The age-old debate when it comes to any sport, any league, any team: who are the best of the best?
With the NHL's preseason on the horizon, let's takes a look at the top 25 players at each position right now: forward, defense and goalie. This list takes into account both recent NHL performance and is expected from the player in the year to come.
Here are the top 25 NHL forwards for the 2019-20 season:
Honorable mentions: Nicklas Backstrom (Washington Capitals); Mikko Rantanen (Colorado Avalanche); Elias Pettersson (Vancouver Canucks); Mark Stone (Vegas Golden Knights).
25. Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets
How much value should you place in goal scoring alone? That should tell you whether or not you believe Laine, one of the league's best shooters, earns the final spot in our top-25 forwards list. Laine has scored 110 goals in his first three NHL seasons alone — sixth-most in the league during that span — reaching at least 30 goals all three years and notching a 44-goal performance in 2017-18 to boot.
The release from Patrik Laine for his 23rd goal of the season. pic.twitter.com/ZTVI1BmNac
— Cristiano Simonetta (@CMS_74_) December 15, 2018
Other areas of Laine's game certainly struggle at times, but his lightning-quick release enables him to shoot without much need for space; making him a valuable asset to the Jets' offense. Just how valuable the Jets organization feels his skills are remains to be seen — the 21-year-old Finn is still in need of a new contract for this season.
24. Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres
Eichel may forever be compared to Connor McDavid, the player taken before him in the 2015 NHL Draft, but the 22-year-old center finally broke through for an 82-point season in 2018-19. That's not to say he has not produced at a star level in years past, but minor ailments have kept the Sabres' star center from ever playing a full season in his four-year career.
— Buffalo Hockey moments (@SabresPlays) July 2, 2019
Eichel remains a budding NHL superstar who only needs the correct combination of linemates to do big things. We saw what happened last season when he was paired with high-end goal scorer Jeff Skinner. With the pair locked down in Buffalo for the foreseeable future, fans should expect more and more from No. 9.
23. Tyler Seguin, Dallas Stars
How many scorers in the NHL are more consistent than Seguin? Since 2010, only three players have recorded more seasons with 25 goals or more than him — Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos and John Tavares. Seguin, as well as teammate Jamie Benn, Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel, have recorded seven seasons of 25 or more goals in that time period. It's decent company to keep.
Tyler Seguin reached the 30-goal mark for the fifth time with the @DallasStars .
Mike Modano paces all players in Stars/North Stars franchise history with nine such seasons. #NHLStats #DALvsWPG pic.twitter.com/Gex9T0xfyF
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) March 26, 2019
Seguin has yet to advance past the second round of the playoffs in his tenure with the Stars; however, with a revamped roster that includes veteran Joe Pavelski, expect No. 91's line to draw even more favorable matchups and another 80-point campaign this season.
22. Phil Kessel, Arizona Coyotes
"Phil The Thrill" was a sensational addition to the Penguins over the last four seasons, putting up 303 points in 328 games — 77% of the production he amassed in 118 fewer games than his entire career in Toronto.
Long been considered one of the best pure offensive forces in the game, the Penguins gave Kessel plenty of time and space to be that player, placing him in the offensive zone for 64.7% of his even-strength faceoffs. He obliged with a career-high 92-point season in 2017-18 and 82 points in 82 games last year. Kessel is also one of the league's iron men — he has not missed a regular-season game in nine seasons and has never played in less than 70.
Phil Kessel, who has played every game for 8 straight seasons, scores his 15th goal of season and 345 of his career. pic.twitter.com/kyRicBY7pU
— Bucci Mane (@Buccigross) December 28, 2018
Kessel will be offered a different test this fall after a summer trade to Arizona. A veteran presence, he'll be tasked with increasing scoring on a team that finished tied with Dallas for 28th in the league in goals for.
21. Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs
Is Marner the man of the offseason? It seems like the entire league is waiting on him to sign a contract to set market prices for a host of other high-profile restricted free agents.
No matter what happens, his 94-point season has him set for a big-time payday. One of the Leafs' highly regarded young scorers, Marner broke out this season as one of the league's top even-strength point producers. According to Evolving-Hockey, the right winger recorded 38 primary assists at even strength in 2018-19, more than any other player in the league.
Mitch Marner sacrifices his body to make two HUGE blocks in a 1 goal game in the dying seconds.
The whole team embraces him after the win. pic.twitter.com/SibgMJvGPH
— Flintor (@TheFlintor) April 16, 2019
Marner's high-energy skilled play mixes well with either of the Leafs' top two centers, John Tavares or Auston Matthews. He may not necessarily score 30 goals consistently in the NHL, but as long as he's paired with other top forwards he will create plenty of chances.
However, it's not all about scoring for Marner: moments like his blocked shots against the Bruins in the first round of this year's playoffs have earned him countless fans — probably a lot of money — in Toronto.
20. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers
How does a 23-year-old who scored 105 points last season only appear at No. 20? Well, Draisaitl did play with Connor McDavid more often than any other Edmonton skater at five-on-five.
The center obtained an impossible-to-sustain 21.6 shooting percentage on his way to 50 goals, and his goals for percentages were worse playing without McDavid than when the two were on the ice together.
Back, forth and that's No. 4️⃣0️⃣ for Leon Draisaitl. pic.twitter.com/XPnwXmmPOm
— NHL (@NHL) March 2, 2019
McDavid's numbers also took a hit without the Oilers' other star on his line, but it's very difficult to ascertain just how good Draisaitl is individually when he plays with the best player in the league. That's no knock on Draisaitl. Nobody scores over 70 points — never mind 100 — in the NHL accidentally. If he fares this season as well as he did the last, then he will climb this list quickly.
19. John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs
Considering Auston Matthews and Marner re-ignited excitement among Leafs fans when they joined the team in 2016, Tavares' arrival in his hometown last summer confirmed Toronto should contend annually for a championship. The six-time All-Star performed admirably in his first season with the Maple Leafs, playing in all 82 games and scoring 47 goals (88 points), which blew his previous career-high (38 goals) out of the water.
— Ꮇ էէ (@MattBeardly) March 2, 2019
Tavares was the go-to-guy with the Islanders, and in 2018-19 he led all Toronto forwards in even-strength time on ice per game, as a highly-paid veteran should. However, he also had high-flying young stars surrounding him and was able to unleash the full power of his scoring abilities on the rest of the league. The same should happen again this fall.
18. Ryan O'Reilly, St. Louis Blues
The reigning Conn Smythe and Selke winner checks in at No. 18 on our list — fresh off the best season of his career. O'Reilly notched a league-best 23 points in the playoffs, including five goals in the Stanley Cup Final, after a career-best 77-point regular season.
— St. Louis Blues (@StLouisBlues) April 5, 2019
The 28-year-old center plays with sound positioning and is opportunistic when the puck lands on his stick. He's long been considered one of the league's better two-way players; however, last season was a true revelation for him regardless of the fact he suited up for his third NHL team in just 10 seasons. The Seaworth, Ont., native has some hardware to his name now, including a Stanley Cup but only time will tell if he can match last season's memorable performance.
17. Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers
Before last season, Barkov was perhaps Florida's — and the NHL's — best-kept secret.
But then 23-year-old Panthers captain, known for his increasingly strong two-way game over his first five NHL seasons, held a grand coming-out party in 2018-19 to the tune of 96 points, an All-Star appearance, the Lady Byng Trophy and a fifth-place Selke finish.
“Did you just do that Aleksander Barkov!?!” pic.twitter.com/hGztsSMsYz
— Spinorama Hockey (@spinohockey) February 18, 2019
Barkov's silky smooth skating and impressive puck skills allow him to put the puck in the net and retrieve it when it's not on his stick. He's comparable to Boston's Patrice Bergeron before Bergeron's reign of Selke trophy dominance began; however, Barkov is putting up point totals Bergeron has never reached. Expect Barkov's name to regularly join the conversation regarding the league's best players as his trajectory continues to go up.
16. Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets
Not every high NHL draft pick ascends to stardom as a teenager. Selected seventh overall in the 2011 draft, Scheifele required two more years in the Ontario Hockey League before fully breaking into the NHL as a 20-year-old. It took two more seasons for him to score 61 points, but since then he has excelled as an all-around offensive force for the Jets. The Kitchener, Ont., native averaged more minutes than any other Winnipeg forward last season (21:52 per game) and set career-highs in goals (38) and points (84) while playing in all 82 games.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) December 15, 2018
Scheifele is a top-notch, all-around quality center that the Jets lean on in all three zones of the ice. Is he the flashiest player in the league? No. But he does his job well.
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15. Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs
Matthews exploded on to the NHL scene in 2016-17 with a 40-goal season, quickly establishing himself as one of the game's premier snipers. His arrival in Toronto coincided with the franchise's resurgence; however, the Leafs still need to clear the first-round playoff hurdle they've faced in each of Matthews' three seasons. No. 34 excels at putting himself in an optimal position for a high-quality, powerful shot on net, which has made him the fifth-highest goal scorer in the NHL since he entered the league.
AUSTON MATTHEWS GOAL NUMBER 100 pic.twitter.com/easwz2jnC2
— Flintor (@TheFlintor) February 15, 2019
The 21-year-old American scored 37 goals in 68 regular season games last year and torched the Bruins for five more in the first round of the playoffs. Full healthy seasons should place Matthews in the mix for the league's goal-scoring lead for years to come, and if luck eventually falls Toronto's way, he could help bring the city its first Stanley Cup since 1967.
14. David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins
Pastrnak, the Bruins' 23-year-old right winger, first ascended into the upper echelon of scorers three years ago with a 70-point season. He has only performed better and better since, reaching the 80-point mark in each of the last two seasons.
In 2018-19, "Pasta" scored 81 points in just 66 games — which actually placed him seventh in the league in points per game (1.23) just behind Sidney Crosby. Had Pastrnak played a full season, it's likely he would have pushed for 100 points.
David Pastrnak recorded his 25th goal of the season. @pastrnak96 is the first @NHLBruins player to score 25 goals in the team’s first 41 games of a season since Cam Neely (25 goals in 37 GP; 1993-94). #NHLStats pic.twitter.com/xvF1k9Nz2R
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) January 4, 2019
No. 88 is a danger all on his own in the offensive zone, especially on the power play; he waits in either circle to fire a slapshot, much like another deadly goal-scorer: Alexander Ovechkin. Pastrnak does benefit from playing with All-Star linemates Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand; however, the young Czech may be better off on another line.
According to Natural Stat Trick, while Bergeron and Marchand's goals for percentage last season was actually higher with Pastrnak than without him, his percentage playing without the duo was better. In fact, second-line center David Krejci performed better with Pastrnak than without. However, it's fair to say, regardless of where he's slotted into the lineup this season the production-level will always be high.
13. Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins
Bergeron comes off a career-best 79-point season, topping his previous high of 73 from all the way back in 2005-06. Combine that with his eighth consecutive season finishing in the top three for Selke Trophy voting as the league's best defensive forward (he's won the award four times), and his team's trip to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, "Saint Patrice's" reputation as one of the game's most complete players is more than earned.
Patrice Bergeron with a fantastic backcheck, then feeds the puck waaaaaaay up ice and sets up Marchand for the snipe.
That's silly. pic.twitter.com/bTVmmpmhT4
— Conor Ryan (@ConorRyan_93) October 31, 2018
Bergeron consistently puts himself in the right spot at the right time to create turnovers, chase down opponents and cycle the puck in the offensive zone with his relentless backcheck and vision away from the puck – which by the way, has a whole highlight reel dedicated to it.
12. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins
Malkin is a prime example of a top-tier player with the physical frame NHL teams love. Sure, not every player needs to stand at 6-3, 195-pounds, but it definitely helps to win physical battles and adding a little extra oomph behind a shot. His stature, combined with gifted puckhandling skills, enables him to charge right through defenders and head straight to the net, with or without the puck. It also makes him dangerous on the power play — whether he camps out in front of the net or hangs farther back in the zone for a one-timer, "Geno" knows how to find the net.
Evgeni Malkin’s spinorama back hand snipe.
February 17th, 2019 pic.twitter.com/03WI6rYsRU
— Jake n’ Bake (@guentzelego) April 30, 2019
Despite missing 14 games last season he performed over a point per game, amassing 72 points along the way. After Matt Cullen retired, Malkin actually became Pittsburgh's oldest player at just 33 years of age but he should still prove extremely productive for a re-tooling Penguins franchise this fall.
11. Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames
"Johnny Hockey" is proof that size does not mean everything. Tied with Marchand as the shortest player on our list, Gaudreau certainly is the lightest at 165-pounds; however, that does not stop him from dancing his way around defenses. The New Jersey native is one of the more crafty skaters in the NHL — he easily shifts directions on the ice, even at a low speed, putting a flat-footed defender or goalie down and out while firing off a shot or making a pass.
Johnny Gaudreau dancing around the Sharks defense like a ballerina pic.twitter.com/H8SDxJDgNV
— Bar South N Celly™ (@BarSouthNCelly) March 17, 2018
Gaudreau has increased his career-high in total points in each of the last two seasons and set individual career highs in both goals (36) and assists (63) en route to a 99-point campaign in 2018-19. He scored at a high clip at 5-on-5, too — according to Evolving Hockey, 30 of his goals (87%) came at even strength.
10. Artemi Panarin, New York Rangers
Panarin was the focal point of a Columbus Blue Jackets offense that would have otherwise struggled mightily without him the last two seasons. His 87 points last season earned him quite the payday from the Rangers on July 1 and his $11.6 million cap hit will come with an expectation to lead the offense in New York, too.
— NHL GIFs (@NHLGIFs) April 6, 2019
9. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals
Is Ovechkin the greatest goal-scorer in NHL history? His 658 goals put him in 13th place all-time entering the 2019-20 season. He has an outside shot of reaching legend Wayne Gretzky's all-time record of 894 career goals — meaning The Great Eight could catch The Great One with eight more seasons of at least 30 goals. Perhaps that's a lot to put on a forward who will turn 34 in September, but the Capitals' superstar has never scored fewer than 32 goals in a season and scored 51 just last year.
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) April 21, 2019
At least 30 goals per season going forward should not be a problem for the man who won the Maurice Richard Trophy for most goals in six of the last seven seasons. There may be a few better-rounded players in the league today, but Ovechkin's pure talent for finding the back of the net remains unmatched.
8. Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets
Wheeler is another player whose game has only grown with his age. The former Boston Bruin established himself as a dependable 60-point scorer during three of his first five seasons with the Winnipeg franchise before finding another level at age 29 — producing 70-point seasons twice, in 2016 and 2017. But it didn't stop there — Wheeler has now produced back-to-back 91-point seasons, finishing within the top three in assists both years.
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) March 4, 2019
So, what's changed? Wheeler didn't have Kyle Connor, Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers as teammates four years ago. With them in place — and Scheifele fully emerged as a top-tier NHL center — Wheeler has been able to score in a number of ways. He's consistently good for 20 goals a season, but with snipers all around him, he racks up assists better than almost anyone.
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7. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning
Stamkos has completed his transformation from the high-flying scoring sensation that led the NHL in scoring twice (reminder: he had a 60-goal season in 2011-12) to a well-rounded offensive force who finished ninth in the league in scoring last season. Of those 98 points, 53 were assists and the year before, the Lightning captain tallied 59 helpers.
Steven Stamkos goes backhand for a beautiful assist on Ondrej Palat's goal . pic.twitter.com/4pE12t4lFi
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) January 16, 2019
Surrounded by the best supporting cast he has played with, in his career, No. 91 is still the cog that makes the Lightning work. He played only 17 games in 2016-17 due to a knee injury but missed only four games in the last two seasons.
6. Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins
Marchand made his name in the NHL as a pesky, annoying forward who also wielded a quality shot and crafty skill with the puck. He has since evolved into one of hockey's most dangerous scoring threats, finishing the 2018-19 season as one of five players to reach the 100-point mark. Those 100 points marked a career-high for the Halifax, N.S., native and helped place him third among all players in points per game (1.19) over the last three seasons. The only players who recorded more points per game than Marchand over that time period? Superstars McDavid and Nikita Kucherov.
— Boston Bruins (@NHLBruins) May 15, 2019
So, what drove Marchand's ascension to one of the league's top players? Is it all due to individual success? Has he been allowed more offensive freedom since Boston head coach Bruce Cassidy took over midway through the 2016-17 season? Marchand has always succeeded playing with Bergeron but in recent years Pastrnak has become a staple on the dynamic duo's right side, creating what is consistently in the conversation for the best forward line in the NHL.
Marchand may never escape his reputation as one of the league's most controversial players, but three straight seasons of above point-per-game-play places him among the best forwards in the league.
5. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
MacKinnon, the first overall pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, had a strong rookie season in 2013-14 (63 points) but failed to match that total again over the next three seasons. In the last two years, though, his game has reached a new level — as the 23-year-old has surpassed 90 points in each of his last two seasons and fell just one point short of 100 in 2018-19.
MacKinnon's linemates in Colorado — Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog — combined for one of the best trios in the NHL this past year, and his efforts helped push the Avalanche to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2008.
4. Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks
The Blackhawks missed the Stanley Cup playoffs for the second season in a row, but Kane reached new career highs in points (110) and assists (66) in 2018-19. In most other years, 110 points would be enough to lead the league — his 106 points in 2016 did — but Kane now has younger scoring talent to contend with in McDavid and Kucherov.
Chicago has leaned more and more on Kane in recent years as the team's depth has been tested, culminating in a season in which only McDavid and his Oilers teammate Draisaitl averaged more time on ice time than No. 88, who skated over 22 minutes per game. The Buffalo, N.Y., native's skill with the puck remains among the best in hockey and he continues to extend a career that already places him among the greatest American-born players ever.
Good morning, I have one question for you...
WHO ELSE BUT PATRICK KANE!?!?! pic.twitter.com/I1yDHsHd03
— Chief (@BarstoolChief) February 21, 2019
Chicago will one day be forced to lessen Kane's workload and aim for the future, but for now, the team needs him at his best to avoid missing the playoffs for a third straight season. Without better overall depth, it won't be easy; however, he'll go on pulling his weight — and then some.
3. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
Crosby emerged as one of the NHL's best and most popular players in the wake of the 2004-05 lockout and implementation of the salary cap, and for good reason. Though he originally burst into the league as a scoring phenom, his evolution into a well-rounded player has played a significant role in the Penguins winning three Stanley Cups, including back-to-back championship wins in 2016 and 2017.
THAT'S OUR CAPTAIN.
Sidney Crosby records his 440th NHL goal, passing Jaromir Jagr for the 2nd-most in franchise history.
Crosby now has goals in four-straight games. pic.twitter.com/A5smZjQvWU
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) March 3, 2019
"Sid the Kid" is now 32, but he has not shown signs of slowing down — he reached 100 points last season for the sixth time and the first time since 2013-14. Crosby's offensive talents make him lethal from anywhere inside the blue line, and a strong backhanded shot means he can beat even the best goalies from poor angles.
2. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning
Kucherov's mind-boggling 128-point season earned him the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's top scorer, the Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player and the Ted Lindsay Award as the league's most outstanding player as voted by his peers. Oh, and his team won the Presidents' Trophy. Not too shabby. Though he broke the 40-goal barrier, Kucherov made sure to spread the wealth along the way with 87 assists — teammates Stamkos and Brayden Point scored over 90 points, too.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) December 23, 2018
The 26-year-old Russian was the first player to reach 100 points last season and reached that milestone for the second year running. Kucherov has set new career highs in points scored in each of his six NHL seasons, and with him signed on through 2027, it is fair to say the sky is the limit for No. 86. It will be hard for Kucherov to top last season's performance, though — the last player to score more than 128 points in one season was Jaromir Jagr (149) in 1996.
1. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
There is no better candidate for best player in the NHL than McDavid. While the Oilers have yet to reap the benefits of having this superstar, No. 97 consistently rises above and beyond what the rest of the league throws at him. He's scored at least 100 points in each of the last three seasons and has averaged above a point per game since entering the league as a teenager in 2015.
McDavid burns defenses with a unique combination of speed, vision and skill — he has won the Fastest Skater competition at the NHL's All-Star Weekend three years running — that makes containing him a near-impossible task. By the time the puck is on his stick entering the zone, the Richmond Hill, Ont. native is already two steps ahead. A dynamic force, McDavid contributed a goal or assist on 50% of all Oilers' goals in 2018-19 and at only 22, the sky is the limit for this superstar.