Best Hockey Players of All Time – Top 20 Greatest NHL Players Counted Down

Compiling a list of the best hockey players of all time is sure to stir up some healthy debate. The game has changed so much over the past century that comparing players who starred in different eras is very difficult. Would Gretzky have eclipsed the 200 point plateau if he hadn’t played in the free-wheeling 80s? What sort of numbers would Bobby Orr have put up if he hadn’t been playing on two bad knees throughout his brief career? These are just a couple of the questions that plague hockey historians as they try to rank the greatest NHL players.

Before I begin my countdown I want to preface it by stating that this list will not include goaltenders. In my opinion the position of goalie is so vastly different from a forward or a defenseman that it is impossible to fairly compare them. Watch for a separate list ranking only the best goalies of all time from me soon. Also, these players will only be those who have starred in the NHL. An international superstar like Valery Kharlamov certainly can make a claim to being among the greatest ever, but that makes the comparison even more difficult since the skill level in international leagues is again different than the NHL. With all that said here are my picks for the best hockey players of all time:

20 – Jaromir Jagr – Though he may have been dubbed a coach-killer throughout his career, this moody, often unmotivated superstar could throw his hat in the ring for the title of the greatest stickhandler ever, and his 646 career goals and 1,599 career points put him at #1 on the list of the highest scoring European born players in NHL history. He was a key cog in the Penguins machine that won Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992, and throughout the course of his brilliant career Jagr captured 5 Art Ross Trophies as the league’s leading scorer as well as a Hart Trophy as NHL MVP.

19 – Eddie Shore - As the Hanson brothers stated in the classic 1977 movie Slap Shot Eddie Shore is “old time hockey”. This legendary Bruins rearguard won an incredible 4 Hart Trophies in 6 years during his time with the Bruins, the only defenseman in NHL history to accomplish the feat. Though his 105 goals and 284 points might pale in comparison to some of the other players on this list you have to remember that Shore played in an era where defensemen stayed at home, and rarely contributed to their team’s offense.

18 – Phil Esposito – Though the bulk of his 717 career goals were scored within 5 feet of the goal it is hard to deny that this guy had a nose for the net, and he added plenty of assists to go along with those goals, helping him to 5 Art Ross Trophies during his career. Before Wayne Gretzky rewrote the record book it was Esposito who held the single season records for goals with 76 and points with 152. To go with all this he also won a pair of Hart Trophies as the league MVP. Not bad for a guy often referred to as “The Garbage Man”.

17 – Bryan Trottier - With nearly 100 points in his rookie year and a Calder Trophy this Hall of Famer didn’t waste any time establishing himself as a bona fide NHL star. However, that impressive first year was just a taste of what this guy would accomplish over his amazing career. He won an astounding 6 Stanley Cups (4 with the New York Islanders and 2 with the Pittsburgh Penguins), once nabbing the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP. He also added a Hart Trophy and an Art Ross. Don’t discount him because he only has one of each. You have to remember that he spent the bulk of his career playing in the shadow of Wayne Gretzky, who owned both of those trophies throughout the 80s.

16 – Stan Mikita – Long before Jaromir Jagr, Dominik Hasek and even Peter Stastny were starring in the NHL, another Czech born player was dominating the league. One of the classiest players to ever play the game, Mikita played his entire 1,394 game career with the Chicago Blackhawks, racking up 541 goals and 1,467 points along the way. He combined with Bobby Hull to give the Blackhawks a devastating one-two punch up front, and he nabbed 4 Art Ross Trophies and a pair of Hart Trophies during his Hall of Fame career.

15 – Mike Bossy – In my opinion, even more so than Brett Hull, this gentlemanly New York Islander was the purest sniper to ever pick up a hockey stick in the NHL. His quick release and pinpoint accuracy made him a nightmare for opposing goalies to face, helping him to score 573 career goals in just 752 career games. He was just as deadly come clutch time as well, adding 85 goals in just 129 career playoff games. Besides the 4 Stanley Cups he helped his team win in the early 80s perhaps the greatest highlight of Bossy’s career came in the 1980-81 season when he became the first player since Maurice Richard to net 50 goals in the first 50 games of a season.

14 – Denis Potvin – Back to back New York Islanders on this list of the best NHL players of all time. Bossy and Trottier were great, without question, but it was this incredibly consistent dominant defenseman that was the engine of the locomotive that was the Islanders dynasty in the early 80s. Potvin was the first NHL defenseman to eclipse the 1,000 point plateau for a career. He was even better in the playoffs, putting up 164 points. He won 3 Norris Trophies as the league’s best defenseman, but his crowning achievement was just how despised he was by the fans of the rival New York Rangers. To this day, more than 2 decades after his retirement the chant “Potvin sucks!” can still be heard on a regular basis when the two teams clash in Madison Square Garden.

13 – Nicklas Lidstrom – This guy’s inclusion on a list of the greatest NHL players of all time might raise some eyebrows, but there are compelling arguments I couldn’t ignore and thus he earns a rightful spot. He has 6 Norris Trophies to his credit. Only legends Bobby Orr (8) and Doug Harvey (7) have more. He has won 4 Stanley Cups, and in 2008 became the first European to ever captain his team to a Stanley Cup. He is so consistent and effective that he almost seems robotic out on the ice at times, always making the right decision and almost always in the right place at the right time on both the offensive and the defensive side of the puck. When the sun finally sets on this Swede’s great career you can bet he’ll be a first ballot Hall of Famer, and his name will be mentioned with players like Gordie Howe, Steve Yzerman and Ted Lindsay as one of the best Detroit Red Wings of all time.

12 – Howie Morenz - Before guys like Richard and Howe came along there was a superstar by the name of Howie Morenz tearing up the NHL in the 20s and 30s. Hockey historians often refer to him as the greatest player of the first half of the 20th century, and he helped lead the Montreal Canadiens to 3 Stanley Cups, leading them in scoring on seven separate occasions and earning himself 3 Hart Trophies as league MVP along the way.

11 – Ray Bourque – As good as Nicklas Lidstrom has been throughout his career with the Wings in my opinion this Boston Bruin great was just a little bit better. Lidstrom has 3 more Stanley Cups, and one more Norris Trophy (6 to Bourque’s 5), but Bourque more than makes up for it with his incredible offensive totals. Bourque is the all time leader among NHL defensemen in goals with 410 and points with 1,579. In today’s NHL it is hard to imagine any rearguard putting up such massive career totals. Though he finally got his Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche Bourque will always be known as a Boston Bruin, and one of the greatest to ever suit up for that historic franchise.

10 – Guy Lafleur – It seems fitting that a Montreal Canadiens legend would mark the entrance into the top 10 NHL players of all time. Guy Lafleur was larger than life, starring with the Canadiens in the 70s and 80s. He is one of the most exciting players to ever pick up a hockey stick, and electrified fans in the Montreal Forum as well as rinks across the league. He helped the Habs win 5 Stanley Cups during the 70s, won the Hart Trophy as league MVP twice, won 3 Art Ross Trophies, and is the all time Canadiens leader in both assists and points.

9 – Jean Beliveau – Forget Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic. There is only one clear choice as the classiest NHL player of all time. Jean Beliveau was the consummate professional during his time in the NHL, and his incredible leadership helped his team to 10 Stanley Cup Championships during his playing days. Though he might not have put up the huge numbers of some others on this list he was incredibly consistent throughout his career, finishing with a respectable 507 goals and 1,219 points.

8 – Mark Messier - The man they call “The Moose” may have dwelled in the enormous shadow of Wayne Gretzky during the early years of his career with the Edmonton Oilers, but when “The Great One” was traded to Los Angeles in the summer of 1988 it was Messier’s turn to shine, and he embraced the challenge. He led the Oilers to the Stanley Cup again in 1990, their first without Gretzky. However, he truly cemented his legend as a member of the New York Rangers, when in 1994 he captained the team to their first Stanley Cup in 54 years. However, it wasn’t just his leadership that earns him a spot on this list. He is also the NHL’s 2nd leading scorer of all time with 1,887 points and he has a Conn Smythe and 2 Hart Trophies to go along with his 6 Stanley Cups rings.

7 – Doug Harvey – If a fellow by the name of Bobby Orr hadn’t come along this guy would be at the top of most hockey historian’s lists as the greatest NHL defenseman to ever play the game. Harvey starred with the Habs from 1947 to 1961 and really revolutionized the position as a puck moving defenseman. He racked up 540 points in that span, an incredible total for a rearguard at that time, and set an NHL record, later broken by Bobby Orr, with 7 Norris Trophies. He helped his Habs win the Stanley Cup 6 times during his time there and was a key cog in the late 50s team that is widely considered the greatest team in the history of the NHL.

6 – Bobby Hull - Before Pavel Bure and Alexander Ovechkin were pulling fans out of their seats with highlight reel plays Bobby Hull was thrilling fans with his incredible speed and powerful slapshot. One of the biggest icons in the history of the sport the man dubbed “The Golden Jet” was one of its greatest snipers, netting 610 goals in his career, an amazing total considering he spent several years in the WHA (where he scored 303 more times). Hull became the first player to score more than 50 goals in a single season, when he sniped 54 in 1966, a feat he accomplished 4 more times during his Hall of Fame career.

5 – Maurice Richard
- The Rocket was a no-brainer for a top 5 spot on the list of the greatest hockey players. Perhaps the most popular player in the history of the game, his suspension by Clarence Campbell in 1955 caused fans to revolt in what is called The Richard Riot. One of the most determined players to ever pick up a hockey stick, Maurice Richard was all but unstoppable from the blueline in. He was the first player to ever score 50 goals in a single season, accomplishing the feat in 50 games. He was the first player to score 500 goals in a career, finishing with 544, the most ever by a Habs player. He only won 1 Hart Trophy and never led the league in scoring, but he did help his team capture an incredible 9 Stanley Cups.

4 – Mario Lemieux - If I was basing this list on pure athletic ability alone then I would have put Mario the Magnificent right at the top of the list. No player before or since had the pure skill set, the effortless ability with the puck, and the ability to dominate his peers one on one that Mario did in his prime. If he hadn’t spent years with chronic back problems, battling cancer, and even in retirement he would easily be second on the all time list of points, and would likely be first in goals. Despite all the time he spent away from the game, or playing hurt he still scored 690 goals and 1,723 points. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP both times the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup. He won 6 Art Ross Trophies, 3 Hart Trophies, and the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, and he did all this in just 915 regular season games. Simply…magnificent.

3 – Gordie Howe
– When the term power forward is mentioned people who follow the sport of hockey immediately think of guys like Cam Neely and Wendel Clark. However, long before these guys ever picked up a hockey stick the man they call Mr. Hockey was defining the term “power forward”. Howe was as mean and nasty as he was talented as anyone who felt the brunt of his elbow will tell you. He could fight with the best of them, but rarely had to as few were stupid enough to challenge him. However, ultimately it was on the score sheet that Howe carved his legend. Until Gretzky came along Howe was the all time leader in goals (801), assists (1,049) and points (1,850). To this day he remains the leader in games played with (1,767), and these are just his NHL numbers. Howe also spent several seasons in the rival WHA. He won 6 Art Ross Trophies and 6 Hart Trophies during his career, and hoisted the Stanley Cup on 4 separate occasions. Despite all this possibly his most unbelievable feat came in the 1979-80 season when he suited up for the Hartford Whalers to play with sons Mark and Marty. He was 52 years old at the time and still scored 18 goals that season!

2 – Bobby Orr – Trust me when I tell you that Bobby Orr came within a whisker of taking top spot on this list, and had his brilliant career not been cut far too short because of chronically bad knees there is a very good chance he would be the consensus choice of the hockey world as the greatest player ever. He helped the Bruins to 2 Stanley Cups in the 1970s, he won 8 consecutive Norris Trophies, and captured the Hart Trophy 3 times. He even led the NHL in scoring on 2 separate occasions, as a defenseman! He holds the single season record for points by a defenseman with 139, and had he enjoyed a career as long as Ray Bourque did you can rest assured he have eclipsed Bourque’s 1,579 points by a country mile.

1 – Wayne Gretzky - With Orr at number 2 there really wasn’t any mystery left to who would grab the title of the best hockey player of all time. Gretzky shattered the record book during his career, and is the leader in all major offensive categories in both the regular season and the playoffs. He was blessed with extraordinary vision on the ice and was one of those rare athletes who had the ability to make every one of his teammates better. With 894 goals, 1,963 assists and 2,857 points there is a good chance that Gretzky’s records will last as the NHL does. It is little wonder that he is called “The Great One”.

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