Ranking the Top Playmakers in the NHL

Rob Vollman@robvollmanNHLContributor IOctober 2, 2013

Ranking the Top Playmakers in the NHL

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    A great playmaker can make a 20-goal scorer out of a replacement-level player, can help a legitimate 20-goal scorer put up 35 or more and propel a top sniper to the Maurice Richard trophy. Among today's leading playmakers, who rank as the ten best?

    Assisting us in our ranking of the league's best playmaker is a new statistic called setups (or sometimes simply passes), which are awarded every time a player's pass results in a shot. Since this isn't officially recorded by the NHL, it uses an estimate that's based on primary assists and shooting percentages. This data is from Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract, which uses data from Behind the Net.

    Using this new statistic eliminates the advantage certain players may normally enjoy by playing with incredible goal-scorers, as is the case with Nicklas Backstrom in Washington or Martin St. Louis in Tampa Bay.

    The players with the most setups are the ones most consistently getting the puck on someone's stick when they're in a position to score. The league's best playmakers are those determined to have created the most goal-scoring opportunities over the past three seasons, both in absolute terms and on a per-game basis.

    The field is so competitive (beyond the top few) that many great playmakers just barely missed the cut. Strong cases could be made for the inclusion of several great playmakers like John Tavares, Pavel Datsyuk, Mike Ribeiro, Brad Richards and Jason Spezza, just to name a few. For what it's worth, this list includes only those who have even the slightest edge over these tremendous passers.

    All advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted. 

10. Taylor Hall, LW, Edmonton Oilers

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    10. Taylor Hall, LW, Edmonton Oilers

    Setup Passes: 225 in 2013

    Linemates: Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

    Opening the list with a surprise addition is Taylor Hall, who led the NHL with 225 setup passes in 2013, which is exactly five per game.

    Hall's playmaking talents are largely unheralded, but he was largely responsible in helping Jordan Eberle to 34 goals in 2011-12—and as a 20-year-old.

    While his linemates are unquestionably talented, they are also quite young and inexperienced. Hall's puck distribution skills will start becoming far more obvious once they mature, possibly resulting in some more league-leading totals in the years to come.


9. Henrik Zetterberg, LW, Detroit Red Wings

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    9. Henrik Zetterberg, LW, Detroit Red Wings

    Setup Passes: 170 in 2013, 279 in 2011-12

    Linemate: Pavel Datsyuk

    There isn't much to choose from between Detroit's two elite playmakers Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. While "Pasha" may have been the better playmaker over the years, "Curly Fries" is likely a small step better today.

    Detroit's top Swedish winger has finished in the top five in assists in two the past three seasons, and generally no worse than 15th in setup passes overall. On average Zetterberg sets up anywhere from 3.4 to 3.7 shots per game. 

8. Patrick Kane, RW, Chicago Blackhawks

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    8. Patrick Kane, RW, Chicago Blackhawks

    Setup Passes: 164 in 2013, 296 in 2011-12

    Linemates: Changes constantly

    Statistically, Patrick Kane has been much like Eric Staal in that his assist and pass totals have been consistently strong, but penetrating the top 10 only once.

    Kane's established rate of setting up shots is roughly 3.5 per game, with only the occasional exception. Recently, that's been good for roughly 12th overall.

    Perhaps his playmaking claim to fame is to manage 32 assists in 47 games last year playing with Dave Bolland and an injured Patrick Sharp.

7. Joe Thornton, C, San Jose Sharks

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    7. Joe Thornton, C, San Jose Sharks

    Setup Passes: 181 in 2013, 305 in 2011-12

    Linemates: Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau

    Joe Thornton, who would have been ranked No. 1 in his prime, has actually been the model of consistency. Except for a strong 2009-10 season, Thornton has averaged between 3.70 and 3.77 setup passes per game in each of the past five seasons, and is virtually always in the top 10 overall.

    Thornton's playmaking talent was first truly established in his Hart-winning 2005-06 season, when he made a 56-goal scorer out of an otherwise AHL-bound Jonathan Cheechoo. He registered 96 assists that season, the first of three consecutive seasons that he led the league in assists.

    Only Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr and Adam Oates have recorded more assists in a single season, and Lemieux only did it twice.

    Obviously Thornton's playmaking skills have cooled down a bit since then, but not enough to push him out of the league's top 10.

6. Ryan Getzlaf, C, Anaheim Ducks

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    6. Ryan Getzlaf, C, Anaheim Ducks

    Setup Passes: 178 in 2013, 311 in 2011-12

    Linemate: Corey Perry

    Ryan Getzlaf finished in the league's top 10 in assists for the fourth time since the 2005 lockout, during which time he's seventh in overall assists.

    His impressive 4.06 setup passes per game is actually not his highest, as he setup 4.38 shots per game in 2009-10. Getzlaf is one of those rare playmakers who can consistently average four such passes per game, which is why he rarely finishes any lower than eighth overall.

    As a playmaker, his claim to fame was the following season where he helped Corey Perry, whose career high was 32 goals, win the Maurice Richard trophy with an unexpected 50-goal campaign.

5. Eric Staal, C, Carolina Hurricanes

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    5. Eric Staal, C, Carolina Hurricanes

    Setup Passes: 183 in 2013, 324 in 2011-12

    Linemates: Jiri Tlusty and Alexander Semin

    Another underrated playmaker is Carolina captain Eric Staal. Jiri Tlusty had just 17 goals in his first 149 games, and yet managed 23 goals in 48 games with Staal last season. In return, Tlusty helped Staal finish in the top 10 in assists (sixth).

    Staal set up 3.82 shots per game, which was actually down from 3.95 setups per game in 2011-12, which was a big reason why Tlusty broke out. Expect it to continue if Staal finishes sixth in setup passes again this season, just as he has two years in a row.  

4. Henrik Sedin, C, Vancouver Canucks

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    4. Henrik Sedin, C, Vancouver Canucks

    Setup Passes: 384 in 2011-12

    Linemates: Daniel Sedin and Alex Burrows

    Henrik Sedin led the NHL in setup passes in 2011-12 with 384, or about 4.68 per game. This marked his third straight season with an increase. Unsurprisingly, he also led the league in assists all three seasons, too.

    Alex Burrows never scored more than 12 goals in a season until he was placed on the Sedin line, where he has established himself as a 25-goal scorer, and even had 35 in 2009-10.

    Unfortunately, 2013 was a bit of a disappointment for Sedin, and his passes per game dropped to 2.8, or 134 overall, which was only good for 33rd in the league. Hopefully he will bounce back under new coach John Tortorella.

3. Evgeni Malkin, C, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    3. Evgeni Malkin, C, Pittsburgh Penguins

    Setup Passes: 376 in 2011-12

    Linemate: James Neal

    The same study that found that a player's scoring increased by 44 percent when Crosby was on the ice also found that scoring was up 36 percent with Evgeni Malkin. Malkin's 0.75 career assists per game is second to Crosby and 13th all-time.

    Malkin had a great 2011-12 season, averaging over five setup passes per game, and 376 overall, the second highest total in the NHL that year. He also helped James Neal, who was roughly an established 25-goal player, score 40 goals.

    Unfortunately, injuries and other struggles have resulted in some disappointing seasons recently, but at his best there are very few playmakers who rival Malkin.

2. Claude Giroux, C, Philadelphia Flyers

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    2. Claude Giroux, C, Philadelphia Flyers

    Setup Passes: 202 in 2013, 366 in 2011-12

    Linemate: Jakub Voracek

    A rather unexpected choice for second on the list, Claude Giroux is probably the most underrated playmaker in the game today. Other than Giroux, only Crosby has averaged at least four setup passes per game in each of the past two seasons. Giroux averaged 4.2 passes per game in 2013, and 4.75 in 2011-12.

    In terms of more traditional statistics, Giroux has 100 assists over the past two seasons, only one back of the leader Henrik Sedin.

    One final mark of a great playmaker is the increase of scoring of those around him. Jakub Voracek scored between nine and 18 goals in his four full seasons before joining Giroux, after which he scored 22 goals in 48 games. At least some of that is because of Giroux. 

1. Sidney Crosby, C, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    1. Sidney Crosby, C, Pittsburgh Penguins

    Setup Passes: 195 in 36 games

    Linemates: Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis

    You don't even need statistics to identify the league's best playmaker, because it's as obvious now as it was throughout the 1980s. Sidney Crosby has the undeniably unequalled talent to get the puck to the right player at the right time.

    How does he do statistically? While averaging four passes a game is considered excellent, Crosby had 5.42 passes per game in 2013, and 5.07 in 2011-12. According to a study by Eric T of NHL Numbers, Crosby boosts the shooting percentage of his linemates by 2.1 percent, the largest margin in the league. And according to my recent study in Hockey Abstract, playing with Crosby has increased his linemates' scoring by 44 percent.

    While it's best to be careful when basing any kind of conclusive judgment on statistics, Crosby is almost definitely the league's best playmaker.

    Rob Vollman is author of Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract, co-author of the annual Hockey Prospectus guides and a featured ESPN Insider writer. @robvollmanNHL.