Ranking the 10 Best Playmakers in the NHL Today

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistOctober 23, 2021

Ranking the 10 Best Playmakers in the NHL Today

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    When one speaks of NHL scorers, they're usually speaking about goal scorers. Each year, the leading goal scorer is honored with the Maurice Richard Trophy, named for the first player to reach 50 goals in a season and the 500-career-goal plateau. Washington Capitals winger Alex Ovechkin, the nine-time winner of the Richard Trophy, is garnering headlines as he attempts to catch Wayne Gretzky as the all-time goals leader.

    Gretzky's 894 career goals were an impressive achievement, but it was his skills as a playmaker that made him hockey's greatest player. Even if he had never scored a goal in the NHL, his 1,963 assists would still make him the all-time points leader. As his goal production declined by the 1990s, his playmaking skills enabled him to win the Art Ross Trophy in 1990, 1991 and 1994.

    The top playmakers aren't feted with an annual award recognizing their achievements. Nevertheless, their efforts are as invaluable as their high-scoring teammates. Today's game features young stars such as defending Art Ross Trophy winner Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers and longtime standout Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby.

    Here's our ranking of today's top-10 playmakers. Totals assists, primary assists (those that directly resulted in goals) and scoring five-on-five per 60 minutes up to 2020-21 factored into this compilation. You can express your views on this topic in the comments section below.

Honorable Mention

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    Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals

    Since his NHL debut in 2007-08, Backstrom is the leader in total assists with 722. Since the NHL began tracking five-on-five assists in 2009-10, he's sixth with 276.

        

    Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames

    Gaudreau has reached or exceeded 40 assists six times since his first full rookie season in 2014-15. He's tied for seventh in total assists (328) in that frame, and in five-on-five action, he's seventh in assists (179) and tied for fourth in primary assists (119).

        

    Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals

    Since the 2015-16 season, Kuznetsov is sixth with 161 total assists in five-on-five play and tied for fifth in primary assists with 105. His stats tumbled over the past two seasons, but the 29-year-old could bounce back with a solid effort this season.

        

    Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets

    Scheifele has reached or exceeded 42 assists in four of the last five seasons. Of his 219 total assists during that period, he was seventh in five-on-five action with 135 and tied for 10th with 77 primary assists.

       

    Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets

    Wheeler was third in total assists (313) from 2015-16 to 2020-21. During that period, the Jets captain was 10th in total primary five-on-five assists with 97.

10. Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins

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    Brad Marchand spent most of his first seven NHL seasons as a pesky second-line winger with the Boston Bruins. He put up decent stats during those seasons, netting 41 or more points five times. Since 2016-17, however, his numbers have been among the league's leading scorers.

    A shift to the Bruins' first line in '16-'17 and the subsequent increase in ice time saw Marchand's numbers spike as his playmaking improved. He's reached or exceeded 40 assists in each of the past five seasons, including a career-high 64 in 2018-19. If not for COVID-19 shortening the last two campaigns, Marchand might've exceeded 60 assists again.

    Marchand was sixth in total assists during that period with 260. His 1.62 assists per 60 minutes at five-on-five ranked seventh, and he was 10th with 128 total five-on-five assists and 77 primary assists. Based on his performance during that time, the 33-year-old left winger should remain among the league's best setup men this season.

9. Sidney Crosby, PIttsburgh Penguins

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    The top playmaker of his generation, Sidney Crosby is the offensive straw that stirs the drink for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Since his 2005-06 rookie campaign, he sits second to Joe Thornton (843) with 839 total assists and second to Patrick Kane (336) with 317 total five-on-five assists since 2009-10. Both, however, have played more games than Crosby due in part to his well-documented concussion history.

    Crosby's 134 total assists between 2018-19 and 2020-21 ranked 13th overall. However, he's still among the best in five-on-five situations. In that three-season span, he was fifth in primary assists per 60 minutes (1.20), seventh in primary assists (55) and assists per 60 minutes (1.66), and his 76 five-on-five assists ranked tied for eighth. 

    Now 34 and recuperating from offseason wrist surgery, Crosby is reaching the stage when age and the wear and tear of his long career could be catching up with him. Nevertheless, it would be foolish to bet against him remaining among the top playmakers when he returns to action this season.

8. Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers

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    Often overshadowed by captain Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau has been just as invaluable to the Florida Panthers' recent rise among the NHL's top teams. The 28-year-old left winger has emerged as one of the league's most productive setup men.

    Huberdeau made steady improvement between 2014-15 and 2017-18, collecting 39 assists twice and 42 once. A leg injury in 2016-17 limited him to just 26 points in 31 games. He took a big step forward over the last three seasons. In 2018-19, he reached a career-best 62 assists, followed by 55 and 41 helpers in two COVID-shortened campaigns. He was among the top 10 in assists during the past two seasons.

    Throughout most of his career, Huberdeau played alongside Barkov. He was shifted down to the second line last season. That move didn't hurt his output as he finished as their leading scorer with 61 points. Since 2018-19, he sits fourth with 1.21 primary assists per 60 minutes at five-on-five, sixth in primary five-on-five assists with 58 and eighth overall in total assists with 161.

7. Mitchell Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    One of the Toronto Maple Leafs' young guns, Mitchell Marner has steadily blossomed into a strong two-way winger since entering the NHL in 2016-17. He's reached or exceeded 61 points every season, including a career-high 94 points in 2018-19 and finishing fourth in league scoring last season with 67 points in 55 games.

    Marner's skills as a playmaker account for his impressive point totals. He is eighth in total assists (256) since his debut. He is fourth overall with 98 primary assists at five-on-five, while his 143 five-on-five total assists ranks fifth.

    Having high-scoring linemates such as Auston Matthews and John Tavares through most of those seasons helped Marner reach those numbers. Nevertheless, it was his elite playmaking skills that earned his place alongside the Leafs' leading goal scorers.

6. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers

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    An offensive superstar in his own right, Leon Draisaitl emerged in recent years from the shadow of Edmonton Oilers linemate Connor McDavid. In 2019-20, he won the Art Ross Trophy, the Hart Memorial Trophy and the Ted Lindsay Award. Draisaitl also accomplished something McDavid has yet to do, tallying 50 goals in a season in 2018-19.

    In addition to Draisaitl's goal-scoring ability, he's among the league's top playmakers. Since his offensive breakthrough performance of 77 points in 2016-17, he is third in total assists with 274. He's also fourth in five-on-five assists with 154 and tied for sixth in primary assists with 92, while his 1.59 assists per 60 minutes at five-on-five ranks ninth.

    Draisaitl doesn't need McDavid's help to generate scoring. Thanks to his goal-scoring ability and superb setup skills, the duo has formed one of the NHL's best one-two offensive punches.

5. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche

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    After winning the Calder Memorial Trophy with a 63-point rookie season in 2013-14, Nathan MacKinnon spent the following three seasons struggling to meet expectations as a former first overall draft pick. He finally blossomed into one of the league's elite playmakers in 2017-18 and hasn't looked back.

    MacKinnon had 31-plus assists in three of his first four NHL campaigns. Between 2017-18 and 2019-20, he enjoyed three consecutive 58-assist performances. He would've had more in '19-'20 if COVID-19 hadn't derailed the remainder of the regular season. In last season's 56-game schedule, he collected 45 assists in 48 games.

    Since 2017-18, MacKinnon's 258 total assists rank seventh in the league. In five-on-five action, he's fifth in primary assists (81) and primary assists per 60 minutes (1.13). The Avalanche star is also sixth with 117 assists in five-on-five situations and 10th with 1.63 assists per 60 minutes.

4. Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks

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    One of the greatest stars in Chicago Blackhawks history, Patrick Kane has been a reliable offensive presence since his rookie season in 2007-08. In his 14 NHL seasons prior to 2021-22, the skillful right winger sits third in total assists with 684. Since the league began tracking five-on-five scoring per 60 minutes in 2009-10, Kane is the leader with 335 assists and 219 primary assists.

    Now 32, Kane's assist production hasn't slowed down in recent years. Over the past three seasons, he's third in total assists with 168 and in five-on-five assists with 97. He also sits fourth in primary assists with 63.

    Kane has gone through several different linemates over the years, from skating alongside stars such as Jonathan Toews and Artemi Panarin to lesser lights such as Mattias Janmark and Pius Suter at times last season. His ability to create offense regardless of his linemates is a testament to his playmaking skills.   

3. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Winner of the Art Ross Trophy, Hart Memorial Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award in 2018-19, Nikita Kucherov is the Tampa Bay Lightning's dominant offensive forward. The 28-year-old Russian winger's playmaking skills were crucial to the Lightning's winning consecutive Stanley Cups in 2020 and 2021.

    After collecting 36 assists in 2014-15 and 2015-16, Kucherov came into his own as a setup man in 2016-17. From then until 2019-20, only Edmonton's Connor McDavid had more total assists (275) than Kucherov's 245 helpers. Kucherov was third overall with 1.73 assists per 60 minutes five-on-five, tied for third with 130 assists five-on-five and 10th with 71 primary assists.

    Hip surgery sidelined Kucherov throughout the entirety of the 2020-21 regular season. His return and subsequent dominant performance in the 2021 playoffs proved he remains among the NHL's best playmakers.

2. Artemi Panarin, New York Rangers

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    Noah K. Murray/Associated Press

    Entering the NHL with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2015-16 after several seasons in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League, Artemi Panarin wasted little time establishing himself as an offensive star. With 77 points in 80 games, he took home the Calder Memorial Trophy as the league's top rookie. It was the start of what has become a productive career for the talented Russian winger.

    Panarin enjoyed two quality seasons with the Blackhawks skating alongside superstar Patrick Kane. Traded in 2017 to the Columbus Blue Jackets, he established himself as a star in his own right with back-to-back 80-plus point campaigns. That trend continued when he signed with the rebuilding New York Rangers in 2019, tallying a career-best 95 points in just 69 games in 2019-20.

    From his rookie season through 2020-21, Panarin was fourth in total assists with 308. He led the league during that period with 2.03 assists per 60 minutes five-on-five, sat second with 100 total five-on-five assists and was third in primary assists with 65. Regardless of his linemates or which team he plays for, Panarin is one of the NHL's exceptional playmakers.

1. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers

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    Since his NHL debut in 2015-16, Connor McDavid has been the primary engine driving the Edmonton Oilers' offense. Winner of the Art Ross Trophy in 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2020-21, the 24-year-old center's skills as an elite playmaker made him the league's highest-scoring player over the past six seasons with 574 total points.

    McDavid sits sixth overall with 195 goals, but he's the assists leader with 379, 47 more than Chicago winger Patrick Kane. The Oilers superstar is also the leader in five-on-five with 207 and primary assists (133), as well as five-on-five assists (1.87) and primary assists (1.20) per 60 minutes.

    What's also impressive is that McDavid has accomplished this despite the lack of a reliable right wing. Leon Draisaitl has frequently skated on his left wing and occasionally on the right side. For years, however, the Oilers had difficulty finding a suitable right wing with the speed and skills to keep up with their captain. If Jesse Puljujarvi can finally fill that role, McDavid's assist numbers will only increase.

                      

    Stats via NHL.com and up-to-date going into Friday's games. 

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