By Joseph Yanarella
The NHL had seemingly been run by Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin for the better part of almost a decade until Connor McDavid entered the league in 2015 and played his way into – and has since taken over – the discussion of the league’s best player. With Crosby and Ovechkin heading into the back-nine of their illustrious careers, and some others entering their primes, several new names have entered the discussion, like Auston Matthews and Nathan MacKinnon. We can debate their accolades until the cows come home, and people will.
Everyone (including the fine folks here at Wheel House Hockey) breaks down who they see as the top players. That’s not what this list is meant to accomplish, not the question I’m asking.
Envision this: You’re taking a friend to their first hockey game. They may have seen some highlights or followed their team’s place in the standings, but their hockey knowledge is largely lacking. Who would you be excited to show them? Who do you expect to make a play, steal their attention, make them grab your arm and ask “who’s that?!”
Please note, again, this is not a list based on point production or CORSI or anything like that. It’s simply a list of players who make you say “wow” every time you watch, tentatively ranked.
1. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals
Ovi scores goals. Lots of goals. Goals are the objective of the game, and loud horns and music play after they’re scored. That’s all exciting, so who’s more exciting than the guy who always scores? Nobody, but the goals aren’t all that makes him so much fun to watch. Part of that is what he does after he scores, how hard he celebrates. He doesn’t do the flappy bird, lasso cattle, or go for a swim, but the genuine smile and intensity with which he pumps his fist show he hasn’t lost the child-like love for the game that helped make the 8 so great. When he’s not disregarding goaltenders, he’s throwing his body around, making sweet passes, and being just pesky enough to get under the other team’s skin. Watching Ovechkin grab the Stanley Cup was a moment that encapsulated his warrior-like desire to be the best at the game he loves so much. The goals are great, but his affection for the game and how he displays it are what puts him atop this list.
2. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
To be fair, even your hockey-illiterate friend probably knows who Connor McDavid is, and already knows he’s special. But to truly appreciate him, the slick pass and great goal highlights don’t do him proper justice. One of his most valuable assets, his skating, is literally jaw-dropping to see in person. He could take five strides and be at the other end of the rink. Add this to the fact that the puck sticks to him like glue even at mach-5 speeds, and his cerebral vision, and you have an offensive force unlike any other. McDavid demands the attention of the fans and the other team the second his blades hit the ice; he can do something special no matter where he’s at. Plenty of guys can skate fast, dangle, or score. Not many can give you the whole package and make it seem so effortless like McDavid does.
3. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
Okay, yes, your friend probably knows who Sidney Crosby is as well, and chances are they don’t like him very much. But they can’t deny how much fun he is to watch. While McDavid is Lemeuix-like in that he’s always dangerous, Crosby is Gretzky-like in that he makes everyone around him more dangerous. His vision and hockey sense are what makes him so special, part of what makes him so fun to watch. He’ll find his winger across the crease with a backhand pass that looks like it went through four bodies. He’ll win a battle down low, turn, and find a streaking defenseman right on the tape. He’ll draw up a faceoff play for his teammates that will end up scoring the overtime winner. He’ll do all this while possessing the game’s best back-handed shot and elite defensive acumen. He creates plays out of nothing better than anybody. He may not be your favorite player, but you can’t deny watching him do things like this is wildly exciting.
4. Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks
In a mold similar to Connor McDavid, Kane is a small, fast, electrifying forward. He does it all with incredible ease, and is a rare talent who can score from anywhere. He’ll venture to the blue paint for a tip-in or let loose a nasty wrister, it’s all the same to him because he just knows how to score. Recently, he’s developed a great knack for making plays and his assists and highlight-reel passes have increased with his sense and vision. Like a lot of others on this list, Kane’s skating is part of what makes him fun to watch. It’s not necessarily speed, but the fluidity with which he moves while dangling the puck with surgeon-like precision that makes you say wow. Watching him trade goals, and celebrations, with another one of the league’s top talents (and another member of this list) is always great fun as well.
5. Artemi Panarin, Columbus Blue Jackets
Pretty much everything in the description for Kane fits Panarin as well. Fluid skater? Absolutely. Nasty dangles? You betcha. Scoring machine? You know it. I’ve had the pleasure - or displeasure, when it’s been my team on a few occasions - of watching him weave his way through an entire defense, let loose a wrister and basically take control of a game by himself. He’s almost his own entity out there, but he can make great plays from anywhere on the ice and so it just works. He’s always been visible even though he’s played in systems in Chicago and Columbus that don’t necessarily put his skills in the limelight. Add in arguably the league’s best nickname, and inarguably the league’s best backstory and you’ve got the total package.
6. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins
Malkin is a bit of a physical unicorn, a stalky, 6’3” forward who gallops down the ice and skate as fluidly as anybody. He’s got some great handles and a premier one-timer to go with his God-given gifts as well. Geno plays an entertaining game with a huge edge. He’s not afraid to show his frustration. That alone doesn’t make him special, but how he plays when he’s mad does: he seemingly has another gear when a call doesn’t go his way or a gaffe of his costs his team. The best way to describe this? I took a friend - no, he’s not hockey illiterate like your hypothetical friend - to a game a couple years back, and the Pens were trailing 3-0 in the first with nothing going their way. Malkin didn’t get a call on an obvious trip, and he was visibly heated. I turned to my friend and said “Watch out, Geno’s pissed”, eliciting a scoff in response. He ended up with three points, his goal coming on a play where he undressed the entire opposition and my friend turned to me and asked “how did he just do that?” I just told him he’s been doing it for a while now.
7. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
One of the few people in the world who can challenge McDavid’s speed, MacKinnon is immense fun to watch for that alone, but he’s got other reasons. He’s sort of a combination of the things that makes McDavid and Crosby fun: his speed and ability to slow a play down with his cerebral vision. Like a lot of others on this list, MacKinnon sees plays happening before they’re happening, and makes a lot of special passes because of it. He’s tremendous at entering the zone and allowing the play to develop, cradling the puck while he acts as a quarterback of sorts for arguably the league’s best line. It’s not always the goals or highlight reel passes that make him so special, but the ease with which he does it. He’s always been a great player, but the authority with which he assumed the number-one role in Colorado has everyone taking notice, and rightfully so.
8. Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks
Burns is the only defenseman on the list, and he used to play forward. This may not be fair, but offense is what’s been driving the new era of the league and he brings plenty. I’ll concede that his defense lacks at times, but he’s wildly entertaining to watch when he’s attacking. On the power play, he’s cannoning one-timers to the net, often scoring or setting off skirmishes. He’s never scared to pinch, and often looks like a fourth forward doing so, swopping behind the net to take over the zone and make a play. He picks up a lot of his points on rebounds, but his passing shouldn’t be underrated, nor should his convincing fakes that open opportunities. He’s not the fastest skater, but he has the agility and handles to make “wow” plays. Defense be damned, Burns is fun to watch.
9. Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs
As I said earlier, goals are fun and by association, so are the players who score lots. Matthews fits this mold. His release is incredible, Sakic-like on the forehand and Crosby-like on the backhand. He only needs the puck for a second to put himself in a position to beat the goalie, and he does it from everywhere. He’s almost like an elite wide receiver in the sense that he has such great body control and can not only score from anywhere on the ice, but from less-than-optimal positions. A great skater and playmaker, and even better shooter, Matthews demands everyone’s attention when he’s out there. He started his career with one of the best efforts the league has ever seen from a rookie, and hasn’t slowed down since.
10. Matthew Tkachuk, Calgary Flames
If you’ve learned anything from this list, it’s that offense often drives entertainment value, and Tkachuk knows how to put points on the board. He also loves to throw his big body around and make his presence known that way. You can also pencil me in as someone who loves instigators, and there may be none better than Tkachuk. Since day one, he’s been making use of the Tkachuk-gene that makes his family far better than average at being a pest on the ice. It’s not always a big hit, sometimes a snarky chirp and a smirk is enough to let him under your skin. If instigating were enough to get spots on this list, guys like Ryan Kesler, Ryan Reaves, and Patric Hornqvist could be here as well. But Tkachuk brings that edge and all the skill necessary to back it up, putting him in a league of his own, at least among instigators and entertainers.
Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins; David Pastrňák, Boston Bruins; Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames; Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning; Alexander Barkov, Florida Panthers