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The Best Players Ever

Who are the best hockey players to ever play the game?


In the last game-day thread, I mentioned that Jaromir Jagr may well be the best player of the dead puck era, which led to an interesting discussion in the comments about who should be counted among the ten best players ever. There were only a few of us involved in the discussion, but there seemed to be some general agreement that five guys are in for sure: Wayne Gretkzy, Gordie Howe, Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr, and Maurice Richard. The other five spots? Totally up for grabs.

I always find that this conversation is a difficult one. I've never watched a live game before the 1980's, and the fact is that players today are bigger, stronger, faster, and just plain more talented than players in previous eras. With that in mind, I think the best approach is to compare players against others from their own era. As such, I decided to use something very simple to start the discussion: major trophy victories.

The very simple point system being used gives 3 points for a Hart Trophy (first awarded in 1923-24), 1 point for a Vezina Trophy (first awarded in 1926-27, but was awarded to the starting goalie on the team with the best goals against average from 1946-47 to 1980-81), 1 point for a Norris Trophy (first awarded in 1953-54)1 point for an Art Ross Trophy or equivalent (NHL points leader starting in 1917-18), and 1 point for a Rocket Richard Trophy or equivalent (NHL goals leader starting in 1917-18). It isn't perfect. Defensemen before 1953-54, goaltenders before 1926-27, and all players before 1923-24 are going to be undervalued, not to mention anyone who played the heart of their career outside the NHL. Still, I think it's a good starting point.

Using this system, ten players earned at least twelve points:


The positional balance here is pretty good with seven forwards, two defensemen and one goaltender making the top ten. Eddie Shore getting in as a defenseman is particularly impressive since the Norris Trophy didn't even exist during his time in the league. The really big surprises for me are Alexander Ovechkin representing the salary cap era, and Maurice Richard missing the cut entirely. But he didn't miss by much. Eight other players received at least eight points, Richard among them:


The name that jumps out to me here is Bobby Clarke. I understand that he was a fantastic player, but among the twenty best guys ever? That doesn't feel right to me. If he was replaced by a defenseman--say, seven-time Norris Trophy winner, Nicklas Lidstrom--it would solve some of the positional imbalance in this group, but then again, maybe Clarke is just a much better player than I think.

As for other players who were snubbed by the criteria but deserve to be in the conversation, I'll include five more guys:

  • Helmuts Balderis, the Latvian scorer who led the Russian league in scoring twice (and was among the top ten for eleven consecutive seasons from 1974-75 to 1984-85 ) even though he spent most of that time playing for Dinamo Riga instead of one of the traditional Russian powerhouses.
  • Newsy Lalonde, who led the NHL in points twice and in goals once before the Hart Trophy came into existence, and is one of two players in NHL history to have played at least 100 games and scored more than a goal per game.
  • Joe Malone, who led the NHL in points twice and in goals twice before the Hart Trophy came into existence, and is the second player in NHL history to have played at least 100 games and scored more than a goal per game.
  • Sergei Makarov, who led the Russian league in scoring nine times in ten seasons from 1979-80 to 1988-89 before coming to the NHL at age 31 where he amassed 384 points in 424 regular season games during the twilight of his career.
  • Cyclone Taylor, who is generally regarded as the greatest scorer of the pre-NHL era; he won the scoring championship in five different PCHA seasons, and led his team to the Stanley Cup twice.

That makes for two dozen nominees, and I'm sure I've missed a bunch of players that others would like to include. If this ends up being a tournament (and let's face it, I can't help myself), I'll be looking for eight more wildcards. So whether you want to nominate a wildcard, or lay out your argument for your top ten players ever, I look forward to hearing about it in the comments.