Sports

We Ranked the Greatest NHL Players of the Past 50 Years

This is the first installment of our two-part series, where we ranked the 67 greatest players of the NHL's post-expansion era.
January 25, 2017, 7:15pm
Illustration by Ben Ruby/VICE

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.

The NHL recently named its top 33 players from 1917-1966, the first 50 years in league history, with the rest of the top 100 to come from the next 50 years. It's tough to predict who will all end up on the list, but the NHL let it be known that very few current players will hear their name called.

That sounds a bit off to me for several reasons, especially since we're currently watching the most talented generation of hockey players in history, with the highest volume of elite-level stars. There's a tendency to overestimate players from the 70s and 80s due to the level of goal scoring back then, though two big reasons those years were high-scoring eras is that goaltenders were not nearly as technically advanced as players at other positions, and the depth of the league in general was worse, allowing great players to stand out more.

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Using era adjustments, we can even the playing field a little bit to show how players stand out from the actual eras they played in, which can inform us on how to rank them.

READ MORE: The Most Exciting 21-And-Under Players in the NHL

With that information and more, we made our own list of the top 67 NHL players since expansion, carefully weighting peak dominance and longevity. Below are the players who most deserve the honour when the NHL announces the remaining guys at All-Star weekend.

We'll count down from No. 67 to No. 11. Part two will go up at VICE Sports later this week, where we'll rank the 10 greatest players of the last 50 years.

67. Bernie Parent

You'll notice a trend early in the list: the dominant goaltenders of the post-expansion but pre-save percentage era are down here. Parent was clearly dominant, winning two Stanley Cups, two Conn Smythe Trophies, and two Vezina Trophies, and was a five-time All-Star. We don't have information on his saves, though, so he makes it, but can't rank too high due to a lack of information.

66. Tony Esposito

A three-time Vezina Trophy winner and six-time All-Star, Esposito was a game changer for the Chicago Blackhawks, finishing in the top 10 in votes for the Hart Trophy seven times. But, like Parent, we don't have enough information on him beyond his accolades, so it would be tough to bump too many players down for him.

65. Patrice Bergeron

Bergeron is the lowest scorer on this list, but in many ways he is a defining player of his generation. He is the poster boy for the age of analytics, has won absolutely everything, and has been the most dominant two-way player in the NHL for years.

Surprise! Photo by Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

64. Ken Dryden

Like Parent and Esposito, we don't have enough data on Dryden to push him up the list, but his short and sweet career speaks for itself. Six Stanley Cups, five Vezina Trophies, and a Conn Smythe Trophy. He played on great teams, but it's tough to deny the five-time All-Star's dominance.

63. Borje Salming

A trailblazer for his country in the NHL, Salming was one of the best defencemen in the league while viciously and constantly getting attacked for being Swedish. He was clearly the Maple Leafs' best defenceman over the last 50 years.

62. Luc Robitaille

Lucky Luc was one of the greatest goal scorers of all time, combining a high level of play with a long career. Robitaille was an eight-time All-Star, and a demon on the powerplay, who may have played even longer if not for the 2004-05 lockout.

61. Curtis Joseph

Joseph was part of the goaltender revolution of the 1990s that helped refine the position from the generation before. He was particularly dominant as a St. Louis Blue, where he put up one of the best goalie seasons in history in 1992-93, stopping over 57 goals against above league average.

60. Ed Belfour

Belfour was right there with Joseph as an incredibly dominant goaltender throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, only Belfour was slightly better, helped by an excellent back half of his career, with four of his seven best seasons coming after the age of 30.

59. Erik Karlsson

The two-time Norris Trophy winner is still early in his career, and will climb far up this list by the time he retires. Age will eventually cut his production down, but right now the only defenceman in history with more era-adjusted points per game is Bobby Orr.

Karlsson and another all-time Sens great you might find on this list. Photo by Marc DesRosiers-USA Today Sports

58. Duncan Keith

He has plenty of career left, but with three Stanley Cups, two Norris Trophies, and a Conn Smythe Trophy, Keith has likely already assured himself of a spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame. He's been an elite point producer and play driver throughout his career, a focal point of the Blackhawks' current dynasty.

57. Theoren Fleury

Fleury was lightning in a bottle throughout his career, in good ways and bad. A small-statured dynamic scorer, who couldn't be contained during the clutch-and-grab era, Fleury was a precursor to the modern plethora of great smaller scorers in a league that leans toward size.

56. Peter Stastny

Stastny didn't join the NHL until he was 24 years old, and was immediately one of the most dominant players in the league for the Quebec Nordiques. He and his brothers Anton and Marian were also inspirations for a generation of NHL hopefuls from Slovakia.

55. Tomas Vokoun

Vokoun didn't have the longevity of some of his peers, but his prime was absolutely incredible. Only five goaltenders since 1983 have saved more goals above league average, and he did it on teams that were never considered contenders.

54. Serge Savard

Savard is the lowest-scoring defenceman on this list, but his list of accolades is tough to ignore. One of the best puck moving and shut down defencemen of his generation, Savard was a four-time All-Star, seven-time Stanley Cup winner, and won a Conn Smythe Trophy in 1969.

53. Rob Blake

A seven-time All-Star, and Norris Trophy winner, Rob Blake was a goal-scoring machine from the back end, but he was best known for his incredible hip-checking ability.

52. Brad Park

If you have to replace Orr, which isn't possible, the best you could ask for is Brad Park. Park never won a Norris, but he finished second in voting eight times, and third once, making the All-Star team nine times.

51. Jarome Iginla

Aside from Alex Ovechkin, Iginla is the best goal scorer in the NHL since the 2004-05 lockout. He's played his career in one of the lowest-scoring eras in NHL history, and done so with a level of consistent dominance very few players in history can match. Not to mention, Iginla left his mark internationally as well, factoring into two Olympic gold medals for Canada.

Now with the Avalanche and in his 20th season, Iginla was a goal-scoring machine with the Flames. Photo via Wiki Commons

50. Marian Hossa

Many will probably be surprised that Hossa makes this list, but his career is simply spectacular. Not only is Hossa one of the best point producers of all time, but he's also one of the best defensive wingers ever.

49. Zdeno Chara

Possibly the most unique specimen in the first 100 years of the NHL, the 6'9" Chara built a great career around his booming shot and smothering defensive play. Chara has finished in the top 10 in Norris voting 10 times in his career, winning it once.

A fearsome giant. Photo by Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

48. Scott Stevens

In today's game Stevens might be suspended as often as he scored—in his time he was the most feared player in the NHL because of his punishing physicality. He was no slouch offensively, either.

47. Guy Lapointe

A four-time All-Star, Lapointe was part of the Big Three during the most dominant decade in Montreal Canadiens history, finishing in the top five in Norris Trophy voting six times, and winning six Stanley Cups.

46. Sergei Zubov

Arguably the greatest Russian defenceman of all time, Zubov was a smooth operator who dominated games with his playmaking ability. He finished in the top 10 in Norris Trophy voting seven times, and made the All-Star Game three times.

READ MORE: Sergei Zubov Belongs in the Hall of Fame

45. Alexander Mogilny

One of the best goal scorers of his generation, Mogilny was the first Russian to defect from the former USSR to play in the NHL, and the first non-North American (along with Teemu Selanne) to ever lead the NHL in goals in a single season.

44. Phil Housley

The highest-scoring American defenceman ever, Housley changed the game for undersized D-men, proving you could be an elite two-way threat without size as a crutch. Houlsey was a top-10 finisher in Norris voting five times, and a seven-time All-Star.

43. Chris Chelios

Ageless and impossible to play against, Chelios was the ultimate perpetual line stepper. He put up his points during his prime, but what kept him effective late in his career was his defensive play, and his willingness to get dirty and not get caught. Chelios won three Norris Trophies, and was a top-10 finisher in voting nine other times.

He played forever. Well, until he was 48. Photo via Wiki Commons

42. Daniel Alfredsson

Alfredsson likely gets his due credit as an offensive player, but he was also an excellent play driver and two-way forward. There's a reason why the Ottawa Senators were at their best while he was in his prime.

41. Ilya Kovalchuk

After jetting home to Russia to play in the KHL, Kovalchuk hasn't been mentioned as much as the nearly era-defining scorer should be. Kovalchuk ranks 17th all time in era-adjusted scoring, and played most of his career surrounded by very little talent.

40. Paul Coffey

One of the most dominant offensive blueliners of all time, Paul Coffey won the Norris Trophy three times, and was top five in Norris voting seven other seasons, not to mention a 14-time All-Star. Coffey was the best rushing defenceman on his era, and in terms of full careers, is the closest the NHL has seen to Orr's gaudy production from the blueline.

39. Pavel Datsyuk

Injuries late in his career distracted from how great Datsyuk was. He was one of the most skilled players to ever lace up skates, and with three Selke Trophies, one of the best defensive forwards of all time.

The slick Red Wing great is now playing in the KHL. We miss him. Photo by Leon Halip-USA TODAY Sports

38. Mats Sundin

Underrated his whole career due to playing for a Maple Leafs team that could never seem to figure it out, Sundin was an unstoppable force at 6'5" at the centre position. Putting up incredible production with a rotating cast of mediocre wingers, Sundin was an eight-time All-Star, and probably the greatest Maple Leaf ever.

37. Henrik Lundqvist

Since he entered the NHL at 23 years old, no goaltender has been even close to Henrik Lundqvist's consistency or dominance. Somehow he has only won the Vezina a single time, but he has finished within the top six in votes nine other times.

It's been a forgettable year for Lundqvist, but he remains an all-time great. Photo by John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

36. Marcel Dionne

One of the highest-scoring players in league history, made even more impressive at his size, Dionne was an extraordinary goal scorer and playmaker who won the Ted Lindsay Award twice as the NHL's most outstanding player. Had Dionne played most of his career for better teams, his legacy might be even greater.

35. Denis Potvin

Potvin wasn't the biggest player, but he played like he was. An offensive dynamo, Potvin quarterbacked the Islanders' dynasty of four straight Stanley Cups, won the Norris Trophy three times, finished in the top 10 in votes six other times, and made the All-Star team nine times.

34. Roberto Luongo

Spending most of his career in South Florida has obscured how dominant Luongo has been throughout his career. That obscurity has kept him from ever winning a Vezina Trophy, even though during his career no other goaltender has a higher save percentage relative to league average. Luongo should go down as a first ballot Hall of Famer, and among the greatest goalies of all time.

He still has it. Twitter game is on point, too. Photo by Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

33. Larry Robinson

A 10-time All-Star and six-time Stanley Cup winner, Robinson was the perfect blend of offensive flash and physical dominance for the era he played in. Robinson won the Norris Trophy twice in his career, and finished top five in votes six other times. He was an absolute horse who was equal parts nimble and intimidating.

32. Guy Lafleur

Lafleur didn't have the longevity of some other elite players, possibly because of the heavy playoff minutes he logged, but his peak was astonishing. Two Hart Trophies, three Art Ross Trophies, three Ted Lindsay Awards, and five Stanley Cups decorate his trophy case.

31. Martin St. Louis

Told he was too small repeatedly as a young player, Martin St. Louis led the NHL in scoring twice (Including once at 37 years old), won a Hart Trophy, a Ted Lindsay Award, a Stanley Cup, and was a six-time All-Star in his career.

30. Stan Mikita

One of the most dominant players of his era, Mikita led the NHL in scoring four times, won the Hart Trophy twice, and finished within the top seven in Hart voting five other times.

29. Al MacInnis

Known for one of the most dangerous slap shots in hockey history, MacInnis was an even better playmaker, and though he only won a single Norris Trophy, he finished in the top eight in votes 10 other times, including five top-three finishes. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of MacInnis' career was how effective he was from beginning to end.

28. Martin Brodeur

The NHL record holder for basically every regular season record for goaltenders, Brodeur wasn't nearly as dominant relative to his era as some other goaltenders on this list, but he had unheard of longevity. Not many goaltenders play 70 games once, let alone 12 times, including 10 straight seasons.

27. Joe Thornton

Playing his entire career in one of the lowest-scoring eras in NHL history, Thornton has consistently been one of the league's top scorers, and most dominant two-way players. Thornton is the only player ever to win a Hart Trophy in a year where he was traded, and has finished top nine in Hart voting five other years.

He'd be even higher if we were ranking best-of-all-time athlete beards. Photo by Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

26. Scott Niedermayer

The prototypical puck moving defenseman, Niedermayer was one of the best pure skaters in the NHL's long history. Niedermayer only won a single Norris Trophy, but he finished in the top 10 in votes five other times.

25. Paul Kariya

With his career twice derailed by cheap shots, and his whole prime occurring in the clutch-and-grab era, it's difficult not to wonder what could have been with Paul Kariya. A goal-scoring machine with unbelievable speed before concussions took away some of his greatness, Kariya still managed to be one of the greatest players of his or any era.

24. Chris Pronger

The only defenceman since Bobby Orr to win a Hart Trophy, Chris Pronger was arguably the second-best defenceman of his generation. Capable of playing incredible minutes without seeing a drop in play, Pronger only won the Norris Trophy once, but finished in the top 10 in votes 10 other seasons.

23. Pavel Bure

Knee injuries shortened Bure's career considerably, but when he was playing, his mix of speed and puck-handling ability made him one of the most dangerous players to ever play. Over the last 50 years, only two players scored more often when adjusted for era.

22. Sergei Fedorov

Fedorov's offensive numbers aren't as gaudy as some of the other players this high on the list, but he is arguably the greatest defensive player ever, especially if you listen to Scotty Bowman. He also won a Hart Trophy in an era that had Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and Dominik Hasek dominating the game. That says something.

21. Eric Lindros

Injuries and a career confined almost entirely to the clutch-and-grab era have done Lindros' legacy a great disservice. His physical dominance over the sport in the 1990s can hardly be overestimated, to the point that even with his late career drop off, he remains a top-10 era-adjusted scorer on a per-game basis over the last 50 years.

READ MORE: Eric Lindros Was the Sports Hero Philadelphia Deserved

20. Brett Hull

The master of getting lost within defensive coverage only to snipe a one-timer top shelf, Hull's wicked shot and evasiveness despite relatively poor skating made him one of the greatest goal scorers ever.

19. Evgeni Malkin

His career isn't over, so the average numbers may drop, but Evgeni Malkin doesn't get half the credit he deserves while playing in Sidney Crosby's shadow. His production places him fifth in the last 50 years in era-adjusted points per game, which shouldn't be surprising given he's won a Hart Trophy, Conn Smythe, and Ted Lindsay Award while playing with the league's marquee name on his team.

The dominant centre would be the best player on most teams, just not his own. Photo by Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

18. Brian Leetch

Brian Leetch is the most dynamic defenceman the United States has ever produced, and was the Rangers' Conn Smythe winner when they busted their 54-year Stanley Cup drought. Leetch won the Norris Trophy twice, and finished in the top 10 in voting eight other seasons.

17. Phil Esposito

No one in NHL history was as good in front of the net as Phil Esposito. He wasn't that big at 6'1", but in his era he was impossible to move. That strength combined with playing with Orr helped him lead the league in scoring five times, take home two Hart Trophies, and finish within the top six in votes four other times.

16. Teemu Selanne

The Finnish Flash turned heads right away in the NHL, setting the single season rookie goal-scoring record, before going on to a Hall of Fame career. A 10-time All-Star, Selanne remained a legitimate first-line scorer until he was 42 years old.

15. Steve Yzerman

Everything you need to know about Steve Yzerman can be summed up by his 2001-02 season, where he could barely walk when he wasn't playing due to missing cartilage in his knees, yet he scored at a point-per-game pace, played a big role in winning Olympic gold for Canada, then put on a Conn Smythe-worthy playoff performance en route to a Stanley Cup. He was the ultimate competitor.

14. Mike Bossy

While his career was shortened by injuries, Mike Bossy was the most dominant goal scorer of his era not named Wayne Gretzky. Besides being a generational goal scorer, Bossy was also seen as a remarkably clean player, with three Lady Byng Trophies in his career, an award he never finished lower than seventh in voting for.

13. Peter Forsberg

When it comes to playmaking, over the last 50 years only Gretzky and Lemieux can boast that they're better at it than Peter Forsberg. He was the full package: deceptively powerful at just 6'0", shifty, and with speed to burn. He was a dominant two-way force who might have been considered a generational player had injuries not cut his career short.

Another great we are left asking 'what if?' with. Photo via Wiki Commons

12. Raymond Bourque

The second best to ever don the spoked-B, Ray Bourque dominated the 80s and 90s like few players. He won the Norris Trophy five times, and finished in the top four in votes another 14 seasons. He was a 19-time All-Star, and though he never won, finished in the top five in Hart Trophy voting five times. Bourque was a Gatling gun with the puck—he still leads the NHL in shots on goal, a remarkable feat for a defenceman.

11. Dominik Hasek

Nicknamed the dominator for good reason, no goaltender in NHL history was so far beyond league average over their career. Hasek likely benefitted from not playing as much as a younger player, when goalies are still figuring things out, but his prime from 1993 to 1999 is something no goaltender has ever come close to matching.

***

The most difficult part of making lists like this is always going to be the players who don't make it. Many will argue that Carey Price deserves a spot, but his dominance is recent, and I felt it would have been unfair to include him over another great goaltender who has completed their career.

Other greats like Dale Hawerchuk, Adam Oates, and Ron Francis were all on the cusp, and tough to leave out. There are tons of legitimate arguments for a plethora of players to make the list, and everyone will be influenced by the era they grew up watching.

One of the big defining factors in crafting this list was attempting to find not only the NHL's greatest players of the last 50 years, but players who changed the game, and influenced its future. That's something you'll see strongly represented in the top-10 list.