LOS ANGELES - According to HockeyDB.com, a total of 7,436 players have played at least one NHL game. So coming up with a list of the Top 100 isn’t an easy task, but that’s why we get paid the medium-sized bucks.
The NHL is unveiling its Top 100 players at the all-star festivities Friday night, but it’s not ranking the players in order. That’s the NHL for you, so afraid of hurting anyone’s feelings. If you want to start a barstool debate, you have to rank them.
So debate away. Here is one man’s list of the Top 100 players of all-time. I’ve seen many of them play in person, many of them I’ve only read about or heard about from hockey historians. Not everyone will agree with this list – come to think of it, there’s a good chance no one will based on where Bobby Orr is ranked – but that’s the beauty of the exercise. It’s incredibly subjective.
I was not asked to be part of the NHL’s panel to pick the Top 100 players, but if I had a ballot here is how it would have looked:
1. Wayne Gretzky: He doesn’t score a single goal in his career and he’s still the NHL’s all-time leading scorer.
2. Jaromir Jagr: A symbol of enduring excellence and a freak of nature.
3. Jean Beliveau: The greatest all-time player on the league’s most decorated and history-steeped franchise.
4. Dominik Hasek: The best ever to play the position. Back-to-back MVPs clinches his status.
5. Bobby Orr: Brilliant and a trailblazer, but career limited by injuries.
6. Gordie Howe: When you’re this great, they call you Mr. Hockey. Scored at least 20 goals for 23 straight seasons and scored 15 as a 52-year-old.
7. Mario Lemieux: One of the greatest physical talents the game has ever seen or will ever see.
8. Sidney Crosby: The best player in the world at a time in history when players have never been better.
9. Maurice Richard: When he retired, the Rocket held 17 NHL records and was one of the most fiery and talented players to ever play the game.
10. Nicklas Lidstrom: No panic threshold and was the ultimate defenseman. Could still be playing and starring in the NHL if he chose.
11. Mark Messier: Could play the game any way you wanted and excelled in every one. Underrated for his defensive play.
12. Patrick Roy: Arguably the greatest money goaltender of all-time, virtually won two Cups for the Canadiens singlehandedly.
13. Doug Harvey: Smooth skater, one of the greatest passers of his generation, lived life on his terms both on and off the ice.
14. Martin Brodeur: The NHL’s all-time wins leader had ice in his veins and handled the puck better than any goaltender in history.
15. Guy Lafleur: Exuded grace, speed and passion. Was the centerpiece of what might have been the greatest team of all-time.
16. Bobby Hull: He was the first player to score 50 goals more than once and nobody in his era skated faster or shot harder.
17. Terry Sawchuk: The NHL’s ultimate tragic figure, Sawchuk is regarded by many as the greatest goaltender to ever play the game.
18. Steve Yzerman: One of the few players in history who spent part of his career as one of the greatest offensive players in the game, then one of the greatest two-way players in the game.
19. Scott Niedermayer: He won everything there was to win and, more importantly, was an instrumental part of all those winning teams.
20. Jacques Plante: One of the most imaginative and innovative players ever to play the game, Plante was a master of the position.
21. Phil Esposito: Was a power forward before the term was even used in hockey, was an absolute master of time and space.
22. Alex Ovechkin: The greatest goalscorer of his generation. The only thing missing from his resume is championships. As Ovechkin himself once said: “Cups is Cups.”
23. Eddie Shore: Few players in NHL history have combined sheer talent with lethal skullduggery more than Shore did.
24. Howie Morenz: The NHL’s first superstar, Morenz controlled the pace of the game and constantly had the puck on his stick.
25. Denis Potvin: The lynchpin of one of the NHL’s greatest dynasties, Potvin was one of the most complete defensemen ever to play the game.
26. Ray Bourque: Would have been the greatest defenseman of all-time for almost any other franchise. In Boston, he’s No. 3 on the list.
27. Glenn Hall: His record of 502 straight games will never, ever be broken. And when you think about it, that’s a lot of vomit.
28. Paul Coffey: The greatest-skating defenseman to ever play the game, Coffey has scored more goals in a season than any blueliner in history.
29. Larry Robinson: Big, physical and supremely talented, Robinson could skate into a melee and stop it with a simple stare.
30. Bobby Clarke: Average size, average skills, but had the heart of a lion and a sense of determination and grit that is unrivalled in NHL history.
31. Bryan Trottier: Watch Connor McDavid play today and that gives you a pretty good idea of what kind of player Trottier was.
32. Newsy Lalonde: An early hockey mercenary, Lalonde was a swift-skating playmaker who played the game with reckless abandon.
33. Stan Mikita: Made a remarkable transformation from brute to gentleman after his daughter asked him why he was always sitting in the penalty box.
34. Mike Bossy: His coach Al Arbour once said, “When he shoots, it doesn’t even look like he touches the puck.”
35. Red Kelly: A Norris Trophy-winning defenseman with the Red Wings and an elite two-way center with the Maple Leafs, he has won more Cups than any other non-Canadien.
36. Milt Schmidt: Considered the top two-way player of the 1940s, he missed three years in his prime to serve in World War II.
37. Chris Chelios: The ultimate junkyard dog, Chelios played at an elite level for longer than any other defenseman in the history of the game.
38. Marcel Dionne: How differently would history have viewed Dionne if the Canadiens had picked him instead of Guy Lafleur first overall in 1971?
39. Dickie Moore: One of the greatest two-way wingers of all-time, Moore was stubborn and unwavering both on and off the ice.
40. Charlie Conacher: If there had been a Rocket Richard Trophy when he played, Conacher would have won five of them.
41. Ted Lindsay: One of the all-time greatest blunders in Maple Leafs history was letting ‘Terrible Ted’ slip through their fingers.
42. Gilbert Perreault: Vision, skating, shooting and stickhandling were the main weapons in Perreault’s arsenal and he exploited all of them.
43. Ken Dryden: Yes, he played behind a powerhouse team, but the Canadiens do not come close to winning the Stanley Cup in 1971 without him.
44. Bill Durnan: Seven seasons, six first-team all-stars and six Vezinas. Durnan was an ambidextrous wonder.
45. Johnny Bucyk: The Bruins all-time leader in games played until Ray Bourque came along, Bucyk still has the all-time goals record for the franchise.
46. Brad Park: One of the great injustices in the game was that a player of Park’s level of excellence never won a Stanley Cup.
47. Joe Malone: He was one of the 60-minute players of the game’s early days and a scoring wizard. Once said, “We’d hustle when opportunities presented themselves, but the rest of the time, we’d loaf. At least I did.”
48. Jari Kurri: Perhaps the greatest compliment to Kurri came from his linemate. “We see the game the same way,” Wayne Gretzky once said.
49. Nels Stewart: The league’s all-time scoring leader for 30 years until he was passed by Rocket Richard, Stewart also had almost 1,000 penalty minutes.
50. Brett Hull: One of the greatest pure snipers of all-time, Hull was also a far better two-way player than he’s credited for being.
51. Frank Mahovlich: The closest player the Leafs have ever had to a true superstar, he’s an all-time great for three of the Original Six franchises.
52. Henri Richard: No player won more Stanley Cups than ‘The Pocket Rocket’ and few were as determined.
53. Joe Sakic: Owner of one of the greatest wrist shots of all-time, Sakic remains the greatest player in the history of the Nordiques/Avalanche franchise.
54. Peter Forsberg: The only thing that could stop Forsberg were injuries. And, unfortunately, there were a lot of them.
55. Pavel Bure: Few in the history of the league could do as much with the puck at as high a speed as Bure did.
56. Grant Fuhr: The backbone of the Oilers’ dynasty, Fuhr allowed the Oilers to play the run-and-gun style and covered for their defensive mistakes.
57. Ron Francis: It’s completely fitting that Francis is so quietly the fifth-highest scoring player in NHL history. He went about his business without fanfare, but was outstanding in all facets of the game.
58. Sergei Fedorov: He still the only player in NHL history to win both the Hart Trophy and the Selke Trophy in the same year, which is mind-blowing when you take a moment to think about it.
59: Dale Hawerchuk: He played in an era that was dominated by generational centermen and held his own in every way.
60. Syl Apps: Never a superstar, Apps might have been the greatest team player of all-time.
61. Dit Clapper: The league’s first 20-year player, he was first a star on right wing, then moved to defense. He’s the only player named an all-star at both forward and defense.
62. George Hainsworth: Once described as a short, dumpy guy who looked more like a bus driver than a hockey player, all Hainsworth did was win.
63. Tim Horton: He was only 5-foot-8, but pound-for-pound was one of the toughest players to ever play the game.
64. Bernie Geoffrion: A pure scorer who was hugely overshadowed by Rocket Richard, Geoffrion never seemed to get his due.
65. Eric Lindros: The Hall of Fame finally came calling in 2016, recognizing one of the physically most dominant talented players in history.
66. Bill Cowley: One of the game’s early pure playmakers, Cowley led the Bruins to two Stanley Cups and was league MVP twice.
67. Turk Broda: Often second banana to Bill Durnan during the regular season, Broda bettered his rival in the playoffs as one of the great money goalies of all-time.
68. Cy Denneny: Scored better than a goal a game four seasons and never finished lower than fourth in NHL scoring in his first 10 years.
69. Toe Blake: One of the only men in NHL history who would have been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as either a player or a coach.
70. Brian Leetch: Beautiful skater, brilliant passer, he is among the greatest American-born players of all-time.
71. Ted Kennedy: There are some who insist that Kennedy is the all-time greatest Maple Leaf, a player who was a triumph of substance over style.
72. Peter Stastny: He endured enormous on-ice abuse early in his career and thrived. He was supremely talented, with hugely underrated mental and physical toughness.
73. Max Bentley: People say Bentley was always so sickly that he looked like a ghost. He was also as difficult to catch on the ice as a ghost.
74. Bill Cook: A gifted goalscorer, Cook matched his talent with grit and toughness and had a Mark Messier level of leadership.
75. Pavel Datsyuk: The Magic Man could score highlight reel goals and would have scored a lot more of them if not for his diligence in all areas of the ice.
76. Joe Thornton: One of the greatest playmakers of all-time, Thornton is still chasing the elusive Stanley Cup. And he might get it.
77. Jarome Iginla: Could go down as one of the greatest players in league history never to win a Stanley Cup.
78. Teemu Selanne: The Finnish Flash was a scoring machine whose late-career revitalization was one of the most dramatic ever seen in the game.
79. Chris Pronger: Had Sprague Cleghorn-type nastiness and it could be argued no player ever had the ability to put the puck on the net better.
80. Elmer Lach: The playmaker and defensive conscience of the Canadiens, Lach rebounded from serious injuries like few other players in the history of the game.
81. Aurel Joliat: He was much more than Howie Morenz’s left winger, a great two-way player who scored as many career goals as his celebrated linemate.
82. Bernie Parent: The backbone of the Broad Street Bullies, Parent was actually the playoff MVP of both the Flyers Stanley Cup-winning teams.
83. Dave Keon: One of the greatest faceoff men and penalty killers in Maple Leafs history, he won four Stanley Cups with the Leafs.
84. Charlie Gardiner: Howie Morenz once called Gardiner the toughest goaltender he ever faced. Had he not died of a brain tumor at 29, he would have piled up more accolades.
85. Tony Esposito: Never won a Cup with the Blackhawks – he did win one as a backup with the Canadiens – but had 15 shutouts as a rookie. A butterfly master.
86. Billy Smith: Had Islanders coach Al Arbour played him more in the regular season, Smith would have been higher on the list.
87. Brendan Shanahan: Not many players in history combined toughness and talent better than Shanahan.
88. Jonathan Toews: Regarded as one of the premier two-way players in the game today, Toews gets high marks for leadership qualities.
89. Doug Bentley: Small in stature, but large in gumption and determination, Bentley found his game when his brother, Max, was dealt to the Blackhawks.
90. Evgeni Malkin: Two scoring titles, MVP, Calder, Conn Smythe. How the hell did he do all that so quietly?
91. Clint Benedict: Many hockey historians claim Benedict was a better goaltender than contemporary Georges Vezina. He led the league in goals-against average five straight seasons.
92. Patrick Kane: His breathtaking puck skills and ability to control the play make Kane one of the most dangerous players in the game today.
93. Yvan Cournoyer: The MVP of the playoffs in 1973, Cournoyer had a game that was based on blazing speed. He scored 25-plus goals 12 consecutive seasons.
94. Scott Stevens: One of the most devastating open-ice hitters in the history of the game had a lot of talent to go with that toughness.
95. Denis Savard: A wizard with the puck, Savard made as many breathtaking offensive players as anyone in the history of the game.
96. Al MacInnis: Owners of one of the hardest shots in the history of the game, he won a Conn Smythe and is the oldest first-time Norris winner ever.
97. King Clancy: One of the great offensive defensemen of his era, he put the Maple Leafs over the top during the 1930s.
98. Adam Oates: One of the game’s all-time great playmakers, Oates was the pivot for both Brett Hull and Cam Neely.
99. Georges Vezina: His career goals-against average of 3.28 is remarkable considering goalies in his era could not drop to their knees.
100. Andy Bathgate: A great skater, shooter and stickhandler, Bathgate led the league in assists twice and won the Hart Trophy in 1959.