Making the Cut: The 100 Greatest Hockey Players of All-Time

There are as many ways to quantify the parameters of a top 100-list as there are stars in the sky. One of the fun things about putting together a comprehensive list of the greatest hockey players of all-time is that the list-maker gets to choose the most important characteristics to emphasize. One of the frustrating things about putting together a comprehensive list of the greatest hockey players of all-time is that the list-maker has to choose the most important characteristics to emphasize. Pretzel logic is always peering around the corner, and a convoluted mess is never far away.  Sound logic and consistency are the two pillars I lean on the most when sifting through elite resumes to form a fair representation of the greatest to ever lace-up skates. However, it’s not always easy to apply logic and consistency when the NHL has seen the league evolve from 3.5 teams in 1917 (RIP Montreal Wanderers who wandered right on out of the league mid-season after the Montreal Arena burned down) to 31 teams today. For instance, how does Howie Morenz winning three Hart Trophies in a small, territorial league in the 1920s stack up against Evgeni Malkin winning one Hart Trophy and finishing 2rd twice in a 30-team, global league? Morenz is typically rated ahead of Malkin on all-time lists but the only way that can be rationalized is via a straight raw comparison of honors with no consideration for league size or strength. There’s no question the league is more difficult to succeed in today than it was for Morenz. The pool of international talent feeding the NHL is larger than ever and the number of players in the NHL is at an all-time high. The Morenz-Malkin comparison is just one example of hundreds of complicated inter-era comparisons—the results of which sometimes fly in the face of conventional wisdom. However, applying logic and doing so consistently across the board can help make some sense of things.

No Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve

Part of becoming a top-100 player of all-time in any sport is luck. It helps to be drafted by the right team and have skilled teammates. It’s also crucial to remain healthy. There are hundreds of players in NHL history who likely would have been considered consensus top-100 players of all-time had they played on a different team, had better teammates, or avoided devastating injuries. While it would be great to run a simulation placing every player in every possible position that has ever existed in the NHL to see who would consistently perform at an elite level regardless of the situation, we do not have that luxury. “What ifs?” are for another time and place. A player’s career begins and ends; in between is the only legacy we have to go on.

Hardware and Honors

Hart and Conn Smythe trophies are the gold standards of the NHL. While the Hart is more difficult to win, the Smythe holds its own prestige as it signifies the best in the sport against the highest level of competition over the most important two months of the year. Although the degree-of-difficulty on the Smythe is slightly less than that of the Hart (it’s more difficult to be the best player over six months among 31 teams than it is to be the best player over two months among 16 teams), winning multiple Smythes appears to be more difficult than winning multiple Harts. This is likely a result of the fact that most players don’t even get the opportunity to play in multiple Stanley Cup Finals, let alone win when they get there while also being the best player. Whereas 18 players in NHL history have taken home multiple Harts, just six have managed to win multiple Smythes. While both accomplishments are destined to result in a top-100 resume—all 20 players who won multiple Harts and/or Smythes are in the top-100—players who scored multiple Smythes are, on average, rated higher in the top-100. Of the six players who won multiple Smythes, only Bernie Parent is not rated among the top-7 players of all-time.  Norris, Vezina, Art Ross, and Richard trophies, and 1st team All-Star selections are next in the hardware toolbox. Selke trophies are noteworthy—but especially so for adept offensive performers, signifying the rare two-way dynamo. While no official points and goals awards exist for the playoffs, I view leading the playoff in points and goals as postseason versions of the Art Ross and Richard trophies. Finishing in the top-5 in seasonal award voting, while obviously not as impressive as winning, is an indication of elite-level performance. 2nd team All-Star selections also help tell the story, but it’s important to note the distinction between being named a 2nd team-All-Star in a large league versus being named one in the Original Six-era.

Degree-of-Difficulty

Hockey historians occasionally neglect to account for the massive variance in league size when comparing players from different eras. Winning a Stanley Cup or a Hart trophy in a 6-team league is significantly easier than doing so in a 30-team league. All-Star selections are not created equal. Consider that a 2nd team all-star selection in a 6-team league is equivalent to a 10th team All-Star selection in a 30-team league (math, FTW). One is noteworthy, one not-so-much. Likewise, winning the Hart Trophy in 2020 among 883 players is a vastly more impressive feat than winning it in 1924 among 47 players. Standing out has gotten exponentially more difficult as the NHL has expanded. As a result, players who achieved their accomplishments in statistically more disadvantageous eras are given a significant edge in degree-of-difficulty over their more fortunate counterparts.

The Second Season

It’s easy to get into the habit of looking at regular-season statistics as the be-all, end-all of a player’s resume. Since everyone is given the opportunity to play the same number of games, regular-season statistics offer a convenient apples-to-apples comparison between players. Playoffs, on the other hand, are only accessible to those fortunate enough to play on quality teams. While regular-season performance is pivotal to a player’s resume, playoff performance is equally important when it comes to legacy. Let’s compare Marcell Dionne to Jari Kurri to see the relative importance of the regular season compared to the playoffs when evaluating a player’s place in history. A quick look at their regular-season careers reveals Dionne ahead of Kurri. All-Star team selections slightly favor Dionne while Dionne has a decided advantage in Hart Trophy voting. Dionne was the player’s vote for league MVP (Pearson Award) twice which is certainly a plus in his column. Playing in the same era, Dionne has a 1.31 to 1.12 lead in career points per game which makes him the more consistent regular-season offensive performer. Kurri has a decided advantage defensively finishing in the top-5 of the Selke voting four times and receiving votes in three other seasons. Dionne never received a single Selke vote and was not known for his defense. While Kurri’s defensive prowess brings the comparison a little closer, Dionne gets the edge, which is why he typically gets the nod over Kurri on top-100 lists. If lists were confined to the regular season, I would agree with that sentiment.

However, there is an entirely different universe of information in the playoff world that paints a completely different picture. First, it’s important to establish that the average level of competition in a playoff game compared to a regular-season game is like night and day. Every game in the NHL playoffs is against high-level competition, with each round delivering a progressively superior opponent. High-level performance against the high-caliber competition of the playoffs is significantly more impressive than a similar performance against regular-season competition. Kurri played in 200 career playoff games. That’s the equivalent of 2.5 additional regular-seasons against the highest caliber of competition in the sport. In those 200 playoff games, Kurri performed at a level few in the history of hockey have duplicated. Since the Original Six expanded in 1967, Kurri is the only player in the NHL to lead the playoffs in goals four times. Only two players—Phil Esposito and Mike Bossy—have even done it three times. Kurri had five seasons of 25+ points in the playoffs which are third-most in history (Gretzky and Messier both had six). He is 3rd all-time in both playoff goals and playoff points. He is 8th all-time in playoff points-per-game and actually increased his per-game point production in the playoffs. He played in seven Stanley Cup Finals (won five of them) which means he didn’t accumulate his massive point production against first and second-round pushovers. His production came against the elite of the elite. Dionne, on the other hand, averaged less than a point-per-game in 49 career playoff games, which represented a significant drop from his regular-season output. In nine trips to the playoffs, Dionne never sniffed the conference finals. In this comparison, Dionne has an edge in the regular-season while Kurri has a Continental Divide-sized advantage in the playoffs. Against higher caliber competition on the biggest of stages, Kurri was an all-world performer. Kurri’s total body of work—regular season and playoffs—puts him ahead of Dionne on the all-time list.

Accomplishments are Intellectual Property

Sticking with Kurri… Kurri’s accomplishments have been devalued by some due to the fact that he played with Wayne Gretzky. The implication is Kurri leeched his way to 600 goals and a Hall-of-Fame career. It’s important to keep in mind that using this logic would mean no player in NHL history could’ve played with Gretzky and gotten proper due since The Great One is the greatest of all-time. If playing with Gretzky requires an automatic discounting of accomplishments and Kurri truly was a top-50 player of all-time, how would we ever know? “Production by association” is an argument that gets thrown out there quite often but offers little substance or value beyond speculation. All we know is what Kurri did with the time he had in the league.  It wasn’t Gretzky who led the playoffs in goals four times. It wasn’t Gretzky who led the Stanley Cup Finals in points when Edmonton won the Cup two years after Gretzky was traded to LA. With the venerable Mark Lamb as his centerman, Kurri’s regular-season point total actually went up the year after Gretzky left the Oilers, which resulted in Kurri’s selection as a 2nd Team All-Star. Gretzky undoubtedly made Kurri a more productive player, but it’s important to note that it goes both ways. While Gretzky made Kurri better, it’s hard to argue that Kurri didn’t make life easier for Gretzky as well. This same argument routinely pops-up when discussing Phil Esposito. Esposito’s success is often discounted heavily due to playing with Bobby Orr despite plenty of evidence—the ‘72 Summit Series for example—suggesting Esposito’s own greatness. There is no argument that Gretzky and Orr weren’t better players, but hockey is a team sport where talent complements talent. Kurri was an elite, two-way, goal-scoring wing who complemented Gretzky’s playmaking ability. Both players benefited from that relationship—mutualism at its finest.

Stanley Cups matter, to a point.

Henri Richard won 11 Stanley Cups over 20 seasons with the Montreal Canadiens. You will find him on virtually every top-100 list, but you won’t find him here. The younger Richard was a very good player. However, in a six-team league, Henri played 20 years and never finished in the top-3 of the Hart voting. Richard only led his own team in points once and finished in the top-five in league-scoring just three times. He may have been the best player on his team once, and he spent the vast majority of his career in the 3-6 range. Richard’s 11 Stanley Cup-wins presented him 11 opportunities to win the Conn Smythe Trophy (or the retro Smythe), yet he never won it. Nothing on Richard’s resume hints at a top-100 player other than the fact that he played for 11 Stanley Cup Champions. Claude Provost—an outstanding defensive forward in his own right—similarly has little on his resume hinting at a top-100 player. He won nine Stanley Cups and finished with the same number of 1st team All-Star selections as Richard, and nobody seems to confuse Provost with being a top-100 player. There’s little doubt that Richard was a great player, but his resume has more in common with Provost’s than it does with that of a top-100 player. Despite the Cups, Henri’s placement is more appropriate in the 101-200 range. A lot of players who have played important roles on a lot of Stanley Cup-winning teams don’t show up on top-100 lists. Using Stanley Cups as a ranking tool can be helpful, but it requires a figurative hazmat suit because it can get radioactive in a hurry. Context matters.

Reputation Among Peers

Typically, resumes speak for themselves. However, hockey in the early days of the NHL was a different sport than the product that exists today, making it hard to put statistical data from that era into proper context. There also weren’t a whole lot of people watching at the time, which made it difficult to establish a hierarchy of the greatest players of the 1920s and 30s even then, let alone trying to do so 100 years later. Unlike baseball where the greats from the early days were immortalized, hockey saw its early stars go somewhat overlooked. This makes it harder to rate players from that era, so unearthing player opinions on the abilities of their peers from the early days of the NHL is like discovering a lost treasure trove of information. For later generations, peer evaluations are less useful. For example, Wayne Gretzky’s opinion of Grant Fuhr is uncompelling for two reasons: 1) Gretzky has a penchant for effusively praising former teammates, and 2) Fuhr’s era was well-documented. While Gretzky’s gushy opinions of his former teammates might not be all that helpful, the opinions of players who played in the earliest days of the NHL are of significance given how little information exists from that era. Fortunately for us, many of those opinions are documented online. This resource catalogs the opinions of dozens of players who played not only in the early days of the NHL but also from the years prior to its formation. A fairly consistent theme emerged from these accounts which, combined with what we know about league honors and scoring, helped identify the truly elite players of the era.

NHL or Bust

The best players in the history of hockey—with few exceptions—have played in the NHL. This provides a linear consistency that makes comparing players across eras possible. While not necessarily matching-up in their primes, Howie Morenz played against Syl Apps who played against Gordie Howe who played against Wayne Gretzky who played against Zdeno Chara. That’s 100 years of hockey! That they all played in the NHL provides a common thread throughout history allowing for a meaningful comparison of their individual accomplishments. The top-100 list starts to take shape by ranking players who played in the same era against each other. The list further takes shape by comparing players who played the same position against each other, regardless of era. The fact that almost every elite hockey player has played in the NHL streamlines this process.

There are certainly international players who may have made the top-100 list had they been given the opportunity to play in the NHL. I use may because we will never know for sure. Vladislav Tretiak—the great Russian goaltender—is often included on top-100 lists, as are other Russian legends like Valeri Kharlamov and Boris Mikhailov. All three were selected to the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Centennial All-Star Team as the Soviet Union comprised four of the six overall selections. There is no doubt that Russian hockey has a rich history on the world stage, and it is by no accident. The Soviet Union national hockey program was specifically fine-tuned to dominate international competition not only by creating a well-oiled machine on the ice but by circumventing international rules to establish an uneven playing surface off it. While the United States and Canada strictly adhered to the rules of international competition by sending bonafide amateurs, Russia literally sent professionals and called them amateurs. The “Miracle on Ice” was a miracle as much for the age difference as it was for the talent difference. It should come as no surprise that a team full of professionals with an average age of 26 was expected to skate circles around a team of college kids with an average age of 22. The Soviet program was successful, in part, because it established a rogue system that worked outside the rules of international competition and gladly played the role of bully when it went unchecked by international governing bodies.

Additionally, unlike hockey in North America where the task has always been for hockey franchises to find talented players and funnel them into the NHL, Russia’s government-sponsored hockey program aimed to identify the most talented youth in the country and develop it to not only represent the Soviet Union in international competition but as a Cold War political tool ostensibly representing Russian superiority. Soviet players spent years perfecting specific roles and developing skill-sets that would lead them to thrive in those roles. Imagine if the NHL disbanded and the United States and Canada combined the best players from their respective countries into one super team. Now imagine if that team practiced 1,200 hours per year year-after-year. I think that team would do pretty well against Russia’s best 22-year olds. While there is no doubt the Red Army teams were talented, there success is perhaps the embodiment of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Who is to say how each individual player would have performed outside of the Red Army system, in the physically grueling environment of the NHL? Fortunately, we have, at the very least, a partial answer to that question.

Translating international results to an NHL equivalent is fraught with peril due to the massive variance in competition level. Alexander Radulov was a can’t-miss NHL prospect when he was drafted in the first round of the 2004 NHL Draft. He spent his professional career toggling back and forth between the NHL and the KHL (Russia’s premier hockey league). In 391 games in the KHL, he tallied 492 points for an impressive 1.26 points-per-game. In stark contrast to his KHL success, Radulov (as of 2020) mustered just 334 points in 442 NHL games for a pedestrian .76 points-per-game.  Had Radulov spent his entire career playing in Russia, there is little doubt that he would be considered one of the greatest hockey players of all-time. In just seven seasons in the KHL, Radulov won four MVPs. It’s only logical to think that number would be even higher had he exclusively played in Russia. Fortunately for us, Radulov did make it to the NHL, providing a rare apples-to-apples comparison on how an elite KHL performer would fare in the NHL. Despite being a superstar in Russia, NHL success was never guaranteed for Radulov, nor is guaranteed for anyone.

Similarly, Viacheslav Fetisov often finds his way onto top-100 lists. He was a defensive stalwart for the Red Army teams of the late 70s through the early 90s. He played the majority of his professional career in Russia before making his NHL debut at the age of 31.  There has been a laundry list of elite defensemen in the NHL who continued to play at an All-Star level well into their late 30s and early 40s. Yet, while Fetisov was a contributor for nine seasons, he never garnered any serious All-Star consideration, never received a single Norris vote, and spent his career as a role player. Igor Larionov was a celebrated centerman for the same Red Army teams that Fetisov skated for and had a similar reputation as one of the best players in the world. Larionov arrived in the NHL at 29 and—like Fetisov—spent his 14-year career as a solid, yet unspectacular, role player. Had Fetisov or Larionov never played a single game in the NHL, it is highly likely both would be universally considered top-100 players. Even still, Fetisov occasionally gets love on top-100 lists.

So, we have three very prominent cases of elite Russian players who seemed destined for top-100 lists ending up role players when faced with the rigors of the NHL. Who is to say Tretiak, Kharlamov, and Mikhailov would not have faced the same fate? Without the linear backbone that the NHL provides for player comparison, we’re left with two choices: randomly scatter these players throughout the top-100 without rhyme or reason, or acknowledge their contributions to the sport while also admitting to having no clue how, for instance, Tretiak compares to Jacques Plante, or how Kharlamov compares to Bobby Hull. Option number one doesn’t square with the way the rest of the list was constructed. So, instead of sprinkling these guys randomly over the top-100, let’s simply recognize them as great international players who may, or may not, have been elite players in the NHL.      

Dynasties Went the Way of the Dodo

Dynasties might be nauseating for 95% of hockey fans (pretty much anyone whose team isn’t the dynasty) but they yield many legacy-building riches including Conn Smythe, Hart, Norris, and Vezina trophies, and, most importantly, Stanley Cups. All of these are the hallmarks of elite resumes. Unbeknownst at the time, the days of dynasties ruling the NHL were slowly trickling away by the mid-90s, and everything we thought we knew about an elite hockey resume was set to undergo a massive overhaul. There are, at least, three major reasons for the death of the dynasty. First, advances in defensive playing style—i.e., the neutral zone trap—and more resistant goaltending caused scoring to tank. This made it more challenging for “better” teams to separate themselves from “lesser” teams in the playoffs. Then, in 2005, the NHL moved to a salary cap. The initiation of the cap accelerated the demise of the dynasty by making it harder for teams to stockpile talent. Faster than Sergei Fedorov in the open ice, star-studded rosters like the 2002 Detroit Red Wings—featuring 10 future Hall-of-Famers—became a relic of the past. While some franchises managed to put together quasi-dynasties in the aftermath—this time fueled by two or three superstars rather than 5-10—the impact of the cap was immediate. In the 15 seasons following the dawn of the “Cap Era,” nine different franchises won the Stanley Cup, including five that had never won the Cup before. By comparison, in the previous 70 years, only 14 different franchises won the Cup. The third major reason for the eradication of NHL dynasties is simply mathematics. The rising number of teams in the NHL literally decreased the odds of winning the Stanley Cup. From 1942-1967, there were just six teams. That number would methodically increase to 21 by 1990 and 31 by 2016. As dynasties have dried-up, separation between elite player resumes has shrunk. Let’s take a look at some of the impacts:

Conn Smythe Trophy

In 26 seasons from 1994-2020, Sydney Crosby was the only player to win multiple Conn Smythe trophies. In the prior nine seasons alone (1985-1993), three players won multiple Smythes. There have been six players to win two or more Smythes in NHL history. Only Crosby from that group started his career after 1984. Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and Patrick Roy won multiple Smythes in part because the strength of their franchises allowed them to play in multiple Stanley Cup Finals. In today’s NHL, even winning the Cup once is a hard-ask, let alone multiple times. Dwindling are the days of the multi-Smythe resume.

Hart Trophy

In 26 seasons from 1994-2020, there were 22 different Hart Trophy winners, including a 10-year stretch from 2010-2020 that produced 10 different winners. In the previous 42 seasons (1952-1993), there were just 18 different Hart winners. There have been 18 players in NHL history who won two or more Hart Trophies. Only two players from that group—Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby—began their careers after 1990. Without a handful of players carrying around multiple Harts, finding meaningful separation between the league’s best players has become difficult. Figuring out how they all fit in the all-time scene requires logistical gymnastics.   

Norris Trophy

At first glance, the impact on the Norris Trophy looks different than the impact on the Smythe and Hart. Upon closer inspection, it’s nearly identical sans one dominant stretch from Nicklas Lidstrom. In the seven seasons from 1994-2000, there were seven different Norris winners. Lidstrom did his thing winning seven Norris Trophies in 10 years and then it was back to an eight-year stretch from 2013-2020 that produced eight different winners. In the previous 40 years (1954-1993), there were only 16 different Norris winners. There have been eight players to win 3+ Norris Trophies and zero have started their career after 1991. Of the 13 players in NHL history who won 2+ Norris Trophies, Duncan Keith and Erik Karlsson are the only players who debuted after 1991. The days of the best defensemen in the NHL carrying around multiple Norris Trophies have all but evaporated, leaving one less useful metric for comparing resumes.  

Vezina Trophy

The Vezina pre-1982 was essentially a dynasty recognition award since, by definition, it was awarded to the goaltender(s) of the team that allowed the fewest regular-season goals—and that team was almost always the Montreal Canadiens. In 38 seasons from 1944-1981, the award went to a Canadiens goaltender 26 times. Post-1982, the Vezina has been awarded based on voting, falling in line with the rest of the NHL’s seasonal awards—albeit with one caveat. Unlike the Hart, Norris, and Conn Smythe Trophies, which are voted on by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, Vezina voting is done by the league’s general managers. Given the NHL’s concerted effort in 1982 to distance the Vezina from its previous incarnation as a team-oriented award, it is safe to assume that general managers sought to reward high-performing goaltenders from middling teams. That appears to have borne out as the winner of the Vezina has come from the team that allowed the fewest regular-season goals just seven times in the 38 seasons since the rule change. So, the current version of the Vezina isn’t quite as associated with dynasties as the NHL’s other major annual awards. However, it is fair to assume that the salary cap era made it more difficult for goaltenders to backstop consistently successful teams, and that seems to have played a role in all but eliminating elite goaltender resumes.  Sergei Bobrovsky is the only current player in the NHL with more than one Vezina Trophy which is pretty striking considering the rich history of his Vezina-winning brethren. There have been 12 goaltenders to win three or more Vezina Trophies in NHL history, yet the last goaltender to accomplish that feat—Martin Brodeur—started his career way back in 1991.  Equally revealing is the fact that there have been seven different Vezina winners in the last seven seasons. In contrast, the 24 seasons prior produced just 12 different winners. Just like the Hart, Norris, and Conn Smythe trophies, the NHL’s parity has made it much more difficult to win multiple Vezinas, in turn making it more difficult for goaltenders to stand out among their contemporaries.

When Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby retire, the massive trophy case that has historically accompanied the elite players of the NHL will be retired with them. As the remnants of the pre-cap era continue to fade away, it will become more and more difficult to identify top-100 resumes. Duncan Keith—a player whose trophy case pales in comparison to those of Nicklas Lidstrom, Ray Bourque, Chris Chelios, and Paul Coffey—might be the last defenseman to claim a resume with multiple Norris Trophies, a Conn Smythe, and three Stanley Cups for decades. As parity continues to envelop the sport, his career will likely be viewed more favorably with each passing year. Perhaps no position has been more adversely affected by the “Cap Era” than goalie. It is entirely possible—maybe even likely—that with the benefit of hindsight, contemporary players will be viewed more favorably as what constitutes a top-100 resume gets recalibrated to reflect the state of a league no longer ruled by dynasties. Until then, sledding is going to be tough for those hoping to make a run at the top-100, let alone climb into the top-50.   

Two-way Threats

In hockey—just like in any team sport—offense is only half the equation. Sure, it’s a lot more fun to talk about Gretzky’s 215-point season or Ovi’s march to 895 than it is to talk about the goal that never happened because someone forechecked like mad or pestered the opposing top-line for 20 minutes. Applying consistent defensive pressure is exhausting, making it rare for elite defenders to also be consistent offensive producers. Those who manage to excel at both are extremely valuable, even if their offensive numbers aren’t as gaudy as some of their counterparts. Sergei Fedorov, Doug Gilmour, Pavel Datsyuk, Patrice Bergeron, and Anze Kopitar are examples of players who were much more menacing than their point totals otherwise indicate, and they have the hardware and post-season success to prove it. These oft-overlooked two-way forces are top-100 players hiding in plain sight, but they are celebrated here and fare extremely well in the top-100.  

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