rookie with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Apps went on to play his entire career with the Leafs and continued to score at that same consistent rate, averaging just over a point a game and never really slowing down in 10 NHL seasons.
Despite his hulking size, Apps was one of the most gentlemanly players of his era, winning the Lady Byng once and finishing in the top three in voting for the award on four other occasions.
43 – SERGEI FEDOROV
When it becomes apparent how many great players I’ve left off this list of the greatest hockey players of all time there may be those who clamor for this Russian superstar to be removed in favor of (insert egregious oversight here). Anyone who makes such a demand has clearly forgotten just what a dominant two way player Fedorov was during his NHL playing career.
Fedorov was a coach’s dream, particularly during his time with the Detroit Red Wings. Not only could he consistently put up offensive numbers, once scoring 120 points in a season, but unlike many superstars of his era (eg: former linemates Pavel Bure and Alexander Mogilny) Fedorov was not a defensive liability. Not only was he not a liability, he was one of the best defensive forwards of his time, winning the Selke Trophy twice in his career. Puts up points and shuts down the opposition? Yep, definitely sounds like a coach’s dream. Or Patrice Bergeron.
In addition to his Selke Trophies, Fedorov also won a Hart, a Lester B. Pearson and three Stanley Cups. He finished his Hall of Fame career with 483 goals and 1,179 points, and before a couple of guys named Ovechkin and Malkin came along he was an easy choice as the best Russian-born player to ever play in the NHL.
42 – PETER STASTNY
If I asked the question, “Who scored the most points in the NHL in the 80s?” I’m sure that 100% of diehard hockey fans would answer Wayne Gretzky. Of course, they would be right. Gretzky outscored anyone else in that decade by a country mile. However, if I asked the same group who scored the second most points in the 80s I think the answers would be all over the map. Mark Messier, Mario Lemieux, Dale Hawerchuk or Bryan Trottier would all be reasonable guesses. Those guesses would also all be wrong. The answer is Peter Stastny, as you can see from this list on QuantHockey.com. Stastny’s 1,059 in just 749 games was good for a 1.414 points per game average, an average only topped by Gretzky, Lemieux and Mike Bossy. Pretty impressive company.
Some might naturally question Stastny’s place on this list, citing his lack of individual hardware. Well, really, the only thing he is guilty of is poor timing. His prime came at pretty much the exact same time as Gretzky’s prime, and The Great One wasn’t sharing many accolades back then. I’m sure any defenseman vying for the Norris Trophy during Bobby Orr’s prime could commiserate.
Stastny did manage to win the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year, putting up a whopping 109 points in his inaugural campaign, an NHL record that stood until Teemu Selanne came along in the early 90s. He finished his Hall of Fame career with 1,239 points in just 977 career games and is widely considered one of the best European-born players of all time.
41 – BRETT HULL
Alex Ovechkin has been getting a lot of press lately (even by his standards), with many contending that he might just be the greatest goal scorer of all time. About three decades ago there was another pure sniper that was eliciting that same speculation among players and fans, a player that was challenging Gretzky’s single season goal scoring record of 92, and marching up the all-time leading goal-scorers list at an amazing rate.
Brett Hull, son of NHL legend, Bobby Hull definitely inherited his father’s nose for the net. The Golden Jet was known for his blistering slap-shot and Brett could hammer the biscuit just as hard, if not harder, than his famous father. His ability to one-time the puck, combined with his uncanny talent for losing himself in coverage and finding open seams in the ice allowed him to absolutely feast on opposing goaltenders over his NHL career.
Much like other great snipers like Ovechkin, Jari Kurri and Mike Bossy, Hull’s production really sky-rocketed when he was paired with a pure passer. Ovechkin has Backstrom, Kurri had Gretzky, Bossy had Trottier, and Hull had Adam Oates. Oates was one of the best set-up men the game has ever seen, and when he and Hull were paired together in St. Louis over a 3 year span between 1989 and 1992 Hull’s production went through the roof! Over that three year span he scored jaw-dropping total of 228 goals in just 231 games. Yes, almost a goal per game for three straight seasons! His 86 goal campaign in 1990-91 is the third highest single season total ever, behind only Gretzky’s 92 (1981-82) and 87 (1983-84).
In all Hull totaled 741 goals over his career, despite not playing a full NHL season until age 24, and had he and Oates enjoyed more than just three seasons together he very possibly could have challenged Gordie Howe for second on the all time goal-scoring list.
40 – EVGENI MALKIN
The NHL created a surprisingly big controversy back during their centennial season in 2017 when they named their 100 Greatest Players of All Time. These sorts of lists always create debate, but the firestorm over the omission of Evgeni Malkin on that list was one the NHL surely didn’t anticipate. As you can see by my selection of Malkin at #40 of all time I am one of the many who disagreed with the NHL’s assertion that he hadn’t done enough to merit a spot on their list.
In my opinion Malkin has never received the respect he so obviously deserves from the hockey community. There are two reasons for this: Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. If not for those two gentlemen, one his Pittsburgh Penguins teammate, and the other his countryman from Russia, Malkin would have been the most heralded prospect to come along in a long while.
Instead, he was completely overshadowed by Crosby, arguably the most hyped prospect ever, and a player who many were speculating could challenge Gretzky as the greatest of all time. And the possibility of a great career rivalry between Malkin and Ovechkin was never realized because of the Crosby-Ovechkin debate that has raged ever since the two joined the league together in 2005-06.
Despite a lack of fanfare Malkin has quietly excelled his whole career, most particularly during the times when Crosby has been out long-term with injury. During those periods Malkin seems to put the Pens on his back, scoring at a prolific rate, and showing the hockey world he is not a mere sidekick to his more heralded teammate. If that isn’t enough to convince you of his value, then perhaps his Calder Trophy, his two Art Ross Trophies, his Hart Trophy, his Ted Lindsay Award, his Conn Smythe, his three Stanley Cups, and his 1,076 career regular season points and 168 career playoff points will.
39 – MILT SCHMIDT
This legend from the 30s and 40s is often recognized as one of the greatest Boston Bruins of all time. Milt Schmidt played his entire 16 year career as a member of the Bruins and was arguably the first true superstar forward to play for the organization. His lengthy career with the team is even more amazing considering the fact that he took a three year hiatus in the middle of it to go fight in World War II.
Schmidt didn’t put up spectacular numbers over his career, but he was a steady scorer, racking up 229 goals and 575 points in just 779 career games, very respectable totals in that era. Schmidt helped his Bruins win two Stanley Cups over his time there and in 1950-51 season his value was recognized league-wide as he captured the Hart Trophy that year.
Want to know more about Milt Schmidt’s career? Check out this article on Milt Schmidt at Joe Pelletier’s excellent Greatest Hockey Legends blog.
38 – JOE THORNTON
I’m sure I’m going to raise some eyebrows with my #38 pick, but despite his glaring lack of a Stanley Cup ring I don’t see how anyone could make an argument against Jumbo Joe’s inclusion here.
The former number one overall pick in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft, Thornton’s combination of size and skill had the Boston Bruins slavering in anticipation of his potential. However, Thornton, unlike other skilled big men like Mario Lemieux and Eric Lindros, didn’t exactly set the league on fire in the early years of his career, scoring just 7 points in 55 games in his rookie year and following that up with 41 points in 81 games in his sophomore campaign. Critics began to (prematurely) question whether Thornton would ever star at the NHL level.
Thornton continued to improve year by year and by 2002-03 there was no longer any question about whether he could cut it in the NHL. He notched 101 points in just 77 games that season, good enough for third overall, and trailing Peter Forsberg by just five points in the race for the Art Ross Trophy. In 2005-06, following the NHL lockout, Thornton came out absolutely on fire, scoring 33 points in his first 23 games with the Bruins. He had finally arrived as the dominant superstar the Bruins had hoped to get when they drafted him, and that was why it was so shocking when they traded him to the San Jose Sharks.
Bruins fans could only wring their hands in frustration as Thornton continued his torrid pace with the Sharks, finishing the season with 125 points, and winning both the Art Ross and Hart Trophies for good measure. He followed that campaign up with 114 points before he finally started to slow down (a little) again.
Though Thornton has never won the Stanley Cup he so desperately craves he has arguably been the best set-up man in the league over the past two decades, notching 1,089 assists (7th all-time) in his career to date, and his 1,509 career points rank him 14th all-time in that category and 1st among active players.
37 – JOE MALONE
Back to back Joes on my list of the best hockey players of all time. I’ll admit, I know much less about Joe Malone than I do about Joe Thornton. Malone, like Newsy Lalonde, was one of the NHL’s earliest superstars, and if there is anyone still alive that saw him play they certainly don’t remember anything about the experience now.
Malone’s first season in the NHL (follow two campaigns in the NHA) was as a member of the Montreal Canadiens, and his stat-line from that year is most definitely unusual. In 20 games that season Malone had 44 goals and 0 assists. That is not a typo. Remember, NHL hockey was a much different game, with far different rules back then. Still, the lack of assists aside, 44 goals in just 20 games is amazing! Malone had three five-goal games in that season, more than any player in NHL history. Perhaps his greatest achievement came in 1920 as a member of the Quebec Bulldogs. That season Malone scored seven goals in a single game, an NHL record that remains unbroken a century later!
36 – DICKIE MOORE
Among hockey fans, particularly Habs fans, the names Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau, Guy Lafleur and Jacques Plante are household names. Those larger-than-life NHL legends cast enormous shadows, obscuring the careers of many other greats. This, I believe, has happened in the case of Dickie Moore, a player who if he’d plied his trade for any other franchise, would be remembered as one of that team’s all-time greatest players.
While the Montreal Canadiens were winning five straight Stanley Cups in the latter half of the fifties Moore was one of their most productive players, even winning the Art Ross in back to back years in 1958 and 1959. Yes, he outscored Beliveau, both Richard brothers and Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion over those years.
Though Moore played the bulk of his career with the Montreal Canadiens, he did return to the NHL for brief stints with the Toronto Maple Leafs and later with the expansion St. Louis Blues. Even at 37 years of age he showed he was still an offensive force, scoring 14 points in 18 playoff games and helping the Blues reach the Stanley Cup Finals in their inaugural NHL season.
35 – PAUL COFFEY
Long before Connor McDavid came along another Edmonton Oilers great was wowing the hockey world with his sublime skating ability. While McDavid explodes down the ice with lightning acceleration and a powerful stride, Coffey made the act of skating seem completely effortless, often appearing to glide as he reeled in opposing forwards. That deceptive speed not only helped him on the back-check, but made him a deadly offensive weapon as well.
As great as Gretzky, Messier, Kurri and Anderson were, many nights it was Paul Coffey who was generating the offense from the back end. Coffey would grab the puck behind the Oilers’ net and proceed to rush it end to end, backing up defenders who scrambled in vain to keep pace, and either shooting and scoring himself or dishing it off to a teammate at the last minute for an easy tap-in. Grant Fuhr earned a lot of free assists, by giving Coffey the puck behind the net.
When Bobby Orr retired it was widely held that the offensive records he had set from the blueline position were completely untouchable. It only took two seasons in the NHL to serve notice that he could and would challenge Orr’s offensive output. Coffey scored 89 points in his sophomore season, a huge total for a defenseman, yet he was just getting started. In the four seasons following he put 96, 126, 121, and 138 points respectively. The 138 points was just a single point shy of Orr’s NHL record of 139 points, and Coffey’s 48 goals that year eclipsed Orr’s single-season record of 46 by a defenseman.
Coffey won three Norris Trophies for his work on the blueline, was a four-time Stanley Cup champion, and his 1,531 career points stand second all-time to fellow Hall-of-Famer Ray Bourque for most among NHL defensemen.
34 – RED KELLY
One of the most versatile players in NHL history, Red Kelly started his career on the blueline of the Detroit Red Wings, winning a Norris Trophy in the 1953-54 season, and serving as an absolute rock on the back end of a team that featured legends like Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay and Terry Sawchuk.
In his time with the club Kelly helped the Wings hoist the Stanley Cup on four separate occasions, and if he had hung up his skates when his time in Detroit ended he most likely would have already had enough on his resume to merit a spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
However, Kelly’s 13 seasons in Detroit were just the first act of an amazing career. In the 1959-60 season Kelly was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs and was reborn as a center. He’d always been an offensive weapon, even from the back end, so he made a nearly seamless transition to the forward position, racking up 81 points in his first 82 games with the Leafs.
Kelly went on to win four more Stanley Cups with the Leafs, giving him eight in total, more than any other non-Montreal Canadiens player in NHL history.
33 – JARI KURRI
One day soon I am going to writing an article listing the greatest dynamic duos in NHL history, and when I do you can bet that this Finnish superstar (and some other guy named Wayne) will very likely be at the top of the heap.
Looking at the record-shattering numbers Wayne Gretzky put up over his NHL career it would be very tempting to dismiss Kurri’s achievements as simply a case of having the luck to play alongside the most gifted offensive player in NHL history. A fire hydrant could have scored 20 goals with Gretzky feeding him passes. Yes, Gretzky did have that rare ability to make every one of his teammates better, and Kurri was no exception, but he brought his own complementary, unique skill-set to the table, and he was definitely the yin to Gretzky’s yang for their years together in Edmonton.
Not only was Kurri a lethal sniper, taking Gretzky’s passes and rifling them past helpless goaltenders with pinpoint accuracy, but he was also extremely responsible on the defensive end of the puck. Knowing he could count on Kurri to cover for any defensive lapses he might make allowed Gretzky to focus purely on offense, and The Great One could often be spotted circling out around center, waiting for a breakaway opportunity while Kurri covered for him in the defensive zone.
If that information isn’t enough to convince you that Kurri wasn’t just surfing along, enjoying a free ride on Wayne’s coattails, then check out Kurri’s stats the year after Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings. In his final season together with Gretzky in Edmonton, Kurri notched 43 goals and 96 points. The following year, without Gretzky, he finished with 44 goals and 102 points. Hardly the huge dive in production many predicted for the Finnish star when Gretzky headed for sunnier climes.
Kurri finished his career with 601 goals, 1,398 points and remains to this day one of the only NHL players to score 70 or more goals in a single season.
32 – TED LINDSAY
Long before Gretzky and Kurri struck fear into the hearts of opposing defenders, Ted Lindsay and Gordie Howe were doing the same as two-thirds of Detroit’s famed Production Line. However, in Howe and Lindsay’s case, that fear was the product of not only their elite skill, but also the
threat promise of the physical punishment they would deal out to any opposing player who got in their way.
In most cases in life the nickname Terrible would be a derogatory term, but in the case of “Terrible” Ted Lindsay, it had everything to do with his ornery demeanor on the ice, and certainly was in no way related to his play. Lindsay racked up points and penalty minutes while patrolling Howe’s wing, and despite his relatively small stature, he is remembered as one of the toughest to ever play the game.
Though he didn’t put up the sort of numbers that Gordie did, Lindsay did win the Art Ross once, leading the league in scoring in the 1949-50 season. Perhaps the greatest tribute to his greatness is the annual Ted Lindsay Award, voted to the best player in the league as voted by his peers.
31 – BOBBY CLARKE
Hockey is a tough sport, and the Philadelphia Flyers team of the 1970s (AKA The Broad Street Bullies) was arguably the toughest team to ever step onto NHL ice. Bobby Clarke was the captain of that legendary squad, and while he was the most skilled player on that team, he was also arguably the meanest.
Clarke was standout in junior, starring for the Flin Flon Bombers of the WCHL. However, he was also a Type I diabetic, and concerns about his health and his ability to play consistently at the NHL level caused him to slip to late in the second round of the NHL draft. The Flyers decided to take a chance on the ultra-competitive young man and that gamble paid off big time as Clarke evolved into one of the greatest leaders, and one of the greatest players, of his era.
Clarke played with a huge chip on his shoulder and he used his stick and his fists to deter any opponent who tried to stop him from doing what he loved most: winning. According to HockeyFights.com Clarke fought 33 times in his career, definitely a large number of bouts for a superstar. Of course, though he is perhaps best known for his gap-toothed grin and his intimidation tactics, Clarke was superbly talented player as well, scoring over 100 points in three separate seasons, including a career-high 119 in 1975-76
Over his career Clarke won three Hart Trophies, not too shabby while playing in an era that featured legends like Bobby Orr and Guy Lafleur. He also won a Selke as the league’s best defensive forward, and most importantly he captained the Flyers to the only two Stanley Cups in the history of the franchise.
30 – LARRY ROBINSON
When discussing the greatest teams of all time the Montreal Canadiens dominate the conversation. Yes, a case could be made for the New York Islanders of the early 80s, or the Edmonton Oilers of the late 80s, but the clear front-runners for the crown are the 1950s Canadiens squad, coached by Toe Blake, that captured an NHL record five straight Stanley Cups, and the Scotty Bowman-led Habs team that slaughtered all comers in the latter half of the 1970s.
Whether they were the greatest or not, that 1970s Canadiens squad was stupendously good. They had a legend in goal in Ken Dryden and a superstar forward core led by the legendary Guy Lafleur. However, in my opinion it was their defensive core, led by The Big Three – Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe – that was the primary reason the Habs won four consecutive Stanley Cups between 1976 and 1979.
Offensively potent and defensively stalwart, The Big Three absolutely dominated the opposition night after night, and as good as Savard and Lapointe were, even they dwelt in the enormous shadow of fellow blueliner Larry Robinson.
Robinson could do it all from the back end. He was one of the best puck-rushing defensemen in NHL history, and his end to end dashes could routinely be seen on the highlight reel. In addition to his superlative offensive talent, Robinson was also a mean customer to play against. At 6’3″ tall and 220 lbs he was a giant among men in the 1970s, and he wasn’t afraid to use that physical advantage against his opponents. Robinson was not only a feared hitter, but he could fight as well. He dropped the mitts 17 times in his career, including taking on (and beating) legendary Flyers’ enforcer Dave “The Hammer” Schultz (see video evidence below).
Robinson finished his career as a member of the Los Angeles Kings, but will always be remembered first and foremost as a Montreal Canadien. In all he racked up 208 goals and 958 points, won two Norris Trophies and a Conn Smythe, and sipped from the Stanley Cup on six separate occasions.https://www.youtube.com/embed/KaoBOLFRA6M?feature=oembed&wmode=opaqueLarry Robinson Fights Dave “The Hammer” Schultz
29 – MARCEL DIONNE
What a draft year 1971 was. It isn’t often that two players of the caliber of Guy Lafleur and Marcel Dionne are available in the same draft. The Habs had the number one pick that year and had a tough choice between these two French Canadian superstars. Ultimately they chose Lafleur and Dionne went second overall to the Detroit Red Wings. The decision worked out well for the Habs, but would they have been even better with Dionne?
If Marcel Dionne isn’t the most underappreciated superstar of all time I don’t know who is. When it comes to underrating Dionne I guess I should point the finger at myself as well. There certainly is a strong case to be made that he should be ranked higher on this list. His extraordinary career stats (731 goals, 1,040 assists, 1,771 points) put him 5th, 11th and 6th all-time respectively in those stat categories.
Though Dionne started his career with the Wings, and was very productive during his time there, it was with the Los Angeles Kings that he really rose to stardom. Dionne centered the famed Triple Crown Line between Dave Taylor and Charlie Simmer, and was the most prolific scorer among the trio, notching five straight 50+ goal seasons in his prime.
Dionne’s best season came in 1979-80 when he finished tied for the league-lead in scoring with a precocious young superstar by the name of Wayne Gretzky. Dionne captured the Art Ross Trophy over Gretzky by virtue of having more goals (53 vs. Gretzky’s 51). Gretzky, of course, would leave Dionne (and all others) in the dust the following season, and for many seasons to come in the NHL scoring race.
Perhaps the biggest thing missing from Dionne’s resume, and probably the reason he is always ranked lower than perhaps he should be on these lists, is a Stanley Cup ring. Dionne, despite his many years of high offensive output, could never lead his club to the promised land. How would different would his legacy, and his spot among the greatest hockey players of all time, be had the Montreal Canadiens selected him ahead of Lafleur in that fateful 1971 draft?
28 – FRANK MAHOVLICH
A hulking winger with soft hands and a scoring touch, The Big M attracted the longing eyes of scouts back in his teenage years. With his size and his shooting ability his transition to the NHL was virtually seamless and he scored 20 goals in his first full campaign with the Toronto Maple Leafs, earning the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.
Mahovlich was a prolific scorer for the Leafs during the 1960s, and swiftly became one of the fans favorite players. He helped the Leafs win four Stanley Cups during his time there, including the franchise’s last championship, in 1967. Fans were understandably upset when Mahovlich was traded to Original Six rival Detroit Red Wings late in the 1967-68 season.
Mahovlch continued to put up goals for the Wings. Playing alongside Gordie Howe, Mahovlich fell just one goal shy of the 50 mark in his first full season with the club, scoring 78 points in 76 games. In all his score 196 points in just 198 games with the Wings before he was on the move again, this time to the Montreal Canadiens.
Once again the team acquiring him was not disappointed. Mahovlich seemingly disregarded Father Time, scoring at an even more prolific rate than he had in his younger days with the Leafs and the Wings. His value was even more evident in the 1971 Stanley Cup Playoffs where he notched 14 goals and 27 points, helping the Habs capture the Stanley Cup.
Mahovlich won one more Stanley Cup with the Habs (in 1973) giving him six in all in his Hall of Fame career. He finished with 533 goals and 1,103 points, despite spending the final four years of his professional hockey career in the rival WHA.
27 – HOWIE MORENZ
The man dubbed “The Mitchell Meteor” is often credited as being hockey’s first bona fide superstar (though an argument could be made that a couple of others on this list – Newsy Lalonde or Joe Malone – could claim that title). Morenz’s combination of blazing speed and stick-handling prowess made him a target of opposing teams and he had to fight through the violent attention of his opposition on a nightly basis.
Fight through he did, putting up huge goal totals (for the time), including 40 goals in just 44 games in the 1929-30 season. During his time with the Canadiens he helped the team win three Stanley Cups, earning a matching three Hart Trophies as the NHL MVP along the way.
26 – DENIS POTVIN
As I mentioned above the New York Islanders team of the early 1980s could certainly make a case as the greatest NHL franchise of all time. Loaded with superstars like Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier and Billy Smith, the Islanders reach the Stanley Cup Finals five consecutive times between 1980 and 1984, winning the first four times they made the trip.
If you look back at NHL dynasties over the decades you will find a common theme: each one of those clubs had a Hall of Fame defenseman. In the case of the New York Islanders, that d-man was Denis Potvin. Potvin was the first overall pick in the 1973 draft and he immediately lived up to the hype, scoring 54 points and winning the Calder Trophy in his inaugural season with the Isles.
Potvin’s offensive numbers would skyrocket over the next several years, reaching a peak in 1978-79 when he scored 101 points, at the time making him the only d-man besides Bobby Orr to have reached the 100 point plateau.
Potvin wasn’t just an offensive star. He was a staunch defender, and much like Chris Chelios, he had a mean streak that drew the ire of opposing players and fans alike. How much ire, you ask? New York Rangers fans still chant, “Potvin sucks!” whenever the Isles come to town. It’s been more than 30 years since his retirement! The man definitely made an impression.
In addition to his four Stanley Cup rings and his Calder Trophy Potvin also earned three Norris Trophies over his career, and his 310 goals and 1,356 points were both NHL records for defensemen at the time of his retirement.
25 – TEEMU SELANNE
Spoiler alert: Teemu Selanne is not only one of the 50 best NHL hockey players of all time, he is also the greatest Finnish hockey player ever. Kurri might have been Selanne’s childhood hero, but the protege ultimately surpassed the master.
Mike Bossy’s rookie record of 53 goals hardly seemed untouchable – Joe Nieuwendyk had come very close with 51 in his rookie campaign – but no one expected it to be obliterated like it was by a young Finnish phenom by the name of Teemu Selanne. Selanne absolutely exploded onto the scene with the Winnipeg Jets in 1992-93, his blazing speed, along with a lethal shot and slick stick-handling ability made The Finnish Flash a nightmare to stop, even for seasoned NHL defenders. In fact, looking back, Selanne’s skill-set was somewhat reminiscent of a modern-day superstar currently giving blueliners fits: Connor McDavid.
Selanne seemed to score at will that season, and ultimately finished with an eye-popping 76 goals (23 more than Bossy’s record) and 132 points (23 more than Peter Stastny’s rookie record). No first-year player has come within a country mile of those totals since.
Strangely, his rookie year was by far his best, statistically, but he did continue to score at a healthy clip, reaching the 50 goal mark and the 100 point plateau twice more each over his career. Even more impressive than his raw stats was the era he was producing them in. Selanne played the bulk of his career during the so-called Dead Puck Era. At that time goals were notoriously hard to come by, with defensive strategies like the trap and a plague of clutching and grabbing really slowing the game down and neutralizing the speed and skill of the game’s best players. Despite that, Selanne continued to average better than a point a game, scoring steadily well into his late thirties.
In all Selanne finished with 684 goals and 1,457 points in 1,451 career games. Imagine what sort of numbers The Finnish Flash could have put up if he’d had the luxury of playing in the free-wheeling eighties!
24 – PETER FORSBERG
Looking back at the trade that sent Eric Lindros from the Quebec Nordiques to the Philadelphia Flyers it still shocks me that Peter Forsberg was just a piece in that deal. Yes, Lindros was a beast and a generational hockey player, but looking back on their respective careers it was Forsberg who was the consistently better player, and even if had it been a straight up one for one swap the Nordiques/Avalanche still would have got the better of the deal.
Forsberg got a later start in the NHL than Lindros did, staying in Sweden and playing for MODO until the 1994-95, but he made an immediate impact upon his arrival in the NHL. He averaged more than a point per game in the lockout-shortened 48 game season earning Rookie of the Year honors. The following season he showed he was not just a great player, but a superstar, scoring 116 points, a higher total than Lindros reached in any single season in his career. The total included 86 assists, and moved him into the conversation with players like Gretzky and Lemieux as the best pure passer in the league. He followed up his impressive regular season with 21 points in 22 playoff games, helping the Colorado Avalanche to the first Stanley Cup in the franchise’s history.
Forsberg continued to put up big numbers over the next several seasons, despite dealing with a slew of injuries and despite the fact that he, much like Selanne, played the prime of his career in the Dead Puck Era. He won another Stanley Cup with the team in 2001, and then, following a severe injury that saw him miss the entire 2001-02 regular season he came back with 27 points in 20 games in the playoffs, and then followed that up with 106 points the following year, earning him the Hart Trophy and the Art Ross.
Injuries continued to take their toll on Forsberg and that 2002-03 year was his last great season. In all he played just 708 regular season games, scoring 865 points, but you can bet if he had enjoyed a long healthy career that those totals, much like his spot on this list, would be a lot higher.
23 – BRYAN TROTTIER
The New York Islanders dynasty of the early 1980s was an almost unstoppable juggernaut, so it is little wonder that multiple members of that team would show up on the list of the greatest NHL hockey players of all time. Potvin was the rock on the back end, Mike Bossy was the deadly sniper, and Bryan Trottier was the slick, play-making, two-way center whom the offense flowed through during those dominant years.
Trottier, much like Potvin and Bossy, made an immediate impact upon his arrival in the NHL, scoring 95 points in his rookie year and winning the Calder Trophy. His production slipped a bit in his sophomore season, but the next five seasons he absolutely exploded offensively, scoring 593 points in just 384 games. He managed to nab an Art Ross and a Hart in the 1978-79 season, just before Wayne Gretzky arrived on the scene and took a stranglehold on both of those trophies.
He won four straight Stanley Cups with the New York Islanders and then in the twilight of his career he added two more cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins, lending his leadership and immense experience to a talent-laden Pens team that featured Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr. In all he scored 524 goals and 1,425 points in the regular season, and his 184 career playoff points put him 12th all-time in that category.
22 – STAN MIKITA
Though he is considered one of the greatest European-born players of all time, Stan Mikita actually learned the game of hockey in Canada after moving to St. Catherines, Ontario as a young boy. After three seasons spent lighting up the OHA with the St. Catherines Teepees, Mikita made the jump to the NHL.
Mikita didn’t explode out of the gate like many of the other legends on this list, but in his second full year with the club he scored six playoff goals, the most by any player, to lead the Blackhawks to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup since 1938. His offensive numbers jumped from there and over the next seven seasons he led the NHL in scoring four times and won a pair of Hart Trophies.
Mikita’s offensive production started to slow after that, but he continued to be a steady contributor until his retirement during the 1979-80 season. When he finally hung up his skates he’d notched 541 goals and his 1,467 points put him behind just Gordie Howe and Phil Esposito for most career points in NHL history at that time.
Want to know more about Stan Mikita? Check out Stan Mikita’s biography at the Hockey Hall of Fame.
21 – EDDIE SHORE
“Old time hockey! Like Eddie Shore!”
Unless you are much, much older than I am then it is likely the most memorable thing about legendary Bruins’ defenseman Eddie Shore is that particular quote from the cult movie Slap Shot. It’s not surprising, really, considering the last time he played an NHL game was in the 1939-40 season.
Shore was the first in a long line of legendary Bruins’ d-men that has included Bobby Orr, Ray Bourque and most recently Zdeno Chara. He was an offensive force from the back end, but despite his offensive acumen he was definitely better known for his toughness. In just his second season in the NHL he set a league record for penalty minutes, racking up a whopping 165 PIMS in just 44 games that season. Over the course of his career he spent over a thousand minutes in the sin bin.
Shore was definitely recognized for more than his bruising tendencies, however. He was named to the All Star team in eight of the first nine seasons it came into being, and he won four Hart Trophies over his career, more than any other player except for Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe.
20 – RON FRANCIS
Though perhaps not as flashy as other superstars on this list, Ron Francis quietly scored more career points than all but four other players in NHL history. He is another one of those superstars that never seems to get his due when it comes to these sorts of rankings, so though some might question his spot on this list I believe I have ranked him quite fairly.
Francis was really, really good for a really, really long time, and with 1,731 career games played he trails only Gordie Howe (1,767), Mark Messier (1,756) and Jaromir Jagr (1,733) at the time of this writing. Despite such a long career he averaged better than a point a game over that span. He also notched three 100+ point seasons over his career, including a 119 point campaign in 1995-96 as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Even with just his amazing offensive numbers Francis deserves a high spot on this list, but he wasn’t just an offensive star. He was also one of the best defensive forwards in the game, and was recognized as such when he won the Selke Trophy in 1994-95. He won back to back Stanley Cups in 1991 & 1992, and notched 44 points in 45 games while centering the second line for the Pittsburgh Penguins over those two post-season runs.
19 – JOE SAKIC
In my opinion Joe Sakic was the classiest player to come along since Jean Beliveau retired. Sakic was a consummate professional, playing the game the right way, with intensity and honor. He was the perfect captain of the Colorado Avalanche, not very vocal, but rather leading them by example every time he stepped on the ice.
Sakic wasn’t just a classy leader. He was one of the game’s deadliest offensive threats from the first time he stepped on the ice for the Quebec Nordiques in 1988 until he finally hung up the skates as a member of the Colorado Avalanche during the 2008-09 season. He scored over 100 points in three of his first five season, despite the fact that the Nordiques were dwelling in the league’s basement at the time.
With the arrival of Peter Forsberg and Patrick Roy, Sakic finally had the help he needed to make the Avs a serious contender. He had a monster season in 1995-96, scoring 51 goals and 120 points during the regular season and then following that up with an even more impressive 18 goal, 34 point playoff run that earned him a Conn Smythe Trophy and the Avalanche their first Stanley Cup.
Sakic had another amazing run in 2000-01, scoring 54 goals and 118 points, winning both the Hart and Lester B. Pearson Trophies. His playoff run wasn’t quite as impressive, but 13 goals and 26 points were enough to help the Avs win another Stanley Cup that year.
18 – MIKE BOSSY
Until Alexander Ovechkin came along I truly believe this New York Islanders sniper was the best pure goal scorer the game had ever seen. Bossy’s quick release, coupled with his unerring accuracy, had him filling the net from his earliest NHL moments. In his first year Bossy set a league record, scoring 53 goals as a rookie. It was just a taste of things to come.
Bossy scored 69 goals in just his second season, and his 126 points landed him fourth overall in league scoring. Perhaps his greatest individual accomplishment came in the 1980-81 season though, when Bossy matched a mark that hadn’t been hit in over three decades. That year he scored 50 goals in the first 50 games of the season, matching a feat only Maurice Richard had accomplished up until that point. I still remember watching Bossy’s celebration as he ran across the ice in jubilation after scoring number 50.
Bossy, like Trottier and Potvin, was one of the key cogs in the machine that was the New York Islanders back in the early 80s. He won a Conn Smythe and notched 85 goals and 160 points in just 129 career playoff games.
Like others on this list, Bossy had his career cut short due to injury. In his case, it was a bad back that did him in. Despite his truncated career Bossy put up some mind-boggling numbers. He had nine straight seasons of 50 goals or more, an NHL record still unmatched to this day. In all he scored 573 goals in just 752 games, giving him a .762 goals per game ratio, the highest in NHL history. Had he been able to play a full length, relatively injury-free career I firmly believe it would be Bossy, not Gretzky that Alex Ovechkin would be chasing for the all-time goals scored record.
17 – GUY LAFLEUR
If I were to write an article on the most popular hockey players of all time there is a very good chance that this French Canadian superstar would top the list. Montreal Canadiens fans are extremely passionate, and they’ve absolutely adored each and every one of the many stars that have graced their roster. I don’t think the city has ever had as great a love affair as they did with Guy Lafleur though. Well, with the possible exception of Rocket Richard.
Sam Pollock pulled off the swindle of the century when he landed the number one overall pick from the Seals leading up to the 1971 NHL Entry Draft. The Habs passed over fellow French Canadian Marcel Dionne, opting to take Lafleur with that selection. Strangely, Lafleur and Dionne’s careers seemed to follow the same trajectory, with neither making a huge offensive impact in their first three seasons, then both of them having huge seasons in year four.
In Lafleur’s case that huge season consisted of 53 goals and 119 points, the first of six straight campaigns of over 50 goals and 100 points. He won three Art Ross Trophies, two Harts and three Lester B. Pearson Trophies over that same span, and added four more Stanley Cups to the one he’d won in his sophomore season, giving him five in total.
Lafleur played into the mid-80s for the Habs before deciding to call it a career. However, after taking a three year hiatus from the game The Flower decided he still had a little hockey left in him, returning for three more seasons to patrol the wing for the New York Rangers and the Quebec Nordiques. In all he notched 560 goals over his career, and the iconic image of him flying down the right wing and unleashing his wicked slap shot is one of the most enduring in the history of the sport.
16 – RAY BOURQUE
The Boston Bruins have certainly had way more than their fair share of superstar d-men over the years. Dating back to Eddie Shore the B’s have had some of the best rearguards to ever lace up the skates patrol their blueline. When Bobby Orr left the Bruins, Brad Park was already there to pick up the torch. And when Brad Park was in the twilight of his career, Ray Bourque came along to continue the tradition of excellence that has been a hallmark of the Boston Bruins’ organization for decades.
It seems like at least half the players on this list took home the Calder in year one, and Bourque is no exception. He scored 17 goals and 65 points and averaged better than a point per game in the playoffs that year.
Bourque was a machine season after season, consistently hammering in goals with his big slapper from the point and scoring at least 80 points on 10 different occasions. He back-stopped the Bruins to Stanley Cup Finals appearances in 1988 and 1990, but both times they were swept from the playoffs by powerful Edmonton Oilers squads.
As the sun started to set on his brilliant career it seemed as though Ray Bourque would be one of those unfortunate players who can truly be counted among the greatest of all time, but somehow had a Stanley Cup elude them. Though he’d been a Bruin his whole career, Bourque reluctantly asked to be traded to a contender for a crack at hefting Lord Stanley’s mug before it was too late. The Bruins acquiesced, shipping him to the powerful Colorado Avalanche. Bourque and the Avs suffered a heart-breaking loss in the 2000 playoffs, but returned in 2000-01 for one last go at it. This time they got the job done, and one of hockey’s most enduring images is Bourque roaring in pure joy as he hefted the cup over his head.
In addition to his Calder and his elusive Stanley Cup rings, Bourque’s trophy case also contains five Norris Trophies, and his 410 goals, his 1,169 assists and his 1,579 points make him the all-time career leader in all three categories.
15 – JEAN BELIVEAU
I really struggled with the decision to rank Jean Beliveau over Guy Lafleur amongst all-time Habs greats, and in the end I probably just could have flipped a coin and been just as satisfied with the result. I’m sure there will be fans that will be annoyed that I chose the way I did, and the same would be true if I’d chosen to rank Lafleur ahead of Beliveau.
Beliveau didn’t quite hit the same highs as Lafleur did during his career, but then again he played in a lower scoring era where nobody scored 100 points in a season. Even Gordie Howe didn’t achieve the feat until the 1968-69 season. Though he never reached 100 points in a season, Beliveau’s scoring consistency during his career – one spent entirely with the Montreal Canadiens – was remarkable. Even in his final season with the club, at age 39, the French Canadian star notched 76 points in 70 games played.
Beliveau finished with 507 goals, 1,219 points, an Art Ross, two Hart Trophies and a Conn Smythe. His most important stat by far, however, is the ten Stanley Cups he won as a player, a total only exceeded by former teammate Henri Richard’s 11.
14 – BOBBY HULL
Sorry Brett, but your dad was better. Yes, in the case of the Hull family the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, but while the apple was one of the deadliest snipers in NHL history the tree was the more complete player, capable of terrorizing opposing players with his incredible skating (he wasn’t called the Golden Jet for nuthin’), his blistering slap shot, and his fearsome strength.
Like son Brett, Bobby Hull’s first couple of seasons were rather modest in comparison to what was to come. In his third season he finally hit his stride, turning on the red light a league-leading 39 times. He scored 31 the following year, and followed that up with 14 points in 12 games to help the Blackhawks win their first Stanley Cup since the 30s.
In 1961-62 Hull became just the third member of an elite club, joining Rocket Richard and Boom Boom Geoffrion as the only players to score 50 goals in a single season. He went on to better the mark a few seasons later, setting a new NHL record with 54 goals. He topped that three seasons later, scoring 58, a record that stood until Phil Esposito finally shattered it with 76 in the 1970-71 season.
Altogether Hull hit the 50 goal mark on five separate occasions, and wound up with 610 goals overall in his Hall of Fame career, an extremely lofty total compared to his contemporaries. His career total could have been much higher, too, had he not accepted an offer to play for the rival WHA’s Winnipeg Jets while still in the prime of his career. He scored 303 more goals in the WHA, and while he certainly wouldn’t have reached that lofty total shooting against NHL goaltenders, it certainly isn’t out of the realm of possibility that he would have surpassed Gordie Howe’s career mark of 801 goals had he played his whole career in the NHL.
13 – DOUG HARVEY
Bobby Orr might be the greatest offensive defenseman of all time, but he wasn’t the first blueliner to provide the engine for his team’s offensive attack. Harvey was a dominant puck-rushing d-man who was Mr. Everything for the powerful Habs teams of the 1950s.
Not only was he an offensive star, but he was a tenacious checker as well, excelling at both ends of the ice. Harvey was selected to the All Star team 11 consecutive years, including 10 times on the first team. He all but owned the Norris Trophy during the prime of his career, winning the award seven times over an eight year span, a total that stood as an NHL record until Orr won eight.
In all Harvey finished with 88 goals and 540 points, and while those may seem like modest totals compared to Ray Bourque’s 410 goals and 1,579 points the two played in very different eras and Harvey’s numbers are every bit as impressive when stacked up against his peers of the day.
12 – PHIL ESPOSITO
When Wayne Gretzky started obliterating long-standing NHL records in the 1980s, it seemed like something we’d never seen before, but that wasn’t exactly the case. In the early 1970s a brash Boston Bruins’ center by the name of Phil Esposito absolutely crushed the single season goal and point marks, scoring 76 goals and adding 76 assists to registering a 152 point season.
Espo would go on to prove his big season was no fluke, registering at least 127 points in each of the next four seasons and scoring 66,55,68 and 61 goals respectively over those campaigns. He continued that torrid scoring in the playoffs as well, helping the Bruins win a Stanley Cup in 1970 and again in 1972.
Esposito might not have had the flash of his superstar teammate, Bobby Orr, but he had an unparalleled nose for the net, and his ability to arrive at the net the same time the puck did was uncanny. Many of his goals might not have been pretty, but it was his brains, not his finesse that allowed him to score at such a prolific rate.
By the time he retired Esposito had amassed 717 goals and 1,590 points, totals at the time put him behind only Gordie Howe in both categories. He’s since been passed by a few stars that feasted on goalies in the high-scoring 80s and early 90s, but still sits in the top 10 in both categories even after all this time.
11 – NICKLAS LIDSTROM
I struggled with the decision of who I wanted to list as the second greatest defenseman of all time (I’ll let you guess who is number one). A hairs-breadth separated Doug Harvey and Nicklas Lidstrom for me, and perhaps the fact that I got to watch Lidstrom for his entire brilliant career while having to rank Harvey based only on the accounts of those who saw him long ago played a factor. Such is the nature of subjective lists, I guess.
That said, I definitely don’t think anyone can claim it’s ridiculous to rank Nicklas Lidstrom as the 11th best hockey player of all time. Lidstrom patrolled the blueline with an economy unmatched by anyone in the history of the sport. His positioning was damn near perfect most nights, executing gap control and defending with his stick with a robotic efficiency that must have driven his opponents absolutely nuts.
Yzerman, Fedorov, Datsyuk and Zetterberg were all marvelous players, but there were many nights that the less-heralded Lidstrom was the best player on the ice, and his dependability on the back end was a big reason the Wings were able to feel confident taking chances in the offensive zone.
Despite receiving less fanfare than Detroit’s flashy forwards, Lidstrom’s defensive prowess certainly did not go unnoticed by those charged with voting for the Norris Trophy winner. Lidstrom won the award seven times in his career, tying Doug Harvey for the most ever. He also added a Conn Smythe, and four Stanley Cup rings for good measure.
10 – ALEX OVECHKIN
When Wayne Gretzky retired back in 1999 it seemed inconceivable that any of his major career statistical records (894 goals, 1,963 assists, 2,857 points) would be ever be challenged. At that point we were smack-dab in the middle of the Dead Puck Era, with goalies like Dominik Hasek, Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy shutting the door on the few shooters who managed to battle their way through the neutral zone trap and all the clutching and grabbing that was prevalent in the game at that point.
Fast forward just over two decades later, and while Gretzky’s career assists and points mark may still be safe, his goal record is definitely in jeopardy. In 2005-06, following the lockout year the NHL was blessed with the arrival of the two greatest superstars of the new century: Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. Ever since their arrival on the NHL stage hockey fans have been treated to a display of skill not seen since Gretzky and Lemieux were in their primes. Since day one the debate has raged over which of these two superstars are better, with no clear winner decided. However, one thing is for certain: Ovechkin is definitely the deadlier sniper.
Ovie set the league on fire in his rookie year, using his size, speed, punishing physical play, his often overlooked stick-handling ability, and his absolutely wicked shot to torch opposing squads. He lit the lamp 52 times in his first year, and totaled 106 points, a stat line that earned him Rookie of the Year honors ahead of rival Sidney Crosby.
Over the years Ovechkin has continued to score at a rate not seen in decades, He has already eclipsed the 50 goal plateau on eight separate occasions, including a career-high 65 snipes in his third season. He has eight Rocket Richard Trophies as the league’s leading goal scorer, three Hart Trophies, a Conn Smythe Trophy, and even an Art Ross in his collection. For years the only thing missing from his NHL resume was a Stanley Cup ring, but in 2018 Ovechkin finally managed to claim the ultimate prize, finally silencing doubters who asserted he didn’t have what it took to lead his team to glory.
Perhaps the most attribute Ovechkin possesses is his ability to completely disregard Father Time. At 34 years of age he shows no signs of slowing down, and at the time of this writing is currently tied for the league-lead in goals with 48. With 706 goals in his career, he sits just 188 shy of Gretzky’s all-time mark. Providing he isn’t hampered by injuries in the next few years it is almost a certainty he will own the all-time goal scoring record by the time his amazing career comes to a close.
9 – SIDNEY CROSBY
It is appropriate that Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin wind up back to back on this list of the best NHL players of all time. The two have been engaged in a battle for supremacy since they entered the league as rookies together in 2005. Readers might be surprised to find two active players within the top 10 of all time, but given the extraordinary accomplishments of these two gentleman it would hardly be honest to rank them any lower.
Crosby’s game is vastly different from his Russian rival’s. Where Ovechkin has a shoot first mentality, Crosby is more of a natural playmaker, and his vision on the ice is as good as anyone in the history of the game, including Wayne Gretzky. Crosby, like Gretzky before him, possesses the rare ability to make every one of his teammates better, even turning third and fourth line grinders into goal scorers if they are lucky enough to wind up on a line with him.
Fair or not, the knock against Ovechkin for most of his career was that he was incapable of leading his team when times got tough in the playoffs. That was never a question with Crosby. It only took Sid the Kid three seasons to reach his first Stanley Cup Final, and though he didn’t win it all that year he was back the following season to capture hockey’s ultimate prize. Since then he’s gone on to captain the Pens to two more Stanley Cups, earning back to back Conn Smythe Trophies in 2016 and 2017.
Though Crosby’s individual trophy case might not be quite as full as Ovie’s he has earned his fair share of hardware over the years, with two Art Ross Trophies, two Harts and two Rocket Richards to go along with his Conn Smythes and his Stanley Cup rings. And he would certainly have more individual awards had he not suffered from severe injuries for a couple of years in the absolute prime of his career.
8 – JAROMIR JAGR
The Pittsburgh Penguins of the early 1990s were an almost unstoppable juggernaut. Little wonder, considering they had (in my opinion, anways) two of the top eight best hockey players of all time on their roster. No, I don’t think a spoiler alert is necessary. We all know that Mario Lemieux will be making an appearance on this list.
The 1990 NHL Entry Draft was absolutely loaded with talent, yet as good as Owen Nolan, Peter Nedved, Keith Primeau and Mike Ricci were, the NHL scouts and GMs that selected those players definitely dropped the ball as each of them passed over Jaromir Jagr to do so.
The term “Human Highlight Reel” gets thrown around loosely at times when describing NHL stars, but perhaps no player in the history of game was more deserving of that particular moniker than Jaromir Jagr. Right from his first season Jagr electrified fans with his incredible stick-handling skills. Every time he got the puck in the offensive zone fans got to their feet in anticipation of seeing more of the young phenom’s offensive wizardry. On many nights, it was Jagr, not Lemieux who led the highlight pack, no mean feat considering Lemieux’s sublime skill set.
It is no coincidence that the in the first two years of Jagr’s career the Pens won their first two Stanley Cups in the history of the franchise. As good as Mario Lemieux was he couldn’t carry the mail all by himself, particularly when opposing teams could focus all their defensive efforts on shutting him down. With the arrival of Jagr the Pens finally had a second powerful weapon in the arsenal, taking pressure off Lemieux as teams scrambled to try and stop the dual threat the pair presented.
Jagr’s offensive numbers continued to surge season after season, and in the 1994-95 strike-shortened season he led the league in scoring, notching 70 points in just 48 games. The following year his offensive numbers were eye-popping as Jagr scored 62 goals and put up 149 points for the Pens. He continued to be a dominant offensive force for several more seasons, winning the scoring title a total of five times and earning a Hart Trophy.
After 11 seasons with the Pens Jagr was ready to move on to greener pastures. He explored a lot of different pastures over the remainder of his career, including suiting up for the Washington Capitals, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Dallas Stars, Boston Bruins, New Jersey Devils, Florida Panthers and finally the Calgary Flames. Quite a grand tour made even more impressive considering he took a three hiatus from the NHL in the middle of it.
Jagr continued to shine even as he aged, putting up impressive numbers and serving as a mentor for burgeoning stars on the teams he played for. When his NHL career finally came to a close Jagr’s career point total of 1,921 put him behind only Wayne Gretzky on the all-time list.
Want to see Jagr at his absolute best? Check out these top 10 Jaromir Jagr highlights:https://www.youtube.com/embed/hxGOSyFQets?feature=oembed&wmode=opaque
7 – STEVE YZERMAN
When it comes to the highest single season point totals in NHL history two men dominate the list: Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. However, if you look down the list to find the highest total in league history by someone other than those two gentlemen you will find none other than Steve Yzerman leading the pack.
Yzerman was an absolute beast on the offensive side of the puck in the 1988-89 season, scoring 65 goals and adding 90 assists for 155 points. That year marked the second of six straight seasons that Yzerman scored over 100 points for the Wings.
Despite Yzerman’s prodigious offensive efforts the Red Wings continued to struggle in the standings. To be fair to Yzerman he didn’t have much help at the time, but his game was also one-dimensional, and he could often be a defensive liability which ultimately negated his offensive contributions on many nights. But Yzerman was a determined competitor and a student of the game, and he worked tireless to become a complete two-way player that could be counted on not only to generate offense, but be defensively sound as well.
That commitment really started to bear fruit in the latter of the 1990s. Yzerman’s offensive numbers tailed off, but he was without doubt a better overall player, and his commitment to playing a 200 foot game helped turn the Wings of that time into one of the best NHL teams of all time.
Yzerman ultimately captained the Wings to three Stanley Cups, winning a Conn Smythe in 1998. His commitment to the defensive side of the game was recognized in 2000 when Yzerman took home the Selke as the NHL’s best defensive forward. Yzerman played every one of the 1,514 games of his marvelous career with the Detroit Red Wings, finishing with 692 goals and 1,755 points.
6 – MARK MESSIER
There have been many great leaders over the 100+ year history of the NHL. Greats like Eddie Shore, Jean Beliveau, Ted Lindsay and Bobby Clarke willed their teams to victory on a nightly basis, going above and beyond on and off the rink to ensure their respective franchises had the best chance to succeed. As inspiring as those gentlemen were there is only one clear choice when discussing the greatest leader in NHL history: Mark Messier.
Like all the other stars of the 1980s Edmonton Oilers, Messier started his career in enormous shadow cast by Wayne Gretzky. Gretzky wore the C for most of the pair’s time together, but despite not having the official title of captain it was Messier that often led by example on any given night.
The shocking 1988 trade that sent Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings was an understandably sad day for the Edmonton Oilers, and most particularly Mark Messier, Gretzky’s closest friend. But that fateful trade finally allowed Messier to step out of the enormous shadow of his former teammate, and into the spotlight for the first time. Only then did it become readily apparent just how great a leader Messier really was.
The man called The Moose led the Oilers to their fifth Stanley Cup – their first without Gretzky – in 1990, proving he and the rest of the club could win without The Great One. However, it wasn’t until Messier himself was traded to the New York Rangers that he entered the conversation as the greatest leader in hockey history. Messier made an immediate impact on his new club, scoring over 100 points for the sixth time in his career, and winning both the Hart and the Lester B. Pearson Trophies.
Messier’s status as the league’s greatest captain was cemented in 1994 when he led the Rangers to their first Stanley Cup championship in 54 years. He carved himself in hockey lore in the semi-finals that year when, with his club down 3-2 in the series against the New Jersey Devils and facing elimination, Messier put his reputation as a leader on the line, guaranteeing victory in game six. Messier, as he did so often in his Hall of Fame career, delivered in that historic game, scoring a hat trick to help his club stave elimination. As we all know the Rangers went on to win the series and then the Stanley Cup.
Though he didn’t put up the heady single season stats that Gretzky or Lemieux did, Messier was a prolific scorer for a long time, and his 1,887 career points currently put him fourth all time behind only Gretzky, Gordie Howe and Jaromir Jagr.
5 – MAURICE RICHARD
When I set out to rank the greatest hockey players of all time I knew that the list was going to feature several Montreal Canadiens legends. After all, the team has been around for over a hundred years and has won more Stanley Cups (by far) than any other franchise. Lafleur, Robinson, Harvey, Beliveau and Morenz were all spectacular players that dominated in their respective eras. However, when it comes to naming the greatest Montreal Canadien of all time, there really is only one choice: The Rocket.
Howie Morenz may have been the NHL’s first superstar, but Maurice Richard was its first legend. A fiery competitor who could score goals like no one before him, and few since, Richard dominated his era, standing above his contemporaries by a wide margin, much the same way Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky did in subsequent decades.
Richard had a hunger to score goals that perhaps only Alex Ovechkin has managed to match in the history of the game, and that hunger, combined with his speed and his shot allowed him to rewrite the NHL goal-scoring record book.
He scored 32 or more goals in nine separate seasons, modest stats perhaps compared to those who played in the 80s, but absolutely staggering for his time. Of course, the best of these seasons came in 1944-45 when Richard had a season for the ages, becoming the first player to score 50 goals in a single season, and accomplishing the feat in exactly 50 games. It was a record that stood for more than three decades, before Mike Bossy finally matched it in the 1980-81 season. Wayne Gretzky went on to beat the mark (50 goals in 39 games), but bear in mind that Bossy and Gretzky played in a much more wide open, higher scoring era.
Richard went on to score an NHL record 544 career goals in just 978 games. Amazingly, he only won a single Hart Trophy in his entire career, and not even in the year he scored 50 in 50! However, I’m sure he took plenty of solace in his eight Stanley Cup championships.
4 – GORDIE HOWE
With a nickname like Mr. Hockey it was obviously never a question whether Gordie Howe would appear on this list. The only question was how high would he place? In my opinion the top four gentlemen on this list could easily be ranked in any order, and compelling arguments could be made for any one of them for the title of the best NHL hockey player of all time. I suspect I will catch plenty of heat in the comments for putting Gordie Howe in the number four spot, but what fun would lists like this be if they didn’t a little controversy.
If Maurice RIchard was the NHL’s first legend, then Gordie Howe was certainly the second. He was a dominant player who could play whatever game an opponent chose to throw at him, beating his foes on the score sheet or in the corners.
Howe improved steadily over his first four NHL campaigns, but in year five he really asserted himself as the game’s premier player. That year he scored 43 goals and posted 86 points en route to his first of four straight Art Ross Trophies. In all, he led the league in scoring six different times, and matched that with six Hart Trophies. Both totals were NHL records at the time of his retirement and only Wayne Gretzky has managed to surpass those totals since.
Howe played in an NHL record 1,767 career games, a staggering number, especially considering he spent six seasons in the rival WHA in the twilight of his career. Even more amazing was Howe’s return to the NHL when he joined the Hartford Whalers for the 1979-80 season, joining sons Mark and Marty on the squad. Howe, who turned 52 during the course of that season – another NHL record – managed to score 15 goals and 41 points that year. Hard to fathom!
Over his career Howe led the Wings to four Stanley Cup championships and when he retired in 1980 he was the all-time career leader in goals with 801, assists with 1,049 and points with 1,850.
3 – MARIO LEMIEUX
If this was a list of the most skilled NHL players of all time Mario the Magnificent would absolutely be at the top. I still remember watching Gretzky absolutely shred other teams in the early 1980s and thinking to myself that there would never be another player capable of dominating his peers like The Great One did. It only took a few years before that particular assertion was proven false.
Leading up to Lemieux’s draft year the Pittsburgh Penguins and the New Jersey Devils were engaged in a turtle derby, hoping to finish last overall and thus earn the coveted number one draft pick that year. Lemieux was a prize that had never been available in an NHL draft before. In his final year of junior Lemieux had scored 133 goals and 282 points for Laval. Little wonder that teams were willing to tank to try and get him on their roster.
Ultimately it was the Pens who ended up finishing last. To no one’s surprise they took Lemieux with the first overall pick, and the rest is history. Lemieux made a massive impact on the franchise from his very first shift when he stole the puck from future Hall-of-Fame-defenseman Ray Bourque and beat Bruins’ goalie Pete Peters on a breakaway for his first of many, many highlight reel goals.
Lemieux finished with 100 points in 73 games that year, winning the Calder and serving notice to Wayne Gretzky that he would be a force to be reckoned with in the NHL scoring race in the years to come. It didn’t take him long to wrest the Art Ross away from Gretzky, who’d had a stranglehold on the trophy since his sophomore season. In just his fourth year in the NHL Lemieux put up 168 points, winning both the Art Ross and the Hart that year. Lemieux followed that amazing up with an even better one, scoring 85 goals, 199 points and nabbing the Art Ross and Hart for the second straight year.
Who knows what offensive numbers Lemieux might have put up had he remained healthy, but a bad back and a battle with Hodgkin’s Disease limited his time on the ice from that point forward. Still, whenever he was in the Penguins’ lineup he continued at a prolific rate, and when he finally got the help of a strong supporting cast with players like Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis, Mark Recchi, Paul Coffey and Bryan Trottier joining the club, Lemieux was finally able to lead the Pens to Stanley Cup glory.
Lemieux was a beast in the playoffs in 1991 and 1992, scoring 78 points in just 38 games over that span, and winning the Conn Smythe and the Stanley Cup in both years. He played four more partial seasons after that, continuing to put up ridiculous numbers, but decided to step away from the game following the 1996-97 season due to his ongoing health woes.
Lemieux spent the better part of three and a half years in retirement number one before his passion to play got the better of him, and he returned to tremendous fanfare partway through the 2000-01 season. It was as though he’d never left, with Lemieux notching 76 in just 43 games that year.
Unfortunately for Mario the time hadn’t healed all wounds and the remainder of his career saw him miss more games than he played. He stuck around until early on in the 2005-06, just long enough to pass the torch to a rookie by the name of Sidney Crosby.
2 – BOBBY ORR
There were a lot of criteria that went into determining my ranking of the best hockey players of all time, and one of those factors was longevity. Many of the players you see occupying high spots on this list enjoyed long, productive careers. Gordie Howe, Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis and Mark Messier were very good players for a very long time. That being said, in the end, pure talent carried much heavier weight than career games played. Case in point, I’ve got Mario Lemieux and Bobby Orr in the top three on this list, despite the fact that neither one of them, due to health issues, had particularly long careers.
The small amount of weight that I did give to longevity, however, almost certainly made the difference in the razor-thin margin by which Bobby Orr missed the number one spot.
Orr was far more than just a generational talent who electrified fans and dominated his opponents. He was a player who stood the game of hockey on its ear, introducing a style of game that had never been seen before. Yes, Doug Harvey was a great, puck-rushing defenseman, but Orr surpassed the pioneering Habs’ blueliner by an order of magnitude when it came to offensive dominance from the back end.
Orr pretty much owned the puck on any given shift, and his speed, agility and stick-handling prowess often made it appear as though he was a man competing against children. He was in his day, and still remains, the most dominant player in NHL history.
One needs look no further than the content of Orr’s trophy case to realize just how dominant he was. He won the Calder as rookie of the year, an NHL record eight straight Norris Trophies, two Conn Smythe Trophies (to go along with his two Stanley Cup rings), a Lester B. Pearson Trophy, and three Hart Trophies. Wait, I think I’m forgetting something. Oh yes, he also won two Art Ross Trophies. Yes, he led the league in scoring! Twice! As a defenseman! That’s a feat that no other d-man has ever achieved, and it is very likely that it won’t ever be achieved again, no matter how long the NHL remains in existence.
Ultimately bad knees ended Bobby Orr’s brilliant career, limiting him to just 657 regular season games. Despite that he still racked up 915 points, giving him a career scoring average of 1.39 points per game, one of the highest in league history at any position. His single season marks of 102 assists and 139 points are both NHL records for a defenseman, and his incredible plus/minus of +124 in the 1970-71 season remains an NHL record for any position to this day. Sadly, we can only wonder what heights Orr would have hit had he enjoyed a 20 year career with two good knees.
1 – WAYNE GRETZKY
So, if you’ve been reading – rather than skimming – this article, you’ll know that I’ve declared Mario Lemieux the most talented of all time and Bobby Orr the most dominant player of all time. However, when it came to naming the best hockey player of all time, all factors considered, Wayne Gretzky, in my mind, was the only logical choice.
The Great One served notice to the hockey world that he would be a force to be reckoned with way back in his Pee Wee hockey days, when he scored 378 goals in a single season.
Gretzky’s road to the NHL was far from orthodox. He wasn’t drafted by an NHL club as most of the other stars on this list were. Instead Gretzky signed a seven year personal services contract with Nelson Skalbania, who was the majority owner of the WHA’s Indianapolis Racers at the time. Gretzky’s tenure with the club ended after just eight games, however, when the financially strapped Skalbania sent Gretzky on to Peter Pocklington’s Edmonton Oilers (also a WHA club at the time) for the princely sum of $850,000. Gretzky played the remainder of the season with the Oilers, and finished with 110 points in 80 games split between the two clubs.
The following year the WHA folded, and a few of its franchises, including the Edmonton Oilers, were absorbed into the NHL. Gretzky’s first year in the NHL was a dominant one, and he lit the league up for 51 goals, and 137 points. Those 137 points were (and still are) the most ever for a first-year NHL player. However, because Gretzky had already played a year of pro hockey in the WHA he was ineligible to win the Calder Trophy. Instead, Ray Bourque capture Rookie of the Year honors instead thanks to that particular loophole. Gretzky also missed out on another major award that season. His 137 points tied him with Marcel Dionne for the league lead, but Dionne’s slightly higher goal total was the tie-breaker between the two, giving Dionne the Art Ross that year. Gretzky’s consolation prize wasn’t too bad though. He earned his first Hart Trophy, an award he went on to have a stranglehold on for the best part of the next decade.
Gretzky’s records and statistics are longer than my arm, so I will just list a few of the biggest highlights here:
A FEW OF WAYNE GRETZKY’S MOST AMAZING SINGLE SEASON RECORDS
- 92 goals
- 163 assists
- 215 points
- 50 goals in the first 39 game of a season
- 51 consecutive games with at least a point
A FEW OF WAYNE GRETZKY’S MOST AMAZING CAREER RECORDS
- 894 goals
- 1,963 assists
- 2,857 points
- 13 consecutive 100+ point seasons
- 50 hat tricks
LIST OF WAYNE GRETZKY’S CAREER TROPHIES
- 9 Hart Trophies
- 10 Art Ross Trophies
- 5 Lester B. Pearson Trophies
- 2 Conn Smythe Trophies
- 5 Lady Byng Memorial Trophies
- 4 Stanley Cups
Gretzky’s numbers speak for themselves. He was in another stratosphere compared to his peers, at least until a guy by the name of Mario came along. Gretzky is the only player to ever score 200 points in a single season, and he did it four times! His 2,857 career points put him more than 900 ahead of Jaromir Jagr who currently sits in second place with 1,921. Want an even more amazing fact? Even if Gretzky hadn’t scored a single goal in his entire career his 1,963 assists would still give him first place on the all-time point-scoring list. Absolutely mind-boggling.
There is so much more I could write this NHL legend, but I think you get the gist of why I rated him number one on this list. He is not just The Great One, he is The Greatest One of All Time.