Welcome to the culmination of Sportsnet’s top 100 NHL players of the 2018–19 season.
We didn’t arrive at this list overnight. In fact, we started work as soon as the Washington Capitals lifted the Stanley Cup in June. First, we asked 16 of our NHL insiders to rank the top 100 players in the league at this exact moment, and then we combined their individual lists to create a definitive master ranking.
The exact formula for what makes an NHLer great — or, more importantly, greater than another — is subjective, and everyone’s top-100 list looks different. But let’s make one key criteria clear: This list is about the 2018–19 season, not last season or the next five years. It’s about who’s the best right now.
10. Nikita Kucherov, RW, Tampa Bay Lightning
Kucherov has seemingly improved with each passing season. The Russian winger reached the 100-point mark for the first time in 2017–18, notching 39 goals and emerging as a dark-horse Hart Trophy candidate.
There’s not much on the ice that Kucherov can’t do, and after breaking out as a member of the Triplets Line with Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat in 2014–15, Kucherov is now firmly on Tampa’s top unit with Steven Stamkos. The duo was perhaps the NHL’s most lethal this past season, and will be filling nets for years to come.
The second-round pick from 2011 didn’t enter the league with as much fanfare as superstar teammates Stamkos and Victor Hedman, but make no mistake — Kucherov is among the very best in the NHL.
9. Drew Doughty, D, Los Angeles Kings
Had Doughty not signed his eight-year extension, and had the Kings star decided to retire on the spot instead, he’d still warrant a spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame for everything he’s accomplished by age 28. The two-time Stanley Cup champ and two-time Olympic gold medalist has finished top 10 in Norris voting in eight of his 10 NHL seasons; he’s been a runner-up twice and won in 2016.
Doughty does it all. He can spring his forwards with crisp outlets passes but loves to jump up into the rush as well. He’s as smooth a skater as you’re likely to find — specifically pivoting from forwards to backwards and vice versa — yet he also plays with a physical edge even though he’s undersized compared to most of his peers. He cuts off angles well, blocks shots, intercepts passes and makes an impact playing on either side of the ice.
Dubbing Doughty the best defenceman of his era shouldn’t be considered hyperbole.
8. Alex Ovechkin, LW, Washington Capitals
What a season it was for the Great Eight. He scored his 600th goal, vaulting all the way to 19th on the all-time list. He won his seventh Rocket Richard Trophy. Oh, and, in case you somehow forgot, he finally claimed that elusive first Stanley Cup while leading all playoff performers with 15 markers.
After he and his teammates recover from what’ll undoubtedly be a wicked hangover, Ovechkin will be expected to prove this last season was no fluke.
Now on the back half of his career, the soon-to-be 33-year-old is showing no signs of slowing down offensively. But he’s demonstrating he can bring play at both ends of the ice, too. That bodes well for the Caps.
7. Anze Kopitar, C, Los Angeles Kings
All the Kings captain did after his worst regular season as an NHLer was respond with his best. Year over year, Kopitar spun 12 goals into a career-high 35, and 52 points into 92. He won the Selke and finished third in Hart voting, and may have fetched even more votes — West Coasters believe — if more members of the hockey media were on Pacific Time.
The two-time Cup champ made 2016–17’s seeming downward trend instead look like an aberration. At 30, Kopitar is the all-situations centre youngsters should aspire to be.
This summer, L.A. doubled down on veteran talent — welcome back, Ilya Kovalchuk! — underscoring management’s belief that the championship window for the Kopitar-Doughty-Quick era is alive and well.
6. Erik Karlsson, D, Ottawa Senators
You won’t find a more intriguing player in the NHL this year. Karlsson has a surgically repaired ankle he describes as feeling “110” per cent (not too shabby), other-worldly skill, and one year remaining on his contract with the Senators.
After trade rumours swirled much of last season, Karlsson remains the Senators captain, but he’ll be the talk of the league again until he either re-signs, is traded elsewhere, or tests the open market come season’s end (at which point, teams will be licking their chops).
Karlsson’s passing and play-making ability are second to none among blue-liners. He’s fast, he’s shifty and he’s a one-man breakout. At 28, he has a string of all-star years ahead — no matter where he ends up playing.
5. Nathan MacKinnon, C, Colorado Avalanche
Up until last season, MacKinnon’s first year in the NHL was also his best — Cole Harbour’s second son tallied 24 goals and 63 points in 2013–14 to etch his name onto the Calder Trophy and get his first taste of playoff hockey.
In 2017–18, though, he didn’t just top his rookie totals; he crushed them by a 34-point margin. His newfound chemistry with linemate Mikko Rantanen was a treat for hockey fans and a nightmare for opposing goalies as MacKinnon found the back of the net 39 times. The smooth-skating centreman almost added to his trophy cabinet, too, with his name in the MVP conversation all year long.
MacKinnon plays with a maturity that makes it easy to forget he’s only 22 and not even in his prime yet. In other words, something tells us it won’t be long before he’s back in that MVP conversation once again.
4. Victor Hedman, D, Tampa Bay Lightning
After a steady half-decade of ascension, Tampa Bay’s blue-line anchor has spent the past few seasons entrenching himself among the elite. The smooth-skating Swede has amassed 33 goals and 135 points for the offensively inclined Bolts over his last two campaigns, that latter mark ranking as the second-highest among all defencemen in that span, and 29th-best among all NHLers.
A dominant blend of offensive acumen, physicality and sound defensive play, the reigning Norris Trophy champ continues to push his name further up the list of the game’s best defenders as he enters his prime. Not coincidentally, his Lightning have made a similar recent push for greatness. How far they get in that effort depends on Hedman’s ability to remain in top form, and perhaps reach even higher.
3. Evgeni Malkin, C, Pittsburgh Penguins
While Sidney Crosby gets the lion’s share of credit for Pittsburgh’s success, Malkin has been just as integral to the Penguins’ three Stanley Cups since 2009. While somewhat lax defensively, Malkin is a pure terror on offence and comes up big when it matters.
Malkin led the Penguins in scoring through the 2017 playoffs, and accumulated a total of 46 during Pittsburgh’s repeat runs — exactly the same number as his more-heralded teammate. He now has 62 goals and 165 career points in the post-season.
He’s missed significant time to injuries over the years, but when healthy Malkin remains one of the most dangerous players in the game — and the future Hall of Famer shows no signs of slowing down.
2. Sidney Crosby, C, Pittsburgh Penguins
At 30 years old and with every trophy and medal under the sun already on his resumé, Crosby still managed to break new ground last year — he played a full 82 games for the first time in his 13-year career.
Crosby hasn’t produced a 100-point campaign in four seasons, but the furious worker continues to refine all aspects of his game. And it’s not like the offence has dried up. In fact, the only players with more even-strength points than Crosby in the past three seasons are Connor McDavid and Patrick Kane. Crosby’s shooting percentage was also the second-worst of his NHL tenure last year, meaning there’s reason to believe he can get closer to the league-best 44 goals he posted in 2016–17.
Winning back-to-back Cups (and Conn Smythe Trophies) in 2016 and 2017 surely took a physical toll on the Penguins captain, so maybe last spring’s relatively early second-round exit will mean he has a little more gas — and motivation, if that’s possible — in the tank come October.
1. Connor McDavid, C, Edmonton Oilers
It’s not McDavid’s cross to bear alone. Last season wasn’t the first time the league’s most gifted player lacked the support around him to make it into the playoffs. (Think of Mario back when.) Bad stuff sometimes happens to the greatest players and, if you lead the league in scoring with 100-plus-point seasons and are still only 21, greatness is sort of beyond much debate.
There’s no reason to believe that McDavid is a case of too-much-too-soon. Far more likely is the idea that he’s a good long way from his peak, injuries notwithstanding.
When the Oilers fell just short of the conference final in the spring of 2017, you thought they were really onto something with Leon Draisaitl being a complement to McDavid — whether as his right winger or as centre on the second line. Maybe one or the other could still work, but a bit of both — as they tried last season — isn’t a formula for team success.
McDavid needs someone to skate with better than the likes of Milan Lucic, Patrick Maroon or Jesse Puljujarvi. Which only makes his Art Ross Trophy seem all the more remarkable.