It's never easy to create a list of all-time greats, and this one is no exception; we're here to discuss and rank the 50 most skilled players of all time.
First, a few ground rules.
They had to perform in the NHL or WHA. There have been some great hockey players who spent the majority of their career in Europe, but since most of us didn't get a chance to see them perform there on a regular basis, we aren't going to consider that here.
Second, no goalies are on this list. Skilled includes shooting, skating, passing, stickhandling and the like. Goalies have some of these skills, but it's all judged on a different level, so goalies are not eligible for this list.
Obviously, it's tough comparing players from different eras, but I did try.
People are bound to have different opinions, so feel free to chime in and comment on who you feel I may have missed or ranked too high, too low, etc. Comments are always part of the fun.
Skeptics said he couldn't skate well enough to play in the NHL, but while he wasn't fast, Luc Robitaille's shooting ability and hockey sense proved his critics wrong.
By the time his career was over, Robitaille was the highest-scoring left winger in NHL history, scoring 668 goals and 1,394 points over the course of his 19-season NHL career.
Robitaille scored more than 50 goals three times in his NHL career, including a career-high 63 goals and 125 points in 1992-93.
He won the Calder trophy as the NHL's top rookie in 1985-86 and was part of the 1993 Kings team that reached the Stanley Cup Final for the first time. He finally won the Stanley Cup in 2001-02 while playing for the Red Wings.
Robitaille's first NHL coach was Pat Quinn:
"I was warned by the scouts about Luc’s skating, but with his marvelous intelligence for the game, skating never became a factor, even in the high-paced game of the 1980’s,” Quinn said. “The puck seemed to follow him around, and he seemed to know what to do with it. Luc not only had intelligence and hands, his best asset was his competitive drive. Luc Robitaille was someone special.”
Today's, it's taken for granted that the best hockey players from around the world have a chance to play in the NHL. But in the early 1970s, that was not the case. Nearly every NHL player back then was born in Canada with a small sprinkling of Americans and the occasional European-born player who grew up in Canada (like Stan Mikita or Walt Tkaczuk).
In 1973, Borje Salming helped change all that when he joined the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Swedish-born defenseman took on all challengers, including those that tried to provoke him and called him a "chicken Swede," and he became one of the best NHL players of his generation. He didn't just survive in the NHL, Salming thrived.
For six straight seasons, Salming's skills placed him on the postseason All-Star teams, and he played in three straight NHL All-Star Games and represented the NHL in the 1979 Challenge Cup against the Soviet Union.
Salming played 17 NHL seasons and scored 150 goals and 787 points.
On the ice, Salming could do it all. He could skate well, make a good pass and quarterback the power play. But he is best remembered as a trail blazer who helped make the influx of players from Europe possible.
Leafs great Mats Sundin described what Borje Salming meant to his hockey-playing countrymen:
"Every Swede respects Borje and pays him tribute for what he has done," said Sundin. "For us—Swedish hockey players—he is the man who showed us the right way; he is a trailblazer."
Brad Park joined the Rangers during the 1968-69 season and instantly became recognized as one of the best defensemen in the NHL. The problem Park faced throughout his career was that he was always considered the second-best defenseman in the league, but he never quite broke through to become No. 1.
For six years, Park was the runner-up for the Norris Trophy, with Bobby Orr winning it the first five times and Denis Potvin the sixth. He was named to one of the NHL's postseason All-Star Teams seven times, and he was a key part of Canada's team in the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviets.
Park helped control the puck for the Rangers. He had a knack for slowing down the action and making pinpoint passes to a teammate. He was deadly on the power play and was not afraid to play a physical game or drop the gloves.
In 1972, he led the Rangers to the Stanley Cup Final but they fell in six games to Orr and the Bruins.
Three times he passed the 20-goal mark in a season despite playing nearly his entire career on bad knees.
Park was also in the middle of one of the biggest trades in NHL history when the Rangers dealt Park, Jean Ratelle and Joe Zanussi to the Bruins in exchange for Phil Esposito and Carol Vadnais. He quickly won over the Boston fans and helped lead the Bruins to the Stanley Cup Final in 1977 and 1978.
He finished his career with two years in Detroit before retiring. He later briefly became coach of the Red Wings.
Park's teams qualified for the playoffs in each of his 17 NHL seasons, but he never played for a Stanley Cup winner despite reaching the final three times.
Park was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1988.
Bill Barber was one of the most skilled players on the Flyers teams that won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975.
Playing on a line with Bobby Clarke and later Reg Leach, Barber was a dangerous goal scorer. He topped the 40-goal mark five times in his career, including a career-high 50 in 1975-76. He never scored fewer than 20 goals in a season during his 12 seasons in the NHL.
Barber played in six NHL All-Star Games and represented Canada in the 1976 Canada Cup and the NHL in the 1979 Challenge Cup series.
No player has scored more goals in a Flyers uniform than Barber's 420.
Hockey writer Jay Greenberg described Barber's game by saying, "He skated up and down the ice with the reliability of a metronome, and by dedicating his NHL career to blending in, he stood out. He had the soul of a grinder, but the talent of an artist."
Barber later coached the Flyers and their AHL affiliate, the Philadelphia Phantoms.
He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1990.
Bob Gainey was often overshadowed by flashier teammates, but he was considered one of the most well-rounded hockey players of his era, showing skills in all three zones of the ice and displaying the ability to play almost any style of hockey and to beat you at it.
Gainey joined the Montreal Canadiens in 1973, and by the time he retired, he had won five Stanley Cups, including four straight from 1976-1979. In 1979, he won the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP.
Gainey was known as the best defensive forward of his era, winning four Selke trophies. He was also selected to play in four NHL All-Star Games and the 1976 Canada Cup. Four times, Gainey topped the 20-goal mark, and he was capable of playing on any line.
While he wasn't the flashiest player on the Canadiens, he may have been the most respected by hockey insiders and opponents.
"I consider Gainey the world's best all-around player," said Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov in 1981.
Gainey later went on to coach the North Stars, Stars and Canadiens, and he served as GM of the Stars Stanley Cup-winning team in 1999.
He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1992.
Peter Stastny joined the Quebec Nordiques in 1980 after his dramatic defection from the then-communist nation of Czechoslovakia.
Stastny burst onto the NHL scene, topping the 100-point mark in his first six NHL campaigns and winning the Calder trophy as the league's top rookie in 1980-81. Five times, he scored more than 40 goals in a season, and Stastny was selected to play in six NHL All-Star games.
Eventually, three Stastny brothers played for Quebec when Peter's brothers Marian and Anton joined the club. The Stastny brothers were all talented players, but there was little doubt that Peter was the most talented of the trio.
In fact, only Wayne Gretzky scored more points in the NHL during the 1980s than Peter Stastny.
He scored 450 career NHL goals and 1,239 points in 977 games and was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1998.
The Stastny family continues to be well-represented in the NHL today. Stastny's son, Paul now plays for the Colorado Avalanche, while another son, Yan, is now playing in Russia after briefly playing for the Edmonton Oilers.
Ron Francis was once considered the most underrated player in the NHL, but those who played against him and with him knew just how good he was. It was no surprise that Francis was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2007.
Looking at Francis' career totals, it's easy to see how skilled he was. Francis stands second all-time in career assists, fourth in career points and 21st in goals scored.
During his NHL career, Francis served as captain of both the Hartford Whalers/Carolina Hurricanes franchise and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Francis won a pair of Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh in 1991 and 1992, won three Lady Byng trophies for gentlemanly play and the Selke award as the league's best defensive forward. Francis was also named to play in four NHL All-Star games.
In 1,731 career NHL games, the smooth-skating Francis scored more than a point per game with 1,798 points.
Rod Gilbert was a slick-skating, hard-shooting right wing for the New York Rangers in the 1960s and 70s.
He played right wing on the famous "Goal-a-Game" or GAG line along with Jean Ratelle and Vic Hadfield that helped the Rangers defeat the defending Stanley Cup champions for three straight years from 1972-74, reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 1972.
By the time he retired in 1978, Gilbert held every major scoring record in Rangers history. Thirty-four years later, he remains the Blueshirts' all-time leading point-getter with 1,021 points in 1,065 games.
Gilbert played in eight NHL All-Star games, and he was on Team Canada in the 1972 Summit Series against the USSR.
The Rangers raised Gilbert's No. 7 to the rafters in 1979, making him the first player in Rangers history to have his number retired.
Gilbert was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1982.
Most people remember Darryl Sittler for one game. On February 7, 1976, Sittler scored six goals and four assists for an NHL-record 10 points in a game against the Boston Bruins.
But Sittler sustained excellence throughout his NHL career, totaling 484 goals and 1,121 points in 1,096 games with the Maple Leafs, Flyers and Red Wings.
Sittler played in four NHL All-Star games. He was the first Maple Leafs player to score 100 points in a season and served as captain of the Leafs from 1975 until 1981 before a battle with Leafs ownership and management led to his trade to Philadelphia.
In 1976, Sittler scored the winning overtime goal for Canada to lead them to a win over Czechoslovakia in the final game of the tournament.
Sittler was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1989.
Evgeni Malkin is one of only three active players on this list. The Penguins star is only 26 and has played only six NHL seasons, but his accomplishments have already earned him a place on this list.
Malkin has already won a Stanley Cup, a Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP, one Hart trophy as league MVP, a pair of Art Ross trophies for leading the league in scoring and a Calder trophy as the league's top rookie.
In 427 career NHL games, Malkin has scored 208 goals and 527 points.
Malkin has good size, a strong burst of speed, great vision and a wicked shot.
The scary thing is that he's just now starting to enter his prime.
Brian Leetch became the first American-born player to win the Conn Smythe trophy when he won the award in 1994. Leetch scored 11 goals and 34 points in 23 games to help the Rangers end a 54-year Stanley Cup-title drought.
Leetch joined the Rangers after he competed in the 1988 Olympics and won the Calder trophy as the NHL's best rookie in 1988-89.
In 1991-92, Leetch totaled a career-best 102 points as he led the Rangers to the President's trophy for the first time in roughly 50 years.
Leetch was a great passer and quarterbacked the Rangers power play for more than a decade. He was one of the team's leaders and later served as captain after Mark Messier departed for Vancouver.
Leetch won a pair of Norris trophies and was named to a postseason All-Star team five times.
He finished his NHL career with 1,028 points in 1,205 games. The Rangers retired his number in 2008, and he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame one year later.
Yvan Cournoyer was one of the fastest players in the NHL in the 1960s and 70s. His speed made him particularly dangerous on the power play, where there was more room to maneuver.
Cournoyer had four NHL seasons of 40 goals or more and won an incredible 10 Stanley Cups as a player. In 1972-73, "The Roadrunner" won the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP, and he later was named captain of the Habs and raised the Stanley Cup twice while wearing the "C."
Cournoyer also represented Canada in the 1972 Summit Series against the USSR, scoring three goals in the series including one in the eighth and deciding game.
"The Roadrunner" finished his NHL career with 428 goals and 863 points in 968 games. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1982.
Pavel Bure was one of the most exciting players in the NHL in the 1990s. His speed and hard shot made him one of the top snipers of his era and helped him win three NHL goal-scoring titles before injuries prematurely ended his career.
"The Russian Rocket" topped the 50-goal mark five times in his career, including a pair of 60-goal seasons. He helped lead the Canucks to the 1994 Stanley Cup Final where they fell in seven games to the Rangers.
The Moscow native won the Calder trophy as the league's top rookie and was named MVP of the 2000 NHL All-Star game, one of six All-Star games he played in during his NHL career. Three times, he was named to a postseason All-Star team.
Bure finished his NHL career with 437 goals and 779 points in 702 games with the Canucks, Florida Panthers and New York Rangers. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2012.
Sid Abel was part of the famed "Production Line" on the Detroit Red Wings during the 1940s and 50s along with Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay. How good was this line? In 1949-50, they finished first (Lindsay), second (Abel) and third (Howe) in the league in points.
Abel won the Hart trophy as league MVP in 1949 and was named to four postseason All-Star teams. Abel won three Stanley Cups in 12 seasons with the Red Wings before finishing his career as a player-coach with the Blackhawks.
After his playing days were over, "Old Bootnose" served as an NHL head coach in Chicago, Detroit and briefly in St. Louis and Kansas City and was a longtime fixture on Red Wings games as an analyst.
He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1969.
Mark Messier is known as one of the greatest captains in NHL history for his stints with the Edmonton Oilers and New York Rangers, but he was also one of the most skilled players in NHL history.
His trademark move was skating down the off-wing and letting go a wicked wrist shot off his "wrong" or back foot, which often fooled goalies before they could get set.
Messier won six Stanley Cups and remains the only player in NHL history to captain two different teams to a championship. He helped end the Rangers' 54-year Stanley Cup drought, and his guarantee of a win in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final against New Jersey remains one of the most memorable moments in Rangers history.
In 1,756 career NHL games, Messier scored 694 goals and totaled 1,887 points, placing him second all-time behind former teammate Wayne Gretzky.
Messier topped the 40-goal mark four times in his illustrious career, including a career-high 50 in 1981-82.
"Moose" won two Hart trophies as league MVP, one Conn Smythe award as playoff MVP and played in 15 NHL All-Star games. He was named to a postseason All-Star team five times.
Messier was named to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2007. The Mark Messier leadership award is now given annually in his honor.
Mike Gartner was one of the fastest skaters in the NHL and perhaps the most consistent goal scorer of all time. The Ottawa native scored 30 or more goals in each of his first 15 NHL seasons, a streak that was only ended by the lockout-shortened 48-game season of 1994-95. He then added two more 30-goal seasons after the lockout year.
Former teammate and longtime Capitals analyst Craig Laughlin remembered Gartner's ability well:
"There's no other player from our era that I remember who could come full speed down the right wing and take a slap shot that was so hard it was either going in or was going to kill the goalie," Laughlin said.
Gartner played in seven NHL All-Star games and won the skills competition for fastest skater three times.
In 19 NHL seasons, Gartner scored 708 goals and 1,335 points playing for the Capitals, North Stars, Rangers, Maple Leafs and Coyotes. Unfortunately, Gartner never played for a Stanley Cup-winning team, and that has resulted in him being overlooked when experts discuss the best players of all time.
He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2001.
Brett Hull was a pure goal scorer and arguably the most dangerous shooter of his era.
"The Golden Brett" wasn't a fast skater like his father Bobby Hull, and he wasn't a great passer, but he had a devastating shot, the sense to find open spaces in opposing defenses and a deadly quick release.
"Putting the puck in the net is a special skill," Blues GM Ron Caron said of Hull. "Brett's on-ice; the red goal light is on; arms are in the air; people are out of their seats. Brett has that dimension. It's a gift not given to many. And even more, he has a name that gives extra charisma to his achievements."
Hull registered five straight seasons of 50 or more goals, including a career high 86 in 1990-91 for St. Louis. He won the Hart trophy and the Lady Byng award during his NHL career. He totaled 33 hat tricks in his career, the fourth most in league history.
By the end of his career, Hull totaled 741 goals and 1,391 points in 1,269 NHL games. He scored the controversial Stanley Cup-winning goal in double overtime for the Dallas Stars in 1999 and won a second Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings in 2002.
After he retired, Hull worked in management, becoming GM of the Dallas Stars before accepting his current position as an executive vice president.
Brett joined his father in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2009.
Ray Bourque was the face of the Boston Bruins for nearly 20 full NHL seasons, but he won his only Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche in the final game of an NHL career that included more than 1,800 regular-season and playoff games.
Bourque holds the NHL-career record for most goals (410), assists (1,169) and points (1,579) by a defenseman. He also topped the 20-goal mark nine times in a season and was the longest serving captain in Bruins history.
The Montreal native won five Norris trophies as the NHL's top defenseman and was named to an NHL postseason All-Star team an incredible 19 times. How consistent was Ray Bourque? He was named to play in the NHL All-Star game every time the game was played during his lengthy NHL career.
Bruins great Bobby Orr explained what made Bourque such a special player. "The class that he played with, and the consistency," Orr said. "That's what made him who he was."
The Bruins retired Bourque's number in 2001. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame three years later.
Edward "Newsy" Lalonde was one of the great stars of the game of hockey before the formation of the NHL and in the league's earliest days.
He will forever be the answer to a trivia question: who scored the first goal in Montreal Canadiens history? In fact, Lalonde scored a goal in each of his first six NHL games. He was also a key member of the Habs' first Stanley Cup-winning team in 1916.
Lalonde earned his nickname because he worked in a newspaper plant before becoming a professional hockey and lacrosse player.
Seven times in his pro career, he led his league in goal scoring, including a remarkable career-high 36 goals in just 23 games in 1919-20.
He later coached the Canadiens and New York Americans of the NHL and several minor league teams.
Lalonde was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1950
Bernie "Boom-Boom" Geoffrion earned his famous nickname for his devastating slap shot, which the Montreal native helped to popularize in the 1950s.
He became the second player in NHL history to score 50 goals in an NHL season when he reached that mark in 1960-61. That season, he also won the Hart trophy as league MVP and his second-career Art Ross trophy as the league's top point-producer.
Geoffrion made an instant splash in the NHL by scoring 30 goals in his rookie season and taking home the Calder trophy as the league's best rookie in 1952.
Boom-Boom won six Stanley Cups with the Canadiens, including five straight from 1956-1960. He also played in 11 NHL All-Star games and was named to three postseason All-Star teams.
After his playing career, Geoffrion served as coach of the Rangers, Flames and Canadiens. The Habs retired his number on March 11, 2006, the day the former Habs great died of stomach cancer.
Geoffrion finished his NHL career with 393 goals and 822 points in 833 career NHL games. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1972.
Anyone who remembers Denis Savard playing for the Blackhawks, Lightning or Canadiens usually remembers him making an exciting rush down the ice, faking out a defender and maybe making a spin-o-rama before finishing a play.
Former North Stars GM Lou Nanne once remarked, "There just isn't a better skater in the league than Denis Savard. When Denis has the puck, he's got the ability to do a million things with it."
Savard had seven seasons of 30 or more goals and five seasons of more than 100 points during his NHL career. He won a Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens in 1993.
In 1,196 career NHL games, "Savvy" scored 473 goals and accumulated 1,338 points. He retired after the 1996-97 season and later became an assistant coach and later head coach of the Blackhawks after hanging up his skates.
The Blackhawks retired Savard's No. 18 in 1998. In 2000, Savard was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Aurele Joliat was a big star for Montreal Canadiens in the 1920s and 30s, teaming with Howie Morenz to form one of the most effective duos in NHL history.
Despite his lack of size, the 5'7", 136-pound Ottawa native never backed down from anybody on the ice. He earned the nickname "The Little Giant."
Joliat led the NHL with 29 goals in 1924-25 while playing in just 24 games. He helped lead the Habs to three Stanley Cup titles.
When he retired at the end of the 1937-38 season, Joliat was third all-time in NHL history in goals scored. He finished his career with 270 goals and 460 points in 654 career games.
Joliat was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1947.
Alex Delvecchio had a long and productive career for the Detroit Red Wings. He played his first NHL game for Detroit in 1950-51 and finished his career in 1973-74.
Delvecchio won three Lady Byng trophies for gentlemanly play and accumulated only 383 penalty minutes in an NHL career that spanned 1,549 games. Meanwhile, he scored 456 goals and 1,281 points.
Delvecchio was very consistent, scoring 20 or more goals in a season 13 times during his NHL career. He played in 13 NHL All-Star games and was named to two postseason All Star teams. He helped lead the Red Wings to Stanley Cup wins in 1952, 1954 and 1955 and served as captain of the Wings for 12 seasons.
After retiring as a player, Delvecchio served as coach and general manager of the Red Wings.
The Red Wings retired his No. 10 in 1991. Delvecchio was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1977.
Dave Keon may not be as flashy as some of the other players on this list, but he was one of the top two-way centers in NHL history and rarely was sent to the penalty box during his lengthy NHL and WHA career.
Keon played on four Stanley Cup winners with the Maple Leafs in the 1960s and is the last Leafs player to win the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP. He also played in eight NHL All-Star games.
He was the NHL's best rookie in 1961 and won a pair of Lady Byng trophies for gentlemanly play. In fact, in nearly 1,600 career major league games, Keon accumulated only 137 penalty minutes.
Keon was named captain of the Leafs before a feud with owner Harold Ballard led to his departure to the WHA, where he continued to shine for the Minnesota Fighting Saints, Indianapolis Racers and New England Whalers before returning to the NHL with the Whalers in 1979.
Keon retired in 1982 and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1986.
Isles defenseman Denis Potvin could do it all. He could deliver bone-crushing hits, shoot the puck hard and accurately and make pinpoint passes to open teammates.
Potvin won three Norris trophies as the NHL's top defenseman and was the captain of the Islanders teams that won four straight Stanley Cups from 1980-1983. He also won the Calder trophy as the NHL's top rookie in 1973-74.
Potvin scored 20 or more goals in a season nine times during his NHL career, and he scored more than 30 goals three times, making him the second defenseman in NHL history to score 30 or more in a season after Bobby Orr. He was named to seven postseason NHL All-Star teams and represented Canada in the 1976 and 1981 Canada Cups.
In 1,060 career games, Potvin scored 310 goals and 1,052 points while adding another 164 points in 185 career playoff games.
Bobby Orr had a great deal of respect for Potvin:
"If we let him carry the puck at will, the Islanders could beat us(...) Offensively, he was incredible. He was such a big guy who could skate like the wind(...) Defensively, he was underrated. Potvin more than held his own."
Potvin became the first Islander to have his number retired in 1992. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1991.
For six seasons, there was no better player in the NHL than Montreal's Guy Lafleur. From 1974-75 through 1979-80, "The Flower" scored more than 50 goals and more than 100 points in each season.
During that time period, the Canadiens won four straight Stanley Cups, and Lafleur won two Hart trophies as league MVP, three Art Ross trophies as the NHL's leading scorer and a Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP.
The enduring image of Lafleur was him skating down the right wing with his long blond hair flowing as he faked out an opponent before beating the goalie with a lethal wrist shot.
He was also the fastest player in NHL history (up until that time) to reach 1,000 career points, doing so in just 720 games.
In his book, The Best of the Best, author Scott Morrison had this to say about Lafleur:
"He had the whole package. He could play offensively, defensively and scored many clutch goals in the playoffs. He had speed, a very good slap shot and wrist shot, and he could deke practically anyone. He was very solid on his skates."
Lafleur retired in 1985 and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1988. He then returned to the ice with the New York Rangers and Quebec Nordiques for three more seasons, although he was no longer playing at an elite level.
In 1,127 career games, Lafleur scored 560 goals and 1,353 points. He added 134 points in 128 playoff games.
There may never have been a more dangerous goal scorer in NHL history than Michael Dean Bossy.
For nine straight seasons, Bossy scored more than 50 goals in a season before a back injury ended his career. The fewest goals he scored in one NHL campaign was 38 in his final injury-shortened season.
Bossy was a goal-scoring machine, potting 573 goals in just 752 career NHL games, including a career-high 69 in 1978-79.
The Islanders won four straight Stanley Cups from 1980-83, and Bossy was named the winner of the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP in 1982. He lead the league in goals scored twice, and he won the Lady Byng trophy for gentlemanly play three times. In 1977-78, he won the Calder trophy as the NHL's top rookie.
Bossy is third all time with 39 career hat tricks, and he scored 50 goals in 50 games in 1980-81.
The Montreal native will forever be remembered as one of the game's greatest snipers. If his bad back hadn't ended his career prematurely, there is no way of knowing how great his final numbers would have been.
It may sound counter-intuitive, but it's not always easy to play on Wayne Gretzky's wing. It takes a special talent who can anticipate Gretzky's passes and turn them into goals. Gretzky's most effective partner was Finnish winger Jari Kurri.
Kurri had seven seasons of 40 goals or more, including a career-best 71 goals and 135 points in 1984-85.
He played in seven NHL All-Star games, played on five Stanley Cup-winning teams with Edmonton and won the Lady Byng trophy for gentlemanly play.
Hall of Famer Mike Gartner recalled what made Kurri so special:
"Jari had a great shot, and he had a great ability to find holes and to find openings out on the ice," Gartner said. "Playing with a guy like Gretzky for a good part of his career where Wayne could get him the puck and there weren't too many guys who were ever better at finding those holes on the ice than Jari was."
Kurri scored 601 career NHL goals and 1,398 points in 1,251 games with the Oilers, Kings, Rangers, Ducks and Avalanche.
Kurri's No. 17 was retired by the Oilers after he retired. He became the first Finnish-born player inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2001.
Alex Ovechkin has been one of the most dominant players in the NHL since he joined the Washington Capitals in 2005-06.
In 553 career games, the talented Russian has already scored 339 goals and 679 points. Ovechkin has also won the Calder trophy as rookie of the year, two Hart trophies as league MVP, a pair of Rocket Richard trophies as the league's leading goal scorer and an Art Ross trophy as the league's leading point-producer.
"Ovie" has also been selected to six postseason All-Star teams and been chosen to play in the All-Star game five times.
During last season's playoffs, Bruins defenseman Dennis Seidenberg saw how effective Ovechkin could be:
"He’s very powerful, and he puts his stamp on every game," Seidenberg remarked. "Every time you’re out there, you have to be careful he’s not going to kill you. Any time he has the puck on his stick, his quick release is so dangerous."
Ovechkin has already had four seasons of 50 or more goals, including a career-high 65 in 2007-08.
He is still just 26 years old and has plenty of great hockey in front of him to add to those already impressive career numbers. If he continues to play at a high level, he will climb higher on this list before his career is over.
Gilbert Perreault was the first-ever draft choice in the history of the Buffalo Sabres back in 1970, and it is not an insult to say that 42 years later, Perreault remains the best player the franchise has ever had.
He spent 17 seasons with the Sabres, centering the famed "French Connection Line" along with Rick Martin and Rene Robert. They helped lead the Sabres to the Stanley Cup Final in 1975, the franchise's fifth season of operation.
Perreault won the Calder trophy as the NHL's best rookie in 1971 and the Lady Byng trophy for gentlemanly play two years later. He still holds the Sabres franchise record for goals (512), assists (814) and points (1,326).
The native of Victoriaville, Quebec, was selected to play in nine NHL All-Star games and made two postseason All-Star teams.
Sports Illustrated's Michael Farber considered Perreault one of the most exciting players in hockey history:
"Perreault's gift was his skating—a swooping and powerful stride that came from his impossibly strong hockey haunches. He would stickhandle into the offensive zone and curl 10 feet inside the blue line; the unfortunate defenseman trying to cover him would be 10 feet away because Perreault's stride had provided that much separation."
The Sabres retired Perreault's No. 11 in 1990, the same year he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Nicklas Lidstrom just retired at the end of the 2011-12 season after an incredible 20-year NHL career.
Lidstrom belongs on this list despite the fact that his skills were often subtle because of his excellent hockey smarts and preparation. In fact, the way he prepared and practiced for games helped earn Lidstrom the nickname, "Mr. Perfect."
The Swedish star won seven Norris trophies in his NHL career as the league's top defenseman. He also led the Red Wings to four Stanley Cup titles, won one Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP and was selected to play in 12 NHL All-Star games.
In his career, Lidstrom scored 264 goals and accumulated 1,142 points in 1,564 games. He also added 183 points in 263 playoff contests.
Scotty Bowman, who coached Lidstrom in Detroit for several seasons, saw similarities between Lidstrom and Hall of Fame defenseman Doug Harvey:
"They controlled the game," Bowman said. “They both had the same concept: The resulting play they made was not to give the puck away. They made plays. They had the ability to control the game, mainly because of their ability to pass the puck at the right time and play the point."
Lidstrom is a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer in three years when he becomes eligible and goes down in history as one of the top defensemen of all time.
Bryan Trottier won six Stanley Cups in his incredible NHL career—four with the New York Islanders and two more late in his career with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Trottier won the Calder trophy as the league's top rookie in 1975-76, providing an up-and-coming Isles team with offensive talent they had previously lacked at center. He later went on to win the Art Ross trophy as the league's top scorer and the Hart trophy as league MVP in 1978-79. The following season, Trottier won the Conn Smythe trophy as the Islanders won the first of their four straight Stanley Cup titles.
In 1,279 career NHL games, Trottier scored 524 goals and 1,425 points. "Trotts" played in seven NHL All-Star games and was named to four postseason All-Star teams during his career.
Teammate Billy Harris remembered what made Trottier special:
"It's his poise that really stands out," Harris said. "He's always calm, regardless of the situation. And he's got tremendous hockey sense. He is, if there is such a thing, a natural-born center."
After hanging up his skates, Trottier went on to coach the New York Rangers for one season after serving as an assistant with the Penguins and Avalanche.
The Islanders retired Trottier's No. 19 in 2001, four years after he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Howie Morenz was one of the early stars in Montreal Canadiens history.
Speed was the name of Morenz's game, and his nicknames—"The Stratford Streak" and "The Mitchell Meteor"—reflected that aspect of his talent.
Morenz won a pair of Art Ross trophies as the league's leading scorer and three Hart trophies as league MVP.
In 550 career NHL games, Morenz scored 270 goals and 467 points and was an integral part of three Stanley Cup-winning teams with the Canadiens.
Hall of Famer King Clancy, who played against Morenz and later went on to a lengthy career as a coach and executive, spoke highly of Morenz:
"He was the best," Clancy remembered. "He could stop on a dime and leave you nine cents change. He was in a class by himself. And when he couldn't skate around you, he'd go right over you."
Morenz died in 1937 from complications of a broken leg he suffered during an NHL game. Some say that he died of a broken heart after doctors told him the injury meant the end of his hockey career.
Morenz was one of the original inductees into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1945, and the Canada Press voted him the best hockey player of the first half of the 20th century.
Paul Coffey is considered one of the best skaters in NHL history and stands second behind Ray Bourque in career points scored by a defenseman.
The Weston, Ontario, native won four Stanley Cups in his NHL career and won Cups supporting both Wayne Gretzky in Edmonton and Mario Lemieux in Pittsburgh.
In 1985-86, Coffey scored 48 goals, a new NHL record for defensemen which still stands today.
Over the course of his career, Coffey won three Norris trophies, played on eight postseason All-Star teams and in 14 NHL All-Star games.
Charlie Huddy, who played with Coffey in Edmonton, recalled what made him so effective:
"He was such a powerful skater that it was fun to watch. He could come out of our end and find guys in the middle of the ice, and the pass would be right on the tape," Huddy recalled. "His ability to see the ice and make those kinds of plays was remarkable. You know, it was something different every game. You never knew what was going to happen."
Coffey retired after the 2000-01 season. He totaled 396 goals and 1,531 points in 1,409 career NHL games.
He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2004.
Henri Richard was often overshadowed by his older brother Maurice, but Henri was a Hall of Famer in his own right.
Dubbed "The Pocket Rocket," Henri Richard won 11 Stanley Cups in his NHL career with the Canadiens—more than any other player in NHL history.
Richard was named to a pair of postseason All-Star teams and won the Bill Masterton trophy in 1974. He also scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal in 1966 and was captain of the Habs when they won the Cup in 1973.
Former Habs coach Toe Blake admired Henri Richard:
"The Pocket became a better all-around player than Rocket was. But it's asking an awful lot of any man to be the scorer that Rocket was."
"The Pocket Rocket" finished his NHL career with 358 career goals and 1,046 points in 1,259 games. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1979.
If asked to use an adjective to describe Rangers and Bruins center Jean Ratelle, most players would come up with words like smooth, classy and gentlemanly.
Ratelle centered the Rangers "Goal-a-Game" or GAG line along with Vic Hadfield and Rod Gilbert in the 1960s and 70s. "Gentleman Jean" scored a career-high 46 goals and 109 points in 1971-72 despite missing the last 15 games of the season due to injury. Ratelle returned during the Stanley Cup Final that year against Boston, but he was only a shadow of his former self, and the Rangers fell in six games.
In 1975, Ratelle and Brad Park were sent to the Bruins in one of the largest trades in NHL history in exchange for Phil Esposito and Carol Vadnais. He continued to excel for the Bruins and reached the Stanley Cup Final twice more with Boston in 1977 and 1978.
Ratelle won a pair of Lady Byng trophies for gentlemanly conduct and finished his NHL career with just 276 penalty minutes in 1,281 games. He also finished with 491 career goals and 1,267 points.
Hall of Famer Jean Beliveau, who Ratelle was often compared to, had this to say about his longtime opponent:
"Jean inspires by his behavior—on and off the ice. He's a fine family man and an inspiration to the other players, especially the younger ones. He reminds me of myself in the sense that neither of us were flashy or noisy or were quoted saying anything controversial, and because of that, it took longer to get recognized."
Ratelle was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1985.
Steve Yzerman joined the Detroit Red Wings in 1983. By the time he hung up his skates 22 seasons later, the Red Wings had gone from perennial cellar dwellers to the NHL's model franchise.
Yzerman did it all for the Wings; he scored goals, made pretty passes and, perhaps most importantly, was the leader of a team that won five President's trophies and three Stanley Cups. "Stevie Y" served as captain of the Wings for 19 seasons.
Teammate Brett Hull talked about the importance of Yzerman's leadership skills:
"It begins and ends with Steve," Hull said. "People like him don't come along very often. The way he carries himself in this town, there's almost an onus on the rest of us to be like him."
When he started his career, Yzerman was all-offense and scored as many as 65 goals and 155 points in a season. But as he matured, Yzerman realized he could win more hockey games by putting up fewer points and playing a better all-around game. The results speak for themselves.
Yzerman scored 692 career goals and 1,755 points in 1,514 games—all with Detroit. He won a Selke trophy as the league's top defensive forward, a Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP and the Bill Masterton trophy for dedication to hockey. He also played in 10 NHL All-Star games.
He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2009 and currently serves as GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Frank Mahovlich was a big, fast and skilled left wing for the Maple Leafs and Canadiens before finishing his career in the WHA.
"The Big M" won six Stanley Cups during his NHL career, four with Toronto and two in Montreal. Mahovlich was named to a postseason NHL All-Star team nine times, and he played in 15 consecutive NHL All-Star games.
In 1,181 career NHL games, the native of Timmins, Ontario, scored 533 goals and 1,103 points before adding another 89 goals and 232 points with the Toronto Toros and Birmingham Bulls of the WHA.
Hockey historian Mike Leonetti described "The Big M" in his book, Maple Leafs Legends:
"Mahovlich moved like a thoroughbred, with a strong, fluid style that made it look as if he was galloping through the opposition. In full flight, he was an imposing figure. An explosive skater, Mahovlich could spot the right moment to turn it on and burst in on goal.
Mahovlich was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1981 and was appointed to the Canadian Senate in 1998.
Sidney Crosby is considered the most dominant offensive player in the NHL today—when he's healthy. Unfortunately for Crosby and hockey fans, the Penguins great has not been healthy for most of the past two seasons.
"Sid the Kid" has already won a Stanley Cup, an Olympic gold medal, an Art Ross trophy as the league's leading scorer, a Hart trophy as league MVP and a Rocket Richard trophy as the league's top goal scorer—and he's still just 25 years old.
Crosby already has scored 223 goals and 609 points in 434 career NHL games, adding an impressive 33 goals and 90 points in 68 playoff contests.
He has also served as captain of the Penguins and is the youngest captain ever to win the Stanley Cup.
If he can remain healthy, Crosby has a chance to be one of the all-time greats in this game and to crack the top 10 on future lists like this.
But can he stay healthy, or will concussions end his career prematurely?
Doug Harvey revolutionized the game back in the 1950s, becoming one of the first defensemen to successfully rush the puck up the ice and join the attack.
Harvey won seven Norris trophies in the span of eight years with the Canadiens before finishing his career with the Rangers, Red Wings and Blues.
In 1,113 NHL games, Harvey scored 88 goals and 540 points. He was named to 11 straight postseason All-Star teams and won six Stanley Cups as a player.
Former-teammate Tom Johnson recalled how talented Harvey was:
"He could have played center; he could have played left wing; he could have played goal," Johnson said. "There was no part of the game he couldn't do."
Harvey retired after the 1968-69 season and was inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1973.
Syl Apps was one of the best players in the NHL in the 1930s and 40s.
The Maple Leafs star was a great all-around athlete, representing Canada in the 1936 Olympics at Munich in the pole vault.
Apps won the Calder trophy as the league's best rookie performer in 1936-37 and won three Stanley Cups with the Leafs. The Paris, Ontario, native also won a Lady Byng trophy and was named to five postseason NHL All-Star teams.
Apps missed two years of play while serving in the army in World War II. He still finished his NHL career with 201 goals and 432 points in 423 games.
His son, Syl Apps, Jr., later played in the NHL for the Penguins, and Apps' granddaughter won a pair of gold medals for Canada in women's ice hockey in 2006 and 2010.
Apps was inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1961.
Marcel Dionne was one of the most prolific point-producers in NHL history during a 17-year NHL career with the Red Wings, Kings and Rangers.
Dionne was quick, smart and a great passer. His hard-working style and diminutive size earned him the nickname "The Little Beaver."
Dionne scored 731 career goals and 1,771 points in 1,348 NHL games. He won a pair of Lady Byng trophies for gentlemanly play and won the Art Ross trophy in 1979-80 as the league's top point-producer.
He topped the 40-goal mark 10 times in his NHL career, including a career-high 59 in 1978-79. He also topped the 100-point barrier eight times.
Dionne played in nine NHL All-Star games and was named to four postseason All-Star teams.
He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1992.
Stan Mikita spent his entire NHL career with the Chicago Blackhawks, starting in 1959 and ending in 1980.
The European-born center had a rare distinction; he led the NHL in penalty minutes early in his career and later won a pair of Lady Byng trophies for gentlemanly play. He changed his style when his young daughter asked why he was sitting down in the penalty box so much.
Mikita centered the Blackhawks famed "Scooter Line" and later teamed with Bobby Hull to form one of the most dangerous duos of the 1960s. Mikita played with his famous "banana blade," a stick curved so much it made the puck dip and move in strange ways.
Mikita won four Art Ross trophies as the league's top point-producer and two Hart trophies as league MVP. He won the Stanley Cup in 1961 with the Blackhawks.
By the time his career ended in 1980, Mikita had scored 541 goals and 1,467 points in 1,394 games. The Blackhawks retired his number in 1980, and he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1983.
Jean Beliveau was the smooth-skating center of the Montreal Canadiens between 1950 and 1971. "Le Gros Bill" won 10 Stanley Cups as a player with the Habs and another seven as an executive. He also served as captain of the Canadiens for the final 10 seasons of his career.
Beliveau was named to 10 postseason NHL All-Star teams and played in 14 NHL All-Star games. He won two Hart trophies as league MVP, one Art Ross trophy as the league's top point-producer and a Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP.
In 1,125 regular season games, Beliveau scored 507 goals and 1,219 points while adding another 176 points in 162 career playoff games.
Former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau said of Beliveau:
"Rarely has the career of an athlete been so exemplary. By his courage, his sense of discipline and honour, his lively intelligence and finesse, his magnificent team spirit, Beliveau has given new prestige to hockey."
Beliveau retired after the 1970-71 season and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1972 after the Hall waived the traditional three-year waiting period.
Bobby Hull was the most prolific goal scorer of the 1960s and scored more than 900 goals in the NHL and WHA before his career ended in 1980.
Hull became the first player to score more than 50 goals in a season when he put home 54 in 1965-66. He scored 50 or more goals five times in the NHL and four more in the WHA.
Hull won the 1961 Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks. He was named to 12 NHL postseason All-Star teams and won three Art Ross and two Hart trophies while with the Blackhawks.
After a contract dispute with the Blackhawks, Hull became the first big NHL star to jump to the rival WHA, where he signed hockey's first-ever million-dollar contract with the Winnipeg Jets.
Hull comes from a prolific hockey family. His brother Dennis was a teammate on the Blackhawks, and his son Brett joined "The Golden Jet" in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Bobby was inducted in 1983, and Brett was inducted in 2009.
Maurice "The Rocket" Richard was the most dangerous goal scorer of his day and one of the most brilliant hockey players of all time.
Richard was the first player to score 50 goals in a season and to score 50 goals in 50 games, a mark which became a standard by which goal-scoring excellence is measured.
He won eight Stanley Cups in his career, including five in a row between 1956 and 1960.
Richard was so popular with Montreal fans that when the NHL suspended "The Rocket" for the 1955 playoffs, protests broke out that forever became known as "The Richard Riot."
Richard won the Hart trophy as league MVP in 1946-47 and finished his career with 544 goals and 965 points in 978 games.
He was considered the fiercest and most determined player in the league from the opposing blue line in, and the fierce determination he showed in his eyes and the toughness he displayed on the ice made him a legend.
"The Rocket" was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1961 without the traditional three-year waiting period.
Gordie Howe's nickname is "Mr. Hockey," and he earned that moniker for being the most well-rounded hockey player during a career that started in the 1940s and ended in the 1980s.
Howe was tough, strong and a deadly goal scorer. Six times he won the Hart trophy as league MVP, and six times he won the Art Ross trophy as the league's top point-producer. He played in 23 NHL All-Star games and was named to 21 postseason All-Star teams.
Howe played on the famed "Production Line" along with Sid Abel and Ted Lindsay. He won four Stanley Cups with the Red Wings before retiring after the 1970-71 season. One year later, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
After sitting out two seasons, Howe was lured out of retirement by the WHA's Houston Aeros, who gave him a chance to play with his sons Mark and Marty. Howe played six more seasons in the WHA, topping the 30-goal mark in four of them. He returned to the NHL with the Hartford Whalers in 1979-80 at the age of 52 and still scored 15 goals and 41 points.
Howe finished his pro career with 975 major league goals and 2,358 points in 2,186 games. To many, Howe remains the greatest player ever to lace up a pair of skates.
Mario Lemieux's size and skill made him one of the most productive hockey players of all time and helped earn him the nicknames of "Super Mario" and "Mario the Magnificent."
Lemieux literally saved the Penguins franchise from bankruptcy twice. First, when he joined the team in 1984, and later, when he bought the team to give it stable ownership and a new lease on life after he had retired from the game.
Lemieux won a pair of Stanley Cups as a player and led the NHL in points six times and was named league MVP six times as well.
"Super Mario" scored an incredible 690 goals and 1,723 points in 915 career NHL games.
Had Lemieux's career not been cut short by a bad back and a battle with cancer, there's no telling how prolific he could have been, but most experts feel he would have challenged Wayne Gretzky for the all-time point lead.
Gretzky had nothing but praise for his rival when he retired:
"He had tremendous reach," Gretzky said. "He was a big, strong man. He played with intelligence, and he had incredibly soft hands. He also had tremendous grace. The game will miss him."
Nobody in the history of the NHL has scored more goals or more points than Wayne Gretzky. The small kid from Brantford, Ontario, grew up to be the most impressive hockey player of his generation and arguably the best of all time.
Gretzky started his pro career with the WHA's Indianapolis Racers before being traded to the Edmonton Oilers. After the Oilers joined the NHL, "The Great One" helped them win four Stanley Cups in five years in 1984, 1985, 1987 and 1988.
Gretzky obliterated the 50 goals in 50 games mark in 1981-82 when he scored 50 in 39 games. He finished the year with an NHL record 92 goals. Four seasons later, he scored an NHL-record 215 points. Both records still stand.
"The Great One's" trophy case is loaded with nine Hart trophies as league MVP, nine Art Ross trophies as the league's top point-producer and two Conn Smythe trophies as playoff MVP.
Gretzky's vision, hockey sense and anticipation made up for his lack of size and lack of elite speed. He was always where the puck was going to be and always found open space. He set up in "his office" behind opposing goals to feed teammates for easy goals.
Gretzky himself admitted it was his vision and hockey sense that made him so special:
"I couldn't beat people with my strength; I don't have a hard shot; I'm not the quickest skater in the league. My eyes and my mind have to do most of the work."
Gretzky finished his NHL career with 894 goals and 2,857 points in 1,487 career games. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame immediately after he retired in 1999.
Other players played longer or put up better career numbers, but no player in NHL history was as dominating or as talented as Robert Gordon Orr.
Orr became the prototypical rushing defenseman, shattering records and changing the way the game was played.
He won eight straight Norris trophies as the league's best defenseman and became the first defenseman to top the 100-point barrier in a season (he did that six times) and to lead the league in scoring (he did it twice).
He also led the Bruins to Stanley Cup titles in 1970 and 1972 and was named the winner of the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP both years.
Orr was fast, physical and daring with the puck. He nearly killed entire two-minute penalties without giving up possession of the puck.
Former Bruins GM and coach Harry Sinden explained why he thought Orr was the best player of all time:
"Howe could do everything, but not at top speed. (Bobby) Hull went at top speed but couldn't do everything. The physical aspect is absent from (Wayne) Gretzky's game. Orr would do everything—and do it at top speed."
Orr was forced to retire because of bad knees at the age of 31. He played his last full season at the age of 27. Despite his injuries, his statistics still stand out. In 657 career NHL games, Orr scored 270 goals and 915 points.
He could do it all and was the most talented player in NHL history.