Down Goes Brown: The difficulties of ranking NHL’s top 100 players

The Maple Leafs blank the Red Wings, Sven Baertschi and the Canucks crush the Avalanche while the Oilers and Flyers ride hot goaltending to road victories

• Snubs are inevitable
• Slotting today’s players is tricky
• Who wins in Yzerman-vs.-Sakic debate?

The NHL will release its long-awaited list of the top 100 players of all-time tomorrow night as part of the all-star weekend festivities in Los Angeles. It’s a neat concept, and it’s already inspired plenty of debate and discussion among fans.

But it’s also just a little bit of a copout. The league isn’t actually ranking the players; they’re just giving us a list. It seems like if you’re going to go to the trouble of narrowing down NHL history to its very best 100 players, you might as well go all the way and count them down.

So a few of us decided to do just that. Working with Vice’s Dave Lozo and Yahoo’s Greg Wyshynski, I recently released an e-book that features our own picks for the best 100 players the NHL has ever seen, listed in order. And after weeks of ranking, debating, re-ranking and more debating, we ended up with a list that looked very different from how I assumed it would going in.

The whole thing was a lot of fun. It was also educational. Here are eight things I learned while trying to rank the NHL’s top 100 players of all-time.

1. It’s a lot harder than it sounds

Let’s just say I can understand why the NHL shied away from doing a full ranking. When I first heard that they were just doing one big list, I figured it was because the league didn’t want to anger any legendary players (or their fans).

That’s probably true. But it’s also possible that the league realized that sorting through the best of the best is tough enough; actually figuring out who should slot in where can get downright onerous.

We were eventually able to settle on a list we were happy with for the book. Then again, we don’t have to deal with team owners calling us up at league headquarters to yell about their guy coming at No. 21 instead of No. 20. Having been through the process, I can see why the league may have given the whole concept a pass.

2. You’ll be surprised at some of the names that don’t make it

From a distance, “top 100” feels like a vague concept. You know that anyone who makes the list will have to be really good, so you brain starts coming up with names that fit that description. Chances are, you hone in on some of the top players from your favorite team’s history. And you figure that most of them will probably make the list.

Don’t be so sure. While 100 players may seem like a lot, we’re also dealing with 100 years of history here, and the list fills up quickly. Remember, there are 271 players who’ve been honoured with induction in the Hockey Hall of Fame; we’ve only got 100 spots to work with on a list that includes active players and guys that aren’t eligible yet.

For our version, we ended up having to leave out more than a few Hall of Famers who seemed like no-brainers. I’m a Maple Leafs fan, and I went in assuming that Doug Gilmour and Mats Sundin would make the cut. Neither did. Maybe one or both guys will make the NHL’s official version; as a fan, I hope they do. But if so, it will be at the expense of some other deserving candidates.

The league has already released the first 33 names, featuring players who starred before 1967, and they’ve already been hammered for it. And that’s for players most of today’s fans never saw with their own eyes. Wait until the rest of the list comes out, and some of the guys you grew up idolizing aren’t on it.

3. Slotting in today’s players gets tricky

There’s been some confusion over how many current players arec on the NHL’s list. Initial reports suggested it may be as low as six, while others have suggested it could be higher.

We can assume that Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin made the cut. We can say the same for Jaromir Jagr, and probably Jarome Iginla too. After that, things get complicated.

For example, what do you do with star players who are still in their prime, like Jonathan Toews, Carey Price, Patrick Kane and Drew Doughty? Erik Karlsson is only 26, but he’s won multiple Norris Trophies, and that’s a pretty exclusive club. Duncan Keith has, too, and has a Conn Smythe to go with them. Evgeni Malkin has been a first-team all-star three times. All of those guys should have plenty of good years left, but do you factor that into the equation? I don’t think you can.

Then there are some of today’s veterans that make for tough cases. That list would include Roberto Luongo, Henrik Lundqvist, Marian Hossa, Joe Thornton, and both Sedins, among others. You could make a good case for each one of those guys. But again, we’re dealing with a relatively small list here, and some big names are going to be left out.

When we were putting our book together, the current players were some of the hardest calls to make. (I wrote about a few of the most difficult here.) But if anything, the NHL’s job is far tougher. They’re doing this as a marketing exercise, and common sense would suggest that you want to err on the side of featuring the players that fans are still buying tickets to watch.

So maybe the league gives us more current players than we’re expecting. Maybe they even go all out and find room for somebody who’s just getting started, like Connor McDavid. But that just means more legends will get left out.

The Hockey PDOcast with Dimitri Filipovic provides entertaining and thoughtful dialogue about the game of hockey with an analytical edge. Not as nerdy as it sounds.

4. If today’s players are tough, the old-timers are just about impossible

Babe Dye was one of the league’s first great snipers. In 1920–21, he scored 35 goals in just 24 games. He led the league in scoring twice more, including a 38-goal season in 1924–25. He managed that even though he was small, and didn’t skate well.

How? By being one of the first players who could shoot the puck accurately from anywhere on the ice. In fact, he scored many of his goals from his own side of the red line.

How do you compare a player like that to an Ovechkin, Mike Bossy or even Rocket Richard?

When the NHL first began in 1917, goalies had been trained to never drop to the ice to make a save (it had been illegal in the NHA). The early days of the league didn’t include offsides or icing. For a while, there were restrictions on the use of the forward pass.

For all intents and purposes, hockey was a different sport back in the NHL’s first few decades. That make comparisons between eras difficult, if not impossible.

The NHL has already announced the 33 players for the league’s first half-century who made the top 100. They’ll leave it to us to figure out how News Lalonde measures up to Teeme Selanne.

5. A lot of hockey’s great careers were cut short

We knew this already, of course, but combing through a long list of the game’s greatest players really drives it home.

Granted, you see this in every sport — from Jim Brown to Sandy Koufax to Bill Walton to Barry Sanders, every sport has its share of superstars who we didn’t get to see enough of. But hockey seems to have had far more than its share, owing in part to the nature of the sport.

It seems like you can’t get through more than a handful of names before you find another guy who didn’t get to play out a full career.

How you approach those players will go a long way to determining what your top-100 list looks like. For example, how do you measure Bobby Orr’s 657 games or Mario Lemieux’s 915 against Gordie Howe’s 1,767? Where do you rank Bill Durnan or Ken Dryden compared to Terry Sawchuk or Glenn Hall? How can you compare Bossy’s 10 seasons to Jean Beliveau’s 20? What about a player who died young, like Charlie Gardiner or Howie Morenz?

And all of that that is before you get to the modern cases of careers cut short, from Eric Lindros to Cam Neely to Peter Forsberg to Pavel Bure.

Start to put together your own list, and you’ll find yourself running into cases like this over and over again. In a way, it’s depressing — as much as hockey fans have been blessed to see some outstanding talent, we’ve had it yanked away from us before its time far too often.

6. When it comes to the ’80s and ’90s, Wayne and Mario present a problem

When we were building our list, we rated each player in various subjective categories. But we also had a column for major awards, because that seemed like a sanity check — a relatively objective way to make sure we were reflecting the opinions of each generation. Yes, voters sometimes get it wrong, but in general a player who wins lots of awards or is named to several post-season all-star teams was considered among the best of his era, and deserves a spot in the top-100 discussion.

And in general terms, that worked. But then you get to 1980, and you run into a problem: Wayne Gretzky. He wins a ridiculous eight straight Hart Trophies, a streak that doesn’t end until 1987. And when it does, Mario Lemieux steps in and wins three of his own. Mix in one more for Gretzky and two for Mark Messier, and that barely leaves any room for an entire generation of centers.

The same is true of first-team all-star honours, where Gretzky and Lemieux combine to take home 13 out of 17 honors from 1981 to 1997. And when it comes to the Art Ross, Gretzky, Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr combine for a stunning 21 straight wins.

I’ve always been a believer that the best measure of a player is a question: Was he ever in the conversation as the best player in hockey? What about the best at this position? Given a choice, I’ll take a guy with a few seasons where the answer is yes over somebody who was good forever but was never seriously considered among the best.

But for the better part of two decades, the “best player” conversation wasn’t a conversation at all. It was Wayne and Mario, and that was pretty much it. (To a lesser extent, you run into the same problem with defencemen who had the misfortune of starring in the Bobby Orr or Nicklas Lidstrom eras. Sorry, Brad Park.)

The end result of the Gretzky/Lemieux problem is that plenty of star centres who you’d consider NHL legends get shut out of the big awards. Ron Francis was never a first-team all-star or Hart finalist. Neither was Peter Stastny or Mike Modano or Jeremy Roenick. Dale Hawerchuk was a Hart finalist, but only once. And veteran guys like Marcel Dionne and Bryan Trottier largely vanish from the honor rolls in 1981, even though they remained elite players for years.

And then there are two more guys who run into this issue, and probably need their own section.

7. Good luck with the Sakic-vs.-Yzerman debate

Man, what to do with these two.

Both guys are in the top 10 for career scoring. Yzerman had more points, but if you adjust for era then Sakic moves slightly ahead. Each won a Conn Smythe. Yzerman won a Selke, while Sakic won a Lady Byng. Sakic had more first-team all-star selections, but Yzerman won more Cups. Only Sakic won a Hart Trophy, in 2001. But Yzerman took home the player-voted Ted Lindsay in 1989, which given the Gretzky/Lemieux dominance is at least as impressive, if not more so.

It’s hard to find two players from overlapping eras who make for a closer call. But of course, these aren’t just any two players. They’re the faces of two franchises that went head-to-head in what’s quite possibly the greatest rivalry of all-time.

So who do you rank higher? If you’re a Red Wings or Avalanche fan, you probably think the answer is obvious. If not, enjoy flipping back and forth between them.

8. People will have very strong feelings about who’s in and who’s out

Our book came out on Monday, and the feedback started rolling in almost immediately. Most of that feedback was along the lines of, “Hey idiots, you screwed up the ranking of my favourite player.”

And that’s fair. The whole point of this sort of project is to generate some debate. That’s a big part of why the NHL is doing it. It’s why we did our own version, and why countless fans and media around the league are working on lists of their own. If you don’t want to be told that you’re wrong, don’t bother putting your list out there.

So yeah, people get worked up about this stuff. We’ve heard you, Blackhawks fans with Toews tattoos. You too, old-time Habs fans who think Henri Richard got robbed. You too, Maple Leafs homers in your tattered Gilmour and Sundin jerseys. Actually, that last one was me. I did my best, Leafs Nation — it’s not my fault that Lozo and Wyshynski can’t recognize greatness.

So good luck, NHL. Enjoy what’s sure to be a fun and nostalgic evening. But then get ready for the complaints to roll in. After all, that’s half the fun, and there really are no right or wrong answers here.

(Just remember: Our list was better.)