Around this time of year, everyone is releasing their season previews, standings predictions, and fantasy projections. Another type of preview that has become popular is the annual list of top-100 players in the NHL. Going in a slightly different direction, we thought it would be interesting to look at the 20 best players in the NHL at each position.
Ranking the best players in the NHL is an arduous task, not something I believe anyone can do alone, and certainly not without the aide of statistical analysis. I decided to split statistics into three categories for skaters: offensive play, defensive play, and transition play. The weights given to each category out of a possible total of 100 points vary by position, and I asked for help in deciding upon those weights from Sportsnet contributors Jonathan Willis and Steve Burtch, along with The Hockey News writer Dom Luszczyszyn. With their insight, I arrived at weights for the centre position of 45 for offence, 25 for defence, and 30 for transition play.
Within each category, statistics were also weighted based on importance to their contribution, for example primary assists are weighted more heavily for centres than wingers. Points are then awarded on a basis of where each player lies between the best and worst at their position. Statistics were collected from Sportlogiq, Corsica.hockey, and stats.hockeyanalysis.com for this project.
Where available, a three-year sample is used, and the minimum amount of ice time needed to be included was 2,000 minutes at 5-vs-5. For the centre position, the statistics used for each category were, Offence: 5-vs-5 and power play goals/60, primary assists/60, secondary assists/60, shot attempts/60, scoring chances/60, scoring chance generating plays/60, relative team goals for/60. Defense: 5-vs-5 and shorthanded loose puck recoveries, defensive plays (hits, stick-checks, pass blocks, and shot blocks), relative team shot attempts against/60, relative team goals against/60, quality of teammates, and quality of competition. Transition: 5-vs-5 shot attempt differential, relative shot attempt differential, possession driving plays/60, controlled entry rate, controlled exit rate, completed passes/60, and pass success rate.
Before we get into it, I want to stress that the weightings of the statistics inside each category are my own, and as such, this list is by no means definitive.
20: Henrik Sedin | Offence: 23.28/45 | Defence: 14.16/25 | Transition: 18.72/30 | Total: 56.16/100
You might be thinking that 56.16/100 is a low total, but the highest marks among skaters will only be in the 70s because no player is elite in every facet of the game, but for the purpose of these articles, I’d like to focus on everyone’s strengths. Henrik for example is among the league’s elite playmakers, and not just in terms of offence.
He drives play by finding open lanes all over the ice, slowing the game down or speeding it up at will. He can kill you from every zone if you give him a few seconds, and even at 36, is one of the best players at finding shooters in the slot in the entire NHL. Sedin is also an extremely strong defensive player, something he rarely gets credit for around the NHL due to a lot of offensive zone starts, along with jaw-dropping offensive highlights.
19: Nathan MacKinnon | Offence: 26.24/45 | Defence: 9.21/25 | Transition: 20.85/30 | Total: 56.30/100
Young Nathan MacKinnon is a play-driving machine, using his incredible speed and stick-handling ability to carry the puck up the ice more than almost anyone else in the league. After a brilliant rookie season, MacKinnon has struggled to produce offence at the same clip, and it’s undeniable that his defensive play could use some work, but it’s possible both areas will see huge improvements with Patrick Roy no longer behind the bench.
18: Evgeny Kuznetsov | Offence: 30.50/45 | Defence: 9.06/25 | Transition: 17.00/30 | Total: 56.55/100
A breakout season from Kuznetsov last year has immediately established him as one of the most impressive offensive dynamos in the NHL. Kuznetsov is a pass-first player, among the best in the league at finding teammates in the slot, but he isn’t afraid to shoot the puck a bit more than other players who share his style, which leads to him creating a higher number of scoring chances for both himself and his teammates than do most playmakers.
17: Logan Couture | Offence: 28.02/45 | Defence: 13.53/25 | Transition: 15.16/30 | Total: 56.71/100
If you asked most people about Couture, they’d likely say offence is his greatest attribute, but relative to his peer group, it’s his play without the puck that stands out most. A voracious forechecker, Couture uses his speed to get in on loose pucks before opponents in all zones, and is among the best forwards in the world at stripping opponents of the puck, either with his stick, by body checking them, or closing lanes with a shot or pass block. Knowing where to be when you don’t have the puck is more than just a physical thing: in order to be elite in those areas, you have to have good hockey sense.
16: Nicklas Backstrom | Offence: 26.49/45 | Defence: 10.69/25 | Transition: 19.95/30 | Total: 57.13/100
Backstrom is most commonly credited as a premier playmaker, and while he certainly is that alongside Ovechkin, his standout skills show he’s as much a transition player as he is great on offence. Washington’s defence has a few players who struggle to move the puck, so Backstrom takes extra pressure on himself to break out of the defensive zone, which enables him to control the rush and set up his wingers efficiently as well.
15: Jason Spezza | Offence: 31.46/45 | Defence: 8.44/25 | Transition: 17.91/30 | Total: 57.81/100
Likely the first surprise on the list, it seems like a lot of people have forgotten how dynamic Spezza is. An excellent playmaker, Spezza likes to set up scoring chances with shots as often as he does with passes by shooting from the perimeter to direct rebounds to teammates. He’s also an elite power play talent and boasts a deceptive shot that can create a goal from almost anywhere.
14: David Krejci | Offence: 25.91/45 | Defence: 12.38/25 | Transition: 20.02/30 | Total: 58.31/100
Overshadowed by Bergeron in Boston, Krejci doesn’t get the credit he deserves as a well-rounded centre. He excels at moving the puck from defence to offence, both carrying and passing it out of the zone to break out. His ability to move around checkers with dekes gives him the versatility to do things himself when passing lanes aren’t open. He’s no slouch on offence and is an above average penalty killer as well.
13: Mark Scheifele | Offence: 27.58/45 | Defence: 11.04/25 | Transition: 19.89/30 | Total: 58.51/100
A breakout season last year in which he scored 29 goals in 71 games has drawn Scheifele a lot of attention in Winnipeg. Only one centre in the NHL takes as many shots from the slot per minute as Scheifele, who rounds out his offensive skill set with a strong ability to make plays off the rush. Scheifele is also an aggressive defender, working hard to get the puck from opponents in the defensive zone.
12: Ryan O’Reilly | Offence: 24.23/45 | Defence: 16.13/25 | Transition: 18.96/30 | Total: 59.32/100
O’Reilly has a reputation as an excellent defensive player, and as it turns out, the eye test is accurate in this case, as only one centre in the NHL (Patrice Bergeron) managed a higher defensive score. O’Reilly is particularly excellent at winning the puck away from opponents in the defensive and neutral zones, and his passing ability helps set the table for his team’s breakouts, making him an effective transition player as well.
11: Claude Giroux | Offence: 28.13/45 | Defence: 11.12/25 | Transition: 20.39/30 | Total: 59.64/100
Giroux is all about slick passing, but while you probably think he stands out in the offensive zone most, the neutral and defensive zones are where he’s particularly strong. His offensive production is good, but he’s as much above average on the defensive side as he is on offence, and his transition play sticks more than anything. He’s an extremely well-rounded player, and one of the biggest power play threats in hockey.
10: Aleksander Barkov | Offence: 25.49/45 | Defence: 14.03/25 | Transition: 20.49/30 | Total: 60.01/100
Likely the biggest surprise on the list for those who don’t watch a lot of Panthers hockey. If there’s one word to describe Barkov, it’s efficient. No player in the NHL dumps the puck in less often than Barkov, who loves to attack off the rush with speed. He depends on Jaromir Jagr a fair bit to generate offence, but at just 21 years old, he is already among the league’s elite defensive players, and one of its most accurate passers.
9: Jonathan Toews | Offence: 27.14/45 | Defence: 11.29/25 | Transition: 21.88/30 | Total: 60.32/100
Though many would argue that Toews should be ranked higher, the competition at the top among centres is extreme, and the gaps between them are small. Toews lost some points on the defensive side because at even strength he doesn’t recover many loose pucks, or strip the opponent of the puck, as often as his peers. However, he remains a strong defensive player anyway, especially on the penalty kill. Toews really excels at owning the neutral zone and creating chances off the rush — in fact, you’re not likely to find a better centre at creating off the rush.
8: Tyler Seguin | Offence: 36.85/45 | Defence: 7.43/25 | Transition: 16.90/30 | Total: 61.18/100
The second-best pure offensive force at the centre position in the NHL, Seguin is fast, shifty, and as good a shooter as he is a playmaker. Pair him with an equally talented player like Jamie Benn and you’ve got something truly special. Seguin makes his living by creating scoring chances either by taking the puck to the slot himself for a shot, or making a pass there for a teammate. He’s a far below average defensive and transition player for a top line centre, but his offensive ability more than makes up for it.
7: John Tavares | Offence: 35.39/45 | Defence: 8.94/25 | Transition: 19.92/30 | Total: 64.25/100
When Tavares was in junior the big knock on him was his skating ability, but you would never guess that when looking at the player he’s become. Nearly as offensively potent as Seguin, Tavares leads all centres in individual scoring chances, is one of the most efficient transition players out there, and regularly dekes players out of their skates. He’s still no stalwart on the defensive side, but that barely matters when you’re as good as he is.
6: Ryan Getzlaf | Offence: 29.36/45 | Defence: 14.24/25 | Transition: 21.60/30 | Total: 65.20/100
Still an impressive offensive weapon, Getzlaf actually stands out from the pack in a bigger way as a transition and defensive player. He’s good at everything on the defensive side of the puck, but in transition, it’s all about his passing. Getzlaf is a big part of the Ducks’ breakouts and zone entries, extending his influence to all three zones in a big way. Watching Getzlaf away from the puck, note how often he finds himself in an opponent’s passing lane at the last possible second, starting a rush the other way.
5: Joe Thornton | Offence: 29.41/45 | Defence: 13.67/25 | Transition: 23.22/30 | Total: 66.31/100
At 37 years old, Jumbo Joe is still among the super-elite players in the NHL, driving play through his absurd passing talent, hockey sense, and deceptive speed. Lots of people think Thornton is a slow skater, but you won’t see him get beat to loose pucks very often. Thornton’s playmaking ability places him as one of the top three transition centres in the NHL, an incredible feat for a player supposedly in the twilight of his career.
4: Anze Kopitar | Offence: 29.11/45 | Defence: 12.37/25 | Transition: 26.32/30 | Total: 67.80/100
Surprisingly, while significantly above average, Kopitar doesn’t rate among the elite in defensive play. The fact is that offence, transition, and defence are all intertwined in hockey, and Kopitar is by far the best transition centre in the NHL, which is what drives his stellar reputation as a defensive player. Kopitar is also the most accurate passer among forwards in the NHL, completing a whopping 76.1% of his attempts. His presence as a transition force is likely a big part of why the Kings’ structure is so successful.
3: Patrice Bergeron | Offence: 28.45/45 | Defence: 18.79/25 | Transition: 21.41/30 | Total: 68.65/100
When looking at Bergeron’s defensive play, it’s easy to overlook how great he is at moving the puck and creating offence, but his skill here is truly special. For the better part of two months I’ve been crunching numbers for this project, and Bergeron is flat out the best defensive player in hockey, not just at his position, but any position. No one takes the puck away from opponents more and no one recovers more loose pucks. There isn’t a single player who has even close to the impact on shot attempts against that Bergeron does. He’s called Perfect Patrice in Boston for a reason.
2: Evgeni Malkin | Offence: 35.63/45 | Defence: 10.20/25 | Transition: 24.36/30 | Total: 70.20/100
About average defensively for a top centre, Malkin ranks third in offence, and second in transition, boasting creativity, speed, and brute force all in one. No one creates more scoring chances than he does, no one is more successful at beating players one-on-one, and only Barkov carries the puck in to the offensive zone more often. You can try to contain Malkin as much as you want, but it’s not going to be fun, and you’re probably going to fail.
1: Sidney Crosby | Offence: 37.89/45 | Defence: 9.82/25 | Transition: 22.57/30 | Total: 70.28/100
No surprise seeing Sid come out on top here, though I think most people expected his defensive numbers to look a bit stronger. Not playing shorthanded hurts him there, and he seems to prefer to hang back and pounce on loose pucks instead of directly taking it from opponents, unless the opportunity is very ripe.
In terms of transition, he’s among the league’s elite in both passing and carrying the puck. Obviously, he took the high water mark in offensive play, tying Malkin in scoring chance creation, while leading the league in successful passes to the slot.
Honourable mention: There is a conspicuous name missing from this list (maybe a couple, depending on your opinion) in Connor McDavid. Having played just over half a season, I didn’t feel comfortable including McDavid on this list based on the small sample size, but because it’s interesting, I collected data for him anyway. McDavid as an 18-year-old would have ranked as the sixth-best centre in the NHL with 36.84/45 points on offence, 8.52/25 on defence, and 20.48/30 points on transition, for a total of 65.85/100.