The World Cup of Hockey is finally upon us (yaaaawwwwwwwn), and that means that real, hockey is just around the corner. As we all prepare to be fully disappointed by our upcoming fantasy drafts, I thought the time was right to list the top players across the league at forward, defense, and goalie.
The 2015-16 season brought us a few surprises, and 2016-17 is sure to bring us a few more. There is no one prediction that you can make with absolute certainty. With so many variables—injuries, suspensions, and of course just your run-of-the-mill slump—it’s impossible to guess who will be the best players in 2016-17 when it’s all in the books.
With that said, why should that stop us? It won’t. Everybody loves a good ranking every now and then, and with the new season nearly upon us , there’s no time like the present to rank the NHL’s best players.
The toughest part was making the cuts; you never truly realize how many great players are in this league until you do something like this. For instance, in the end, the St. Louis Blues—perennially one of the league’s best teams—don’t have a single representative on the list. Alex Pietrangelo and Vladamir Tarasenko were late cuts, and valid arguments could be made for both players, but in the end they missed out.
Top 10 Defensemen:
10. Brent Burns
Just squeaking into the top 10 for defensemen is San Jose’s Brent Burns. The bearded one is coming off by far his best season from an offensive standpoint, registering 75 points in 2015-16, besting his previous career high by 15 points.
He was so effective in 2015-16 that only one other defenseman in the league scored more than Burns’ 75 points, which might leave some people wondering why Burns is actually so far down on the list. Well, this is a list that ranks the best defensemen in the league, and while offense from the blue line is an asset, it’s only part of the whole package.
Our prediction is Burns will once again finish in the top five in scoring for defensemen in 2016-17. Heck, as long as he plays within two minutes of his 25:51 minutes per game from last season, he stands a chance to lead all defensemen in points.
9. Duncan Keith
Coming in at number nine on our list of best defensemen heading into 2016-17 is two-time Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith. Keith is coming off of what can be considered an off year for him, as he played only 67 games and notched 43 points. Still, though, Keith controls the play with the best of them from the blue line, and he’s just over one year removed from winning the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2015.
Keith is starting to approach the twilight of his career, as he turned 33 this offseason. He’s also pulled out of the World Cup of Hockey because of injury, so it’s tough to say whether Keith has more elite years ahead of him, or if this will be the last year he finds himself on a list like this one.
Aside from missing 15 games in 2015-16, Keith hasn’t shown too many signs of his age yet, though. With 2016-17 being his 33-year-old season, it will surely go a long way in determining if Keith is on the decline or not.
8. Victor Hedman
There are some defensemen who have an incredible ability to control the play, and Victor Hedman has recently grown into that type of defenseman. The Tampa Bay Lightning’s 2nd overall pick from the 2009 NHL Entry Draft has finally come into his own, now an elite NHL rearguard.
Hedman had his second best season to date in 2015-16, at least from an offensive standpoint, notching 47 points. He stepped his game up in the postseason as the Lightning made a run to the Conference Finals, registering 14 points in 17 games.
On top of all that, Hedman is also among the league leaders for defensemen in advanced stats categories, with a CF% of 56.8, good for 6th among all defensemen with at least 1,000 minutes played in 2015-16. Hedman has established his NHL dominance, and there will be many years of it left.
7. P.K. Subban
Spoiler alert: P.K. Subban is in fact the only defenseman involved in a summer blockbuster trade who appears on this list. Sorry Canadiens fans, but this is probably the first year in almost a decade that Shea Weber will be absent on this type of list, so you got him at the wrong time.
Subban, however, has a handful of seasons where he should find his way onto a list like this. The 27-year-old is coming off a 51 point campaign, making it the third straight season he cracked the 50-point barrier from the Montreal blue line.
Subban will get a fresh start in 2016-17, and with a deeper blue line to work with than he had in Montreal, he could reach career highs this season. Subban won’t even be expected to be the best defenseman on his team (according to my foolproof list), so he might excel playing under far less pressure than he’s used to in Montreal.
6. Roman Josi
Coming in just one spot ahead of his new teammate Subban is Predators defenseman Roman Josi. Josi took over as the best defenseman on the team last year, surpassing perennial leader in that category Shea Weber. He’ll still be the best rearguard on his team next season, but by a narrower margin.
Josi had a career year last season, notching 61 points, building on the previous season’s total of 55. He’s steadily progressed since breaking into the league in 2011-12, and as a 26-year-old defenseman he is just entering his prime as we speak.
Josi will lead what I believe is the best defense corps out for the 2016-17 season. If you’re in a fantasy hockey league and are looking for some offensive from defense, Nashville will be a good place to look for next season. They could have four defensemen who outscore the top-scoring defenseman on many other teams.
5. Kris Letang
Kris Letang was a relatively quiet success story of 2015-16. After having to miss the end of the 2014-15 season after suffering a stroke, Letang came back strong last season. He scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal in Game 6 of the Finals back in June, and that really capped off a superb season for Letang.
The veteran finished fourth in Norris Trophy voting, just narrowly missing out on his second nomination for the award. Letang has suffered injuries sporadically throughout his NHL career, but whenever he’s been in the lineup he’s been aces, especially offensively. Since 2010-11, he’s second in points per game by a defenseman with 0.79.
At 29 years old, Letang still has a few years left of prime hockey. It also doesn’t hurt that he has perhaps two of the best centers in the game playing on his team, and who’s to say how that’s inflated his numbers over the years; nonetheless, he’s been so good for so long that he deserves this spot.
4. Mark Giordano
When you play in Western Canada you’re shielded a little bit from the Eastern-heavy market that is the NHL. That’s why some of you may be surprised to see Mark Giordano so high on this list, but watch 10 Calgary Flames games this season and you’ll know he deserves this ranking.
Gio has been a stalwart on the Calgary blue line for eight straight seasons now, and he’s developed into their best player. Giordano is already 32, but he was a little bit of a late bloomer and is coming off his best offensive season to date. He could have miles left in him.
With the further development of some of Calgary’s promising young forwards, Giordano is primed to have another great season. What’s perhaps most encouraging for Calgary fans is that Giordano is coming off his first 82-game season since 2010-11; a healthy Giordano could mean a potent Calgary.
3. Oliver Ekman-Larsson
Much like Giordano’s placement on this list, it’s likely that just how good Oliver Ekman-Larsson has been throughout his career so far has also gone largely overlooked. Ekman-Larsson just turned 25 this summer, which is prime age for a defenseman to peak, and I already believe he was a top five defenseman last season.
The PWA disagrees with me, as he actually finished ninth in voting, but I’m again blaming that on an eastern bias in the media. Ekman-Larsson had his best season last year from almost every statistical standpoint, notching 55 points in 75 games of action.
One more tick in the “pro” box for Ekman-Larsson is that he’s been remarkably healthy throughout his career to this point. Since earning a full-time spot on the Coyotes’ roster in 2011-12, the Swede has only missed nine games. Without Ekman-Larsson, the Coyotes would likely find themselves in the cellar of the Pacific Division in 2016-17.
2. Erik Karlsson
It was very difficult to not put Erik Karlsson at number one here, but second place is a decent consolation prize. The two-time Norris Trophy winner is coming off a point-per-game season, notching 16 goals and a league-leading 66 helpers for 82 points in a full season’s worth of work.
Some would argue that Karlsson deserved a third Norris in 2016, but voters ultimately decided to reward number one on this list (rightfully so) for his dominance in L.A. Karlsson will however be a perennial contender for this award for many years to come, as at 26 years old he’s still in the thick of his prime.
Sweden gave us the last generation’s best defenseman in Nicklas Lidstrom, and it’s quite possible they’ve gifted us this generation’s best defenseman in Karlsson. He’ll need to dominate for another decade or so, but he’s well on his way to legendary status.
1. Drew Doughty
This is no surprise to anybody. Drew Doughty’s value to the Los Angeles Kings cannot be overstated, and the PWA finally recognized that in 2015-16 by selecting Doughty as the recipient of the 2016 Norris Trophy. It was Doughty’s first time winning the honor, and it was long overdue.
Since breaking into the NHL in 2008-09 as an 18-year-old Doughty has led the Kings’ blue line, and has been incredibly healthy doing so, having yet to suffer a serious injury in his career, which is already eight seasons deep (can you believe that? I feel old).
While 2015-16 wasn’t his most productive season to date (the 51 points he scored are second to the 59 he scored in his sophomore season), it was his best all-around year. He received 93 first place votes for the Norris Trophy, which is more than double second-place finisher Karlsson garnered (46). No other defender had over 10 first place votes.
Top 10 Forwards:
10. Evgeni Malkin
The only reason Evgeni Malkin isn’t higher on this list is his history of health issues. From a points per game standpoint, there is only one better player in the league since 2010-11, and that’s a pretty huge testament to just how productive Malkin has been for almost a decade now.
Since joining the NHL in 2006-07, Malkin has had only one season where he scored less than a point-per-game. That’s a remarkable feat, but unfortunately he hasn’t played a full season since 2008-09, his second in the league.
One more reason why Malkin slips to number 10 on the list is simply father time. He turned 30 last July, and that is right about the age when NHL forwards tend to start slowing down. Since Malkin hasn’t exactly been the epitome of a healthy hockey player, it’s more likely his regression begins sooner rather than later.
9. Steven Stamkos
Steven Stamkos is a bona-fide sniper, there’s no doubt about that. While his goal scoring has slightly dipped over the past few seasons, he’s still scored 289 goals since 2009-10, and that’s good for second place in the NHL over that span. That’s 50 more goals than third-place Corey Perry.
The only reason Stamkos isn’t higher on the list is because 2015-16 was, from a stats perspective (64 points), his least productive since his rookie year in 2008-09 when he notched 46 points. It’s tough to say why he regressed, but his shot totals from season to season have been dropping, which isn’t a great sign for a natural sniper like Stamkos.
The Lightning captain will lead his team for the foreseeable future, as he recently signed an eight-year extension in the Sunshine State. Tampa Bay’s future is certainly bright, and don’t be surprised if they win a Cup in the coming seasons.
8. Patrice Bergeron
Patrice Bergeron is one of the best two-way centers in the league, and he’s recognized as such by his almost annual nomination for the Selke Trophy (awarded to the league’s best defensive forward). Last season Bergeron enjoyed his third most productive season to date, and most productive since 2006-07, when scoring in the league was much higher that it is today.
Bergeron reached the 30-goal plateau for the third time in his career in 2015-16, and his 68 points in 80 games are all the more incredible when you consider the defensive responsibilities Bergeron is expected to shoulder.
Bergeron is now 31 years old, so it is possible 2016-17 could be the first year of his inevitable decline. But Bergeron has been fairly healthy for most of his career, especially if you remove the 2007-08 season that he lost almost entirely to concussion.
7. John Tavares
Before getting into just how important John Tavares is to the New York Islanders, I’d like to point out as a side note that his contract is the best in the league. He’s just a $5.5 million cap hit through 2017-18, which is obviously a huge bargain for one of the league’s elite centermen.
Tavares turns 26 this month, and the perennial all-star is still producing with the best of them. He’s entering the prime years of his career, not to mention that he’ll be looking to ink an extension with the Isles soon, so there’s no real reason to think he’s about to slow down.
The Islanders also have a pretty deep offense these days, meaning they have many tools with which to deploy with Tavares. Tavares is the type of player that makes his linemates much better and more productive, so whoever gets to play with him (newcomer Andrew Ladd or someone else), they might be primed for a career year.
6. Anze Kopitar
Consistency is one of the most difficult things to pull off in professional sports. Anze Kopitar is the model of consistency in the NHL, having never played fewer than 72 games in one season (lockout aside, but he played 47 out of 48 that year).
Further to his consistency, Kopitar has never scored less than 61 points in a season (again, excluding the lockout season when he scored 42 in 47 games). His career high is 81. Basically, you can bet with 90% certainty that Kopitar will be within 10 points of the 70-point mark in any given season.
Much like Beregron as well, Kopitar is always in the conversation for the Selke Trophy, and he even won the award for the first time in 2015-16. Being able to put up 74 points in a season while still contributing at an elite level in the defensive end is no small feat. Kopitar deserves a spot on this list, no question.
5. Connor McDavid
It’s true that Connor McDavid played only 45 games in his highly-anticipated rookie campaign (thanks to a broken clavicle), but those 45 games gave the hockey world a glimpse into how special he is. Even playing in the sheltered confines of Western Canada, fans and pundits across the league couldn’t help but be electrified by the phenom on a regular basis.
McDavid has long been touted as the next great hockey player, as many believe he is the next Sidney Crosby while others insist he will be even better than that. It was for this reason that it was tough to decide where to place him on this list, but I do know that he belongs somewhere on here.
McDavid is getting set to participate in the World Cup of Hockey with his fellow young North Americans, and Oilers fans will be watching carefully. If he shines at the tournament and escapes with a clean bill of health, McDavid could very well challenge for the Hart Trophy this year.
4. Alexander Ovechkin
Alexander Ovechkin is one of the greatest goal scorers in the history of the game. He cracked the 500 goal plateau in 2015-16, becoming the fifth-fastest player to do so. Currently sitting with 525 goals and 966 points, he’ll almost certainly reach the 1,000 point milestone in 2016-17.
Ovechkin has drawn ire in the past for some of his defensive deficiencies, but head coach Barry Trotz has found a way to utilize the sniper to maximize his potential. Ovechkin is just 30 years old and could have another decade ahead of him, and he’s already racked up seven 50-goal seasons.
Could Ovechkin reach Wayne Gretzky’s NHL-record 894 goals? Well, let’s say Ovechkin plays eight more seasons. That’s an average of 46 goals per year. To summarize, I’d say it’s highly unlikely Ovechkin gets that far, but he is coming off his third consecutive 50 goal year so it’s not out of the question. If he were able to catch The Great One playing in this low-scoring era of the NHL? Yikes.
3. Jamie Benn
Jamie Benn has emerged as one of the most dominant forwards in the NHL over the past three seasons. He finished top ten in points in 2013-14 with 79, then followed up that performance by winning the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s top point producer in 2014-15. In 2015-16, he established a career high of 89 points, finishing second in the league.
Since the arrival of Tyler Seguin, Benn’s game has taken a step forward. (Seguin, by the way, just missed the cut for this list; I had him 11th-12th). Benn has also proven that he doesn’t really need Seguin as his center though, as his production barely dips with Seguin out of the lineup.
Benn just turned 27 years old and has been very healthy throughout his career, especially during the last three seasons. He will miss the World Cup of Hockey later this month thanks to offseason surgery, but it’s looking like he’ll be ready to start 2016-17 with a clean bill of health.
2. Patrick Kane
I legitimately hate Patrick Kane as a human being. Even if the rape allegations from last summer were completely fabricated, he’s done enough to lose my respect over the years, sexual deviances aside. Whether it’s punching a defenseless cab driver or just acting like a drunk douche—he’s just the worst.
That being said, just because you’re not a good person doesn’t mean you can’t be a great hockey player, and Kane most certainly is the latter. He was the only skater in 2015-16 to crack the 100 point barrier, registering 106 points in a full 82 game season.
My money is on Kane regressing a bit for 2016-17, but he’ll still be one of the most productive forwards in the upcoming season. His first half of last season was much stronger than his second, but I still see Kane ending up somewhere in the ballpark of 90 points.
1. Sidney Crosby
Coming in at number one on the list is Sidney Crosby, and that really shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody. Crosby is fresh off his Conn-Smythe/Stanley Cup-winning postseason, and if not for his awfully slow start in 2015-16 he’d have likely given Kane a true run for his money at the Hart Trophy.
The mid-season coaching change worked wonders for Crosby, and there’s no logical reason to believe he can’t pick up where he left off. He and head coach Mike Sullivan seem to have a good relationship, and why shouldn’t they? They conquered the hockey world together in just a few months.
Crosby just turned 29 this summer, and as a generational talent he has a lot left in the tank. No doubt he continues to score at the torrid place he’s established for himself during the past decade, and he is a safe lock to be the best forward in the league in 2016-17.
Top 5 Goalies:
5. Roberto Luongo
Squeaking into the top five goalies list is veteran Roberto Luongo. This was a tough call, as it was basically between Luongo, Ben Bishop and Henrik Lundqvist for this spot. I ultimately went with Luongo because he actually had a much better season than King Henrik in 2015-16, and Bishop plays for one of the best teams in the league and I think his stats benefit greatly from that.
While Luongo finished fourth in Vezina voting, just barely missing out on another nomination for the award, Lundqvist didn’t even figure into the top-nine, which is all that’s released. Luongo is getting old, as he turned 37 this year, but his 35 wins and .922 save percentage from last season proves he’s still got something left in the tank.
The Panthers are poised to challenge for their division in 2016-17, and if they pull it off it will mark the first time in franchise history they’ve won back-to-back division titles. Luongo will have to be a big part of that if it’s going to happen.
4. Cory Schneider
Cory Schneider flies under the radar in New Jersey, but there’s no doubt that he’s a top five goalie in the NHL. He’s not often near the top of the league in the most important category, which is wins, but in the same breath wins are a team stat.
From an individual stat perspective (save percentage is the best one to go by for goalies IMO), Schneider is a perennial leader. Last season he placed fourth overall, and since 2010-11 he’s bested every other goalie who’s played at least 100 games in that span. In those 260 games, Schneider’s put up a stellar .926 save percentage.
I predict that Schneider ends up on the cusp of a Vezina nomination for 2016-17, as the voters can only ignore this long stretch of elite play for so long. Schneider just turned 30, so he’s still got a handful of good years left in him no doubt.
3. Jonathan Quick
Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick took hold of the crease in Southern California in 2009, and he hasn’t looked back since. In that span, the Kings have won two Stanley Cups and Quick collected the Conn Smythe Trophy the first time around in 2012.
Quick was nominated for the Vezina in 2016 after a stellar campaign that saw him record 40 wins in just 68 starts, good for second most in the NHL. His personal stats were stellar as well, as he posted a .918 save percentage and a 2.22 goals against average.
With Quick making an appearance on the top goalie list for 2016-17, it means that the Kings are the only team in the NHL which has representation on all three of the lists. L.A. is a very well rounded team, and they could very well challenge for their third Stanley Cup this upcoming season.
2. Carey Price
The season Carey Price had in 2014-15 was truly legendary; he became the first goalie to win the Hart Trophy since fellow Canadien Jose Theodore accomplished the feat back in 2002. Price won the Vezina that season also, and both awards weren’t even close; he earned 139 first place votes for the Hart, 131 more votes than the second-place finisher. For the Vezina he got 27 out of 30 first place votes.
Things got off to a great start for the Canadiens in 2015-16, but that all came crashing down about 10 games into the season when Price went down with a season-ending injury and with him so did the hopes of Montreal having a competent team in 2015-16.
Price is apparently healthy as ever for the start of the 2016-17 season, and assuming things don’t go south for him as swiftly and ruthlessly as last season, he’ll challenge for another Vezina for sure.
1. Braden Holtby
I was tempted to put Price in the number one spot here, but here we have a guy coming off a 48-win season (matching an NHL record shared with one Martin Brodeur—no big deal). Holtby ran away with the Vezina votes this year, garnering 26 first place votes; Ben Bishop earned the second most with two.
Holtby’s season last year was almost as dominant as Price’s the previous year (though not quite). The Caps’ netminder finished fourth in Hart Trophy voting, garnering five first-place votes himself.
The Washington Capitals had their second-best season in franchise history in 2015-16, earning 120 points in the standings and collecting their second Presidents’ Trophy. No, this wasn’t all Holtby’s doing; Washington has an incredibly deep and talented roster. But Holtby played as big a part as anyone for sure.
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