As mentioned in the previous entry in this series, we’re ranking the top-20 players at each position in the NHL.
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 left wing position of 55 for offence, 15 for defence, and 30 for transition play.
Within each category, statistics were also weighted based on importance of 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 left wing 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.
Defence: 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: Jeff Skinner | Offence: 37.80/55 | Defence: 5.43/15 | Transition: 14.89/30 | Total: 58.12/100
Skinner is known for his skating and offensive ability, and that’s exactly where his strengths show up, especially in terms of scoring chances, where only Vladimir Tarasenko produces more. Skinner is an incredible skater and stickhandler, but as of yet, he hasn’t found a way to turn those skills into great transition play, where he is below average for a first liner. Skinner also struggles on the defensive side, but his offensive talent is enough to make him one of the league’s best left wingers.
19: Patrick Sharp | Offence: 34.56/55 | Defence: 4.59/15 | Transition: 19.17/30 | Total: 58.33/100
At 34 years old, Sharp is surprisingly effective offensively, mostly due to his excellent shot, and smart decisions with the puck in transition. Surprisingly, Sharp is very weak defensively for a player with his reputation, but he makes up the ground he loses on defence with a stronger transition game than most of his peers.
18: Gabriel Landeskog | Offence: 29.94/55 | Defence: 10.65/15 | Transition: 18.66/30 | Total: 59.25/100
Even when he was a rookie, Landeskog was lauded as a leader, and looking at his skill set, I wonder if his defensive ability is what encourages some of that talk. A strong penalty killer, Landeskog leads all left wingers in successful defensive plays per minute played, and is among the leaders in loose puck recoveries. His transition game is about average for a first liner, but we could see a marked increase there under a new coach this season.
17: Brandon Saad | Offence: 31.60/55 | Defence: 8.50/15 | Transition: 19.70/30 | Total: 59.80/100
Can you tell Saad came up through the Blackhawks’ system? Everything about Saad’s game is about efficiency; don’t let go of the puck when you have a choice, make smart decisions, open lanes with your skating and creativity. His offensive contributions put him in high-end second-liner territory, but he’s so strong defensively that he’s easily a first line talent.
16: Alexander Steen | Offence: 35.70/55 | Defence: 5.61/15 | Transition: 18.83/30 | Total: 60.14/100
Another player whose breakdown is a bit of a surprise — Steen isn’t as strong defensively as you would expect, though he is a strong transition player and even better on offence. Steen’s biggest strength as a player is his transition through the neutral zone, and translating that into a direct attack off the rush, creating high danger scoring chances.
15: Chris Kunitz | Offence: 31.95/55 | Defence: 7.65/15 | Transition: 21.01/30 | Total: 60.14/100
While age is starting to catch up with the 37-year-old Kunitz offensively, and we can’t ignore the fact that he’s been riding shotgun with Sidney Crosby for years, his overall game remains much stronger than most believe. Specifically, Kunitz excels at helping his teammates attack off the rush, and applying forechecking pressure to win loose pucks in the offensive zone.
14: Nick Foligno | Offence: 33.86/55 | Defence: 10.06/15 | Transition: 17.77/30 | Total: 61.69/100
A much stronger offensive player than he’s given credit for, Foligno’s biggest strength as a player is actually his defensive play, specifically the defensive work he does in the offensive zone. Stopping opposition breakouts with forecheck pressure and a surprising amount of physicality cuts down on how much opponents can attack while Foligno is on the ice, and creates more opportunity for his linemates.
13: Rick Nash | Offence: 38.52/55 | Defence: 7.41/15 | Transition: 15.97/30 | Total: 61.90/100
There’s no doubt Rick Nash has begun to decline in recent years, but while most of the criticism directed at him is for his defensive play, he’s still an extremely strong player, setting up tons of chances for his teammates with his ability to fight through traffic. His shot is no less potent than it ever was, however his transition game has fallen off significantly, to the point where it is now below average for a first line player. For one who loves to attack off the rush, this is a huge hindrance to his overall game. He’s still strong on offence and defence though, so pairing him with a naturally strong transition player up front could bring back the old Nash.
12: Ondrej Palat | Offence: 34.86/55 | Defence: 8.03/15 | Transition: 19.14/30 | Total: 62.02/100
The most well-rounded of the vaunted “Triplets” line, Palat is above average among first liners in all three areas of the game, with his biggest individual skills being his ability to stickhandle around opponents, and break games open with his playmaking. He’s especially involved in his team’s breakout schemes, helping a top-heavy defensive squad in Tampa Bay.
11: Mike Hoffman | Offence: 34.83/55 | Defence: 7.33/15 | Transition: 20.02/30 | Total: 62.19/100
Remember when the Senators kept putting Mike Hoffman on the fourth line? That was weird, because he’s amazing. The explanation seemed to be his defensive play, but Hoffman has been slightly above average defensively for a first liner, and he’s a transition machine, using his speed and shiftiness to regularly carry the puck up ice. If Hoffman has one weakness, it’s overconfidence in his shot, which is great, but he shoots from the perimeter a little bit too often for his scoring totals to be sustainable long term.
10: Alex Ovechkin | Offence: 42.38/55 | Defence: 2.87/15 | Transition: 17.86/30 | Total: 63.11/100
I know, this is crazy, right? Ovechkin at 10th doesn’t feel right. One of the problems is that analytics underestimate goal scoring talent a little bit, but the bigger problem is that while Ovechkin ranked second among left wingers in offensive impact, he was dead-last defensively, and below average for a first liner in transition. Ovechkin is the king of shots, shot attempts, and goals, and probably the best pure goal scorer of all-time.
9: Jaden Schwartz | Offence: 34.64/55 | Defence: 7.99/15 | Transition: 20.61/30 | Total: 63.23/100
While Schwartz loves to dangle, his biggest strength by far is his passing ability, especially in the offensive zone. Whether it’s finding teammates off the rush or hitting them in the slot, Schwartz is fantastic at breaking down opposing defensive schemes. Add to that his strong defensive and transition play, and you have a surprisingly well-rounded player. He just needs to stay healthy.
8: Johnny Gaudreau | Offence: 36.08/55 | Defence: 5.62/15 | Transition: 22.02/30 | Total: 63.66/100
One of the most fun experiences you can have with hockey is watching Gaudreau play, a puck carrying and playmaking machine who isn’t afraid to sneak into traffic and wire a puck home. Continually written off as being too small despite his enormous talent, Gaudreau has already proven to be one of the NHL’s elite wingers.
7: Daniel Sedin | Offence: 33.27/55 | Defence: 10.25/15 | Transition: 21.03/30 | Total: 64.55/100
The designated sniper of the Sedin twins, it might be a bit of a surprise that Daniel’s biggest strengths as a player are also passing related, but that’s how the Sedins work: they are able to find each other like perhaps no other players in NHL history and they use that relationship to their advantage. Like his brother, Daniel is an exemplary defensive player, ranking behind only Landeskog among left wingers.
6: Brad Marchand | Offence: 32.10/55 | Defence: 9.31/15 | Transition: 24.18/30 | Total: 65.59/100
Possibly the most hated player in the NHL, Brad Marchand is also one of the best. He creates scoring chances at an elite rate, plays all situations, and has an extremely versatile skillset. Marchand’s skating ability and shiftiness help propel him to the second-best transition rating among all left wingers, and his doggedness without the puck has him ranked fourth defensively.
5: Taylor Hall | Offence: 36.99/55 | Defence: 8.77/15 | Transition: 20.33/30 | Total: 66.10/100
No one in the NHL moves the puck up the ice with control as often as Taylor Hall, who regularly goes nearly 200 feet either around or through opponents to get his scoring chances, or set up his teammates. Hall is a heat-seeking missile with the puck, but he’s surprisingly strong without it too, something he rarely gets credit for. He wins battles on the boards, and wins loose pucks at a higher rate than any left winger.
4: Tomas Tatar | Offence: 34.35/55 | Defence: 7.74/15 | Transition: 25.38/30 | Total: 67.46/100
He doesn’t get the credit, but Tomas Tatar is the best player on the Detroit Red Wings these days and the best transition winger in the NHL, to boot. Tatar’s silky smooth hands and skating ability allow him to weave his way through the ice with ease, and if he can’t find open ice, he’s also one of the most adept passers in the NHL. Adding to his strong transition play, Tatar is an above average first line defensive player, and strong scorer.
3: Max Pacioretty | Offence: 40.09/55 | Defence: 9.21/15 | Transition: 19.64/30 | Total: 68.94/100
Perennially underrated because he doesn’t play the way many expect him too — wanting him to be Cam Neely — Pacioretty is closer to prime age Marian Hossa. A knee injury inhibited his transition play last season, but he remained strong there, to go with elite offensive and defensive play. Pacioretty is among the NHL’s premier goal scorers, able to score from both in close and from a distance. He is also excellent defensively, a strong forechecker, and among the best penalty killers in the world.
2: Filip Forsberg | Offence: 40.16/55 | Defence: 7.37/15 | Transition: 23.34/30 | Total: 70.88/100
Remember Martin Erat? Yikes. Filip Forsberg has gone from a nearly throwaway trade to being one of the best wingers in the NHL, and his production so far is likely only a hint of what’s to come over the next few years. There’s no area of the game where Forsberg struggles, as an elite puck carrier, strong defender, and elite scoring chance producer.
1: Jamie Benn | Offence: 46.17/55 | Defence: 8.74/15 | Transition: 21.00/30 | Total: 75.91/100
Jamie Benn is the best left winger in the NHL, and it’s not particularly close either. Benn is above first line average in all areas, but clearly his biggest strength is his offensive impact, where he actually ranks above Ovechkin. He is as good of a playmaker as he is a shooter. Pacioretty and Ovechkin are better playmakers than they’re given credit for, but Benn just blows them out of the water there.