Ranking the 12 Most Entertaining NHL Players Today

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured ColumnistSeptember 25, 2021

Ranking the 12 Most Entertaining NHL Players Today

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    It's the coolest game on ice.

    OK, maybe that's a tagline created by the NHL's marketing arm, but that doesn't make it untrue.

    As difficult as throwing a tight spiral or hitting a 95 mph fastball might seem, the guys who do those things stand on solid ground, not on ice skates.

    So hockey wins. And that's just with the rank and file.

    When you up the ante to include the sport's most athletically gifted and sublimely skilled players, the entertainment level gets raised straight through the roof.

    And while basking in the glow of the imminent 2021-22 regular season, the B/R hockey writing types put their heads together to determine the dozen players whose entertainment value is the highest.

    Scorers. Playmakers. Shut-down defenders. Money goalies.

    They are all here for your review. Click through to take a look, and let us know what you think with a viewpoint or two—as entertaining as you care to go—in the comments section.

Mathew Barzal, C, New York Islanders

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    Jim McIsaac/Associated Press

    A childhood fan of Patrick Kane, the Islanders' 24-year-old center is evolving an East Coast version of the Chicago Blackhawks star.

    He won the Calder Trophy as the league's best rookie with an 85-point debut in 2017-18 and has followed up by helping New York reach the playoff final four in each of the past two seasons.

    He's the Islanders' top scorer by nearly 50 points across his now-four-year career and is 20th in the league in assists across the same time frame. He's entering the second year of a three-year, $21 million contract as this season begins and figures to be a star, on Long Island or elsewhere, for many years beyond.

    "I think his first year he had like 90 points and took everyone by surprise," Colorado Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon told NHL.com. "What an amazing player. I think he leads the league in possession.

    "The puck is always on his stick. I love watching him. He's another guy [I love to watch]. There's so many players, but he's up there. He's a pretty special player."

Sidney Crosby, C, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Every now and then, a star lives up to his promise.

    Crosby has done that and more since arriving in Pittsburgh as a franchise-saving No. 1 overall pick in 2005.

    He was edged out for the Calder that year by another of the league's all-time greats (spoiler alert: We'll see him later) but has made up for the disappointment with a pair of Art Ross trophies, a pair of Hart trophies, a pair of Conn Smythe trophies and three Stanley Cup wins.

    Oh, throw in a pair of Olympic gold medals too.

    He remains one of the league's best players even at 34, having averaged a point-per-game in each of his 16 seasons, including a 24-goal, 38-assist effort in just 55 games in 2020-21.

    And he's still doing the things he did as a kid.

    "He would take some 6'5" defenseman, put the puck through their stick two or three times, somehow he would just leverage, outmuscle them when they're leaning on him, get around them," junior teammate Ryan Duncan told Sportsnet. "He'd open up his skates and pivot, go around him and somehow make an unbelievable deke to score on the goalie. I mean, it happened countless times."

Adam Fox, D, New York Rangers

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    You know those top-heavy trades that have prospects thrown in?

    Fox has already been a part of two of them.

    Still just 23, the 5'11", 183-pounder was drafted by the Calgary Flames and traded to the Carolina Hurricanes in a deal that also sent Dougie Hamilton to Raleigh. He was on the move again 10 months later, this time from Carolina to New York when the Rangers acquired his rights for a pair of draft picks.

    To say the latter acquisition has paid off would be an understatement.

    He showed a blue-line playmaker's acumen as a rookie while assisting on 34 goals, including 12 on the power play, as a rookie across 70 games in 2019-20. More of the same came in 2020-21, along with a Norris Trophy, when he assisted on 42 goals—tops among NHL defensemen—in just 55 games for the Rangers.

    "This guy's an elite player in this league," then-Rangers coach David Quinn told Sports Illustrated earlier this year. "I thought he was last year. I know people were talking an awful lot about [Cale] Makar and [Quinn] Hughes and guys like that, but this guy's special." 

Quinn Hughes, D, Vancouver Canucks

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Another young, smaller-framed and offensively-skilled defenseman, Vancouver's Hughes was a star from the moment he touched NHL ice, earning an All-Star Game berth and qualifying as a finalist for the Calder Trophy.

    The 21-year-old had 25 power-play points and 53 overall points in just 68 games for the Canucks during a pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season and then came back for 41 points in 56 games in his sophomore effort.

    A fan of ex-Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith, Hughes is the oldest hockey-playing sibling in a prolific family that includes 2019 No. 1 overall pick Jack Hughes and 2021 first-round pick Luke Hughes, both of whom play for the New Jersey Devils.

    The Canucks' Hughes played the final year of an entry-level contract in 2020-21 and is still negotiating a new deal with the team before the start of the new season.

    "When you rewatch video on slo-mo, you still see that [Hughes] is able to make plays through and in traffic and skate himself out of trouble so often," Golden Knights coach Peter DeBoer told the Province. "He's a special player who has the ability, even with pressure and attention, to make plays."

Kirill Kaprizov, LW, Minnesota Wild

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    Craig Lassig/Associated Press

    OK, Minnesota Wild fans. You can all exhale now.

    The reigning Calder Trophy winner finally signed a five-year, $45 million deal on Tuesday that will keep him in town for the long term and give the franchise a chance to continue the momentum it built last season.

    The 24-year-old Russian scored 27 goals and 51 points in 55 games for the Wild, who tied for eighth in the league and pushed the Vegas Golden Knights to seven games in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

    It was the most playoff games for Minnesota in a season since their 10-game stay in 2014-15.

    "We knew he had skill, but he can make something out of nothing," Wild general manager Bill Guerin told ESPN. "What's surprised me the most is how competitive he is on things like loose pucks, and how strong he is. Honestly, he's fearless. He doesn't back down from anybody.

    "I like that. I think that's a great quality in a young player."

Nikita Kucherov, RW, Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Scoring champion. Check.

    Most Valuable Player. Check.

    Stanley Cup champion. Check. Check.

    That's the prodigious early-career resume assembled by Tampa Bay winger Nikita Kucherov, who shows precisely zero signs of releasing his grip now that he's advanced into his late 20s.

    Now 28, Kucherov missed the entire 2020-21 regular season but returned just in time for the playoffs and a 23-game run in which he produced 32 points—nine more than the second-leading scorer—and won a second consecutive championship. That came on the heels of a four-season stretch in which he was the league's second-leading scorer with 398 points in 304 games, trailing only Connor McDavid's 421 in 306.

    "He's just an elite player," former teammate J.T. Brown told USA Today. "His vision is there.

    "He's always looking. Sometimes you think it almost gets overlooked because he is such a dynamic scorer and he can shoot from anywhere and score, but he's just as good at making players around him better and setting them up and putting them in good positions."

Nathan MacKinnon, C, Colorado Avalanche

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    For four years, he built up.

    And in the four years since, he's broken out.

    MacKinnon, a 6'0", 200-pound center, was picked first overall by the then-woeful Avalanche in 2013 and earned the Calder Trophy to begin his gradual ascent through the league. He became a point-per-game player in 2017-18 and hasn't stopped, scoring the third-most points in the league since that season began.

    Sixty-five points in 48 games last season helped Colorado to a Presidents' Trophy in 2020-21, and his hard-working presence has established them as an early favorite to make a championship run in 2021-22.

    "The mentality to put in the work, willingness and intensity, was there right away, like it was with [Sidney Crosby]," trainer Andy O'Brien told Sportsnet. "I never had to motivate Nate.

    "I just give him the structure and the details and he became a student of it. He wanted to understand everything he could to become a better player."

Cale Makar, D, Colorado Avalanche

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Yes, Colorado hockey fans have a lot to savor these days.

    Not only do the Avalanche possess one of the hardest-working and impossibly gifted forwards in MacKinnon, but they struck defenseman gold upon drafting Makar at No. 4 overall in 2017.

    The 5'11", 187-pounder arrived in Calder Trophy-winning style amid the COVID-19 chaos in 2019-20, scoring 12 times and assisting on 38 more goals in just 57 games as a first-year player. He upped the production to point-per-game level in 2020-21, registering 44 points in 44 games in his second season.

    The output was tied for fifth among all NHL blueliners.

    "There are so many things that are amazing about him," MacKinnon told ESPN"He's such a freak athlete. He's so fast and powerful. I think he's one of the best D-men in the league already. But he's got this quiet confidence about him."

Auston Matthews, C, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    In hockey, it's all about the goal scorers.

    And no one scores more prolifically these days than Matthews, another No. 1 overall pick (2016) who's paid off for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

    The hulking 6'3", 220-pounder netted 40 goals in 82 games as a rookie on the way to a Calder Trophy in 2016-17 and has scored at least 34 times every year. His total of 199 since the start of that season are just six behind Alex Ovechkin, who has played 24 more games.

    Matthews led the NHL with 41 in just 52 games last season, helping the Leafs to a division title.

    Not bad for a kid from the desert and the first American player to go No. 1 since 2007.

    "Patrick [Kane] has done some unbelievable things for the U.S. and he's a great player," Danton Cole, who coached Matthews as an under-17 player, told the Sporting News. "But I think where Auston's at, if we were in the Olympics, I'd say he'd probably be the focal guy. The future of U.S. hockey."

Connor McDavid, C, Edmonton Oilers

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    Nick Didlick/Associated Press

    You've heard of point-per-game players.

    Edmonton's McDavid, though, seemed more interested last season in pursuing a far bigger quarry.

    No. 97 had a 2020-21 season for the ages, scoring 105 points in 56 games while leading all players by 21 points. 

    It was a clip of 1.875 points per game, the best of the 21st century and the 23rd-best in history.

    And he's only 24. Wow. Just wow.

    "McDavid isn't dominating the NHL any more. He is lording over it. He can do what he wants, when he wants," wrote Cathal Kelly of The Globe and Mail. "He has risen so high that his opponents no longer feel shame when he beats them singlehanded. They've gotten to that weird place where they feel half-honored that he just handed them their heads.

    "That is total mastery."

Alex Ovechkin, LW, Washington Capitals

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Here's a tip.

    If you're chasing a record of Wayne Gretzky's, you're a pretty good player.

    And trust us, the ticket-selling folks with the Capitals will be banking on that entertainment value for a bit.

    The 6'3", 238-pound winger, now 36, arrives at the 2021-22 season just 164 goals away from tying Gretzky's all-time mark of 894. The pace he's on these days will get him there in 2024-25.

    Along the way has been one season of 60-plus goals, seven more in the 50s, three in the 40s and four in the 30s. In fact, the 24 goals he put up in 45 games last season—tied for 13th in the league—were the fewest he's posted in any season since being picked first overall in 2004 and winning the Calder Trophy in 2005-06.

    That's entertainment.

    "If there is one guy that has a chance, it's him," ex-NHL star Luc Robitaille told the Washington Post. "It's still hard; it's going to be really hard. But if there is one guy that can do it, it is him. There is no one else.

    "I don't believe there will be anyone else who is going to come in during the next 20 years and be even near him."

Andrei Vasilevskiy, G, Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Money goalies.

    Say the phrase to a hockey fan of a certain age, and you may be bombarded with tales of Ken Dryden, Bernie Parent, Grant Fuhr and Billy Smith.

    But say it to a fan these days, and there's only one name: Andrei Vasilevskiy.

    He's played in three All-Star Games, won two Stanley Cups, a Vezina Trophy and now, after 2020-21, a Conn Smythe Trophy.

    And for five straight series, he's brought the Lightning home with the ultimate prize for a money goalie: a shutout in a deciding game, including two straight Cup Final finales. In fact, he stopped 132 of 140 shots in five games against the Montreal Canadiens to clinch another parade.

    "His compete level is as high as it can be," Kucherov told the Associated Press, via triblive.com. "I remember him when he was 16. He was always the guy that cares about the game and wants to be better and he wants to be No. 1. And, as we can see, he is."

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