Sports

The NHL's 10 Greatest Players of the Post-Expansion Era

The second installment of our two-part series breaks down the NHL's 10 best players of the last 50 years, with a trio of current stars making the cut.
January 27, 2017, 6:05pm
Illustration by Ben Ruby/VICE

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.

After looking at 57 of top 67 players of the last 50 years earlier this week, the list of the top 10, and maybe even the order, is probably a little obvious. Because of that, what I wanted to focus on when looking at these players is the influence they had on the game of hockey, and what made them great.

Using era adjustments, while carefully weighting peak dominance and longevity, 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.

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These 10, along with the previous 57 in part one, are the 67 players I believe most deserve to have their names announced when the NHL unveils the remainder of its 100 greatest players at All-Star weekend in Los Angeles.

Counting down from No. 10, here's my list of the best players since the post-expansion era.

10. Joe Sakic

There was a lot of pressure on Joe Sakic when he entered the NHL with the Quebec Nordiques. The previous generation's superstars in Peter Stastny and Michel Goulet were gone from the team two years into his career, when Sakic led the team in points by 50 over rookie Mats Sundin.

Sakic wasn't your prototypical first-line centre; he wasn't big or physical—in fact, you could even call him soft—but his instincts with and away from the puck were incredible, and he had a knack for scoring when his team needed it most.

READ MORE: We Ranked the Greatest NHL Players of the Past 50 Years

The defining characteristic of Sakic's game was his wrist shot, powerful and accurate, but more importantly his release was lightning quick. That, and his ability to change speed while in traffic without altering his stride, allowed Sakic to consistently fool defenders and goaltenders, and led to him breaking Maurice Richard's record for playoff overtime goals, with eight.

Sakic couldn't lead the Nordiques to a Cup, but the year they moved to Colorado he put up an all-time great performance in the playoffs with 18 goals and 34 points in 22 games, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy and the first of two Stanley Cups.

Sakic hit the 50-goal mark twice, scoring a career-high 54 during the 2000-01 season. Photo via Wiki Commons

A 12-time All-Star, Sakic won a Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award in 2000-01, the year he won his second Stanley Cup, and the year before he cemented his international legacy with an MVP performance in Salt Lake City, breaking Canada's 50-year gold drought in men's hockey.

If any player could be called "clutch," it's Joe Sakic.

9. Mark Messier

If you ask anyone in hockey about the prototypical captain, most will likely respond with Mark Messier. The NHL even named a vaguely defined leadership award after him. Let's just ignore that unfortunate venture in Vancouver.

Messier played second fiddle to Wayne Gretzky for most of his prime years, but people forget that he won both the Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award twice, and also captured the Conn Smythe Trophy the first time that the Oilers won the Stanley Cup.

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After winning four Cups with Gretzky, Messier went on to captain the Oilers to a fifth championship without The Great One, then played a pivotal role in busting the New York Rangers' 54-year Cup drought. He quite possibly made the most famous promise in professional sports, when he guaranteed his Rangers would beat the Devils in an Eastern Conference final elimination game and backed it up by scoring a hat trick. The Rangers then went on to beat the Canucks in seven games in the Cup final.

The Moose made a promise and he delivered. Photo by Canadian Press

His commanding presence went beyond just being a scorer, as he wasn't afraid to throw elbows around when he wasn't happy. Whether that's something that should be admired is certainly up for debate, but it made Messier an extremely effective player in the era he played in.

Also impressive was the longevity Messier had, with only the legendary Gordie Howe playing more regular-season games than Messier's 1756, and only Jaromir Jagr and Gretzky accumulating more points in their careers.

8. Patrick Roy

There will be lots of people who believe Dominik Hasek was the better goaltender, and it's true that his average performance was a bit better. But Roy not only had more longevity than Hasek did, he redefined how the position was played.

The ultimate test of the impact of a player is how many players emulate them, and for two generations now, every goaltender has, in some form or another, imitated the playing of Patrick Roy.

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Add that to the fact that no goaltender in history has saved more goals above league average in their career, and you start to see why Roy ranks so highly.

While Roy only won three Vezina trophies in his career, he finished in the top 10 in voting every season he played aside from the lockout-shortened 1994-95 campaign. He's also the only goaltender to play 350-plus games since save percentage tracking began in 1983-84 to never have a below league average season. Roy not only had one of the greatest peaks of all time, he was easily the most consistent performer ever.

On top of all that, Roy was arguably the greatest big-game goalie ever, with 151 career playoff wins, 52 more than second-place Martin Brodeur. Wins aren't a very good goalie stat, but that changes a little in the playoffs, and you can't argue with the only player in NHL history to win the Conn Smythe Trophy three times.

7. Alex Ovechkin

There's time for him to slow down, but as of right now Alex Ovechkin is the greatest pure goal scorer in NHL history when you adjust for era. Ovechkin has won the Rocket Richard Trophy six times, the Hart Trophy three times, the Ted Lindsay Award three times, and has led the NHL in shots on goal in every season he's played except for one.

The Great Eight is relentless, almost half of his goals come from the same spot around the left side faceoff dot. Everyone knows the puck is going there and everyone knows he'll be there, yet he has continually victimized teams from his signature spot for over a decade. That ability to find spaces to release his bullet shot is something no player aside from Brett Hull has exemplified to such a degree.

He's damn good. And a whole lot of fun, too. Photo by Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

While a huge number of his goals are scored from one spot, Ovechkin is far from a one-trick pony. His shot numbers show that part of his strategy is simply to shoot all the time, knowing that his release is quick enough to fool goaltenders from almost anywhere on the ice.

Ovechkin is also a physical specimen, almost impossible to hit or move off the puck, and he doesn't shrink when challenged, either. He can hit as hard as anyone in the game, and at times his physical play has gotten away from him and led to a couple suspensions, but it's another skill that opponents have to respect.

Ovechkin is the only player since he entered the league in 2005 to score 50 goals in a season more than twice, and he's done it seven times, plus put up 32 in 48 games during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. It's no wonder he was voted onto the All-Star team at two separate positions.

6. Nicklas Lidstrom

To many, Lidstrom is the greatest defenceman to ever play the game. He doesn't have the gaudy point production of Bobby Orr, but he is probably the greatest defensive player in the history of the game.

Lidstrom was the ultimate trump card for one of the most dominant teams to ever play in the NHL, possessing the most impressive stick I've ever witnessed, and controlling the pace, style, and flow of every game he played in for the Detroit Red Wings en route to four Stanley Cups. Lidstrom won seven Norris trophies, second only to Orr, and from the 1995-96 season to his retirement in 2012, he never finished lower than sixth in Norris voting. That's 16 straight seasons.

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Lidstrom's vision and anticipation were second to none in his generation, which allowed him to play an almost laid-back game, keeping him healthy to the point where he only missed 42 regular-season contests in his 20-year NHL career, and played at an elite level to the age of 41.

Lindstrom's career-long dominance is tough to fully comprehend if you didn't watch it with your eyes, because he played in an era where being big and tough was king, but he rarely laid a hit. Playing through the clutch-and-grab era, where most defencemen would be hanging off players to stop a scoring chance, Lidstrom would have already stripped the puck away and started a rush going the other way.

5. Jaromir Jagr

Jaromir Jagr will be 45 years old in under a month, and he's still playing top-line minutes in the NHL, and doing it while dominating possession with his team's second-highest Corsi relative to team, and the highest relative goals for percentage.

Jagr has broken the Canadian clean sweep of the NHL's all-time top scorers, getting all the way up to second place, passing Messier this season despite playing in the KHL for four years in his late 30s.

Unlike many of the top players in NHL history, Jagr's speed has never been one of his best assets. He was definitely an above-average skater in his youth, but it was his strength on the puck that has always defined him, using his size at 6'3", and maybe the biggest butt ever, to protect the puck and exhaust defenders.

Sup? Photo by Keith Srakocic-The Associated Press

If there's any iconic move Jagr has in his repertoire, aside the salute after goals, it's using his body to shield the puck while stickhandling with one hand until he beats everyone on the ice and brings the puck where he wants.

He only ever won a single Hart Trophy, but Jagr led the NHL in scoring five times, won the Ted Lindsay Award three times, and finished in the top four in Hart voting six other seasons, not to mention a seventh-place finish in 2015-16 at the age of 43.

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Jagr's longevity is something that can't be ignored, and he still doesn't look like he's slowing down much.

4. Sidney Crosby

Despite injuries carving into his legacy over the first half of his career, Sidney Crosby has been the most dominant player of his generation. Crosby is known as a pass-first player, yet adjusted for era he is currently the eighth-best goal scorer in the last 50 years of NHL hockey.

While Crosby is talented beyond belief, what separates him from most of the greatest players in history is that in many ways he plays like a grinder, relishing breaking teams down on the forecheck with his deceptive physicality and incredible hockey smarts.

Crosby already cracks the top five with plenty of years left. Photo by Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

Another standout skill Crosby has is his skating. It's not just speed or acceleration, it's technique that allows him to dominate with his skates. There's no one else in hockey who can angle players off to protect the puck, or change direction and speed with such ferocity as No. 87 does. He doesn't have the top-end speed of Connor McDavid, but you would be hard-pressed to find anyone as agile, and he has the hands to keep up with his feet.

Internationally, Crosby scored one of the most important goals in Canadian hockey history, taking a feed from Jarome Iginla to win gold for Canada on home ice at the Vancouver Olympics, and he delivered again with another gold medal as captain in Sochi. Following up back-to-back Olympic gold medals, Crosby captained Canada to a World Cup of Hockey championship before the start of the 2016-17 season, winning MVP honours.

READ MORE: Sidney Crosby's Brilliance Was the Hockey Story of 2016

We're only halfway into Crosby's career—hopefully less—but he has already cemented his legacy as one of the greatest ever. The question is, how high can he climb?

3. Bobby Orr

There are many who believe that Orr was the greatest player to ever lace up skates, and to be perfectly honest it's difficult to say he wasn't. Adjusted for era, Orr scored 34 more points per 82 games played than the next highest-scoring defenceman ever. That's a gap that simply doesn't exist at any other position.

The reason I have Orr at No. 3, though, is simply because of longevity. When I started these rankings, I weighed actual production and play in peak years far more heavily than how long a player lasted, but length of career still matters, so Orr's knees knock him down to third.

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The impact Orr had on the sport of hockey can't be overstated. While Doug Harvey may have started the art of the rushing defenceman, Orr perfected it. The position itself changed entirely due to Orr essentially breaking the systems of the time, dancing around defenders to lead the attack himself, instead of relying on forwards to do the job for him.

Orr played just nine seasons where he was relatively healthy, winning the Norris Trophy an NHL-record eight times, and finishing third in voting his rookie season. He won the Hart Trophy three straight years, finishing top six in voting for the award in nine straight seasons, and led the league in scoring twice.

Both times his Boston Bruins took home the Stanley Cup, it was Orr who was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy. The rise of play at the position over the last 30 years simply wouldn't exist without Bobby Orr.

2. Mario Lemieux

Like Orr, staying healthy was a problem for Mario Lemieux, which is truly a shame for every fan of the sport, because in my opinion, he's the best talent the sport has ever seen. Adjusted for era, Lemieux actually outscored Gretzky by about five points per full season.

Unlike the other players I've written about, I want to just run down a list of things Lemieux did in his career that simply don't make sense.

His final year in junior hockey, Lemieux scored 133 goals and 282 points in 70 games for the Laval Voisin, 112 more points than the next highest scorer. That's pretty crazy, but he was even better in the playoffs, scoring 29 goals and 52 points in 14 games. That's over two goals per game!

In 1987-88, Lemieux led the NHL with 70 goals and 168 points. Impressive on its own, but he also led his team in scoring by 39 goals and 89 points. He scored over double what the next highest scorer on the Penguins did.

During the 1992-93 season, Lemieux was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, and after missing 24 games to treat his cancer, he returned to the Penguins to lead the entire league in scoring by 12 points. Oh, and he scored more goals than he played games, with 69 in 60.

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After getting so fed up with the interference in mid-90s hockey, Mario retired from the sport for three-and-a-half seasons, only to return at 34 years old in one of the lowest-scoring years in the history of the sport. He scored nearly two points per game, the highest rate of any player that season.

Lemieux was an unfathomable talent, and had to be seen to be believed.

1. Wayne Gretzky

He's called The Great One for a reason, or truthfully, for many reasons. Wayne Gretzky is arguably the most dominant player in any professional team sport.

Where Lemieux was all brute force, puck skills, and speed, Gretzky was almost unassuming with a slight frame and an odd skating stride. If you were to look back at the skinny kid Gretzky was in the 80s off the ice, you'd never believe he was rewriting record books on it.

Gretzky was as talented as any star player, but he didn't need to outplay you because he could outthink you. Gretzky's playmaking ability through that vaunted hockey sense or vision, whatever you want to call it, essentially broke the NHL in the 1980s.

In the 1970s, good teams usually outshot their opponents, same for the 1990s and the current game—the statistical value of Corsi is predicated on this simple fact. For the Edmonton Oilers, however, shots didn't matter—they were a different kind of team that hadn't been seen before. Gretzky's presence changed how great teams could play and win games, because the chances he created were simply always going to be better than the chances opponents would create.

The Dynasty Days. Photo by Mike Blake/Reuters

And while his peers had their careers cut short, Gretzky stayed healthy for most of his largely because of the seemingly precognitive level of vision he had on the ice. It's not like teams didn't try to hurt him, the NHL was a goon squad back then, he was just too slippery.

READ MORE: Five Stages of the Trade That Sent Wayne Gretzky to St. Louis

Because he was able to stay healthy, Gretzky possesses 61 different NHL records, including nine Hart trophies, including eight straight, and an extra four top-five finishes in votes. He holds the record most goals (92) and points in a single season (215), and amassed a whopping 894 goals for this career.

While Jagr may change this, if Gretzky had never scored a goal in his NHL career, he would still own the all-time points record.

***

Crunching numbers and watching hours of old hockey videos, the main takeaway I have from this project is how subjective our evaluations of players are for things like this. Every hockey expert and fan would likely have a different list, and their reasoning would be just as valid.

What's going to be exciting as we venture into the next century of NHL hockey is that we'll get to see the current and future stars climb lists like these. How will we view McDavid in 10 or 20 years? What about Auston Matthews? The next era of the NHL is as exciting as any other.