From 18 to 42: Identifying the best NHL player at every age

Brian Burke and Elliotte Friedman hand out their awards for the NHL All-Star break, debating who the most improved player has been this season and which team has been the biggest surprise.

The NHL is more and more turning into a young man’s league as the pace picks up, skill development becomes more emphasized at lower levels, and the cap and contract structures favour having entry-level players, or those just coming off their first deals.

And in putting together a list of players that highlights the best at each age, this fact is made more clear.

As we start this year’s all-star break, we decided to go through and identify the best current player in the NHL at every age. We’re not doing it by birth year or draft year, but by how old a player is today. We’re not doing this to celebrate a career and past accomplishments, or to project what a player will develop into. This is about who the best player of every group is right now. There were some tough calls along the way.

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18: JACK HUGHES

There are currently only two 18-year-olds in the NHL — the top two picks from last summer’s draft. Neither Hughes nor Kaapo Kakko is blowing the doors off the league and Kakko even got benched recently. So we’re giving the edge to No. 1 overall Hughes, who has six goals and 17 points in 40 games with the Devils.

19: ANDREI SVECHNIKOV

In his draft year, Svechnikov was firmly behind Rasmus Dahlin on every list, but there was reason to believe that gap should have been closer than it seemed. Svechnikov dominated major junior, but missed a chunk of his draft season to injury.

Now, after a 20-goal rookie campaign, he has 19 in 50 games to go with 45 points. He’s a beast and a focal point of Carolina’s emerging offence. Oh ya, and he made history this season by becoming the first player to score ‘The Michigan Goal’ (aka lacrosse-style) in the NHL. Then he did it a second time.

Honourable mentions: Rasmus Dahlin

20: MIRO HEISKANEN

Yes, Quinn Hughes has more points as a rookie than Heiskanen does as a sophomore, but Heiskanen is playing the more important role right now. When he’s on the ice, Dallas has a higher goals for and expected goals for percentage at 5-on-5 than the Canucks do with Hughes. And where Hughes is getting 64.77 per cent of his starts in the offensive zone, Heiskanen gets just 48.81 per cent of his starts in that zone. Heiskanen is second among all Dallas defenders in average even strength, power play and shorthanded ice time per game, where Hughes almost never sees PK time.

This is to take nothing away from Hughes’ fantastic season. It may well turn out that he’s the better defenceman in the long run but, at least for now, he’s being sheltered a lot more than Heiskanen who, it should be noted, had one of the best first quarters of this season of any blueliner in the league.

Honourable mention: Quinn Hughes

21: ELIAS PETTERSSON

The Canucks get on the board here, and there’s no arguing this one. Pettersson set scoring records for a player his age in Sweden before coming over and then he almost immediately became an upper-echelon scorer. Since he joined the league last season, Pettersson’s 0.97 points per game mark ranks 27th in the league and, remember, he slowed down the stretch last season as the reality of the NHL grind caught up to him. The Alien reminds many of Pavel Datsyuk and as he puts more meat on the bone he’ll just get harder and harder to take off the puck — just like Datsyuk.

Honourable mention: Clayton Keller, Nico Hischier, Cale Makar, Patrik Laine

22: AUSTON MATTHEWS

Some players may have better all-around games, but Matthews is an improved player in that department. What really sets him apart and makes him the best at his age, though, is that he’s already become one of the top snipers in the game. Since joining the league four years ago only one player has more goals than Matthews’ 145 — and that’s Alex Ovechkin, the best sniper in NHL history. In fact, no player has more even-strength goals than Matthews over this time and he’s already only six goals shy of matching his career-best this season.

Honourable mention: Mitch Marner, Matthew Tkachuk, Sebastian Aho, Mathew Barzal

23: CONNOR MCDAVID

However you look at it, McDavid is one of the two best players in the world today, so of course he tops players his own age. McDavid missed nearly half a season as a rookie and still has more points than any other player since he joined the league. His. 1.33 points per game average over his career is well ahead of No. 2 Nikita Kucherov. He is driving the Oilers towards the playoffs right now too, and is unlike any other player with his combination of speed, maneuverability and hands.

Honourable mention: Mikko Rantanen, Jack Eichel, David Pastrnak, Brayden Point

24: NATHAN MACKINNON

If there’s a third member who’s going to wiggle his way into the world’s best player debate, it’s Colorado’s MacKinnon. Robbed of one Hart Trophy two years ago, he’s again making a strong case more than halfway through 2019-20. He carried the Avalanche while his two linemates were out injured earlier this season.

And he’s remarkably consistent; you know that MacKinnon will bring it every night. Over the past three seasons, MacKinnon’s longest point drought is just three games — and that’s only happened three times. The last time MacKinnon went more than three regular-season games in a row without getting on the scoresheet was mid-February of 2017, when he went scoreless in four straight.

Honourable mention: Leon Draisaitl, Aleksander Barkov

25: SETH JONES

Don’t sleep on Jones, who I’m convinced will one day win a Norris. In the here and now, he’s still elite and a lynchpin of Columbus’s lineup. Jones averages over 20 minutes of even-strength time a night and is a first-unit contributor on both the PP and PK. He’s big and physical, so a throwback in some ways, but he’s not slow or apt to get burned by faster players. Jones also has a heavy shot, though his goal totals have fallen a couple years in a row now. If he were on a big hockey market team he’d get more credit than he currently does.

Honourable mention: Sean Monahan, Morgan Rielly, Filip Forsberg, Andrei Vasilevskiy

26: NIKITA KUCHEROV

We’re really getting into the meat of this thing now, with a wide variety of players to choose from and some tough calls to make. A slow start to this season for both the Lightning and Kucherov (and by “slow” we mean 11 points in 12 games) would have given pause to pick another player here if last year’s scoring champion didn’t pick up the pace again. But now, both he and his team are rolling — Tampa has won 12 of its past 14 games and Kucherov has 17 points over that time. Only two players have posted 100 points the past two years in a row: Kucherov and McDavid.

Honourable mention: Dougie Hamilton, Johnny Gaudreau, Jonathan Huberdeau, Mark Scheifele, John Gibson

27: MARK STONE

No winger has won the Selke Trophy since Jere Lehtinen in 2002-03 and last year Stone became the first at his position to be named a finalist for it since Jay Pandolfo in 2006-07. So we know the base defensive game is there. But he can also generate offence and is tracking towards a career year in that regard right now. Bringing him to Vegas transformed his line into one of the league’s best — dangerous on offence and elite on defence. Stone is the key part of the trio.

Honourable mention: Sean Couturier, John Klingberg, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tyler Seguin, Brendan Gallagher

28: ARTEMI PANARIN

He didn’t need Patrick Kane after all. Remember when Panarin put up back-to-back 70-plus point campaigns in his first couple of seasons, then was traded to Columbus and there was a legit debate on whether or not he could keep it up without his Blackhawks linemate? Well, those first two years in Chicago still stand as the lowest-scoring seasons of his NHL career.

Panarin is one of those special players who just makes those he plays with better. He’s a creator with elite vision and a shot that can get him to 30 goals more often than not. And now on a rebuilding Rangers team he’s living up to his $11.6 million UFA price tag with 26 goals and 68 points in 47 games that have led to Hart Trophy whispers.

Honourable mention: Vladimir Tarasenko, Taylor Hall, Ryan O’Reilly

29: VICTOR HEDMAN

In a recent player poll conducted by The Athletic, Tampa’s big blueliner was voted the best defensive defenceman by his peers. He’s got every attribute you want and one of the league’s true superpower rosters leans on him for every situation. He’s been dependable in an understated way for some time and will be in the running for the Norris again this year. Hedman’s quietly third in defencemen scoring with 41 points in 46 games.

Honourable mention: Ryan Ellis, John Tavares, Roman Josi, Steven Stamkos

30: JOHN CARLSON

There are a few solid 30-year-old defencemen in the league, but with the season Carlson is having right now he’s the best one. Excellent in transition with elite offensive instincts, Carlson is making a charge at being the first defenceman since 1991-92 Brian Leetch to score 100 points in a season. Now, he’d need to score 40 points in his last 33 games to do it, so that finish is still a long shot. But over the past two seasons Carlson averaged 0.85 points per game, and if he were to score at that pace the rest of this season he’d end up with 88 points, which would be the most for any defenceman since 1993-94 Sergei Zubov.

Honourable mention: Alex Pietrangelo, Drew Doughty, P.K. Subban, Frederik Andersen

31: BRAD MARCHAND

The premier pest, Marchand scores like a superstar, too, so we’re giving him the edge over another bonafide star here. The thing about Marchand is he can put together a 100-point year and make enemies everywhere. Now, can he take a dumb penalty from time to time? Sure. But he’s also a league leader in penalties drawn, and he more often puts the Bruins on an advantage. This may be a tough pill to swallow for some non-Bruins fans, but we need to start getting used to the idea of Marchand being on a Hall of Fame track.

Honourable mention: Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews

32: SIDNEY CROSBY

Nothing’s changed about his status alongside McDavid. Another injury-interrupted season means Crosby won’t get to 1,000 games played until next year, but in the meantime, he’s still putting up his usual scoring rates. In 22 games, Crosby averages more primary assists per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play than any other NHLer. It’s Crosby. His play does the talking.

Honourable mentions: Claude Giroux, Nicklas Backstrom, Anze Kopitar

33: EVGENI MALKIN

He can take over just about whenever he wants to. When Crosby missed 26 games this season, Malkin racked up 38 points. This year, Malkin has helped elevate Bryan Rust to a better than point-per-game player, who has already eclipsed his career highs. That’s the Malkin effect.

Honourable mention: Blake Wheeler, Alexander Radulov, Ben Bishop

34: ALEX OVECHKIN

The best goal scorer in the history of the game — and he could win another Rocket Richard this season. We’ve recently revisited what it would take for Ovechkin to break Wayne Gretzky’s goal record, and how attainable that is. What more needs to be said?

Honourable mention: Patrice Bergeron, Shea Weber, Brent Burns

35: RYAN SUTER

You can always count on Suter having a massive workload and he’s yet again top 10 in average ice time this season. Age may be beginning to slow him down some, but he’s still reliable and is quietly putting up some quality offence with 35 points in 50 games this season. It’s unlikely he’ll win a Norris anymore, but he should go down as one of the top defensive defencemen of his time.

Honourable mention: Joe Pavelski, Zach Parise, Marc-Andre Fleury

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36: MARK GIORDANO

The defending Norris winner has gotten better with age and though his point totals have fallen back this year, his shot and scoring chance stats are still among the best on the Flames.

Honourable mention: Duncan Keith

37: PEKKA RINNE

Henrik Lundqvist was our goalie of the last decade, but Rinne is having the better finish. To be honest, neither of the 37-year-old netminders is having all that great of a season, but Rinne is still 15th in goals saved above average and has the second-best high danger save percentage on the season.

Honourable mention: Henrik Lundqvist

38: JUSTIN WILLIAMS

There are only three players this age in the league right now: Williams, Ron Hainsey and Craig Anderson. Williams just returned to the Carolina Hurricanes three days ago and he’s had a two-goal game plus a shootout winner. They wanted him back because he makes a difference on the biggest stage. You know Williams is going to score in a Game 7 this spring.

39: RYAN MILLER

The Anaheim backup is the only 39-year-old currently in the NHL and the oldest goalie. If he’d ever agree to a trade, there would be more than a few teams interested in him as an insurance backup.

40: JOE THORNTON

No longer a top-six player, Thornton still has positive on-ice shot differentials. And though the Sharks get outscored when he’s out there, that is a team-wide issue with roots in subpar goaltending. Thornton is still top five on his team in primary assists per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 time, and his beard is as grizzled as ever.

Honourable mention: Patrick Marleau

42: ZDENO CHARA

Still going at 42, Chara is moving forward with recurring one-year deals until it’s time to hang them up. He’s not at his peak anymore, but Chara is still a physical specimen and averages 21 minutes a night with a big penalty-killing role. His strength and reach aren’t going anywhere and those are the attributes that give attacking players fits. Between Chara, Thornton and Marleau, who will be the last 1970s-born player to suit up in the NHL?

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