10) Alexander Ovechkin
Once considered the NHL’s best player and later its best goal-scorer, the Alexander Ovechkin of today has relinquished both of these titles. He is an incomparable fusion of speed, skill, tenacity and has long been one of the game’s most passionate contributors. Yet, Ovechkin seems mired in a downward spiral that continues to distinguish the player he is from the player he could be. Since leading the league in both points and goals in 2007–08 — with 112 and 65 respectively — Ovechkin’s point totals have dropped every season.
While Ovechkin is still one of the greatest talents the sport has seen in decades, his inability to adapt to the game as it has adapted to him has diminished his position as a contender for best in the world.
There is no denying Ovechkin still has the pedigree and the ability to return at any moment to reclaim his place among the elite. A winner of two Hart trophies as MVP, three Lester B. Pearson awards as player-voted MVP, one scoring title and two ‘Rocket’ Richard trophies for most goals, Ovechkin will always be in the conversation of premier players. It is unclear as to whether or not Ovechkin will continue to fade or whether he will conquer his struggles, adapt to his environment and lead his team to a Stanley Cup.
9) Zdeno Chara
An intimidating physical presence, a high-level understanding of the game, a long reach to close in on opposing players and a booming shot that demands respect are qualities required to be considered the NHL’s best defenseman. Standing at six-foot-nine, 255 pounds, Zdeno Chara possesses all of these characteristics and has learned —over his 15 seasons in the league — how to use them all to their full potential.
Combining his hulking physical presence, ridiculously long reach and excellent hockey intelligence, Chara is consistently charged with shutting down the league’s top talents and does so quite successfully. More than just a defensive machine, Big Z also possesses the hardest shot in the league — clocking in at an NHL-record 108.8 miles per hour — and has recorded at least 40 points for the last eight seasons. Such qualities won Chara the Norris trophy in 2009 as the league’s best defenseman, as well as nominations the past two seasons and a Stanley Cup championship in 2011. Considered the most feared defender in the league, Chara’s name won’t be dropped from the Norris conversation any time soon.
8) Ilya Kovalchuk
(New Jersey Devils)
Ilya Kovalchuk may be one of the NHL’s most underrated talents. Spending the majority of his career skating for the now defunct Atlanta Thrashers, Kovalchuk’s remarkably consistent scoring has remained somewhat in the dark, compared to his contemporaries of more prominent media markets. The fact remains, however, that Kovalchuk can fill the net, and has done so often, posting over 50 goals twice in his career, over 40 goals three times and no fewer than 30 since his rookie year.
Kovalchuk has ranked among the top-10 in goals in nine of his 11 seasons, culminating in a ‘Rocket’ Richard trophy after tying for the league lead in goal scoring in 2003–04. Simply put, Kovalchuk is undoubtedly one of the game’s most feared scorers but he’s also one of its most consistent performers. This consistency grants Kovalchuk a place among the league’s top tier. With two World Championship golds and a trip to the Stanley Cup finals in 2011–12, Kovalchuk’s steadiness elevates his team every time he steps on the ice.
7) John Tavares
(New York Islanders)
The view that the New York Islanders are perennial NHL basement dwellers seems to be quickly changing as John Tavares — drafted first overall in 2009 — is beginning to realize his potential.
Despite playing with an unproductive supporting cast, Tavares has consistently pushed forward and progressed, posting higher point totals each year en route to a place among the NHL’s top-10 scorers. Tavares hasn’t slowed down this year, as he’s posting the best points-per-game average of his career thus far, and sits third for goals scored. Tavares has been dominant for the Islanders as of late, and considering his past accomplishments, his true potential is frightening.
The youngest player to ever be drafted into the Ontario Hockey League, Tavares went on to break the league’s record for most goals scored, as well as Wayne Gretzky’s record for most goals scored in a single season. Following this, he led Canada to a World Junior Championship gold medals in 2009, and was named the tournament’s top forward and MVP in the process. His promise is as undeniable as his skill, and he doesn’t seem ready to slow down any time soon. Tavares will keep rising, bringing the Islanders along for the ride.
6) Claude Giroux
Unlike most other members of this list, Claude Giroux did not hit the ground running upon his entrance into the league, starting his career with Philadelphia’s AHL affiliate. However, the fact that Giroux was forced to endure and work his way up through the ranks is perhaps a fitting microcosm of his approach to the game as a whole. A stunning combination of slick skating, elite playmaking abilities and the hard-nosed physical edge expected of the ‘Broad Street Bullies,’ Giroux was quickly put in the NHL spotlight after breaking out in the 2009–10 postseason, during which he put up 21 points to help land the Flyers a spot in the Stanley Cup finals.
Giroux’s scoring has ramped up significantly in recent seasons, from 76 points in 2010–11 to 93 last season, more than triple the points from his rookie year.
Pulling himself up with a rugged dedication to the game, Giroux has risen from a somewhat promising prospect to one of hockey’s most prolific playmakers and respected leaders. While Giroux may compare to his fellow NHL elite in terms of offensive skill, the toughness he brings to the table every shift renders him a player unlike any of his contemporaries. He is the epitome of the Flyers’s ideals, and, as the squad’s new captain, is poised to continue climbing to the league’s highest heights.
5) Jonathan Toews
To truly understand what it means to be elite in the NHL, look beyond basic statistical analysis and examine intangibles that foster greatness, like leadership, determination, grit and a knack for stepping up with a dazzling play when it’s needed most. Jonathan Toews embodies these intangibles, which reserves him a spot in the league’s top-10. While Toews’s numbers are not the most striking, his skill has been evident from the very beginning — his first NHL goal came on his first shot, in his first game, kicking off a 10-game point streak to start his career. Toews’s true value lies in his iron-jawed focus and commitment to the game.
One would be hard-pressed to find Toews flashing a smile on the bench which has earned him the nickname ‘Captain Serious’. This business-like attitude was evident when Toews led his teams to two World Junior Championships gold medals a World Championship gold medals, a Stanley Cup — winning the Conn Smythe trophy as the playoff MVP — and an Olympic gold medal in Vancouver, where he was voted best forward. Success doesn’t lie and Toews’s six-NHL seasons have been undeniably successful thus far.
4) Pavel Datsyuk
After one look through Pavel Datsyuk’s highlight reel, it isn’t difficult to understand where he ranks among hockey’s elite. Widely considered the best stick-handler in the league, Datsyuk presents a threat to goaltenders every time he steps on the ice. Unlike most of the league’s best, however, his threat stretches 200-feet, as he is widely considered the best two-way forward in the game.
Datsyuk is perhaps the greatest version of what a two-way forward can be — including some of the most creative shootout tallies of recent years and capturing three Selke trophies as the league’s best defensive forward. He is a dual force — one who often ranks among the top of the league in takeaways, while remaining one of the most feared opponents to slow down one-on-one. Datsyuk can cause havoc on both ends of the ice, and this responsible play has led him to two Stanley Cups with Detroit and a recent World Championships gold for Russia.
Datsyuk’s high level of skill, along with an almost absurdly humble demeanor — he is a four-time Lady Byng Memorial trophy recipient for sportsmanlike play — allow Datsyuk to be among the most respected in the league today by both players and fans alike.
3) Steven Stamkos
(Tampa Bay Lightning)
Only in the fifth season of his career, Steven Stamkos is already the most feared sniper in the NHL, scoring a combined 156 goals over the last three seasons — the most of any active player in the league. It isn’t simply the accumulation of goals that makes up Stamkos’s talent, but rather the versatility and consistency with which he fills the net. Stamkos can strike with his signature shot, a seemingly unstoppable one-timer from the top of the left circle, or he can slip into the slot to tally, use his tremendous hand-eye co-ordination to connect on the goal-line or catch defence off-guard by sniping from his off-wing.
Stamkos’s scoring prowess rose to unprecedented levels last season, as he led the league with a tally of 60 goals — a feat accomplished only one other time in the last 15 years — to capture his second Maurice Richard trophy as the league’s top goal scorer. More impressive than the sum of Stamkos’s goals was that he finished tied for the league lead with 12 game-winning goals, scoring an NHL-record five overtime goals in the process. At only 23, Stamkos’s legacy as the league’s most lethal scorer will only grow over the next decade of his career.
2) Evgeni Malkin
Evgeni Malkin may be the most potent blend of natural skill and physical dominance the league has seen since Mario Lemieux donned Pittsburgh black and gold. While most of the spotlight has been on Crosby, Malkin has carved out an undeniably impressive career himself, notably as the MVP of Pittsburgh’s championship run in 2009–10.
Malkin’s play in recent years, however, has split the spotlight decidedly in two, after he rose to historic heights when his team needed it most — with Crosby sidelined by injury. Coming off a knee surgery and an arduous rehabilitation process, Malkin went on to carry out one of the single greatest seasons in the sport’s history, leading the league in points to become the only player in the last decade to win the scoring title more than once, capturing the vote as league MVP, and subsequently leading Russia to a World Championships gold medal — where he won the tournament’s scoring title and MVP. He become the only player other than Wayne Gretzky to win an NHL and IIHF scoring title in the same season. This knack for stepping up when it counts, combined with undeniable skill, has allowed Malkin to flourish in the top echelon of the league.
1) Sidney Crosby
Hailed as the saviour of the sport upon his entrance into the league, Sidney Crosby’s achievements have surpassed even the lofty expectations placed on him at the onset of his career. Still only 25 years old and just beginning to approach his prime, Crosby has already accumulated seemingly every accolade available — an Art Ross trophy, Hart trophy, Maurice Richard trophy, a Stanley Cup and scoring the winning goal in the gold medal game during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics — and has cemented himself as one of the greatest to ever play the game.
His stature as the league’s best stems not from his statistical dominance or well-stocked trophy case alone but rather the underlying force that informs these achievements. It is Crosby’s unique ability to continuously adapt and grow his game coupled with his incomparable work ethic that has allowed him to rise uncontested to the throne as the sport’s premier player. He has grown from one of the game’s most skilled facilitators to one of its most lethal scorers, all while remaining a responsible defensive pillar and a respected leader. Hampered by injury the last two seasons, Crosby has returned this year in full force, displaying a resiliency that only adds to his already impressive legacy.