NHL: The Top 50 Most Skilled Players Since 1967
Since the National Hockey League expanded to 12 teams in 1967, the game has blossomed into a sport that's more about finesse and skill, and less about simply outmuscling and intimidating the opposition. With the addition of European talent in the 1980's and early 90's, the NHL became an even more skilled league as a whole. The superstars of each of these eras were traditionally the most skilled players, as their superior skating and stickhandling abilities pushed them to the top of the sport.
More recently, after the lockout in 2004-05, the league cracked down on obstruction and holding, allowing skill players to operate more freely. These rule changes have ushered in an era in which a premium is placed on skill development, as the game's much more offensive than it was ten years ago. For that reason, this list of the top 50 most skilled players since 1967 is weighted heavily to more recent players, simply because they generally possess higher levels of skill than players from previous generations.
The skills measured here are basically pure skating ability, stickhandling, shooting, passing, and in some cases, hitting. Some of the greatest players ever, like Mark Messier and Brett Hull won't be on this list, because the reason they were great was as much mental as it was having physical skills. Each one of the players on this list has elite skills, and demonstrated them at the highest level. With that being said, here are the top 50 most skilled players since 1967,
50. Patrick Kane
What better player to kick this countdown off than Patrick Kane, the man who scored the overtime winner that lifted Chicago to their first Stanley Cup since 1961. Kane has a pair of silky hands and a confident swagger to his game that helps him maneuver through high-traffic areas, despite his small stature. He has a quick shot with deadly accuracy, and has the ability to pull the puck from his backhand to his forehand in the blink of an eye.
The winner of the 2008 Calder Trophy, Kane has been a star since his time playing for the London Knights in the OHL. In the Gold Medal Game of the 2010 Winter Olympics, Kane picked up assists on each of Team USA's goals in their 3-2 loss to Canada. At just 22 years of age, the best is yet to come for the Buffalo native.
49. Alexander Semin
Though Alex Ovechkin gets the weight of the press and fanfare in Washington, he may not be the most gifted player in terms of talent on his team. That honor could go to Alexander Semin, his close friend and fellow Russian, who Capitals teammate Brooks Laich says "can be the best player in the world when he's on his game." Semin has ridiculous puck control, and a variety of moves that can embarrass goaltenders and defensemen alike.
Semin has scored a number of goals that have been permanent fixtures on highlight reels across North America, but has failed to find consistency throughout his career. He's often hurt, and suffers through lengthy slumps where he fails to score and tends to cost his team defensively. However, when healthy and motivated, Semin can be the most dominant winger in the game. This season, after a 17-game scoreless drought, he scored a natural hat trick in the third period to defeat the Ducks on the road. While Semin may never become the NHL superstar that he appears to have the tools to be, he is truly an artist with the puck, and can take a fan out of their seat faster than almost anyone in the game.
48. Stephane Richer
Stephane Richer is one of the most enigmatic talents ever to skate in the NHL, and never appeared to reach his potential as a player. He possessed one of the hardest shots in the game, and had great hands for a player of his size. Richer posted two 50-goal seasons with the Canadiens, and helped them win the Stanley Cup in 1986.
He continued to be a productive offensive player into the 1990's, where he won another Cup with New Jersey in 1995. Richer battled severe depression towards the end of his career, and seemed to be at odds with himself as a hockey player at times.
While Richer never became the superstar that Canadiens fans had hoped, he was one of the most talented players in the franchise's illustrious history.
47. Dan Boyle
Like his former teammate Martin St. Louis, Dan Boyle went undrafted out of college, after playing four years for the University of Miami in Ohio. Boyle's career blossomed in Tampa Bay, and he's emerged as one of the best offensive defensemen in the game today. A two-time NHL Second Team All-Star, Boyle has great offensive skills for a blueliner, and has posted 50 points five times over the course of his career.
Boyle also played a key role in Canada's Gold Medal-winning performance at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, finishing tied for second among all defenseman in scoring with six points. He has become the top defenseman on one of the best teams in the NHL, and makes his contributions felt at both ends of the ice.
46. Marian Gaborik
Marian Gaborik is one of the most exciting players in the game today, when he's healthy. Unfortunately for fans of the Minnesota Wild and now, the New York Rangers, that's been a big "if" since Gaborik broke into the league in 2000-01. Gaborik is the type of scorer who gets his goals in bunches, as seen during his five goal game against his current team, the Rangers, in 2007.
Gaborik has two 40-goal seasons to his name, and has played in two All-Star games, but has never played in all 82 games in one season. His problems with injuries and consistency have plagued him, but he has shown in spurts why he's considered one of the most skilled players on the planet. His speed makes him virtually impossible to stop once he has a step on a defenseman, and his quick release help him beat goalies once he breaks free. The fleet-footed Slovak may be the most difficult player in the NHL to stop on a breakaway, but remains to be somewhat of an enigmatic superstar.
45. Darryl Sittler
One of the greatest Toronto Maple Leafs of all time, Darryl Sittler was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1989. His greatest claim to fame may be the fact that he put on the greatest one-game performance in the history of the NHL in 1976. On that night in February, Sittler scored six goals and ten points against the Boston Bruins, setting an NHL record. Sittler had a hard, accurate shot, but also had the puck skills to beat goalies with a quick deke.
While Sittler never won a Stanley Cup, he did score a Canada Cup-winning goal in 1976, in overtime against the Czech team. He also had a number of big offensive seasons, including 117 points in 1977-78. For a franchise that has had surprisingly few offensive stars, Sittler was one of the best, though his legacy is often overshadowed by his peers who played on better teams.
44. Steve Yzerman
While what most will remember about "Stevie Y" are his leadership abilities and great two-way play, he was also an offensive dynamo, especially during the early stages of his career. Sure, he captained the Detroit Red Wings to three Stanley Cups, including their first since 1955, and later helped lead Team Canada to two Olympic Gold Medals (one as an assistant captain, the other as general manager), but one cannot discount the sublime talent that Yzerman was during his prime.
Between 1987-88 and 1992-93, he posted six straight 100-point seasons, including 155 in '89. He also had two 60-goal seasons, and had a knack for making the highlight reels with his superhuman goals. While his numbers began a somewhat steady decline in the 1990's, Yzerman continued to be one of the most reliable offensive players in the game, culminating with a Conn Smythe Trophy as Playoff MVP in 1998. Yzerman's undying legacy may be his ability to lead teams to victory and come up with clutch goals, but he will also go down as one of the most skilled forwards ever to play to the game.
43. Steve Shutt
Steve Shutt was another member of the Montreal Canadiens' dynasty that won five Stanley Cups during the 1970's. In 1976-77, he was placed on a line with fellow stars and future Hall-of-Famers Guy Lafleur and Jacques Lemaire, and he flourished, scoring 60 goals and 105 points. Shutt's deadly wrist and slap shots terrorized goalies around the league, and his talented linemates created space for him to operate.
While Shutt was drafted 4th overall in 1972 because, as then-coach Scotty Bowman put it, "he was a natural scorer," he developed into a solid two-way player who played a key role in the Canadiens' dynasty of the 1970's. He became a versatile forward, who at times, played the point on the Canadiens' power play. Just like many of his teammates, Shutt's skills also seemed to shine in clutch situations, illustrated by his 98 points in 99 career playoff games. While Shutt may not be the most well-known of Montreal's stars from the 1970's, he was among the most skilled.
42. Martin St. Louis
Martin St. Louis is probably one of the most unlikely superstars in NHL history, as he was never drafted despite putting up monster numbers at the University of Vermont. From there, St. Louis' lightning-quick speed and offensive creativity have helped him become one of the most prolific scorers in hockey over the last decade.
It took the dimunitive winger three full seasons to finally solidify himself as a regular in the NHL, but from there he took the league by storm. In 2004, St. Louis won the Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player, the Art Ross Trophy for winning the scoring title, and captured both a Stanley Cup and a World Cup of Hockey that summer. His career has been revitalized by the emergence of 50-goal man Steven Stamkos, and at 35, he still looks like he has a couple of good seasons left in him. St. Louis may not be an imposing force physically, but he makes up for it with his intelligence and breathtaking speed.
41. Rick Nash
Rick Nash is the prototypical power forward in today's NHL, as he possesses a lethal combination of size,speed and skill. His ability to handle the puck in close quarters has enabled him to become one of the deadliest goal-scorers in the league since being drafted first overall in 2002. Nash has flown under the radar for much of his career, in large part because he plays in a non-traditional hockey market in Columbus.
In his second season, Nash won the Rocket Richard Trophy after tying for the league lead in goals with 41. While impressive, his greatest accomplishment likely came in 2010 at the Winter Olympics. While playing for Team Canada, Nash showed his defensive abilities in the Quarterfinals, as his line held Russian superstar Alex Ovechkin to no points as Canada destroyed Team Russia 7-3. He also tallied five points in seven games and earned himself a place on the tournament All-Star Team. If Columbus ever improves as a team, the hockey world will surely hear more about the Blue Jackets' super-skilled captain, Rick Nash.
40. Mike Gartner
One of the most underrated NHL players the hockey world has ever seen, Mike Gartner was also a very gifted player. He registered the fastest time ever recorded at the Fastest Skater event at the All-Star Game in 1996, which still stands today. Gartner never won any major NHL awards or a Stanley Cup, but is one of only six players in league history with 700 goals.
The goals Gartner scored became more of the 'garbage goal' variety during the later stages of his career, but he had an innate ability to find open spaces on the ice, and used his speed to get there. Overshadowed by other offensive stars of his time, Gartner never really got the praise he deserved during his NHL career. He scored goals like few others have in the history of the game, and that's why he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2001.
39. Ray Bourque
The most beloved Bruin of all-time not named Bobby Orr, Ray Bourque spent almost two decades manning the blueline for Boston. During that time, he broke all of the career records for goals, assists and points by a defenseman, which illustrates how good offensively Bourque was. While the highlight of his career may have come in 2001, when Joe Sakic handed him the Stanley Cup, Bourque's best years came in the late 1980's and early 90's, when he lead Boston to two Stanley Cup Finals appearances.
One of Bourque's most recognizable skills was his ability to put the puck wherever he wanted with laser-sharp accuracy. He won the Shooting Accuracy event at the All-Star Game on multiple occasions, which is rare for defensemen. His leadership abilities and loyalty to the city of Boston are what made him a native son to Bruins fans, but what helped him stand out early on in his career was his elite skill set.
38. Reggie Leach
Reggie "The Rifle" Leach was one of the most prolific scorers of the 1970's especially during his Philadelphia Flyers' run of back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals appearances in 1975 and '76. He set an NHL record for goals in a single playoff season with 19, and became the first skater to win the Conn Smythe Trophy in a losing effort (the Flyers lost to Montreal in the '76 Finals). The next season, Leach lead the NHL in goals with 61, and represented Team Canada at the Canada Cup that same year.
Because the Flyers teams of the 70's are remembered for their brawn rather than their skill, Leach's offensive exploits are often forgotten about. He was one of the best scorers of his time, and was the top gun on a championship team. Bobby Clarke may have been the heart and soul of the Flyers, but Leach was the undisputed triggerman.
37. Mats Sundin
Though his reputation took a beating during his final season for his Brett Favre-esqe indecisiveness regarding his retirement, Sundin was one of the most gifted forwards in the NHL for the better part of two decades. The longtime Toronto Maple Leaf captain had soft hands, elusive speed and a massive frame that allowed him to protect the puck from opposing players.
Sundin's greatest accomplishments may have come on the international stage, as he was named to the 2002 Olympic Tournament All-Star team, and captured a Gold Medal with Sweden at the 2006 Olympics in Italy.
He spent much of his career playing on middling Toronto teams, and left Quebec just before that team transformed into the Avalanche dynasty, so he never had a serious run at a Stanley Cup. With that being said, Sundin is one of the greatest Swedish players ever, and considering the Swedes are known for their elite skill, it earns him a spot on this list.
36. Yvan Cournoyer
Yvan Cournoyer was affectionately called 'the Roadrunner' by Montreal fans for his blazing speed, and was one of the best smaller players the NHL has ever seen. A ten-time Stanley Cup champion, Cournoyer also won a Conn Smythe Trophy in 1973 and served as the team's captain on two championship squads. He also was a key contributor during Canada's victory over Russia at the 1972 Summit Series, tallying three goals over the eight games.
While his statistics aren't as jaw-dropping as some of the other players on this list, Cournoyer was a key player on some of the greatest teams in hockey history. He is remembered for his speed and quick shot, but more importantly for paving the way for other small, skilled players to make their mark on the NHL.
35. Igor Larionov
Nicknamed the "Professor" for his on-ice intelligence and vision, Igor Larionov is one of the most talented European players ever to play in North America. He was a member of the "KLM" line with Vladimir Krutov and Sergei Makarov, the top unit on the Soviet team that took the hockey world by storm in the 1980's. Larionov, before ever playing a game in the NHL, had won a Canada Cup and two Olympic Gold medals, along with a host of other international and Russian awards.
Once he arrived in North America, even though he was in the later stages of his career, fans around the NHL witnessed the on-ice genius that was Igor Larionov. He was a gifted passer, and like his countrymen often are, a smooth skater with a fluid stride. It was his intelligence and skill that allowed him to continue to be effective even after he'd hit age 40.
Even at age 42, Larionov tallied 11 playoff points and scored a triple-overtime goal to help the Red Wings to their third Stanley Cup in six seasons. Larionov is often underrated in North American hockey circles because his best days came before he played a game in the NHL, but he remains one of the smartest and most skilled players of his generation.
34. Adam Oates
Adam Oates can lay claim to the distinction of the player with the most points that is not currently enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame, which is likely due to the fact that he never won any major awards or Stanley Cups. That being said, Oates is one of the most talented playmakers the NHL has ever seen. His passes, always on the tape of his target's stick, often lead to monster goal for his linemates.
Brett Hull's 86-goal season in 1990-91 came when Oates had 90 assists and 115 points. If one were to suggest that Oates' numbers were inflated due to playing alongside Brett Hull, that notion is quickly dispelled when considering that Oates' career high in points of 142 came after he was traded to Boston amid a contract dispute.
Much like Igor Larionov, Oates was able to continue to produce impressive offensive numbers due to his superior passing abilities and vision. He is the oldest player to lead the league in assists, which he did at ages 38 and 39 while playing for the Washington Capitals.
33. Scott Niedermayer
If there has ever been a player who has been referred to as a winner throughout his entire career, it's Scott Niedermayer. He's won everything, from individual awards to Stanley Cups, Memorial Cups and Olympic Golds, and he's played a leading role every time. Niedermayer is arguably the smoothest skating defenseman since Paul Coffey, and his speed enabled him to become one of the best offensive defensemen of his time.
Niedermayer's offensive skills set him apart from other defensemen, but he rarely compromised anything defensively by rushing the puck since he was able to skate end-to-end faster than most players. He won the Fastest Skater competition at the All-Star game in 1999, which is highly unusual for a defenseman.
During the "clutching and grabbing" era of the NHL in the 1990's, Niedermayer still found ways to contribute offensively, and that side of his game only grew as the game opened up later in his career. No matter what, Niedermayer will remain close to Canadian hockey fans hearts for captaining Team Canada to the 2010 Olympic Gold Medal on home ice.
32. Alexander Yakushev
Though forgotten by many fans who weren't around in the 1970's, Alexander Yakushev was one of the most skilled players on the most skilled team in the world at the time. A member of the Soviet Team that took on Team Canada in the 1972 Summit Series, Yakushev opened eyes across Canada by leading the Russian team in scoring and finishing one point off the series lead in points, with seven goals and 11 points in eight games.
He is widely regarded as one of the best Russian players ever, and it's unfortunate that North American fans rarely got the opportunity to see him play. Yakushev's trademark speed and finishing touch are legendary in Russian hockey circles, and he was arguably the best player in what's widely considered the most important hockey series ever played.
31. Jari Kurri
Jari Kurri is, outside of possibly Teemu Selanne, the greatest Finnish player the NHL has ever seen. He was the perfect compliment to Wayne Gretzky on the high-flying Edmonton Oilers of the 1980's, and later on the Los Angeles Kings in the early 90's. Kurri had an innate ability to find stretches of open ice behind the opposing team's defense, and Gretzky would find him with his sixth sense-like vision, and together they rewrote the record books.
Kurri had a bullet for a shot and deceptive speed that helped elude defensemen. He was twice an NHL First Team All-Star, and posted seasons of 71 and 68 goals respectively. Kurri's ability to read the play and create opportunities for his superstar center to find him was his calling card, but he had to possess a great deal of skill to play alongside the greatest player of all time.
30. Paul Kariya
Paul Kariya has certainly not as great a career as some of the other players on this list, at least statistically or in terms of individual awards, but is one of the most talented players of the last twenty years. Kariya burst onto the NHL scene with 108 points in only his second season. Even more impressive, he tallied 100 points in just 39 games in his rookie year at the University of Maine. Kariya has explosive speed, and is very difficult to cover because he can change directions laterally at a split second's notice.
His career has been derailed by concussion problems, but he was one of the most exciting players of the early 2000's and late 1990's because of his world-class level skill. His snap shot had lethal accuracy, and he demonstrated his playmaking abilities on a nightly basis while linemates with Teemu Selanne in Anaheim. Kariya hasn't been the same player since his series of concussions began to wear on him in before the lockout, but he still possesses all the skills a player could want.
29. Marcel Dionne
There was only one time during the 1980's that a player not named Mario or Wayne won a scoring title, and it took place during Gretzky's rookie season, when Marcel Dionne beat him based upon a higher number of goals, since they tied with 137 points. Dionne was the first superstar in Los Angeles Kings history, and twice was awarded the Pearson Award as the MVP as voted on by the players. Dionne posted an astonishing eight 100-point seasons over the course of his career, solidifying his place among the best offensive players in league history.
Dionne was a creative offensive player, who made his linemates better as well. By far the best member of the Kings' famed "Triple Crown" line with Charlie Simmer and Dave Taylor, Dionne helped Taylor and Simmer each reach two 100-point seasons of their own. Dionne never did win a Stanley Cup, but he ended his career as one of the most dynamic offensive threats of his time, and gave the city of Los Angeles a reason to watch hockey for the first time.
28. Ryan Getzlaf
This list is weighted heavily towards more modern players, because frankly, the players in the NHL get more and more skilled as time goes on. Ryan Getzlaf is a perfect example of this, because twenty years ago there was no player comparable to him. Getzlaf is a six-foot-four power forward, but with the soft hands and deft passing ability of a playmaker a foot shorter.
Getzlaf has the size needed to create time and space for himself in the offensive zone, and the hands and vision to execute once he separates himself from opposing players. He was the leading scorer on the Ducks' 2007 Stanley Cup-winning team, and has only improved since then. Getzlaf is a franchise player because he makes those around him much more dangerous offensively, and his unique blend of size and finesse makes him the team's catalyst up front.
27. Valeri Kamensky
Like many other Russian players from the 1980's and 90's, Valeri Kamensky had some of his best years before he began his NHL career. At the 1987 Rendez-Vous series that pitted the Soviet team against a team of NHL All-Stars, Kamensky was co-MVP of the series along with Wayne Gretzky. That same year, Gretzky said he thought Kamensky was the best player on the Soviet team at the 1987 Canada Cup, which was one of the greatest international tournaments in recent history.
Kamensky's NHL career was very good as well, culminating with 22 points in 22 playoff games for the 1996 Stanley Cup Avalanche. That same season, Kamensky scored what was widely considered the 'goal of the year' with a backhander that he managed to shoot while spinning in the air. He was a product of Viktor Tikhonov's system, and had great vision and creativity in the offensive zone. Kamensky ended up being a good, if not great NHL player, but early in his career was among the best in the world.
26. Ron Francis
In his prime, which lasted roughly 18 seasons, Ron Francis was among the most talented playmakers in the league. Known to Hartford Whalers fans as "Ronny Franchise," Francis was a premier set-up man, tallying at least 50 assists in 17 of 23 his seasons. While he was the best player in franchise history on a middling Hartford team in the 1980's, some of his best seasons came while playing third fiddle to superstar teammates Jarimor Jagr and Mario Lemieux on the Penguins in the 1990's.
The trio won three Stanley Cups together, with Francis posting two 100-point seasons during his time with the Penguins. He was not a shoot-first type of player, and created scoring chances for his linemates with his vision and creativity in the offensive zone.
After nearly a decade with the Penguins, Francis returned to his former team which had relocated to Raleigh, North Carolina. From there, he had several more solid seasons and helped the Hurricanes reach the 2002 Stanley Cup Finals, before retiring as the undisputed greatest player in team history.
25. Alexander Mogilny
There are very few players in the history of the NHL who've displayed the level of talent that Alexander Mogilny showed early in his career with the Buffalo Sabres. As a highly touted prospect out of Russia, Mogilny exploded in his fourth season for a jaw-dropping 76 goals in 77 games. Mogilny was widely regarded as one of the fastest skaters in the league, and had an extremely quick release that allowed him to freeze goalies on the rush.
After being traded to Vancouver, Mogilny posted another big offensive year, tallying 55 goals in 1995-96. He was an enigma for much of his career, and his offensive production fluctuated from year to year, but he managed to put together a few more impressive seasons. Mogilny finished with over 1000 points and won a Stanley Cup with the Devils in 2000, but never quite developed the consistency in his game that coaches hoped for.
24. Eric Lindros
On skill and talent alone, there have been only a handful of players in the history of the game to be as gifted as Eric Lindros was. As possibly the most highly touted prospect of all time, Lindros did not disappoint early on in his career, though his behavior off the ice was controversial. Twice refusing to play for teams, both in the OHL and in the NHL, Lindros basically was able to pick where he played and dictated the salary he would be paid.
That kind of power is indicative of how high the expectations were for 'the Big E' in the early 1990's. As an 18-year old, he was selected to Team Canada for the 1991 Canada Cup, which is an honor that not even prodigies like Sidney Crosby or Mario Lemieux had bestowed upon them at that age.
Lindros possessed a great set of hands, and a cannon of a shot when he chose to use it. He transformed the career of John LeClair, helping him become one of the game's best goal scorers after essentially being given away by Montreal. Together with Mikael Renberg, the trio combined to become one of the best lines in the game, and was dubbed "The Legion of Doom" because each player was each player was six-foot-two or taller.
Lindros was a once-in-a-generation player, the kind that could alter the outcome of a game with one shift. He could score by using his skill or by using his massive frame to bull through defensemen. Unfortunately, his physical brand of play ultimately lead to his demise, and his career was derailed by a series of serious concussions. Though he managed to win a Hart Trophy and an Olympic Gold with Canada in 2002, many wonder what would have been, had Lindros been able to stay healthy.
23. Evgeni Malkin
The 2004 NHL Draft produced two of the most talented players the NHL has seen in recent memory, as Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin went first and second overall respectively. Since then, Malkin has established himself as one of the top scoring threats in the game, and has matured into a leader on a very good Pittsburgh Penguins team. He won the Calder Trophy in 2006-07, and the following season finished second in the scoring race to Ovechkin.
However, Malkin's true coming-out party took place in 2008-09, when he won the Art Ross as the league's top scorer with 113 points. He followed that up with a virtuoso performance in the playoffs, leading the Penguins to a Stanley Cup and winning the Conn Smythe in the playoffs.
His play during the postseason was spectacular, and he tallied some memorable goals such as his no-look behind the back snipe against Cam Ward in the Conference Finals. Malkin will probably always be considered the Jagr to Crosby's Mario, but he is arguably the more talented of the two. 'Geno's play is inconsistent at times and he's had his fair share of injury problems, but when he's on his game, he's virtually unstoppable.
22. Stan Mikita
While most remember Bobby Hull as the best player on the Chicago Blackhawks from the 1960's, Stan Mikita won more scoring titles, and was the first player to win the Lady Byng, Art Ross and Hart Trophy all in the same season. Mikita was also one of the first players to use a stick with a curved blade, which revolutionized the game forever. Using the curve, Mikita was able to place his shots better than almost anyone in the league, and also became a very reliable faceoff man for the Blackhawks.
Mikita only won one Stanley Cup, but he was an offensive wizard who produced points like few other in league history. The popularity of the curved blade, which became a huge asset to skill players, is in large part thanks to the huge amount of success that Mikita experienced with it during his career.
21. Gilbert Perreault
Gilbert Perreault was the first true superstar in Buffalo Sabres franchise history. The fleet-footed French Canadian came into the NHL as a highly touted prospect, having been drafted first overall in 1970, and did not disappoint. Perreault won the Calder Trophy, and lead the Sabres in scoring for virtually the next decade. In the early 1970's Perreault teamed up with his former linemate on the Montreal Jr. Canadiens, Rick Martin, and Rene Robert to form the "French Connection" line. The trio took the NHL by storm, and Perreault lead the Sabres to their first Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 1975.
Perreault had a great set of wheels, and used them to fly down the wing to create scoring opportunities. He posted two 100-point seasons with Buffalo, and holds virtually every meaningful franchise record. Perreault may have never won a Stanley Cup, but he gave fans in Buffalo a reason to be excited about the Sabres for the first time.
20. Peter Stastny
Peter Stastny is arguably the best Slovak to ever have played in the NHL, though like many Europeans from that era, he didn't come over to North America until later in his career. At 24, Stastny defected to Canada to play for the Quebec Nordiques, along with his brother Anton. That year, he won the Calder Trophy, and paved the way for other European players to pursue NHL careers.
Stastny was the first star player in the Nordiques' history, and registered over 100 points in each of his first six seasons in the NHL. He was a swift skater who saw the ice well, and his linemates benefited from his pinpoint-accurate passing.
Though Stastny never won a Stanley Cup, he was among the first European hockey stars in North America and exposed fans on this side of the Atlantic Ocean to the highly skilled European style of play. Stasny's greatest honor may be that he was the first European-trained player to be inducted into the Hockey Fall of Fame.
19. Kent Nilsson
Known as "The Magic Man" during his time with the Calgary Flames, Kent Nilsson was one of the most talented players that NHL had ever seen. After leaving Sweden at age 20 to play in the World Hockey Association for the Winnipeg Jets, Nilsson tallied over 100 points in his first two seasons, and dazzled fans, coaches and teammates alike with his superhuman abilities with the puck.
After the WHA folded in 1979, Nilsson transitioned over to the NHL, and set a Calgary Flames franchise record with 131 points in his second season.
After leaving Calgary, he bounced from Minnesota to Edmonton. There, with the Oilers, he tallied 19 points in 21 playoff games, helping them capture the 1987 Stanley Cup. While in Winnipeg, Bobby Hull often said that Nilsson was the most skilled player he'd ever played with, because Nilsson could simply do anything he wanted with the puck.
During a television special, a camera crew brought Nilsson a few pucks, and challenged him to hit the crossbar with a shot from the center-ice dot. The result? Nilsson nailed the crossbar with his first shot.
18. Teemu Selanne
The "Finnish Flash" took the NHL by storm during his first season in 1992-93, setting rookie scoring records of 76 goals and 132 that still stand today. From there, Selanne proceeded to become one of the most decorated goal scorers in the game, leading the league in goals on three different occasions. Selanne has a lightning-quick release, and though he's lost a step as time's gone by, early in his career he was among the fastest forwards in the league.
After being traded to Anaheim in 1996, Selanne developed great chemistry with fellow superstar Paul Kariya and posted back-to-pack 50-goal seasons in his first two full years with the Mighty Ducks. While Selanne is now the Ducks' elder statesmen now, he continues to score goals at a torrid pace.
This season, at age 40, Selanne has 76 points in 70 games, which represents how well Selanne has been able to change his game as he's aged. No longer the young winger with explosive speed, Selanne waits in the weeds in the slot until he finds an opportunity to unleash one of his patented snap shots. He remains a fan favorite in Anaheim, and continues to build on his legacy as one of the best European players ever.
17. Valeri Kharlamov
Valeri Kharlamov is another European player who never really had the opportunity to show his breathtaking skills to fans in North America. Widely regarded as the best player from the powerhouse Soviet teams from the late 1960's and 70's, Kharlamov rose to fame during the 1972 Summit Series against Canada.
While the Canadian team heavily favored to win, Kharlamov helped shock Team Canada on their home ice, scoring two goals and being named the player of the game for the series opener. He was such a dynamic player that in the series' sixth game, Team Canada's Bobby Clarke viciously slashed Kharlamov, rendering him ineffective the rest of the series.
His play during that historic series opened eyes across the NHL to the level of talent that was being produced in the Soviet Union. He represented a new style of players, who utilized speed and superior puck skill to control the pace of games. Unfortunately, Kharlamov's life was cut short in 1981, when he was killed in an automobile accident. In 2008, Kharlamov was one of only six players named posthumously to the International Ice Hockey Federation's Centennial All-Star Team, which is indicative of the impact he had on international hockey during his short career.
16. Joe Sakic
Joe Sakic burst onto the NHL scene with over 100 points in his second and third seasons, and over the course of the 1980's, he established himself as one of the best offensive forces in the league. While Sakic wasn't the biggest or fastest player, he had great vision and a knack for creating space for himself in the opposing team's zone. He also possessed a lethal weapon with his wrist shot, which he learned to use more and more as his career went on.
As great as Sakic's career in Quebec was, it pales in comparison to his level of play after the team moved to Colorado before the 1995-96 season. That year, Sakic scored 51 goals and 120 points, before leading the Avalanche to the franchise's first Stanley Cup, winning the Conn Smythe along the way. In 2000-01, Sakic lead the 'Avs to another Cup, winning the Hart Trophy that same year.
While his two Stanley Cups are impressive, Sakic may be remembered even more for his heroics at the 2002 Olympics. Sakic lead Canada to their first Olympic Gold in 50 years, and scored two goals in the final game en route to winning MVP of the tournament.
15. Sidney Crosby
Over the course of the last two years, Sidney Crosby has cemented his status as the best player in the game by becoming the most versatile scoring threat in hockey. Crosby entered the league as the most highly touted prospect since Eric Lindros, but was known for his Gretzky-like playmaking abilities rather than for his goal-scoring exploits. During his first four seasons, Crosby lived up to all the hype, winning a Stanley Cup, Art Ross and Hart Trophy in the process.
However, in between the 2008-09 season and the 2009-10 season, Crosby developed the goal-scoring side of his game, in order to be a dual threat- a player who can shoot just as well as he can pass. It paid off, and Crosby tied for the league lead in goals with 51, unseating Alex Ovechkin as the league's best goal scorer.
During that time, Crosby also scored the biggest goal in Canadian history, save for possibly Paul Henderson's winner at the 1972 Summit Series, when he delivered Canada the Gold Medal with an overtime goal at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Crosby has elite skills in every area of his game, as he can skate, puckhandle, shoot and see the ice as well as anyone in the league. He's unstoppable when he's healthy, and can protect the puck using his low center of gravity better than anyone.
14. Alex Ovechkin
Alex Ovechkin will forever be compared to Sidney Crosby, as the two have been jockeying for position as the NHL's undisputed best player. While Crosby may be winning in that competition, as far as skill and superhuman abilities go, there may be no better than Ovechkin.
Since breaking into the league after the lockout, Ovechkin has won every individual award imaginable, and had been the most exciting player in the game. His highlight-reel plays have come in bunches, including some of the most imaginative and mind-boggling goals in recent memory.
What separates Ovechkin from other 'skill' players is that he plays with the mentality of a linebacker, destroying anything and everything in his path. He is built like a power forward, but has the moves and speed of a finesse player, allowing him to beat defensemen and goaltenders by any means necessary. He possesses one of he hardest shots in the NHL, and uses it more than anyone, as he's lead the league in shots on goal by a wide margin since his first season.
He has the ability to change the outcome of a game at any moment, and though defensemen around the league have learned to contain Ovechkin to some extent, he's always capable of being a difference maker with a flick of his wrists. The Capitals' captain is a unique blend of speed, skill and physicality that makes him nearly impossible to stop for an entire game.
13. Paul Coffey
If Bobby Orr revolutionized the game with his puck-rushing and offensive mindset, Coffey continued the movement during the 1980's during his time with the Edmonton Oilers. Coffey was among the fastest skaters in the league, and possessed skill with the puck that was not typical for defensemen at that time, enabling him to become one of the best two-way blueliners in NHL history.
Coffey, as part of the high-scoring Oilers, scored 48 goals in 1985-86, a record that still stands for defensemen. Coffey used stick that had a huge curve, typically used by forwards, which allowed him to beat goalies high more easily.
Paul Coffey is often considered one of the best skaters of all-time, which allowed him to be a productive NHL player for over 20 years. His puck-rushing abilities essentially gave his team a fourth forward on the ice, and he played a key role in four Stanley Cup teams. Coffey wasn't the biggest defensemen, and didn't physically overwhelm opposing forwards, but he forced teams to give him space, or he'd blow past them with his blazing speed.
12. Sergei Fedorov
Sergei Fedorov is one of the most versatile players in recent memory, because he had the skating ability and intelligence to play both forward and on occasion, defense. As a forward, Fedorov was a scoring machine in the early 1990's, tallying 56 goals and 120 points in 1993-94. That same year he captured both the Hart Trophy and the Selke Trophy as the league's best defensive forward. Fedorov's blinding speed allowed him to fly up and down the ice, both to lead his team's offensive rushes and break up those of the opposition.
Fedorov was able to get around defensemen by either beating them wide with his speed, or use one of the man moves in his arsenal. In 1997, Detroit inked Fedorov to the most lucrative signing bonus in league history, which illustrates how valuable a commodity he was. The investment paid off, and Fedorov helped lead the Red Wings to their second consecutive Stanley Cup.
Fedorov's skill was apparent in the later stages of his career as well, even as a 39-year old with the Capitals. With game seven of the Caps' opening round series against the Rangers tied in the dying moments, Fedorov delivered, scoring a magnificent crossbar-in goal. He was a pleasure to watch because he did everything with ease, but played with a sense of urgency at the same time.
11. Peter Forsberg
Simply put, Peter Forsberg was the most complete player of the 1990's and early 2000's. Forsberg had elite skills in every aspect of his game, but what made him such a unique player was his willingness to engage in physical play. Before entering the NHL in 1994-95, Forsberg was involved in one of the biggest trades in NHL history, as he was the centerpiece of the package that Philadelphia sent to Quebec in exchange for Eric Lindros. He had the Nordiques' management drooling after his spectacular shootout goal at the 1994 Olympics that lifted Sweden to the Gold Medal.
Upon entering the NHL, Forsberg made an immediate impact on the league, winning the Calder Trophy in his first season and helping Colorado to a Stanley Cup the following year. He was an incredibly clutch player, averaging well over a point a game during his playoff career. His puck control and creativity with the puck were the hallmarks of his offensive game, and he could carry a puck through an entire team with relative ease.
While he struggled with injuries, including a ruptured spleen that knocked him out of the playoffs during Colorado's 2001 Stanley Cup run, Forsberg persevered, winning the Hart Trophy in 2003. He's become an icon in Sweden, as he helped lead them to another Gold Medal in 2006, and was one of the most dominant players in the game during his prime. Though his career was cut short, his greatness is unquestionable, and that should earn him a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame three years from now.
10. Pavel Datsyuk
Pavel Datsyuk is an absolute magician with the puck, and has the capability to make the best goaltenders in the league look like amateurs. His now-famous breakaway deke, which is basically a backhand toe-drag that he executes while gliding backwards, is a thing of beauty that no one else in the world is capable of pulling off. In addition to Datsyuk's incredibly imaginative skills with the puck, he's an incredibly shifty skater, capable of changing directions before an opposing player even realizes it.
Though Datsyuk became a star in the NHL largely for his magnificent goals and playmaking abilities, his defensive game is just as good. He's a three-time Selke Trophy winner as the league's best defensive forward, making him the best two-way Russian since Sergei Fedorov. Datsyuk is one of the most difficult players to contain in the game because he sees the ice better than almost anyone, and has one of the most accurate shots in the league. His creativity with the puck is almost otherworldly, and he keeps fans on the edge of their seats, waiting to see what unbelievable play Datsyuk will dream up next.
9. Bobby Hull
To crack the top ten among the most skilled players of the post-expansion era, a player must have done something extraordinary, or revolutionized the game in some way. Bobby Hull did both. "The Golden Jet" was one of the most innovative players in NHL history, because along with fellow Blackhawk Stan Mikita, he was one of the first to use a stick with a curved blade.
The curved blade, combined with the cannon of a shot that Bobby Hull possessed, made him nearly impossible to stop. His flowing blonde hair, speed and personality made him one of the most popular players in the game, but it was his skill that made him the superstar he was.
Bobby Hull was the first player to surpass the 50-goal mark in NHL history, and did so on three separate occasions. He was a two-time Hart Trophy winner, and was named to the NHL's First All-Star Team in 10 out of his 15 seasons.
Hull was a trailblazer off the ice as well, as he was one of the first NHL stars to defect to the WHA, commanding a previously unmatched total of $1 million from the Winnipeg Jets. While Bobby's son, Brett became the best goal scorer in the family, the younger Hull did so by finding open space to unleash his wicked snap shot, while the elder blew past defensemen or went through them with his hulk-like strength. As Gordie Howe once said, "He's so strong, he doesn't call the cattle in. He carries them in."
8. Denis Savard
Denis Savard was one of the most gifted players in NHL history, which is why he the highest drafted player in Chicago Blackhawks history until Patrick Kane went first overall in 2007. Savard was a scoring whiz in junior hockey, tallying over 100 points in each of his three seasons with the Montreal Juniors, and he continued that type of offensive production after reaching the NHL. While his five 100-point seasons are impressive, Savard will forever be remembered for his "Savardian Spin-o-rama."
The move revolutionized the game, as it enabled smaller players like Savard to avoid hits from bigger, stronger defensemen. Savard's skill level was off the charts in terms of his skating and puck handling abilities, and though he never fully became the franchise player that Blackhawk fans had hoped for, he was one of the most unique talents in league history. Denis Savard had an ability to go through an entire team, sometimes using the same move three times on one rush, because opposing players had to respect both Savard's moves and his blazing speed.
7. Jaromir Jagr
Pittsburgh Penguins fans in the 1990's had a lot to be thankful for. They had two of the most skilled players in NHL history, at the height of their powers, on one line. While Mario Lemieux was the undisputed leader and heart of the team, Jaromir Jagr was almost as dominant in his prime. Jagr could stickhandle through opponents, or use his absurdly strong quads to power his way through them. He could create an opportunity out of nothing, and was capable of beating anybody one-on-one.
His individual accomplishments are impressive, but Jagr's true on-ice genius can't be quantified by the awards or numbers he put up during his career. When motivated, Jagr could pick apart a defense with his passing, or use his laser of a wrist shot to beat even the best goalies.
After Lemieux retired for the first time in 1997, Jagr flourished in his absence, winning four straight scoring titles and a Hart Trophy. While everything he did at the NHL level was impressive enough, some of his finest moments came while representing the Czech Republic internationally. At the 1998 Olympics, Jagr lead his team, widely considered an underdog, to a Gold Medal.
Even as a 38-year old, Jagr was among the best players on the Czech team at the 2010 Olympics, and still displayed his patented puck control and offensive instincts. Jagr's greatest skill was his ability to protect the puck from defensemen, and it helped him become one the most unstoppable offensive player of the late 1990's and early 2000's.
6. Alexei Kovalev
Though Kovalev's numbers and individual awards pale in comparison to the other players in the top ten on this list, the man known as "AK-27" is arguably the most creative player with the puck in NHL history. Kovalev has always demonstrated he's had world-class hands, but his effort level and motivation have been constantly questioned by coaches throughout his career.
On pure talent alone, he might be the most gifted player ever, because like Datsyuk, he is capable of doing things with the puck that most players can't even dream of. Kovalev was aptly nicknamed "l'Artiste" in Montreal for his almost artistic approach to the game. It's almost as Kovalev won't make a play unless it's beautiful to watch, which is why he's widely considered one of the most entertaining players to watch.
Early in his career, Kovalev helped lead the Rangers to their first Stanley Cup since 1940. From there, he became a three-time All-Star, but remained an enigma for most of his career. Even so, Kovalev's collection of goals might have more absolutely brain-numbing tallies than any other in history, and he's constantly coming up with new ways to beat goalies.
When he was younger, he was able to blow past defensemen with his trademark Russian speed, but as he's slowed with age, he still finds ways to dazzle his fans and peers with his hands. Even now as a 38-year old with the Penguins, while he struggles to score at this usual pace, he continues to leave goalies dumbfounded in shootouts. If ever there was a player who played the game on his own terms, it's Alexei Kovalev. It's why he's frustrated coaches, fans and teammates throughout his career, but yet also why he's one of the most beautiful players in the history of the game.
5. Pavel Bure
Among the many Russians who made this list, none were more electrifying than the "Russian Rocket." Pavel Bure exploded onto the NHL scene by winning the Calder Trophy in 1992 with 34 goals in 65 games. He followed that up with two straight 60-goal seasons for the Canucks, and lead the team in scoring with 31 points during their march to the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals.
Bure was the most exciting European player ever because he had speed, hands and a willingness to skate into high-traffic areas of the ice. He could either use his phenomenal stickhandling or lethal speed to get around opponents, and would make goaltenders look downright ridiculous once he'd broken free.
Bure's career was derailed by injuries in the mid 1990's, but he rebounded in the early millennium, winning the Rocket Richard in 2000 and 2001 with two seasons of 58-goals or more. He could lift fans out of their seats in an instant, and he always seemed to score magnificent goals in bunches.
His brilliance was on display at the 1998 Olympics, in the Semi-Finals against Finland, when he score five goals to help his Russian team to the Gold Medal Game. Bure's career was cut short due to a series of knee injuries, but when in his prime, there was no player that could fly quite like the Russian Rocket.
4. Guy Lafleur
"The Flower" remains one of the most purely skilled players ever, and is one of the few players of decades past that looks like he could play in today's NHL. He had an effortless stride, allowing him to glide around opponents with apparent ease. The helmet-less NHL suited Lafleur, as his flowing hair would wave behind him as he tore down the wing.
As longtime Bruins fan and ESPN writer Bill Simmons put it, "there might have been greater players, but no Bruins opponent was scarier than Lafleur with a head of steam and his foofy French hair flying behind him. For Bruins fans, Lafleur was the Grim Reaper." Indeed, Lafleur terrorized the Bruins, especially in 1979, when he tied game seven of the Semi-Finals up with a beautiful goal in the final minute.
Watching Lafleur play was like witnessing poetry on ice. Somewhat like Alexei Kovalev, everything he did with the puck was done so in a beautiful fashion. He skated effortlessly, but with purpose. He handled the puck softly, but with a firm touch. Lafleur was last bona fide superstar forward the Montreal Canadiens have had, and he represented everything that's great about French Canadian hockey.
Lafleur possessed superior skills with the puck and his skates, enabling him to lead the Canadians past physical teams like the Flyers, and onto to five Stanley Cups. Lafleur had prodigal skill, and though he struggled early in his career, delivered consistently over the course of his career, winning a permanent place in the hearts of Canadiens fans.
3. Bobby Orr
In terms of what player most revolutionized the sport as a whole, there's no one comparable to Bobby Orr. Orr, a hotshot defenseman out of Parry Sound, Ontario took the traditional role of a defenseman and turned it upside down. Orr had the speed and offensive abilities to join the rush, so he saw no reason why he should be constrained to the conventional limits of the position.
Rushing the puck up the ice gave the Bruins a fourth attacker, which is a large reason why Boston was the most dangerous team in the game in the late 1960's and early 70's. His skills allowed him to become the best offensive defenseman in the history of the game, and he changed the position forever.
Orr was the driving force behind the Bruins two Stanley Cup teams in 1970 and '72, and famously scored the Cup-winning goal in overtime against the Blues before flying through the air in celebration. Orr is the only blueliner to ever win the Art Ross Trophy as the league's leading scorer, which illustrates how much more dominant offensively he was than any other defenseman in history.
His legacy in Boston and the rest of the hockey world will live on forever, though he played just 12 NHL seasons. Orr's career was cut short by a series of tragic knee injuries, but not before he solidified himself as the greatest defenseman to ever play. The fact that he is still the measuring stick for defensemen in today's game is indicative of the type of impact he had upon the game.
2. Wayne Gretzky
Wayne Gretzky is almost unquestionably the greatest player to ever lace up a pair of skates, and is arguably the most skilled as well. The problem with that argument though, is that Gretzky himself admits that he wasn't the fastest player, and didn't have the hardest shot. Rather, it was his mental game that helped him become by far the most prolific scorer in NHL history.
Gretzky would out-think, out-smart and out-execute his opponents, almost like a chess player. He would see the game one move ahead of everyone else, which allowed him to constantly have the puck on his stick. Gretzky's passing and puck control were obviously among the best in the game, but his hockey IQ was so far ahead of anyone else's. Gretzky remains the only player in history to tally 200 points in a season, which he did on four separate occasions.
After winning his eight Hart Trophies and four Stanley Cups in Edmonton, Gretzky was traded to Los Angeles in the biggest trade in hockey history. From there, he helped cultivate the growth of hockey on the West Coast, and continued to break virtually all of his hero, Gordie Howe's records along the way.
While he was primarily known as a playmaker later in his career, "The Great One" is also the greatest goal-scorer the game's ever seen. His 894 goals are miles ahead of his closest challenger, and his single-season record of 92 goals will almost assuredly never be matched.
As he aged, he adapted his game, doing less of the puck-rushing himself, and instead choosing to set-up in his office behind the net, waiting for a teammate to get open. Gretzky revolutionized the game in his own way as well, showing that playing behind the net was an effective way for smaller players to shield themselves from defensemen. His contributions to the game are endless, and the game will probably never see a player as dominant as Wayne Gretzky.
1. Mario Lemieux
The game of hockey has never seen a talent quite like Mario Lemieux. A huge man at six-foot-four, Lemieux combined his massive frame with possibly the best set of hands in the game. "Super Mario" was capable of dangling through an entire team, and he did so frequently. His reach, soft touch with the puck and rifle of a shot made him impossible to stop, and he made opposing players look bad more often than anyone else.
Lemieux is Wayne Gretzky's only real challenger to the title of best forward of all time, which speaks to how great he was. Though Gretzky said in a recent interview that Lemieux "thought the game in a more similar way to me than any other player," Mario was a different brand of player. While Wayne was a deceptive playmaker, Lemieux was a physically dominant power forward.
He could beat a team every way possible, and in one game he did just that. Against the New Jersey Devils in 1988, Lemieux scored in every possibly fashion—even strength, power play, shorthanded, penalty shot, empty net. That game illustrated how talented he was, as he was capable of being a difference maker in every situation.
Like many others on this list, Lemieux career was seriously impacted by injuries and illness, including his bout with cancer in 1993. Though he missed two months of the season due to treatment and radiation, Lemieux roared past Pat Lafontaine in the scoring race, to capture his fourth Art Ross Trophy.
Lemieux's body wore down later in his career, but he still continued to be the most talented player in the game. After retiring in 1997, Lemieux returned in December of 2000, helping the Penguins reach the Eastern Conference Finals. A year later, as the captain of Team Canada at the 2002 Olympics, Lemieux delivered a spectacular performance against the Czech Republic in the round-robin.
The captain notched two goals to help Canada tie 3-3, and saved his best play for the Gold Medal Game. With the game tied at zero in the first period, Lemieux let Chris Pronger's pass drift through his legs onto the tape of Paul Kariya, who rifled the puck past American goaltender Richter. Lemieux froze Richter with the fake, and the goal set the tone for the game, which Canada went on to win 5-2.
While Gretzky may be the consensus best player ever, one has to wonder what would have been if Lemieux had stayed healthy for more of his career. Even at the Winter Classic Alumni game this season, Lemieux displayed those silky soft hands that dazzled the hockey world for two decades.