Wayne Gretzky was Great, But Bobby Orr is the Greatest: Steve Simmons Ranks the NHL’s 100 Best Players
TORONTO — One hundred years. One hundred players.
What a time to be celebrating all that is and has been National Hockey League talent.
It starts, as all hockey lists must start, with Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky. Best defenceman ever. Best forward ever.
They aren’t one and two as much as they are 1 and 1a. And the debate is like all great sporting debates — there is no definitive answer as to who has been the best player in NHL history. That’s a personal choice, based on age and opinion and all kinds of biases and how you view the game and whatever prisms you might happen to view the sport through.
Both changed the game. Both played at a level we have never seen before. Both accomplished statistically and artistically what no one had been able to do before or since.
I feel fortunate to have been watching the NHL for the past 50-plus years, first as a fan, then as a reporter, fortunate to have been working games for the past 36 years, to have been allowed to stay up late to watch George Armstrong shoot the puck into an empty net to ensure the celebration on the last Maple Leafs championship, to watch the league grow from six to 12 teams and in my working time from 21 to 30.
The assignment here was simple, yet complicated: Come up with a list of the Top 100 NHL players ever. My list. One hundred players from one hundred seasons. Come up with 100 even though the game has changed, the rules have changed, coaching has changed, goaltending has changed, the eras being so different from one another.
In the end, I asked a lot of questions of a lot of people: coaches, general managers, former players, former executives, writers, broadcasters. I wanted their views to help me shape mine. In the end, it worked this way: 60 players were selected from the post-expansion era; 40 players from 1967 and before that.
Of the 100 players listed, I’ve seen 81 of them play, some of them late in their careers. This list came together by asking the basic question: Who was the better player? And who had the better career?
It is hair splitting at times. It is agonizing and challenging. Is it Brad Park or Paul Coffey? Borje Salming or Brian Leetch? Patrick Roy or Dominik Hasek?
Who was better? Bobby Hull or Rocket Richard? Bryan Trottier or Bobby Clarke? Pierre Pilote or Tim Horton? Jonathan Toews or Dave Keon? And where do you rank them?
The list isn’t perfect, but it’s mine: The Top 100 in this, the 100th season of NHL hockey. Ladies and gentleman, start your arguments.
1. Bobby Orr, D
1966-1979 | Boston, Chicago
657 games played; 270 goals; 645 assists; 915 points
Could do everything and then something you’ve never seen before while changing the way the game was played. A combination of speed, power, toughness and offensive brilliance we will never witness again.
2. Wayne Gretzky, C
1979-1999 | Edmonton, Los Angeles, St. Louis, New York
Appropriately known as The Greatest, no one will ever match his impossible, incredible scoring numbers.
3. Mario Lemieux, C
1984-2006 | Pittsburgh
The most extreme combination of size and talent in hockey history.
4. Gordie Howe, RW
1946-1971; 1979-80 | Detroit, Hartford
Mr. Hockey. The name and the numbers say it all.
5. Jean Beliveau, C
1950-1971 | Montreal
The hockey player’s hockey player, skilled, smooth, full of grace and universally beloved.
6. Maurice Richard, RW
1942-1960 | Montreal
The Rocket — the first 50-goal scorer was an iconic Montreal figure and a 14-time all-star.
7. Bobby Hull, LW
1957-1972; 1979-1980 | Chicago, Winnipeg, Hartford
The most electrifying player in history; everything he did, including the booming slap shot, seemed somehow larger than life.
8. Doug Harvey, D
1948-1964; 1967-1969 | Montreal, New York, Detroit, St. Louis
In an 11-year period in his prime, Harvey was a first team all-star 10 times and a seven-time Norris Trophy winner.
9. Guy Lafleur, RW
1971-1985; 1988-1991 | Montreal, New York, Quebec
The most beautiful player we’ve ever seen in so many different ways.
10. Sidney Crosby, C
2005-present | Pittsburgh
Fifth in history in points per game in an era where scoring is oh so challenging.
11. Dominik Hasek, G
1990-2008 | Chicago, Buffalo, Ottawa, Detroit
735 games played, 2.20 goals-against average, .922 save percentage
He invented a new and original way to play that no one will or could ever duplicate.
12. Nicklas Lidstrom, D
1991-2012 | Detroit
In a game of mistakes, he made almost none. Made it look too easy.
13. Denis Potvin, D
1973-1988 | N.Y. Islanders
Did everything. Scored 85 points from the back end in four straight Stanley Cup wins by the Islanders.
14. Mike Bossy, RW
1977-1987 | N.Y. Islanders
Very simply: the greatest goal-scoring shooter of all-time.
15. Mark Messier, C
1979-2004 | Edmonton, New York, Vancouver
The on- and off-ice leader all others aspire to be.
16. Ray Bourque, D
1979-2001 | Boston, Colorado
Thirteen-time first all-star. Five-time Norris Trophy winner.
17. Patrick Roy, G
1985-2003 | Montreal, Colorado
1029 GP: 2.54 GAA .910
The bigger the game, the better the four-time Cup champion played.
18. Alex Ovechkin, LW
2005-present | Washington
An emotional, generational goal scorer, right there with Bossy and Lemieux.
19. Jaromir Jagr, RW
1990-2008; 2011-present | Pittsburgh, N.Y. Rangers, Washington, Boston, Dallas, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Florida
The rare combination of talent, rear-end puck protector, scorer, and historical colossus.
20. Terry Sawchuk, G
1949-70 | Detroit, Boston, Toronto, Los Angeles, New York
971 GP: 2.51 GAA
The 100-shutout man had a goals against average below 2.00 for his first five NHL seasons.
21. Martin Brodeur, G
1989-2015 | New Jersey, St. Louis
1,266 GP: 2.24 GAA, .912
No one will ever match his record for wins (691) or shutouts (125).
22. Eddie Shore, D
1926-1940 | Boston, N.Y. Americans
The Norris Trophy was born in 1954. It should have been named the Shore Trophy for the first great defenceman in history.
23. Stan Mikita, C
1959-1980 | Chicago
Over a seven-season period, Mikita won four scoring titles, two Hart Trophies and six first all-star berths.
24. Howie Morenz, C
1923-1937 | Montreal, Chicago, New York
Gave up a railroad career to become one of the first spectacular talents of the new NHL.
25. Phil Esposito, C
1961-1981 | Chicago, Boston, New York
Big talent, big presence, big mouth, big goal scorer.
26. Red Kelly, D/C
1946-1967 | Detroit, Toronto
Won four Cups in Detroit as an all-star defenceman; won four Cups in Toronto as a centre.
27. Larry Robinson, D
1968-1992 | Montreal, Los Angeles
Combined size, strength, skill and smarts for more than two decades.
28. Scott Niedermayer, D
1991-2010 | New Jersey, Anaheim
All this transcending speedster did was win championships. Over and over again.
29. Jacques Plante, G
1946-1965; 1968-1973 | Montreal, New York, St. Louis, Toronto, Boston
837 GP, 2.38 GAA
The first goalie to wear a mask full-time, Plante was brilliant with it, brilliant without it.
30. Glenn Hall, G
1952-1971 | Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis
906 GP, 2.49 GAA
Today, goalies don’t always play back to back. Mr. Goalie played 502 straight NHL games.
31. Bobby Clarke, C
1969-1984 | Philadelphia
Would do anything to win, even if it meant breaking an ankle or two.
32. Bryan Trottier, C
1975-1994 | N.Y. Islanders, Pittsburgh
The No. 1 star centre on the No. 1 team of his era.
33. Frank Mahovlich, LW
1956-1974 | Toronto, Detroit, Montreal
The Big M, the talented giant, should have a legend’s statue outside the Air Canada Centre.
34. Gilbert Perreault, C
1970-1987 | Buffalo
Leader of the famed French Connection, few have dazzled in the exciting manner in which he did.
35. Carey Price, G
2007-present | Montreal
465 GP, 2.40 GAA, .921%
Five years from now, he should be hanging somewhere around the top 10, just behind Hasek.
36. Syl Apps, C
1936-1948 | Toronto
My dad told me he was the greatest Leaf he ever saw.
37. Ted Lindsay, LW
1944-1960; 1964-65 | Detroit, Chicago
Terrible Ted was tiny, yet tough, and a political giant in hockey history.
38. Ken Dryden, G
1971-1979 | Montreal
397 GP, 2.24 GAA
Short but spectacular career for the deep-thinking goaltender turned bestselling author.
39. Chris Pronger, D
1993-2012 | Hartford, St. Louis, Edmonton, Anaheim, Philadelphia
Changed teams he was on like no one has. Maybe the most impactful player of his time.
40. Brian Leetch, D
1988-2006 | N.Y. Rangers, Toronto, Boston
Brilliant five-time all-star who is underrated outside of New York.
41. Chris Chelios, D
1984-2010 | Montreal, Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta
The Methuselah of NHL defencemen: All he did was adapt and do his job.
42. Jonathan Toews, C
2007-present | Chicago
The modern-day Dave Keon, with more. Oozes leadership.
43. Joe Sakic, C
1988-2009 | Quebec/Colorado
Top-five wrist shot in history, a champion and a gentleman.
44. Milt Schmidt, C
1937-1955 | Boston
Before coaching and managing the Bruins, he starred up front in Boston.
45. Marcel Dionne, C
1971-1989 | Los Angeles, Detroit, N.Y. Rangers
In the Little Beaver’s three best seasons, he scored 130, 137 and 133 points, consecutively.
Bobby Hull or Rocket Richard? Bryan Trottier or Bobby Clarke? Pierre Pilote or Tim Horton? Jonathan Toews or Dave Keon?
46. Brett Hull, RW
1986-2006 | Calgary, St. Louis, Dallas, Detroit, Phoenix
Like his dad, he had an incredible knack for scoring goals. Knew where to be, how to finish.
47. Babe Dye, RW
1919-1931 | Toronto St. Pats, Hamilton, Chicago, Toronto
Played pro baseball in summer, hockey in winter; was the first great shooter in the game.
48. Peter Forsberg, C
1994-2011 | Quebec/Colorado
Scored 1.13 points per game in the regular season, 1.13 points per game in the playoffs.
49. Paul Coffey, D
1980-2001 | Edmonton, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Detroit, Hartford, Philadelphia, Chicago, Carolina, Boston
Greatest skater ever and only second to Orr as an offensive defenceman.
50. Dickie Moore, LW
1951-1965; 1967-68 | Montreal, Toronto, St. Louis
Beliveau called him the glue of those Habs teams of the 1950s, when he twice was scoring champion.
51. Brad Park, D
1968-1985 | N.Y. Rangers, Boston, Detroit
Finished second in Norris Trophy voting eight times.
52. Borje Salming, D
1973-1990 | Toronto, Detroit
The great Swedish pioneer whose talent and veneer was extraordinary.
53. Steve Yzerman, C
1983-2006 | Detroit
The Captain. He scored, he checked, he led, he transformed his game and his team.
54. Pavel Datsyuk, C
2001-2016 | Detroit
The best and most complete forward Mike Babcock has coached in the NHL.
55. Patrick Kane, RW
2007-present | Chicago
What hasn’t he won? Has been scoring champ, MVP, playoff MVP and three-time Cup champion.
56. Dave Keon, C
1960-1975; 1979-1982 | Toronto, Hartford
Named No. 1 Leaf in history; as great a 200-foot player as there has ever been.
57. Jean Ratelle, C
1960-1981 | N.Y. Rangers, Boston
Smooth, like Beliveau, career was a straight line of exceptional consistency.
58. Andy Bathgate, RW
1953-1971 | N.Y. Rangers, Toronto, Detroit, Pittsburgh
A top-five New York Ranger player of all-time; usual top-five scorer.
59. Serge Savard, D
1966-1983 | Montreal, Winnipeg
Scotty Bowman ranks him among the best defencemen to ever play.
60. Henri Richard, C
1955-1975 | Montreal
Winner of 11 Stanley Cups. Incredible.
61. Bernie Geoffrion, LW/RW
1950-1968 | Montreal, N.Y. Rangers
Changed the game by inventing the slap shot.
62. Bernie Parent, G
1965-1979 | Philadelphia, Boston, Toronto
608 GP; 2.55 GAA
The backbone of the Broad Street Bullies; they don’t win two Stanley Cups without him.
63. Jari Kurri, RW
1980-1998 | Edmonton, Los Angeles, N.Y. Rangers, Colorado
Gretzky’s winger of choice; king of the one-timer and a defensive wizard.
64. Charlie Conacher, RW
1929-1941 | Toronto, Detroit, N.Y. Americans
Led NHL in goals five different times as a Leaf.
65. Grant Fuhr, G
1981-2000 | Edmonton, Toronto, St. Louis, Calgary
868 GP, 3.38 GAA
Statistics don’t do justice to his career and his marvelous sense of in-game timing.
66. Eric Lindros, C
1992-2007 | Philadelphia, N.Y. Rangers, Toronto, Dallas
Had top-20 talent; a career interrupted by health and circumstance.
67. Bill Durnan, G
1943-1950 | Montreal
383 GP, 2.36 GAA
Only seven seasons, six first-team all-stars.
68. Turk Broda, G
1936-1952 | Toronto
659 GP, 2.53 GAA
Best Leaf goalie ever. Won five Stanley Cups and missed almost three seasons due to the Second World War.
69. Dit Clapper, D/RW
1927-1947 | Boston
First NHL player to move from forward to defenceman and be named all-star at both positions.
70. Jarome Iginla, RW
1996-present | Calgary, Pittsburgh, Boston, Colorado
Modern-day example of complete player. Scores, wins, leads.
71. Pierre Pilote, D
1955-1969 | Chicago, Toronto
For six straight seasons, he either won the Norris Trophy or finished second in the voting.
72. Dale Hawerchuk, C
1981-1997 | Winnipeg, Buffalo, St. Louis, Philadelphia
Lost in the Gretzky era, he was one of the truly underrated playmakers of all-time.
73. Tim Horton, D
1950-1974 | Toronto, New York, Pittsburgh, Buffalo
The Rock. Never mind the donuts and the coffee — he was Mr. Dependable.
74. Johnny Bower, G
1953-1970 | N.Y. Rangers, Toronto
552 GP, 2.51 GAA
The late bloomer remains the most beloved Maple Leaf player in history.
75. Peter Stastny, C
1980-1995 | Quebec, New Jersey, St. Louis
Was second to Gretzky in the ’80s in scoring.
76. Ted Kennedy, C
1942-1957 | Toronto
The ultimate Maple Leafs captain and winner.
77. Bill Cook, RW
1927-1938 | NY Rangers
First player and first captain of the New York Rangers.
78. Newsy Lalonde, C
1915-1922; 1926-27 | Montreal
Would be way higher if he had played more NHL games.
79. Frankie Brimsek, G
1938-1950 | Boston, Chicago
514 GP, 2.70 GAA
Mr. Zero: Six shutouts in his first seven NHL games.
80. Mats Sundin, C
1990-2009 | Quebec, Toronto, Vancouver
Led Toronto in scoring 12 of 13 seasons with Leafs.
81. Drew Doughty, D
2008-present | Los Angeles
Will move higher next time this list is done. A generational defenceman.
82. Elmer Lach, C
1940-1954 | Montreal
When he retired, he was the NHL’s all-time leading point-getter.
83. Alex Delvecchio, C
1951-1974 | Detroit
Smooth, strong, consistent; three time Lady Byng winner.
84. Scott Stevens, D
1982-2004 | Washington, St. Louis, New Jersey
Did anyone ever hit harder, meaner, and more often on D?
85. Al MacInnis, D
1982-2004 | Calgary, St. Louis
The single player NHL goaltenders feared the most, for that booming slap shot.
86. Duncan Keith, D
2005-present | Chicago
Small defenceman has played giant role in three Chicago Stanley Cups.
87. Norm Ullman, C
1955-1975 | Detroit, Toronto
Traded for Mahovlich; terrific, consistent point-getter.
88. Teemu Selanne, LW
1992-2014 | Winnipeg, Anaheim, Colorado
His 76 goals as a rookie will never be beaten.
89. Denis Savard, C
1980-1997 | Chicago, Montreal, Tampa Bay
Was worth the price of admission every night of his career.
90. Zdeno Chara, D
1997-present | NY Islanders, Ottawa, Boston
Late bloomer and difference maker who is headed to the Hall of Fame.
91. Joe Thornton, C
1997-present | Boston, San Jose
Mr. Setup. One of the great, steady, under-appreciated playmakers of his time.
92. Cy Denneny, LW
1916-1929 | Ottawa, Boston
Here’s a surprise: He’s second behind Bossy in goals per game in history.
93. Johnny Bucyk, LW
1955-1978 | Boston
Lived and flourished at the side of the goal crease; knew how to finish.
94. Erik Karlsson, D
2009-present | Ottawa
Just beginning. The most dynamic offensive defenceman of his era.
95. Ron Francis, C
1981-2004 | Hartford, Pittsburgh, Carolina, Toronto
Ronnie Franchise. Played long, hard and oh so diligently.
96. Darryl Sittler, C
1970-1985 | Toronto, Philadelphia, Detroit
Ten-point Darryl. Will anyone ever do that in a game again?
97. Pavel Bure, RW
1991-2003 | Vancouver, Florida, New York
Dynamic Bure didn’t just score goals: He was an artist on the ice.
98. Yvan Cournoyer, RW
1964-1979 | Montreal
The Roadrunner — after all these years, still one of the faces of Les Canadiens.
99. Michel Goulet, LW
1979-1994 | Quebec, Chicago
Speed and hands; seven straight years of 42-plus goals.
100. Jacques Lemaire, C
1967-1979 | Montreal
The quiet, cerebral No. 1 centre of the ’70s dynasty Habs.