Ranking the Top 25 Franchise Cornerstone Players in the NHL

Garrett BakerSenior Analyst IAugust 20, 2013

Ranking the Top 25 Franchise Cornerstone Players in the NHL

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    "What player would I want if I was going to build an NHL team tomorrow?"

    This is the question I asked myself while constructing this list. 

    There are hundreds and hundreds of NHL players, but any franchise that wants to be successful knows that they need that centerpiece player to build around.

    Finding these caliber of men is extremely difficult. A true cornerstone plays an all-around game, leads by example each shift and is a respected voice in the locker room.

    These players are the best of the best on and off the ice. Here are my top 25 franchise cornerstone players in the NHL.

Honorable Mentions

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    Henrik Zetterberg: The hardest omission for me, he was the last guy cut from the top 25. At the end of the day, even as good as he is, 32 is just a bit too old.

    Zdeno Chara, Pavel Datsyuk, Joe Thornton: They're still incredible hockey players for the very near-future, but just too old to start to build a team around right now. 

    Ryan McDonagh, Zach Bogosian, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Victor Hedman: All very talented young defensemen, these guys just haven't showed enough yet to crack the list. 

    Ryan Suter and Zach Parise: They got Minnesota into the playoffs but wilted against Chicago in five games. They haven't showed that they can carry the load all the way yet. 

    Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf: These two forwards are talented, but they are too inconsistent to crack the list.

    Henrik and Daniel Sedin: The twins are as offensively gifted as they come, but they rely on each other too much to ever be separated and aren't very complete players.

25. Jason Spezza

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    Jason Spezza beat out Henrik Zetterberg for this last spot on the list, and while I'm sure a lot of people will disagree with that, I think extremely highly of both players and Spezza's being two years younger won out in the end.

    With Daniel Alfredsson scorning Ottawa to join Zetterberg in Detroit, Spezza is in line to take over as captain of the Senators. I'm excited to see newly acquired winger Bobby Ryan play on a line with the uber-talented Spezza.

24. Jamie Benn

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    A bit of a dark horse selection here, but there is no denying that the Dallas Stars are now officially Jamie Benn's team, which Tyler Seguin will find out quickly.

    And how many first-line centers can go toe-to-toe with Joe Thornton? Benn may be the only one.

    Benn is unassuming off the ice, but he is a beast of a center when the game begins. He has underrated hands and offensive creativity, but his physicality is what makes the 24-year-old such a complete player and leader.

23. P.K. Subban

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    For as good as the reigning Norris Trophy winner already is, this pick was made partially based on the projection that P.K. Subban will continue to develop his all-around game and take another leap forward in the coming year.

    Subban is an electric defenseman who can score points but also be a punisher when the situation calls for it. He has thrived as a young defenseman on a relatively weak defensive corps, which says a lot for his character and ability.

22. Taylor Hall

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    After leading the OHL's Windsor Spitfires to two straight Memorial Cup Championships—and being named as the tournament MVP both years—Taylor Hall was made the first pick in the 2010 NHL draft.

    Hall only played in 65 and 61 games in his first two full NHL seasons, but showed a knack for the goal and a relentless energy that makes him difficult to play against.

    The 21-year-old really started to put it together in 2013, and I wouldn't be surprised if he is the frontrunner to take over as Edmonton's captain in the future.

21. Alex Galchenyuk

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    Alex Galchenyuk may still be a teenager, but it is almost a guarantee that he will be the face of the Montreal Canadiens in the near future.

    The third pick in last year's draft, Galchenyuk is incredibly talented and impressively polished for a 19-year-old center. He has to get stronger, but he showed flashes of his playmaking ability this season for Montreal and is just a couple seasons from being a top-10 center in the league.

20. Patrick Kane

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    Patrick Kane has his share of doubters, but it's hard to argue with the production and accolades he has already racked up by the age of 24. 

    He can play both center and wing in a pinch, and it's hard to find a more exciting player when he's feeling good with the puck on his stick. With two Stanley Cups and a Conn Smythe trophy to his name, Kane is one of the NHL's premier talents who still hasn't hit his prime. 

19. Eric Staal

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    Eric Staal is forgotten all too often these days, but the Carolina Hurricanes captain remains one of the best leaders and two-way centers in the game. 

    He hasn't been surrounded by much talent recently in Carolina, but he won a Stanley Cup with them in 2006 and has been roughly a point-per-game player for eight straight seasons. 

    Staal is in his prime at 28 years old, but he's the kind of player who will continue making an impact for a long time.

18. Kris Letang

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    Kris Letang is an insanely gifted offensive defenseman, and his ability in his own end is often understated as well. He's right in his prime at 26 years old and has all the tools in the world.

    The only thing holding him back on the list is the fact that he has Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin opening up the ice in front of him, and there's no telling how he would do as the focal point of the opposition night in and night out. 

17. Jonathan Quick

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    The lone goaltender on this list, Jonathan Quick is a special player who has won both a Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe trophy and is right smack in his prime at 27 years old.

    While his career regular-season statistics (2.32 GAA, .915 save percentage in 286 games) are very good, his career postseason numbers (2.03 GAA, .929 save percentage in 50 games) are outstanding. The higher the stakes, the better Quick plays.

16. Alex Ovechkin

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    Some people may scoff at Alex Ovechkin being ranked here, but I'm firm in my belief that he just is not a very good leader on or off the ice and therefore not elite top-15 cornerstone.

    Ovi is a dynamic offensive talent, but his all-around play leaves a lot to be desired. He gets ripped for his lack of effort for good reason, because for every outstanding goal like this, there is an embarrassing play like this.

    Although he's on the wrong side of the scoring peak, he could still contribute 40-plus goals, and he has helped lead Washington to six straight playoffs. But there just isn't enough to the rest of his game and personality to be considered a top-15 franchise player at this stage of his career.

15. Logan Couture

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    Logan Couture does not get the love that he deserves. He is 24 years old, just entering his prime, and signed a new five-year, $30 million contract this offseason.

    I think he will break out in a big way for San Jose this upcoming season and prove to the world that he deserves to be mentioned among the league's best two-way centers.

14. Erik Karlsson

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    If you said that Erik Karlsson is the most offensively talented defenseman in the game, very few people would argue with you.

    The 23-year-old is also better defensively than he's given credit for, and the 2012 Norris Trophy winner is only getting better—a scary thought for his opponents and the main reason he cracked the top 15 on this list.

13. Drew Doughty

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    Drew Doughty is one place higher than Karlsson, because he's much better defensively. The 23-year-old put up 59 points in his second season, which introduced him to the league as a dynamic offensive defenseman.

    But he also has the capability to be a shutdown defenseman, and after that season, Los Angeles needed him to stay at home more, so his point totals have come down a bit. He's still one of the best two-way defensemen in the league and has a Cup already.

12. Matt Duchene

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    Matt Duchene has already had some struggles early in his NHL career, missing 24 games in 2011-12 because of knee and ankle injuries.

    But Duchene roared back this past season, and he is one of the most talented centers in the league already at only 22 years old. He signed a five-year extension with Colorado in July, which means they're just as sure about his potential as I am. 

11. Alex Pietrangelo

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    Anyone who is surprised by Alex Pietrangelo being ranked this high either doesn't live in St. Louis or doesn't follow hockey quite as closely as they think.

    The 23-year-old is a true two-way defenseman and is arguably a top-five blueliner in the league. He and the Blues have yet to reach a deal, but I think Pietrangelo will get the $7 million-plus that he wants, because he knows he's worth it.

10. Anze Kopitar

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    Sometimes overlooked because he's on a stacked roster out in Los Angeles, Anze Kopitar would be an ideal player to build a team around because of his physical prowess and calm demeanor.

    Kopitar is an incredibly talented, all-around center who is competitive and works hard but is low key off the ice. He lets his play do the talking, which is often the best thing a leader can do. 

9. Gabriel Landeskog

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    It speaks volumes that the Colorado Avalanche felt that Gabriel Landeskog was ready to take over as captain at just 19 years of age.

    The great two-way left winger is everything that you want out of a cornerstone: he plays hard, is a great teammate and handles himself well off the ice.

    The fact that he became such a key part of an NHL team before he turned 20 is why he vaulted into my top 10.

8. Claude Giroux

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    Claude Giroux had a bit of a down year in 2013, but there's a reason that the Philadelphia Flyers named him their captain at just 24 years old.

    Giroux is an electrifying playmaker, but his leadership and defensive abilities are often overshadowed by his offensive talent. He's a solid two-way center who hustles and can take over a game at any point.

7. Shea Weber

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    Make no mistake about it: if Shea Weber played in a market like Chicago, New York, Philadelphia or Boston, we would hear a whole lot more about the Nashville Predators' captain.

    He's 28 years old, but nobody would be surprised if he continued dominating opponents for the next decade or so. He is a ferocious, powerful, two-way defenseman who pretty much carries Nashville to the mild successes they have. 

6. Evgeni Malkin

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    This ranking may seem a little low, but the biggest reason Evgeni Malkin doesn't crack the top five on this list is because he just hasn't been the centerpiece of a team, so how can we know for sure what he would do as one?

    Malkin has always been second-fiddle to You Know Who, and as talented as he is, there's just no guarantee that he would be the same person and player if all of the attention was on him.

5. Patrice Bergeron

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    Now I know that similar logic could be used for Patrice Bergeron as it was with Malkin, but I think the 2013 playoffs really proved that Bergeron would be fully capable as the cornerstone of a franchise.

    Bergeron showed the world what Boston fans already knew: he is a great leader, a stalwart defensively, a smart playmaker, a scrappy center and the kind of guy who will do anything to help his team.

4. John Tavares

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    Although he has always been a little bit in the shadows, John Tavares is perhaps the league's most underrated budding superstar, if such a title was given.

    Tavares is uniquely skilled in all aspects of the game, and his hockey IQ is off the charts. The center is a frontrunner to be named the New York Islanders' new captain at just 22 years of age, and with good reason.

    As he continues leading the Islanders' return to relevance, more people will be forced to take notice, and he'll creep up into the discussion for the best player in the league, which is why he made my top five here.

3. Steven Stamkos

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    At only 23 years old and already one of the most talented players in the league, Steven Stamkos would be a dynamic young superstar to build a team around.

    He has missed just three games in his first five NHL seasons, and he has more points scored than games played in his young career.

2. Jonathan Toews

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    The picture of Jonathan Toews is the biggest reason he is number two on this list: he's a winner.

    In just six NHL seasons, Toews has already won two Stanley Cups as the captain and centerpiece of the Chicago Blackhawks.

    He's a gold medal winner, the quickest NHL captain named by games played and the second-youngest Conn Smythe Trophy Winner in NHL history. 

1. Sidney Crosby

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    It's lonely at the top. Say what you want about Sidney Crosby, but any hockey fan would take him first if they were going to build an NHL team.

    He's just entering his prime at 26 years old, but Crosby has already been a four-time all-star, won the Art Ross Trophy, been to two Stanley Cups (winning one) and scored the game-winning goal to win a Gold Medal in the Olympics.