Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

The Greatest Players In NHL History: Nos. 50-40

Mark Lennihan/AP Images
Mark Lennihan/AP Images

Hockey writers and podcasters Dave Lozo of Vice Sports, Sean “Down Goes Brown” McIndoe, and Greg Wyshynski of Puck Daddy have a new book called The 100 Greatest Players In NHL History (And Other Stuff): An Arbitrary Collection of Arbitrary Lists. They give their own ranking of the “NHL 100,” as well as additional lists like “The 100 NHL Players Who Sound Like Sex Things.”


In ranking the NHL’s top 100 greatest players, we were aware of two things. The first was that our list – created by rating players through several distinct categories – was immediately going to be better than the NHL’s own list, which will be released this weekend. This is because unlike the NHL, we actually rank the players, rather than list them alphabetically, because we don’t have to hold any professional athlete’s hand and explain why he’s less special than his friends are.

The second thing was that the modern era of the NHL is demonstrably better than previous eras. Today’s players are faster, stronger, better trained and better equipped than any other generation. Skaters have to fight through defensive systems and goalies that are better skilled, or certainly better coached, than they’ve ever been.

Only two of the top 50 seasons in goals-per-game happened since the 2005 lockout – and they were the two seasons that immediately followed it, and we all know how freaky those were. Making the playoffs is harder. Winning awards is harder. Surviving the grind is harder.

You can honor the past without being beholden to it. You can acknowledge an older era’s greatest players without overrating them due to their antiquity.

Here’s a chunk of our list. Enjoy!


Right Wing, 1991-2003

Vancouver Canucks, Florida Panthers, New York Rangers

When Pavel Bure made the Hockey Hall of Fame, I celebrated, because it was an example of the Room Full Of Old White Guys finally acknowledging that “Fame” was as prominent in the title of the building as “Hockey.” Bure was a sensational talent, a Russian rocket that seemed to be playing the game at a different, better speed than everyone else. He was the NHL’s first GIF-ready player, about a decade before the technology was ready for him.


What’s awesome about Bure is that he doesn’t just have the “Fame” component, but hockey one, too. Yes, his body of work was limited to 702 games and, yes, there were some valleys to go along with those massive peaks – which is why his “entertainment” rating was 9.67 and his consistency rating was just 5.67 – but there’s no denying his goal-scoring prowess. He had back-to-back 60-goal seasons from 1992-94, and then nearly matched the feat deep into the Dead Puck Era with the Florida Panthers in 1999-2001.

He’s fifth in career goals-per-game and 11th in career points-per-game. The sample size was limited. His impact on the game, and his imprint left on fans, was anything but. – GW



Center, 1983-2006

Detroit Red Wings

If you want to confuse a younger fan, tell him that there was a time that the Detroit Red Wings thought they couldn’t win a Cup with Steve Yzerman.


Then mention that they thought the answer might be to trade him for Alexei Yashin, and the deal almost went down.

That all really happened. And it’s part of what makes Yzerman’s career story arc one of the most fascinating in NHL history. He went from young superstar fighting for a share of the Gretzky/Lemieux spotlight to a victim of hockey’s favorite narrative, the Guy Who Just Can’t Win The Big One. Then he transformed into a two-way force who eventually won a Selke and three Stanley Cups. He retired as perhaps the most-respected player in the world, and to this day you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone with a bad word to say about him.


The lesson for you kids out there: Don’t trust narratives. Take them too far, and you start thinking Alexei Yashin is the answer to a problem that doesn’t exist. – SM


Center, 1988-2009

Quebec Nordiques, Colorado Avalanche

During the darkest days of the Nordiques as League laughingstock, the team had an (at the time) unprecedented three first-overall picks in a row in the late 80s and early 90s.


That’s the sort of haul that’s supposed to produce a franchise player.

But what fans didn’t realize at the time was that the franchise was already there.


Taken with the 15th pick in 1987, Sakic quickly emerged as the Nordiques’ leader and best player, and continued that role once the team headed to Colorado.

Fair or not, it was that move that allowed Sakic to truly break out as an acknowledged NHL superstar. He won the Conn Smythe in that first season, and followed that with a Hart Trophy and three first-team all-star picks while earning a reputation as the owner of one of the most dangerous wrist shots the League had ever seen.


But despite all that, the best game of his career may not have even come in NHL action, but rather in his four-point performance in the gold-medal game of the 2002 Olympics. – SM


Right wing, 1980-1998

Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, New York Rangers, Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, Colorado Avalanche


Kurri is always someone that has his career and numbers inexorably linked to Wayne Gretzky’s greatness, so maybe he doesn’t get the same adulation as other Hall of Famers.

But in the first two seasons Kurri spent in Edmonton after Gretzky was traded to the Kings, Kurri had 102 points and 93 points. In Gretzky’s final year in Edmonton, he had 96 points.


So while Kurri was a product of Gretzky, he showed he could still be a top-10 scorer without him. — DL


Defenseman, 1982-2004

Washington Capitals, St. Louis Blues, New Jersey Devils

Let’s begin by stating the obvious: Scott Stevens might not be on this list had he played in the Department of Player Safety era.


If he couldn’t punctuate his impeccable defensive game with those brutal headhunting hits; if he wasn’t synonymous with the iconic destruction of Slava Kozlov in 1995 or Eric Lindros in 2000, what would he have been?

But during his 22-year reign as one of the NHL’s premiere defensemen, this savagery was legal, and became part of his legend.


Stevens is best remembered as the captain and defensive rock of the Devils teams that won three Stanley Cups and four conference titles, but prior to that he was an offensive force in the 1980s with the Capitals: 429 points in 601 games, before signing with the Blues in 1990. He had two more strong offensive seasons with the Devils, scoring 78 points in 83 games in 1993-94, before pulling a Steve Yzerman and modulating his game into that of a defensive stalwart and team leader in his 30s – including the Conn Smythe in 2000.

He never won a Norris, however, thanks to his peers Bourque, Chelios and Coffey. But we’re sure Stevens accepted the consolation prize of three championships and being the source of waking nightmares for NHL skaters, picturing Stevens mouthing ‘you’re next’ with a sociopathic wink. – GW



Right Wing, 1929-1941

Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings, New York Americans

Here’s how much Charlie Conacher wanted the puck.

In 1932-33, in a hotel above Times Square, his teammate “Baldy” Cotton was loudly griping about the Maple Leafs not giving him enough shooting opportunities. According to author Bill Roche’s “The Hockey Book,” his Leafs teammate Conacher heard him proclaim that he was no longer going to pass the puck, tackled him through an open window and then dangled him 20 stories above Eighth Avenue, shouting “ARE YOU GONNA PASS THE PUCK?!” until he agreed to do so.


This mindset led to Conacher’s 324 points in 326 games for the Leafs during nine years, starring for Toronto and winning the Stanley Cup in 1932. He led the NHL in goals five times from 1930-36, and led it in points twice during that run. The only season he didn’t, he was felled by a broken collarbone.

At his peak, Conacher was one of the most dominant goal scorers in NHL history, with a firm grip on the top of the scoring ranks. And, luckily for “Baldy” Cotton, also his acrophobic teammate’s ankles. – GW



Left Wing, 1992-2014

Winnipeg Jets, Mighty Ducks of Anaheim/Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks, Colorado Avalanche


Selanne was one to don a lot of jerseys over his career, but very few will ever trump his numbers.

When he retired, you know what I was? Sad! Despite 684 goals and 1,457 points, he never won a Hart Trophy, probably because the voting process was rigged! He was the best player, a lot of people are telling me. Bigger and better than you’ve ever seen, OK? — DL



Defenseman, 1987-2006

New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins

As a Devils fan, Brian Leetch infuriated me. Guys like Messier and Kovalev were easy to ridicule – “bald asshole,” “flighty enigma” – but Leetch was one of the most well-rounded and consistently great athletes not only on the Rangers, but in New York sports.


Plus he was American. How do you mock that?

Leetch had 1,028 points in 1,205 NHL games, including 981 in 1,129 games with the Rangers. He won the Norris Trophy twice, won the Calder in 1989 and won Mark Messier’s Conn Smythe in 1994. He has the fifth highest points per game average (0.85) among defensemen with at least 1,000 games played. Defensively, he was small in stature but fundamentally sound.


Say what you will about his ranking here – and, begrudgingly, he’s ahead of Scott Stevens – I think we can all agree Brian Leetch is the best professional hockey player to ever emerge from Corpus Christi, Texas. – GW


Defenseman, 1955-1969

Chicago Black Hawks, Toronto Maple Leafs

Pierre Pilote was one of the best defenseman on the planet between 1959 and 1967.


Pierre Pirate is a character I’m workshopping that combines the personalities of Pierre McGuire and Pittsburgh Pirates fan Doc Emrick. Oh my!

Pilote won three straight Norris trophies between 1963 and 1966 and finished second in the voting the following two seasons. Pilote had 490 points during his career between 1955 and 1969 — the next closest defenseman in scoring was Tim Horton with 375.


You could say Pilote lifted the lid off Tim Horton’s numbers.

Oh my!

(Yes, his name isn’t pronounced like pilot but it’s still a good bit idea) — DL


Defenseman, 1981-2004

Calgary Flames, St. Louis Blues

It was the slap shot.

Long before Shea Weber or Zdeno Chara, there was Al MacInnis, owner of the most feared shot in the NHL. There had been other players who’d intimidated with their slap shot, like Brett Hull and “Boom Boom” Geoffrion. But MacInnis was one of the first defenseman to truly terrorize goaltenders with his bombs form the blue line. And he did it with a wooden stick.


MacInnis was more than just a scary shot; he was a Norris finalist six times, winning once, and won the Conn Smythe as a member of the 1989 Flames. But the slap shot was the trademark. This is the guy who once delayed the start of a game by shattering the end boards with a shot during warmup, so you can imagine what happened when the action got going for real.

Give him one of today’s modern flex sticks and send him out there for a few shifts, and the epidemic of shot-blocking would be over just about as quickly as players could say “I quit.” – SM



Defenseman, 1983-2010

Montreal Canadiens, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, Atlanta Thrashers

Here’s a fun game: If the Hockey Hall of Fame worked like the baseball version and inducted each player wearing the logo of the team with whom he was at his best, who would claim Chelios?


He established himself as a star with the Canadiens, winning his first Norris and Stanley Cup. He’d win two more Norris trophies in Chicago. And amazingly, despite joining the team at the age of 37, he’d play more seasons with the Red Wings than anyone else, winning two more Cups and earning first-team all-star honors at the age of 40.

(We can probably rule out his seven-game stint with the Thrashers in his final season.)


In all, Chelios was a first or second-team all-star seven times while appearing in more games than anyone else who ever played the position. And he did it all with a notorious mean streak and dependable two-way game. – SM

The 100 Greatest Players In NHL History (And Other Stuff): An Arbitrary Collection of Arbitrary Lists by Dave Lozo, Sean McIndoe and Greg Wyshynski is available for $5.99 (US) at,, iBooks and Kobo.