The definitive ranking of the NHL’s top 23 right-wingers over three seasons

Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane tells HC @ Noon he'd be lying if he didn't say he was emotional and disappointed when first hearing linemate and close friend Artemi Panarin had been traded.

Last year around this time, with the help of some smart people, I posted a series of articles ranking the top-20 NHL players at each position over the previous three seasons. We’re going to do the same thing this year, but change it up fairly significantly as well.

Like last year, the list will be limited to players who have participated in 2000-plus 5-on-5 minutes over the past three seasons in order to get an adequate sample size of play to draw from.

Like last year, this is a complicated task that requires outside input, and whenever I take on a project this large I like to rely a little on people smarter than myself. The framework of the rankings is built on the input I got last year from Dom Luszczyszyn, Steve Burtch, and Jonathan Willis, while this year I received additional input from Luszczyszyn again and Dominic Galamini, as well as the ideas of smart people like Manny Perry and Tyler Dellow.

Statistics for this project were collected from Sportlogiq, Natural Stat Trick, Puck IQ, Hockey Reference, NHL.com, and Luszczyszyn’s Game Score database. Each statistic was individually weighted in categories, scored as a percentile from the highest score at the position in order to award a score to each player.

This year for all forward positions I adjusted the categories slightly, taking five points from transition play and adding it to offence, while adding a new category for difficulty of minutes played that is applied as a multiplier to all categories. As such, the highest theoretical score would now be 125 points instead of 100 if a player were to be the best in the NHL at every single statistic while playing the toughest minutes in every category in the difficulty matrix, but no one scores that high so practically we’ll keep the numbers out of 100 even after the adjustment.

Because wingers have less defensive responsibility than centres, the breakdown is 60 points for offence, 25 points for transition play, and 15 for defensive play.

Also new this year is weighting season scores by how recent they are, using the same breakdown as Galamini does with his HERO charts; 22.2 per cent for 2014-15, 33.3 per cent for 2015-16, and 44.5 per cent for 2016-17.

Here are the statistics used in each category:

For offence: 5-on-5 and power play goals, primary assists, secondary assists, scoring chances, high-danger scoring chances, scoring chances generated for teammates, shot attempts, passes to the slot completed, penalties drawn, and on-ice goals for relative to teammates per 60 minutes, and offensive zone pass completion rate.

For transition play: 5-on-5 outlet passes, stretch passes, controlled carries out of the defensive zone, neutral zone passes, controlled entries into the offensive zone per 60 minutes, Corsi, and Corsi relative to teammates and pass completion rates relative to teammates in the defensive and neutral zones.

For defence: 5-on-5 and shorthanded loose puck recoveries by zone, pass blocks, stick checks, body checks, penalties taken, on-ice goals-against relative to teammates, on-ice shot-attempts against relative to teammates per 60 minutes, and turnover rates relative to teammates by zone.

For difficulty of minutes played: Puck IQ’s competition-faced percentages, Game Score’s quality of competition, Game Score’s quality of teammates, PDO, offensive zone starts percentage, 5-on-5 time-on-ice, and overall time-on-ice.

With all that information out of the way, let’s get to the rankings. This year we’re adding a few extra, doing the top-23 at each position. For the right wing position, 69 players qualified.

23. Craig Smith
Difficulty Matrix: 1.12/1.25
Offence: 33.93/60 | Transition: 15.99/25 | Defence: 6.83/15
Total: 56.75/100

One of the NHL’s most underrated forwards, it doesn’t help that Smith had a really rough season last year that further pushed him into obscurity. Those struggles dropped him six spots down the rankings, but he remains an excellent winger who drives offence and pushes the game forward.

Smith’s main asset is his nose for the net, as he generates a ton of scoring chances from in tight that create goals and rebound chances for his teammates. Losing him to injury for most of their playoff run was a bigger blow to the Predators’ chances than most people realize.

22. Gustav Nyquist
Difficulty Matrix: 1.15/1.25
Offence: 31.20/60 | Transition: 16.62/25 | Defence: 8.99/15
Total: 56.80/100

Early in his career Nyquist was known mostly for his offensive production, and while he’s still no slouch there, he’s significantly grown his game in moving the puck up the ice and defending without it.

Nyquist isn’t a big passer in transition, but when he does do that he rarely misses. His preference is to carry the puck through the neutral zone and set things up himself, which he does better than most. On the defensive side of the puck he doesn’t have a standout skill, but is strong enough in every area that his impact is greater than the other aspects of his game.

21. Patric Hornqvist
Difficulty Matrix: 1.13/1.25
Offence: 36.41/60 | Transition: 11.88/25 | Defence: 8.94/15
Total: 57.23/100

Hornqvist is a funny player to say the least. Without the puck he’s very strong, he’ll strip it from opponents or recover loose pucks with his size and positioning. With the puck he’s a great goal scorer and one of the NHL’s leaders in high-danger scoring chances. But ask him to move the puck? Not so great.

In the offensive and defensive zones you can rely on Hornqvist to be a big-time contributor to your team, but in the neutral zone you’ll find he becomes a turnover machine when asked to handle the puck, and he struggles to make plays at both blue lines.

20. Mats Zuccarello
Difficulty Matrix: 1.16/1.25
Offence: 33.73/60 | Transition: 14.70/25 | Defence: 9.28/15
Total: 57.71/100

The pint-sized Zuccarello is a spark plug of a player, but who would have guessed he had such a strong defensive presence? Small players are often underestimated defensively for whatever reason, and that holds true for Zuccarello. He’s aggressive on puck carriers in the neutral zone especially, and an excellent zone exit player who can be trusted not to turn over the puck in the defensive zone.

Offensively, Zuccarello is a high-end playmaker at even strength, and a decent driver of on-ice goals and scoring chances, though his power play work isn’t as strong.

19. Phil Kessel
Difficulty Matrix: 1.11/1.25
Offence: 37.34/60 | Transition: 15.52/25 | Defence: 4.86/15
Total: 57.72/100

For all those pundits in Toronto who were harping on Kessel being a defensive liability, you were definitely right. For all those analysts in Toronto who said it didn’t really matter when you account for the rest of his game, you were definitely right, too. Kessel is such an odd player: a terrific skater who transitions the puck well, but doesn’t work hard to get the puck himself.

When he does have the puck, though, there aren’t many players who are more dangerous. Kessel has a deadly shot, but he might be an even better playmaker than he is a shooter. His playmaking is especially dangerous on the power play where he has a bit more room to move. The soft minutes he’s played in Pittsburgh the past two years agree with him.

18. Jordan Eberle
Difficulty Matrix: 1.15/1.25
Offence: 33.97/60 | Transition: 16.62/25 | Defence: 7.63/15
Total: 58.23/100

Not the first and probably not the last victim of Being in Edmonton Too Long Syndrome™, Eberle is an excellent winger with a fairly well-rounded game who has seen the perception of him drop precipitously for very little reason. A fourth-straight 20-goal season that likely would have been his sixth-straight if not for a lockout-shortened season in 2012-13 wasn’t enough to convince Oilers management he was worth keeping around.

Eberle is an excellent transition player who loves to skate and dangle the puck to create offence for his teammates, but he does have a weakness when it comes to turnovers, especially in the neutral zone where he was among the worst in the NHL last season.

17. Cam Atkinson
Difficulty Matrix: 1.13/1.25
Offence: 36.92/60 | Transition: 13.92/25 | Defence: 7.49/15
Total: 58.33/100

Cam Atkinson has increased his goal total each season he’s played in the NHL. After rising to an incredible 35 last year, that growth probably won’t continue, but four-straight 20-goal campaigns have put him in the spotlight as one of the Blue Jackets’ best offensive weapons.

He displayed the most prowess on the power play last season, where he boasted one of the best on-ice goals for percentages relative to his teammates in the league. Atkinson isn’t an amazing possession or transition player at this stage, but he keeps things tidy with a high pass success rate and low turnover rate in the defensive zone, meaning he’s not a liability outside the offensive zone.

16. Jakub Voracek
Difficulty Matrix: 1.15/1.25
Offence: 31.64/60 | Transition: 19.11/25 | Defence: 7.99/15
Total: 58.74/100

I think Voracek is a little underrated here because I skew the offence scores for wingers towards goal-scoring more than playmaking, but his biggest strength is in his transition game anyway. He’s the first player on the list to have an area of his game above the 75th percentile, driven primarily by the fact that no winger partakes in transitioning the puck from defence to offence as much as Voracek.

He is brilliant with the puck on his stick from goal line to goal line, always making smart decisions and very rarely dumping the puck out of the defensive zone or into the offensive zone. He had a bit of a tough season last year, as did a few Flyers, but he should rebound in short order.

15. Kyle Palmieri
Difficulty Matrix: 1.16/1.25
Offence: 38.25/60 | Transition: 13.67/25 | Defence: 7.91/15
Total: 59.83/100

Palmieri isn’t the best player between the blue lines, but offensively he’s extremely dangerous, even if his point totals don’t wow you. Palmieri is great at creating scoring chances for his teammates, and can finish at a high rate on his own chances, especially on the power play where he has had a lot of success.

What’s most impressive about Palmieri is his ability to create offence without much talent around him, which bodes well for the Devils as they slowly add some scoring punch.

14. Corey Perry
Difficulty Matrix: 1.14/1.25
Offence: 37.99/60 | Transition: 14.55/25 | Defence: 7.63/15
Total: 60.16/100

At 32 years old, Corey Perry may be beginning to get hit by the dreaded decline brought on by age, but one season isn’t enough to know for sure, even if he went from six-straight seasons pacing for 30 or more goals to just 19 last year. Even if Perry can no longer put 35 goals into Anaheim’s season with regularity, he’s still a well-rounded player you can trust on a top line.

Perry’s strength typically has been fore-checking and working in around the net to get high-danger scoring chances with a strong shot that allows him to roof chances from tight areas, but that ability to finish seemed to disappear for long stretches last year.

13. Justin Williams
Difficulty Matrix: 1.11/1.25
Offence: 31.84/60 | Transition: 19.26/25 | Defence: 9.54/15
Total: 60.64/100

At 35 years old Williams’ best offensive days are likely behind him, but he remains a high-impact transition player and a defensive stalwart who can turn a good line into a great one. Williams’ attention to detail without the puck can insulate a centre who needs some defensive help, and he’s still skilled enough offensively to push 20 goals.

Williams played relatively soft minutes in Washington, but he’s one of the most involved wingers in the game in recovering pucks in the defensive zone and then distributing out of the zone to start rushes. He fits right into the dynamic Carolina is building.

12. Brendan Gallagher
Difficulty Matrix: 1.14/1.25
Offence: 37.38/60 | Transition: 16.60/25 | Defence: 9.48/15
Total: 63.46/100

A rough season of abysmal shooting luck and a Shea Weber slap shot blowing his hand apart dropped Gallagher a couple spots from last year, but his all-around game is so strong that he remains one of the NHL’s best right-wingers.

With his finishing ability hurt, Gallagher compensated by recording more scoring chances than any other year in his career, leading all wingers in shot attempts at 5-on-5, and focusing on improving his transition game by making better decisions with the puck around the blue lines, and making more accurate passes. Even if Gallagher’s hand never fully recovers, he generates offence for his teammates by creating havoc in the offensive zone better than most players in the NHL.

11. Rickard Rakell
Difficulty Matrix: 1.14/1.25
Offence: 40.16/60 | Transition: 16.63/25 | Defence: 6.74/15
Total: 63.53/100

Rakell was quick to establish himself as an NHL regular, and his progress has been consistent as he’s developed into a high-end top-line winger. He’s one of the top even strength goal scorers at his position, and creates tons of chances for his linemates through rebounds off his chances that don’t end up in the net on the initial shot.

Also a strong transition player, Rakell is a controlled entry machine for the Ducks, creating chances off the rush with speed that other top Ducks forwards aren’t as capable of due to slower strides.

10. T.J. Oshie
Difficulty Matrix: 1.12/1.25
Offence: 38.47/60 | Transition: 16.88/25 | Defence: 8.69/15
Total: 64.04/100

Bolting up the list from 20th last year, Oshie’s strong overall game has been boosted by back-to-back career highs in goals with the Washington Capitals. Working the bumper spot on the power play has made Oshie nearly as big of a threat with the man advantage as Ovechkin, but at even strength he led all right-wingers in goals per minute played last season.

Part of the reason behind Oshie’s goal scoring breakout last year is an unsustainable 23.1 per cent shooting percentage, but he still scored almost a half goal a game, an incredible feat. Oshie is also a strong playmaker who can make long distance feeds with startling accuracy, whether that’s a stretch pass out of the defensive zone or a cross-ice feed to set up a one-timer.

9. David Pastrnak
Difficulty Matrix: 1.12/1.25
Offence: 40.63/60 | Transition: 17.74/25 | Defence: 6.93/15
Total: 65.31/100

Playing with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand is a great gig if you can get it, just ask Loui Eriksson. But Pastrnak has displayed offensive prowess that makes him closer to their peer than a ride-along. Missed games have sort of obscured the fact that Pastrnak has averaged 28 goals per 82 games from ages 18 to 20, a remarkable feat that neither of his esteemed linemates can claim.

He isn’t great defensively, which isn’t uncommon for players his age, but he doesn’t need to be while playing with Bergeron. Once Bergeron gets the puck, Pastrnak is a great option to move it up the ice, as he’s excellent at skating the puck through the middle from defence to offence.

8. Tyler Toffoli
Difficulty Matrix: 1.12/1.25
Offence: 36.92/60 | Transition: 19.30/25 | Defence: 9.74/15
Total: 65.95/100

Like most of the King players, Toffoli had a really tough year offensively in 2016-17, when he saw his goal total cut in half and missed 19 games. That drop in offence cut him from third last year down to eighth, but he remains one of the best right-wingers thanks to the strength of his all-around game.

One of the better puck rushers at his position, Toffoli is very involved in the Kings’ defensive zone breakouts, and boasts high pass success rates and low turnover rates, making everyone else’s jobs much easier when he’s handling the puck. If he can get back into his career high range, he’ll be one of the most complete wingers in the game.

7. Jaromir Jagr
Difficulty Matrix: 1.14/1.25
Offence: 38.37/60 | Transition: 20.64/25 | Defence: 8.02/15
Total: 67.03/100

Doubt the old man at your peril, because at 44 years old last year Jagr was still on the edge of being elite. The knock on him is that he’s slow, which is true, but that lack of speed doesn’t seem to hinder him because his hockey sense is nearly unparalleled.

Jagr remains one of the best generators of on-ice goals at even strength in the NHL, transitions the puck more effectively than almost any winger in the game, and dumps the puck less than any other right-winger. Jagr’s ability to protect the puck and complete a smart play makes his linemates better, and he was almost the sole reason the Panthers weren’t completely in the tank while most of their star players suffered injuries last year. He’s incredible, and some team needs to sign him right now.

6. Nino Niederreiter
Difficulty Matrix: 1.14/1.25
Offence: 38.66/60 | Transition: 19.25/25 | Defence: 10.13/15
Total: 68.04/100

For me, this was the biggest surprise among the right-winger rankings. I like Niederreiter a lot, but I didn’t think he was this well-rounded or this good. Niederreiter is a feisty player who doesn’t hesitate to get involved in all three zones, and positionally he is sound.

While Niederreiter is a very strong playmaker at even strength, on the power play he’s even more dangerous because he’s a potent goal scorer there as well. In terms of his transition game, Niederreiter has developed into a Corsi monster, and rarely misses passes relative to his teammates. When it comes to puck management, he’s a bit loose in the neutral zone, but rarely turns the puck over in the defensive and offensive zones.

5. Mark Stone
Difficulty Matrix: 1.17/1.25
Offence: 37.04/60 | Transition: 23.25/25 | Defence: 12.82/15
Total: 73.11/100

Mark Stone just keeps getting better. He is, far and away, the best defensive winger in the game today. For the second straight year no winger recovered more loose pucks than Stone, nor did any winger strip opponents of possession more often. The weirdest thing to me based on his play and defensive awareness is that he’s never really been tried as a centre. Maybe he’s really bad at faceoffs?

Guy Boucher cut Stone’s quality of competition slightly last year, which was a weird choice, but resulted in significant boost to his on-ice goal differential. Though with Stone’s skill set, you’d think it’d be wise to use him against the other team’s best players. Either way, if I had a vote for the Selke, he’d have been in the mix last year.

4. Blake Wheeler
Difficulty Matrix: 1.17/1.25
Offence: 42.31/60 | Transition: 20.07/25 | Defence: 12.04/15
Total: 74.42/100

It’s rare to see a dominant line built around a winger instead of a centre, but if you were to ask who the perfect candidate for that would be, you’d do a lot worse than Blake Wheeler. He’s massive, uses his size smartly instead of running around trying to smash faces into the boards, a brilliant skater, a confidant puck handler, and a versatile offensive forward.

There isn’t much that Wheeler doesn’t do well, and the strength of his all-around game allows the Jets to load up their top line with Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, and Nik Ehlers, not worrying about putting all their eggs in one basket. Oh and he’s also their captain, and not afraid to speak his mind. What’s not to love about this guy?

3. Vladimir Tarasenko
Difficulty Matrix: 1.17/1.25
Offence: 51.48/60 | Transition: 19.82/25 | Defence: 7.01/15
Total: 78.30/100

The most dynamic goal-scoring winger on the right side of the ice, Tarasenko tears teams to shreds with his quick dekes and even quicker release. Tarasenko is the uncontested even strength scoring chance king of the NHL the past two years, and the gap is actually quite large. He finds ways to get to dangerous areas and get shots off, and he does it mostly without the help of top playmakers on his line, no disrespect to the centres of the St. Louis Blues.

Defence is a weakness for Tarasenko, as he doesn’t expend near the effort to get the puck as he does to make a play when he has it, and he can be a bit careless with the turnovers. But he makes up for that with strong play in transition, especially when it comes to making plays at both blue lines.

2. Nikita Kucherov
Difficulty Matrix: 1.17/1.25
Offence: 47.43/60 | Transition: 21.42/25 | Defence: 10.62/15
Total: 79.47/100

The contract the Lightning signed Kucherov to has to be illegal, right? How can a player who is this good be making under $5 million for two more seasons? The Lightning had better hope they win a Stanley Cup in one of those two seasons though, because after that they might be looking at a $9 million dollar per year player.

Kucherov’s biggest strength is his offensive game, where he’s a deadly goal scorer and nearly as good at setting up goals for others. Without Steven Stamkos last season, Kucherov put up a power play performance that was as dominant as Stamkos has ever been. What’s a little surprising is that Kucherov is nearly as strong defensively as he is offensively, largely because he rarely turns the puck over. He’s a special player.

1. Patrick Kane
Difficulty Matrix: 1.18/1.25
Offence: 51.20/60 | Transition: 23.96/25 | Defence: 6.79/15
Total: 81.95/100

Kane is a borderline liability without the puck, but when he has it on his stick, there are only a couple players in the NHL you’d rather rely on to get results. The past two years have been the most dominant of Kane’s career, which coincided with Artemi Panarin’s arrival.

Kane’s transition game is unequalled among wingers, as his combination of speed, agility, and stickhandling make him extremely hard to defend, so that’s unlikely to go away, but I do wonder if his offensive numbers will remain as dominant now that Panarin is in Columbus. The two truly had something special together.