In the NHL, there are only so many players who have unforgettable careers – be it a good way or a bad way. Think about the roughly 750 guys in the NHL, and how many realistically will have a Hall of Fame career? Without being naive, not too many.
The NHL has changed forever thanks to what legends did. What would the Montreal Canadiens be like without three icons who will appear on our list? (Spoiler alert!) On the other hand, some NHL players just had overall terrible careers. Some of them were even high draft picks, and their failures to develop into stars changed the fortunes (or should we say misfortunes) of the teams that drafted them.
There’s not much of a debate among most NHL prognosticators as to who the best NHL player is (his name rhymes with Laine Fletzky) but who really rounds up the top 10? In all honesty, it’s not easy and clear to come up with the 10 worst NHL players ever, but there were definitely some who stood out more than others. Taking a stroll in hockey history, here are the 10 best and 10 worst NHLers ever.
10. Best: Phil Esposito
A Boston Bruins icon, Phil Esposito accomplished it all during a remarkable 19-year playing career. He spent nine seasons with the B’s, and led them to a Stanley Cup championship in 1970 and 1972.
Esposito won five scoring titles, two Hart Trophies, and was a six-time First Team All-Star. This all came with Bobby Orr being the star player on Boston the entire time. Esposito was also part of the infamous 1972 Canadian Summit Series squad that upset the Soviets in an eight-game series. He scored 100-plus points in a season six times and reached the 40-goal plateau eight times.
He also led the NHL in goals every year from 1970-75. In 1972, he was the recipient of the Lou Marsh Trophy, handed out to Canada’s top athlete every year. Esposito put Boston on the hockey map and even though most people probably won’t put him in the top-10 all-time, we are doing it here.
The stats and accomplishments back it all up.
10. Worst: Jason Doig
The 6-foot-3, 230-pound blueliner had the size and ability to be one of the premier stay-at-home defenceman in the NHL, but it just never gelled.
In his defence (no pun intended) he did play with some awful teams. He was a fairly hyped-up player, as the Winnipeg Jets drafted him 34th-overall in the 1995 NHL Entry Draft. He was a member of the 1995-96 Jets team, who infamously moved to Arizona after that season. He played just 15 games and registered a goal and one assist.
In total, Doig would play 158 games, scoring six goals and 18 points, but he registered a terrible -21 rating. His best season in the NHL, oddly enough, was his last. He had two goals and nine assists (11 points, a career high) in 65 games. That came in 2003-04 with the Washington Capitals. Doig also didn’t do much more on defence, posting 285 penalty minutes. Doig spent time in the AHL, Russia, and Switzerland but has been out of professional hockey since 2007-08.
9. Best: Patrick Roy
Terry Sawchuk and Martin Brodeur were difficult to take off of this list, but Patrick Roy was simply a bigger game-changer and dominated in a much tougher era than Sawchuk. Furthermore, Brodeur had the luxury of spending about half of his career in an era after the lockout were scoring was by the few.
So in case you were born after Roy retired in 2003, he was kind of a great goalie. He won the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe as a rookie netminder with the Montreal Canadiens in 1986. He would win three Vezina Trophies with the Habs, and managed to win another Stanley Cup with them in 1993.
After an ugly fallout with Habs management in 1995-96, he was traded to the Colorado Avalanche where he would win two more Stanley Cups – in 1996 and 2001, winning the Conn Smythe the later year.
The four-time Stanley Cup winner would win 551 games and post 66 shutouts in his career. The way he dominated in an era with Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Penguins, Red Wings and Avalanche powerhouses was simply remarkable.
9. Worst: Donald Brashear
We always talk about how hard it is being in the NHL. I remember reading Theo Fleury’s book, Playing With Fire where he mentioned how millions of kids around the world play ice hockey while competing for around 700 NHL player jobs.
A closer look at Brashear suggests that his path to the NHL was not all that difficult. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound hulk was simply paid to throw his fists at other people. Real hard job, right? The man wasn’t known for his scoring abilities. After all, he managed to only score 85 goals and 205 points in 1,025 games. Unless you’re thrilled with 2,634 penalty minutes, this guy wasn’t all that great.
His nine-goal, 28-point season with the Vancouver Canucks in 2000-01 was the best of his career. Brashear was simply a goon holding a stick, and some teams may tell you that was helpful. But he wasn’t known as a guy playing on great teams like Marty McSorley, the ultimate goon.
8. Best: Mark Messier
It does seem a bit odd to put the NHL’s second all-time leading scorer this low. But do keep in mind that Mark Messier was surrounded by a bunch of Hall of Famers in his career that made him better. Still, we won’t take away how remarkable he was in his career.
As we try our best to forget his disastrous tenure with the Vancouver Canucks (sorry, I grew up a Canucks fan) Messier had a magnificent career. He was a huge part of the Edmonton Oilers dynasty, winning five Stanley Cups – the last one coming without Wayne Gretzky. But that was only one part of his great career.
He infamously captained the New York Rangers to a 1994 Stanley Cup title, which was their first in 54 years. Messier won two Hart Trophies and his 1,887 points rank second all-time, and it’s fair to believe nobody will surpass him. If it weren’t for No. 99, he’d be the NHL’s all-time leading scorer.
Many consider him the best leader of all-time, and it’d be hard to disagree with that.
8. Worst: Brett Lindros
Just because your brother Eric was one of the best players of his generation, it doesn’t guarantee success in the family. To be fair to Brett Lindros, he’s not the only brother who failed to live in the shadow of his brother. (Brett Gretzky or Marcel Hossa, anyone?)
Though Eric had a Hall of Fame career, the other Lindros had plenty of hype that he failed to live up to. Brett was drafted ninth-overall by the New York Islanders in 1994. For what it’s worth, Jose Theodore, Patrik Elias, Chris Drury, Milan Hejduk, Marty Turco, Daniel Alfredsson, Evgeni Nabokov, Tomas Vokoun, Tim Thomas (remember him?) and Steve Sullivan went after Lindros.
Sadly for Brett, he only played two seasons in the NHL: He played 51 games and had a mere two goals and five assists. Not exactly what the Isles had hoped for, and draft misses like this were a huge reason they failed to win a playoff series from 1994-2015. That changed this year.
But still, Lindros was a colossal failure for the Isles, and they never recovered from it.
7. Best: Howie Morenz
Many of you don’t know a lot about Howie Morenz, and we won’t blame you. We are talking about a guy whose NHL career took place during the ’20s and ’30s, where 99.9 percent of us NHL Fans weren’t even born yet.
Morenz was considered by legendary CBC analyst Dick Irvin as “the Babe Ruth of Hockey,” because of how much of a money draw he was in both Canada and the United States. Hockey historians call him the first true superstar of hockey, and his accomplishments reflect it.
He won three Hart Trophies and two scoring titles, while guiding the Canadians to three Stanley Cups. In an era where forward passing was forbidden (which led to low-scoring games). Morenz posted 271 goals and 472 points in 550 career games.
Sadly, Morenz’s accomplishments are often foreshadowed by an extremely tragic broken leg injury he suffered which ended his career in 1937 and ultimately led to his untimely death. He’s the first player (No. 7) to have his jersey number retired, and the Canadian Press named him the top hockey player in the first half of the 20th century, keeping his legacy in tact forever.
7. Worst: Nikita Filatov
Does anybody else by chance remember this guy as the sixth-overall pick from the 2008 NHL Entry Draft? The tall Russian star that was taken by the Columbus Blue Jackets and expected to be a franchise-changing player? I sure do.
Nikita Filatov had a poor attitude and it perhaps led to his failed NHL career. During the 2009-10 season, he made it known that he was frustrated with his playing time, even though not every 19-year-old can get top minutes right away. He feuded with head coach Ken Hitchcock and went back to the KHL, but things never got back on track. The Ottawa Senators took a chance on him by sending a third-round pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.
He played nine games with the Senators, registering nothing more than one assist. Filatov played just 53 NHL Games, scoring six goals and 14 points. He easily became one of the top draft busts ever. Filatov just didn’t have the attitude or willingness to shine in the NHL.
6. Best: Doug Harvey
After Morenz and long before Bobby Orr, there was Doug Harvey – he should be considered the first TRUE superstar defenceman in hockey. A member of the Montreal Canadiens’ dynasty that won the Stanley Cup every year from 1956-1960, Harvey won six rings in his career.
Harvey also won seven Norris Trophies as the NHL’s top defenceman. What’s more impressive is how all of those wins took place in an eight-year span from 1955-1962. He was also a 13-time NHL All-Star, in an era where athletes could only play for so long. His six-goal and 50-point campaign with the Habs in 1956-57 was the best of his career, but those were considered high numbers for a blueliner in Harvey’s era.
Though most of us remember Maurice Richard as the Habs’ icon after Morenz, Harvey was right up there in helping the Habs become a dynasty. If not for Orr, we would absolutely recognize Harvey as the greatest blueliner of all-time.
6. Worst: Hardy Astrom
We all know that beloved Hockey Night in Canada commentator Don Cherry is NOT AFRAID of speaking his mind, so when he refers to you as “The Swedish Sieve,” it’s not a great thing.
In case you’re reading this and aren’t familiar with hockey terms, a goalie who is a sieve is not a guy who’s about to make good food. He’s a guy who lets far too many goals in. Apparently, Cherry called him that nickname because many shots from behind the blue line on Astrom found themselves in the back of the net.
Astrom did make history, so his career wasn’t all for nothing. That is, he became the first European to man the pipes in an NHL game. He lasted just three seasons in the NHL. In 83 games, Astrom posted a 17-44-12 record, and he had a career 3.74 GAA without posting a single shutout.
Again, the guy did end up making history, and many elite goalies from Europe have arrived in the NHL since Astrom hung up his skates, but we can’t forget how disappointing he was in North America.
5. Best: Maurice Richard
We already talked about how great Morenz was, and we assume you got the idea just how much he meant to the Habs and the NHL. So can you imagine being Maurice Richard, and having to step in for Morenz? Imagine how Joe DiMaggio felt taking over for Babe Ruth, or any current Los Angeles Laker trying to fill Kobe Bryant’s shoes.
Richard was the second-best player of his generation, but he did win more Stanley Cups than the other gentleman who will appear on our list. Richard won eight championships with the Canadiens, and he even has a trophy named after him – handed out to the league’s leading goal-scorer every year.
The Rocket won the Hart Trophy in 1947, but his most famous accomplishment was what he did in 1944-45: Becoming the first player ever to hit the 50-goal mark. Richard was a nine-time 30-goal scorer and everyone (literally everyone) will probably tell you he’s the greatest Canadiens’ player ever. His legacy and impact on the franchise paved the way for dynasties in the ’60s and ’70s, long after his retirement.
5. Worst: Alek Stojanov
We don’t want to be too harsh here, but you know your NHL career was a disappointment when you’re best remembered as being part of one of the worst trades of all-time, and you’re the guy that didn’t blossom. You remember Markus Naslund? The man who helped the Vancouver Canucks become one of the most dominant teams in the 2000s? The captain who had his number 19 retired because he was that great? Former 50-goal scorer? Yeah, it rings a bell by now.
Alex Stojanov was traded in the midst of the 1995-96 season from the Vancouver Canucks to the Pittsburgh Penguins. In what is considered one of the most one-sided trades ever, Stojanov only appeared in 107 NHL games, scoring two goals and five assists. For what it’s worth, Naslund played in 1,117 games and scored 395 goals and 869 points.
But then again, the Penguins have four Stanley Cups. The Canucks have zero. I’m sure Pittsburgh’s moved on from this trade.
4. Best: Mario Lemieux
Super Mario will probably go down as the greatest legend in Pittsburgh sports lore. Not only did he put them on the hockey map in the ’80s and ’90s by leading them to Stanley Cup titles (1991, 1992) and perennial dominance, but he became part owner and led them to championships in 2009 and 2016, even though they almost moved to Las Vegas after the lockout.
So you get the idea, Super Mario, the ever-popular video game character, probably shouldn’t be considered as Super as Lemieux. His incredible career is sometimes overshadowed by what Wayne Gretzky accomplished, and the fact he missed time due to fighting cancer as well as multiple injuries.
Still, his three Harts, six Art Ross Trophies, and pair of Conn Smythe awards only tell part of the story. Lemieux had an unreal 690 goals and 1,723 points… in just 915 career games. Had he stayed healthy, there’s no doubt he would have challenged No. 99 more for the GOAT label.
4. Worst: John Scott
The good news for John Scott is he has time to establish himself as a real NHL All-Star (if you catch my drift). The bad news? He has lots of time to further showcase he was the worst-ever player to participate in an NHL All-Star Game.
Scott, who stands at 6-foot-8, 260 pounds, hasn’t been able to use his size enough to be an NHL standout. He’s definitely not a fast guy, and it’s not hard for opponents to skate past him. I still remember the Chicago Blackhawks attempting to have him replace Dustin Byfuglien in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Canucks. Let’s just say that it never really worked for the Blackhawks.
Through 286 NHL games, Scott has five goals and 11 points to go along with his impressive 544 penalty minutes. He handled the All-Star Game with class and it turned out to be a nice story, but let’s be honest here: He won’t even come close to being a guy who should actually be playing in an All-Star Game.
3. Best: Bobby Orr
“Number four, Bobby Orr!”
Unquestionably the greatest blueliner to ever live, Don Cherry’s favourite NHL player accomplished a lot in a career that was cut short from a plethora of knee injuries. Orr scored arguably the most infamous goal in NHL history, as his overtime goal in the 1970 Stanley Cup Final against the St. Louis Blues in Game Four captured Boston the Cup.
Orr also won a Cup with Boston in 1972. He won two scoring titles and won eight Norris Trophies, which no other defenceman will ever come close to. He didn’t even play forward, but games were entirely dictated by No. 4, as long as he was on the ice. From 1969-70 to 1974-75, Orr hit the 100-point plateau every year. That includes a 37-goal, 139 point campaign with the Bruins in 1970-71.
The Bruins would have gone nowhere without Orr’s excellence, and you really can’t blame anyone who makes a case for him as being the best NHL player to ever live. He’s also the only player ever to win four major trophies in a season – winning the Hart, Conn Smythe, Art Ross, and Norris in 1970.
3. Worst: Jack Lynch
The Pittsburgh Penguins saw Jack Lynch as a player who could build them into a contender, taking him 24th overall in the 1972 Draft. Bob Nystrom, Jim Watson, and Peter McNab were some of the future NHL All-Stars that were taken after Lynch. Seen as a blueliner with plenty of potential, the 6-foot-2, 180 pounder didn’t live up to the hype in the NHL, nor did he even last that long.
Lynch played in 382 NHL games, scoring just 24 goals and 130 points. His 336 penalty minutes didn’t do many favours for his team. Those numbers may not seem bad, but keep in mind a five-goal, 30-point season with the Washington Capitals in 1976-77 was his best. The previous year, he had a brutal -52 rating, and no, we simply have no clue how that managed to happen.
The stats offensively suggest he wasn’t all that bad, but few players were so poor on defence like Lynch.
2. Best: Gordie Howe
Out of the thousands of NHL players to suit up for a professional game, nobody managed to earn the nickname “Mr. Hockey,” with Gordie Howe being the exception. The great number nine became arguably the first icon in Detroit sports. Even though there are too many accomplishments to talk about, we’ll try our best here.
Howe won four Stanley Cups with the Red Wings – in 1950, 1952, 1954 and 1955. He won six scoring titles – including four years in a row from 1951-54. He also won six Hart Trophies and led the league in goals on five occasions. That came with Maurice Richard breathing down his neck for years as the two battled for supremacy.
Mr. Hockey had one thing going for him that Wayne Gretzky didn’t: He was a tough guy who could defend himself, and not need Marty McSorley to come to his aid. Why else do they call it a “Gordie Howe Hat Trick” for a player that records a goal, assist, and fight in one game? Howe managed 801 career goals and 1,850 points. He played pro hockey into his 50s and is without a doubt the best hockey player not name Wayne Gretzky.
2. Worst: Alexander Svitov
Back in 2001, you would have laughed at us if we told you he’d be considered one of the worst NHL players ever. But Alexander Svitov will go down as one of the biggest draft busts ever, as the Tampa Bay Lightning took him third-overall in 2001. Mikko Koivu, Ales Hemsky, Mike Cammalleri, Jason Pominville, Patrick Sharp, and Cristobal Huet were some of the better players that went after Svitov.
Despite all the promise and talent around him, Svitov barely lasted in the NHL. He played just four seasons in the NHL, and that added up to 179 games. He only managed 13 goals and 37 points. His numbers in the KHL are better: 66 goals and 69 assists in 328 games. But here’s a record he holds: 101 penalty minutes in 11 contests in the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships.
Then again, that’s not exactly something he’d be proud to brag about. Svitov’s NHL career was supposed to be a great one, but he landed on this list instead.
1. Best: Wayne Gretzky
We’re sorry to make this boring for you, but was there really any debate?
Put it this way: I remember my Grade 11 PE teacher telling me that had Wayne Gretzky never shot the puck in his career, he’d still be the NHL’s all-time leading scorer. His 1,963 career assists trump the second all-time leading scorer – Mark Messier’s 1,887 career points. No other player in NHL history has their number retired league-wide. Number 99 won an incredible nine Hart Trophies, 10 scoring titles, two Conn Smythes, and five Lady Byng Trophies (basically the fancy title for the most gentlemanly player).
Gretzky scored 92 goals in the 1981-82 season. It’s considered amazing if a guy can even reach 60 these days. His 215 points in 1985-86 will never be matched, considering how scoring 100 points is almost impossible in a low-scoring era. Gretzky’s 2,857 points are something that no other hockey player will ever come close to.
1. Worst: Andre Racicot
When you’re nicknamed “The Red Light,” as a goaltender and not a player, then you definitely had a disappointing career.
Andreb Racicot earned the nickname after allowing three goals on just six shots faced as a member of the Montreal Canadiens in a 1992 game against the New York Rangers. And who came up with the nickname? Don Cherry, of course. But hey: He was a member of the 1993 Stanley Cup championship team, so he can laugh at Henrik Lundqvist and Roberto Luongo who haven’t done it yet.
As Patrick Roy’s backup, Racicot didn’t give the starter any reason to relax when he had a day off. He posted a 26-23-8 record, with an awful 3.50 GAA and a more embarrassing .880 save percentage. Playing in the toughest NHL market wasn’t easy either. This is a team that booed Patrick Roy off the team. It just wasn’t a great career for Racicot, but at least the man won a Cup. So he doesn’t have much to complain about.
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