Ranking the Top 30 Players in the NHL Today

Franklin Steele@SteeleOnIceFeatured Columnist IIIOctober 12, 2021

Ranking the Top 30 Players in the NHL Today

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    How we evaluate NHL players has evolved tremendously over the last decade or so.

    Back in the early to mid-2000s, a pundit might have been able to get away with using plus-minus to describe a defenseman's inability to guard in their own zone. One may have even been able to use this stat to win an argument or two.

    The same goes for traditional counting stats for netminders.

    We all understand what save percentage and goals-against average are trying to tell us. Ditto for the aforementioned and similarly archaic plus-minus. It's just that, thanks to the tireless work of countless researchers, analysts and statisticians, we have better ways to break down what players are and are not doing out on the ice.

    That doesn't mean that what our eyes are telling us is irrelevant, though. Scouting and observational data still have a role to play in a game that can be as random as hockey. 

    The discussion surrounding Seth Jones after the Chicago Blackhawks acquired him this past summer is a perfect example of how these two schools of thought can clash. On the one hand, scouts around the league generally think highly of the rangy defenseman. After all, he was one of the first three players named to Team USA who will head to the Olympics mid-season.

    Folks who are more inclined to lean on stats see Jones as overrated, however. A player who has seen his game decline in three consecutive seasons to go along with a contract extension that could be a disaster for Chicago.

    All of this is to say that ranking the top 30 players in a meaningful order is a complicated and complex exercise. We're going to attempt to do so here with a few caveats to keep in mind.

    It's important to recognize the limitations of data when it comes to analyzing certain kinds of players. Namely defensive defensemen and netminders. The phrase "goalies are voodoo" stuck for a reason; the position is both the most important and the most volatile for NHL teams. Those impediments are clearly in play throughout this list.

    It's also probably most safe to view this in tiers. The gap between No. 4 and No. 8, for example, isn't going to be particularly wide. But the jump from No. 2 to No. 22 will not be insignificant.

Nos. 30-26: Eichel, Shesterkin, Bergeron, Kaprizov, Hamilton

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    Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

    30. Jack Eichel

    We're placing Jack Eichel here in the 30th spot in hopes that he makes a return to play during the 2021-22 season. The NHL doesn't have enough electric goal scorers, and that's exactly what the former second-overall pick is.

    When healthy, Eichel is capable of challenging for the Rocket Richard Trophy. He's earned this reputation as a member of the Buffalo Sabres, too. Just imagine what he could do playing with more skilled teammates.

          

    29. Igor Shesterkin

    This one might raise some eyebrows. Especially when you consider some of the more established netminders who we decided to leave off of this list entirely. Yet there's just something special about Igor Shesterkin. As the New York Rangers continue to evolve into contenders, we think the spotlight will get even brighter for the 25-year-old.

    There's arguably no better place to make a name for yourself as an athlete than New York City, and we can see Shesterkin finishing the 2021-22 season as a part of the Vezina Trophy conversation. He finished fourth in quality start percentage last year, and we think he takes another step forward from there.

         

    28. Patrice Bergeron

    What can be said about Patrice Bergeron that hasn't already been said? If you could grow a No. 1 center in a lab, odds are good they'd come out looking a lot like the Boston Bruins captain. Defensively responsible, offensively capable and an outstanding leader to boot.

    There isn't a team in the league that wouldn't take a Bergeron clone (or the real deal) on their roster.

         

    27. Kirill Kaprizov

    The only thing more entertaining than Kirill Kaprizov on a sheet of ice is the game of chicken he and the Minnesota Wild played with each other all summer. After winning the Calder Trophy, Kaprizov had some leverage over the Wild as an RFA.

    Despite only appearing in 55 regular-season games, the wing landed a five-year deal worth $45 million. Some players might shrink from the added pressure of a $9 million cap hit. We don't see Kaprizov doing so, and by this time next year, he could well be inside of our top 10. 

         

    26. Dougie Hamilton

    One of the more divisive players in the NHL, some scouts and pundits believe that Dougie Hamilton is a bonafide Elite Defenseman, capable of driving his own pair and line alone. Others see him as a product of good teams and partners.

    Regardless of whether he's Elite, there's no question that he's good. And in New Jersey this season, he'll have every opportunity to prove just how strong he really is. For now, he hangs around just inside of the 30 best players in the NHL.

Nos. 25-21: Pettersson, Ovechkin, Fox, Barzal, Kane

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    Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

    25. Elias Pettersson

    Elias Pettersson is already the most important player on his team. While the Vancouver Canucks have a handful of skilled players in their top-six, the No. 1 center (and his health) are vital to the squad's success.

    He drives the bus on a line with J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser, and that trio could end the season as one of the NHL's most effective forward units. Whether it does depends on Pettersson. At just 22 years of age, we think we've just seen the beginnings of what he's capable of.

         

    24. Alexander Ovechkin

    Scoring goals in the NHL is hard. Generating offense is the toughest thing to do in this sport. That's never been an issue for Alexander Ovechkin, however. He's this generation's best goal scorer and is on a crusade to topple Wayne Gretzky's all-time goal-scoring record.

    He's never been a two-way force, but the Washington Capitals haven't needed him to be. And until defenses figure out a way to stop his one-timer from the left circle, Ovechkin will remain a high-end scoring threat.

         

    23. Adam Fox

    Like a few other players this early on the list, there's a good chance that Adam Fox could be viewed as a top-10 or top-15 player by the end of 2021-22. One could even make the argument that he already is. The Rangers utilize him in every high-leverage situation you can think of.

    He's rolled out against the opposition's best players, is asked to run the top power-play unit and to control the flow of play at five-on-five. Despite being just 23, he's excelled in this role and already has a Norris Trophy to his name. Don't be surprised if he manages to defend that title this season.

          

    22. Mathew Barzal

    Mathew Barzal is among the league's absolute best in terms of helping his team shift from defense to offense. He's the kind of player who you would pay money to watch in person, and he's the most skilled New York Islanders forward.

    This is a team that wants to be tough to play against.

    Someone has to generate offense, though, and Barzal is arguably elite when it comes to doing just that. He's not quite regarded as a franchise cornerstone-caliber player yet, but he's close.

         

    21. Patrick Kane

    It's easy to forget that Patrick Kane is already in his early 30s. While we generally see players start to decline at 32, that hasn't been the case for the Blackhawks forward. He finished fifth overall in scoring a year ago, and with Chicago doing all it can to add talent, there's reason to believe that Kane will be a top-10 point producer again.

Nos 20-16: Marner, Stone, Hellebuyck, Josi, Heiskanen

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    Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

    20. Mitch Marner

    We're sure that everyone is clamoring for the comments section to agree with us that Mitch Marner is the 20th best player in the NHL. If you believe that Auston Matthews is an elite scorer (which you should) then you have to give Marner credit for being so good at setting up his linemate.

    He was seventh in the league in points per game in 2021, trailing Matthews by just 0.05 points per 60.

    He would have been on pace for almost 100 points if the season hadn't been shortened, and he's an important cog in what could be the most dangerous line in the league. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Marner have a lot to prove this season.

    It sounds like he's up to the task, too.

          

    19. Mark Stone

    There's a strong possibility that Mark Stone was grown in the same lab as Bergeron. He's the wing version of a responsible center who can still have an impact on offense. And while Stone gets a ton of attention for how strong he is in all three zones, don't sleep on just how good of a passer he is.

    Last season, he would have been on pace for 60 assists across a full 82-game campaign, which would have been good for 10th in the league.

    The Vegas Golden Knights are pushing for a Stanley Cup this season, and the 29-year-old just might be the most important piece for the team up front.

         

    18. Connor Hellebuyck

    We might have Connor Hellebuyck rated a bit too low here. That speaks more to how difficult it is to analyze netminders than how strong of a player he is. If you blew up the league and let all 32 teams start from scratch via a wild fantasy draft, Hellebuyck would likely be the second netminder taken.

    The Winnipeg Jets are outchanced almost every time they take the ice; it's Hellebuyck keeping them in most of these games. With a revamped blue line in front of him, the 28-year-old could challenge for another Vezina.

         

    17. Roman Josi

    Last year was a tale of two seasons for Roman Josi. During the first half of the campaign, the defenseman struggled to impact games as he did in 2019-20. As the year wore on, however, the blueliner regained his form on the back end.

    Virtually no defenseman in the league impacts the game like Josi does.

    His ability to carry the puck both out of the defensive zone and into the offensive zone is nearly unmatched by any of his peers. Whichever way he goes, so go the Nashville Predators. We just aren't sure if that's such a good thing.

         

    16. Miro Heiskanen

    Every season, the NHL moves more and more towards Miro Heiskanen's direction. He's a new-age defender in every sense of the phrase. He's fleet-footed, tries to jump into plays when possible and actively engages in all three zones.

    Fresh off of an eight-year extensionHeiskanen impacts the game like Josi does. He has some room to grow offensively, though, which is why we give him the slight nod in the rankings here. This could be a special season for the Dallas Stars. This means it could be a special campaign for Heiskanen, too.

Nos. 15-11: Barkov, Aho, Point, Marchand, Makar

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    Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    15. Aleksander Barkov

    If Aleksander Barkov played for an Original Six franchise, he'd be just as highly regarded as someone like Bergeron. He's the kind of two-way center championship-caliber teams are built around, which is why the Florida Panthers were wise to lock him up for the next eight years.

    This is a team on the rise, and as the Panthers garner more attention, so too will Barkov. Centers like him are very, very difficult to come by. He's tenacious, can handle the toughest matchups and drives play when he's on the ice.

         

    14. Sebastian Aho

    Another young center who we're giving some benefit of the doubt to, Sebastian Aho has the talent to someday be involved in the Hart Trophy conversation. His ceiling is that high, and when he's on, he's one of the toughest players in the league to contain.

    We think the 24-year-old takes a stride forward this season, establishing himself as a truly elite pivot on a team that has Stanley Cup aspirations.

         

    13. Brayden Point

    There's an argument to be made for Brayden Point as a top-10 player in the league. If we were just looking at playoff numbers, he'd have to be inside of the 10 best, and he could even push into the top five. He's the No. 1 center on a team that is coming off of back-to-back Stanley Cup wins.

    If that doesn't earn your respect, we're not sure what it would take.

         

    12. Brad Marchand

    Once considered "just" a pest by fans outside of Boston, Brad Marchand has evolved into one of, if not the best left wings in the NHL. By the time all is said and done, he might be considered one of the best to ever play his position.

    The B's have the best first line in the league, as has been the case since Marchand, Bergeron and David Pastrnak first hit the ice together. For his part, Marchand has scored at a 100-plus point pace in each of his last four seasons, and lately, he's the driver on the so-called Perfect Line.

          

    11. Cale Makar

    There's only one defenseman ranked ahead of Cale Makar here. We aren't so sure that we shouldn't have the two flipped, but there's no denying that he'll be in the Norris Trophy conversation for years to come. His on-ice impacts at even-strength are nearly second-to-none.

    Makar moves the puck up the ice better than anyone not named Roman Josi, and once he's in the offensive zone, he's capable of making special things happen. His skating is excellent, and the way he walks the blue line reminds one of Nicklas Lidstrom.

Nos 10-6: Pastrnak, Crosby, Vasilevskiy, Hedman, Draisaitl

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    Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

    10. David Pastrnak

    We wouldn't hold it against you if you wanted to flip Marchand and David Pastrnak here. There are worse problems than trying to figure out which wing is better if you're a Bruins fan, though.

    This is a legitimate franchise-cornerstone forward; the kind of player that teams hope to land with a top-five pick in the draft. That the Bruins snagged him with the 25th pick is astounding.

    We aren't sure exactly what Pastrnak would look like without two other elite players on his line, but it doesn't really matter. He's a bonafide top-10 player in our eyes. Over the past three years, only seven forwards have produced points at a higher clip per 60 than Pastrnak.

         

    9. Sidney Crosby

    A few years ago, Sidney Crosby would rightfully have been the first player mentioned in any "best player in the world" conversation. Age has slowly brought the 34-year-old down a peg or two. The thing is, No. 87 was always so good that even a slowed-down version of him is one of the best players in the NHL.

    He's incredibly involved in the play at all times for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Crosby is still an elite passer, and while this might be the last season we see him as a top-10 talent, it's generally been unwise to bet against The Kid.

         

    8. Andrei Vasilevskiy

    And now we arrive at the best netminder in the league. Andrei Vasilevskiy is the favorite to win the Vezina Trophy, and the crown of best goalie is his to lose this season. There are some challengers to be certain, but the 27-year-old is capable of taking on all comers.

    The Athletic recently conducted an anonymous survey of NHL general managers and coaches, asking them to rank the best goalies in the league. Vasilevskiy was No. 1, despite some responders believing that he's actually underrated. He saved 21 goals above average during the regular season and was even better in the playoffs.

    To be the man, you've got to beat the man. Until another goalie outlasts "Vas" in a seven-game series, he's the man.

         

    7. Victor Hedman

    Victor Hedman took a good deal of heat last season. He entered the year generally viewed as one of the game's most dominant defensemen, only to appear to take a step back for the Lightning. It turns out that he was quietly playing through an injury, one that limited his explosiveness.

    Bouncing back at the age of 30 might be a big ask for Hedman, but he's just too good to tank because of one injury. It'll be interesting to see if Hedman can re-enter the Norris Trophy conversation. If he can't, a player like Makar could be here by this time next season.

         

    6. Leon Draisaitl

    If Leon Draisaitl could be even an average defender, then he'd crack the top-five without question. The gap between him and No. 5 isn't all that wide; it simply comes down to how versatile the 25-year-old is. Or, rather, is not.

    Despite struggling a bit defensively, he's still one of the best play drivers in the league, and his presence on the second line in Edmonton opens some things up for that McDavid fella'.

    Draisaitl is capable of being the best player in the world on any given night, and we've got to respect that here.

No. 5: Artemi Panarin

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Few players in the NHL are capable of taking over games like Artemi Panarin. Usually, we look to high-end players to open things up for one or two shifts at a time, but the New York Rangers wing simply takes things to another level.

    He might be the best passer in the league; Panarin's vision allows him to elevate replacement-level linemates into scoring threats. All passing isn't created equal, and his ability to find teammates in high-danger shooting spots is elite.

    Because of this, New York is a markedly different team when Panarin is out on the ice during five-on-five. His even-strength points per 60 (3.6) ranked second to only Connor McDavid in 2021. If the latter hadn't reached Wayne Gretzky's levels of offensive dominance, the two might appear to be even closer in terms of output.

    The Rangers are a bit less talented than they were a year ago, so Panarin will be facing more pressure to drive play from the first line. His historical on-ice impacts indicate that it won't be such a bad thing for New York.

    Panarin is one of the few players in the league who could conceivably eclipse the 100-point barrier in 2021-22, and he's the most important skater on the Rangers. They went 5-9-0 in games that the wing didn't appear in a year ago.

    If you're looking for a Hart Trophy sleeper, look no further than Panarin.

No. 4: Nikita Kucherov

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Sometimes you don't know what you've got until it's gone. Such was the case for Nikita Kucherov, who didn't play a single regular-season game for the Lightning last season. Anyone who forgot about just how special of a player the 28-year-old is was quickly reminded once the playoffs began, however.

    Kucherov scored 32 points in just 27 postseason games, putting up an absurd 4.56 points per 60 in all situations along the way.

    The general consensus is that the NHL is Connor McDavid's league and everyone else is just playing in it. After what the Oilers captain did during the truncated 2021 season, it's easy to see why.

    Despite landing at No. 4 on our list here, Kuucherov might be the player who has the best chance of wresting the Art Ross Trophy away from McDavid. His 1.06 points per 60 over the last three seasons trails only McDavid, and it just feels like Kucherov might have another gear he's capable of hitting during the last few years of his prime.

    Even if all we end up with is an average Kucherov, he's still one of the best forwards on the planet and can blow games open more effectively and more often than anyone he's ranked ahead of on this list.

No. 3 Auston Matthews

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    Claus Andersen/Getty Images

    Figuring out just how to rank the top three players here is tricky. No matter how you cut it, though, there's the three forwards we're going to break down the rest of the way...and then there's everyone else. Yes, Kucherov might be able to score more points than any of these three, but his on-ice impacts just aren't quite where these unicorns are.

    Auston Matthews is the heir apparent to Ovechkin in terms of being the league's top goalscorer. It's not too difficult to argue that he is already tops in terms of finishing ability.

    He was the only player in the league to score more than two goals per 60 minutes of play in 2021, a ridiculous 65-goal pace over a full 82-game season. While we could watch his scoring highlights all day and be pretty happy with our lives, Matthews is a more complete two-way player than he's given credit for.

    That's the difference between someone like him and a forward like Draisaitl. Both are remarkable offensive talents, capable of scoring from just about anywhere inside the offensive one. The Toronto Maple Leafs are a much better club in all three zones when Matthews is on the ice, though, which is what makes him such a special player.

    The Maple Leafs have a lot to prove this season. So does Matthews. Will anyone be able to stop him from securing the Rocket Richard Trophy for the second straight year? Barring injury, we don't see it.

No. 2: Nathan MacKinnon

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    RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images/Getty Images

    There are no two ways about it: McDavid went nuclear in 2021. Nathan MacKinnon ranking second here has more to do with just how extraordinary the former was a year ago than him not being an exceptional talent.

    This is "the year" for the Avalanche.

    It is the season when everything is supposed to come together and culminate in a Stanley Cup parade. Some of the best publically available models have them marked as the championship favorites, and MacKinnon is at the center of the whole thing.

    Boston may lay claim to the best forward line in the NHL, but Colorado is capable of icing the best five-on-five unit in the league, bar none. When MacKinnon hits the ice with linemates Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen, Devon Toews and Makar, the game of hockey looks a lot more like a game of keep away.

    MacKinnon has scored at around a 110-point clip in three of his last four campaigns, and it's only a matter of time before he starts winning some individual hardware. Colorado appears destined for a truly special season, and its best player will be at the forefront of anything it accomplishes in 2021-22.

No. 1: Connor McDavid

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    Trying to describe what McDavid did in 2021 would be like trying to explain to a friend what it felt like to see Claude Monet's breathtaking "Water Lilies" in person. Or what it felt like to watch humans land on the moon for the first time.

    OK, so maybe that's a bit hyperbolic, but holy wow was McDavid's 2021 special. Most higher-end talents in the league are worth around 2.5 or three wins themselves. It's difficult to move the needle much as an individual in the NHL.

    McDavid has shattered that mold in each of his seasons, and 2021-22 doesn't appear to be heading in a different direction for the generational talent. Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic projected that the forward will be worth a mind-boggling 5.8 wins during the season.

    Luszczyszyn eloquently broke down McDavid's 2021 like this, and we aren't sure if there's a more clear way to illustrate the center's dominance:

    "In this era, I would’ve never imagined anything like what we witnessed in 2021 where he scored 105 points in 56 games, a staggering 154-point pace. It was 21 points better than his own teammate, Draisaitl, and a full 36 points better than the next best non-Oilers player. Adjusted for era, it was tied for the eighth-best scoring season ever and tied for fifth in the modern era."

    The title of Best Hockey Player on Planet Earth belongs to McDavid, and unless he takes a step back or Matthews and/or MacKinnon hit another gear, that won't change this season.

    Advanced statistics from Stathead.com or Quant Hockey unless otherwise noted. 

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