Best of the Best: Who are the NHL's elite? The experts tell all

The NHL features the best players on the planet, but how many of those elite talents can claim they are the best of the best? That’s the question we set out to answer with this concept. We enlisted the help of NHL head coaches, skills coaches, current NHL players and recently retired NHLers to figure it all out.
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Below, you’ll find a breakdown of 25 different hockey skills and who our panel believes is the king for each one. A lot of familiar faces crack the list, but that shouldn’t surprise anyone. There’s a reason many of these players find themselves making deep playoff runs and winning individual hardware at the NHL Awards show after every season.

BEST SKATER: Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers

“The obvious answer is McDavid, because he’s just so fast,” said one skills coach. Fun fact: at the 2018 all-star weekend in Florida, the lineup for the skills competition was delayed because the NHL couldn’t find enough guys for the fastest-skater event. The reason? They didn’t want to get clowned by McDavid, who had dominated the field the year prior in Los Angeles with a time of just over 13 seconds. Sure enough, Edmonton’s young superstar won the crown again in Florida, skating a lap in 13.54 seconds. Last season in San Jose, McDavid won the event a third time, clocking in at 13.37 seconds. But it’s not just straight burning that makes McDavid the man – he’s got all the mechanics, too. “He can turn on a dime,” said one NHLer. “And his first three steps are scary.” Put it all together and you can understand why opposing defenses can game plan all they want for McDavid and still get torched: you can’t stop what you can’t catch.

BEST BACKWARDS SKATER: Matt Dumba, Minnesota Wild

Needless to say,this was a category where defensemen excelled, with the Wild’s newest star shining the brightest. “Matt Dumba has the best feet, defensively, in the NHL,” said one skating coach. While Dumba missed 50 games due to a ruptured pectoralis muscle last season, it was apparent before he went down that the 25-year-old had really found his game, and skating is a big part of it. Also receiving votes were San Jose’s Erik Karlsson and big Tampa Bay rearguard Victor Hedman. “He can skate backwards almost as fast as he can forwards,” said one NHLer about Hedman.

 (Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)

(Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)

BEST SLAPSHOT: Shea Weber, Montreal Canadiens

Back when he was a kid,Weber would shoot pucks off a piece of plywood in his hometown of Sicamous, B.C. All that practice paid off, as he ended up developing one of the most potent offensive weapons in the NHL. From breaking the boards in Nashville to putting a puck through the net at the Olympics, Weber’s feats of strength are widely known, so it’s no surprise he won this category. “It’s pretty scary when he gets a hold of one,” said one NHL player. Given that Weber once accidentally broke Martin Erat’s leg with a shot, that’s a fair assessment. The Canadiens blueliner is also a three-time winner of the hardest-shot competition at the All-Star Game. If he can stay healthy – Weber missed 24 games due to knee surgery last season – his cannon from the point will make Montreal a lot more dangerous on the power play. P.K. Subban, who was once traded for Weber, also got some love in the voting.

FIRST THREE STEPS: Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche

If there was a challenger to McDavid for best skater, it would be MacKinnon, a powerful engine who has become a Hart Trophy contender with the Avalanche. Straight off the starter’s pistol, he’s hard to beat. “He uses his skating the best in the league,” said one skills coach.

BEST WRIST SHOT: Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs

Matthews has been bedevilling NHL goaltenders with his wrist shot since his first game in the league. It all comes down to his release and his fearlessness in shooting from different areas. “He’s so quick with his hands and his stick on the puck,” said one NHLer. “He can shoot from everywhere and score.” In his first three NHL seasons, the Leafs center piled up 111 goals, for an average of 0.52 goals per game. That ranked second in the NHL to Alex Ovechkin, who was putting in goals from his office at a 0.54 rate. Matthews kicked off the 2019-20 campaign with a two-goal performance against Ottawa, once again proving to be a deadly opening-night sniper (you’ll recall his NHL debut, when he hung four goals on the Senators). With his 6-foot-3, 220-pound frame giving him great puck-protection ability and a linemate in William Nylander who knows exactly how to get the puck on Matthews’ stick, expect more and more wristers going in for No. 34. Also getting consideration in this category was Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov, whose deception with the puck makes him near-impossible to deal with. “The way he disguises it, goalies don’t know where it’s going,” said one NHLer.

BEST ONE-TIMER: Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

Entering the season with 658 career goals, Ovechkin has already cemented himself as one of the greatest scorers of all-time. In fact, if he plays long enough, there’s the possibility he could break Wayne Gretzky’s record of 894. Amazingly, Ovechkin has scored many of his goals from basically the same place: at or above the left faceoff circle, usually on a one-timer.“Any time you can stand in one place and everybody knows what you’re going to do and you still score?” said one skills coach. “That’s pretty elite.” Over the course of his career, Ovechkin has scored about 20 percent of his goals from that area – and he keeps doing it, notching more than a dozen from there in each of the past two seasons after tallying 11 in 2016-17 (his all-time high was 22 in 2013-14). Needless to say, Ovechkin has constantly worked on his booming one-timer, and his Caps teammates have even gathered around the ice to watch him tee off on a series of pucks after practice. And it is a thing of beauty to see when Ovechkin really gets a hold of one. Maybe that doesn’t ring true for goalies, who often watch helplessly as the puck blazes past them on the power play, but you get the idea. There’s even a video on YouTube, where some intrepid fan clipped together all of Ovie’s goals from his one-timer spot. The video is 25 minutes long.

BEST BACKHAND: Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins

When it comes to stick curves, Crosby’s blade is nearly as straight as his persona, but that preference has allowed the Penguins captain to develop one of the best backhand shots in the history of the NHL. “He’s so confident using it,” said one NHL player. “And that’s not the case with a lot of guys.” The backhand shot, when utilized by a mere mortal, can be both difficult to control and unpredictable in its trajectory. In the case of Crosby, however, it is one of the best tools in his arsenal. With 446 career goals entering 2019-20, Crosby is potent with the puck on his stick. And while he doesn’t score as much on the backhand as Ovechkin does on one-timers from the left circle, the number has been as high as 14 percent for Sid’s backhand. Remember that time he scored on a one-handed backhand against Buffalo? Yeah, maybe don’t remind Sabres fans about that one.

BEST STICKHANDLER: Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks

Here’s a no-brainer: Kane as the stickhandling maestro. He has basically made a Hall of Fame career out of his puck play, and it’s a skill he continues to work on, despite the fact it’s already a supreme strength. “He controls the puck, goes through traffic and sees the ice at the same time,” said one NHLer. The internet is littered with different viral videos of Kane executing beguiling puck-skill drills, and the Blackhawks winger isn’t slowing down. Last year, he actually set a career-high with 110 points, and his 44 goals were only two shy of his personal best, when he had 46 in 2015-16. With a new wave of talent rising in Chicago, Kane will get a chance to keep the party going with the Hawks as youngsters such as Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome provide matchup problems for the opposition. You never want to leave Kane to your second-best defenders, because with his hands he’ll just make you look silly.

BEST DEKER: Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche

He may neverbe able to top the moves he put on Henrik Lundqvist at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, but few players in the history of the game will ever one-up that display. The funny thing is, MacKinnon wasn’t even moving very fast on that sequence because he was already in the offensive zone. But when it comes to making goalies miss, MacKinnon’s speed makes him deadly when he dekes. “It’s just how fast his hands are and the way he skates and cuts back,” said one NHLer. “When he makes a move, goalies fall for it.”

 (Michael Martin/Getty Images)

(Michael Martin/Getty Images)

BEST IN FRONT OF THE NET (Offense): Anders Lee, New York Islanders

The Islanders captain already has a 40-goal season under his belt, and while New York thrived as a defensive squad last year, Lee still caused havoc in front of the enemy crease. “He is absolutely the toughest to defend against in front,” said one NHL coach. At 6-foot-3 and 231 pounds, Lee has the frame of a football player, and that’s because he used to be one: a star quarterback with Edina high school in Minnesota, to be precise. Now he uses his big body and deft hands to tally goals in the NHL, and the Islanders are glad he chose the ice over the gridiron. Also getting consideration was a new veteran member of the New Jersey Devils. “I don’t know many guys who can take abuse like Wayne Simmonds,” said one ex-NHLer.

BEST IN FRONT OF THE NET (Defense): Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins

“He’s just so big,” said one ex-NHLer. “He’s like an oak tree out there. You can’t move him.” The legend of Chara grows with every passing season, and the blueliner is still a force, even if he has lost a step or two. But at a gargantuan 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds, the Bruins captain can basically impose his will on opponents whenever he wants. And given his competitive nature, that is basically every shift. Even at 42, Chara is one of the most intimidating players in the NHL – the guy that once swung 220-pound Bryan McCabe around like a rag doll and still treats his body like the incredible machine it is. The area in front of Boston goalie Tuukka Rask is a no-go zone when ‘Big Z’ is on the ice. Montreal’s Weber also got votes in this category. “He’s got old-man strength,” said the retired NHLer. “He’ll abuse you.” Needless to say, the reasons Chara and Weber rule this category are very similar. “Both of those guys are so big and strong,” said a current NHL player. “And they’ll cross-check you a lot.”

BEST IN THE CORNER (Offense): Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins

When you’re oneof the best players in the history of the game, you’re going to be a load to handle in the corners. “He is the hardest to defend,” said one ex-NHLer. Not only is Crosby smart and talented, but he also has the famously big trunk that he can use to his advantage to protect the puck. Also getting consideration was Los Angeles Kings captain Anze Kopitar. “He can eliminate you,” said a retired player. “He’s so heavy, and he has very good angles.” Using a different set of skills – and a much smaller frame – Boston’s Brad Marchand received kudos as well. “So quick and so good at getting out of the corner,” said one NHL coach.

BEST OPEN-ICE HITTER: Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings

The man they call ‘Dewey’ has always been a natural freak when it comes to hockey, and his combination of skating ability and physicality make him one to watch out for if you’re lugging the puck up the ice. “He’s a very dense guy, even though he doesn’t look it,” said one former NHLer. Doughty’s victims over the years have included the likes of Taylor Hall and Pavel Datsyuk – so it doesn’t matter how fast or elusive you are, he’s going to get you anyway. Doughty, 29 and in his 12th season already, led the Los Angeles Kings with 168 hits last season. Also getting votes were Boston defenseman Torey Krug and New York Islanders staple Cal Clutterbuck.

BEST CROSS-ICE PASS: Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning

He’s a wizard with the puck on his stick and, with an NHL-best 87 assists last season, it’s fair to say Kucherov knows how to distribute. He and Patrick Kane were the notable names in this category. “You’re looking at those delay guys who pull up and find their man on the weak side,” said one skills coach.

BEST PUCK-MOVING DEFENSEMAN: Erik Karlsson, San Jose Sharks

It’s obvious, isn’t it? There were questions about how Karlsson’s mobility would be affected by his ankle surgery, but he got up to speed in San Jose and helped propel the Sharks’ transition game. “He is so quick, the way he pivots and turns so well,” said one NHL coach. “Karlsson’s still the best, but I like Morgan Rielly, too. Rielly does a lot with his skating, but he also really stretches it out with his passing.” Rielly, the Toronto blueliner, is coming off a 52-assist season in 2018-19, which ranked fifth among NHL defensemen.

 (Michael Tureski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

(Michael Tureski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

BEST SHUTDOWN DEFENSEMAN: Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues

To the victor goes the spoils. “He was the hardest to play against in the playoffs,” said one NHL coach, “so I’ll go with him.” As captain of the Blues, Pietrangelo got to hold the Stanley Cup over his head before anyone else, and he deserved it. While Pietrangelo didn’t win the Conn Smythe Trophy, he was integral to keeping opponents in check during the post-season, just as he was in the regular season when he was guarding the likes of Patrick Kane, Tyler Seguin and Filip Forsberg. “He’s unreal,” said one ex-NHLer. “Put him at the top of guys who can do it all. He’s worth every penny.” Carolina’s Jaccob Slavin and L.A.’s Doughty also got votes.

BEST GLOVE HAND: Sergei Bobrovsky, Florida Panthers

The two-time Vezina Trophy winner comes over to the Panthers with sky-high expectations and a big, honkin’ contract – but also a grab bag full of skills. First and foremost is Bobrovsky’s glove hand, which allows him to end the dreams of enemy shooters. Andrei Vasilevskiy, Bobrovsky’s new cross-state rival in Tampa Bay, also received support in this category.

BEST POST-TO-POST GOALIE: Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning

When it comes to lateral movement, Vasilevskiy is the man right now. Really, it would be easy to just call him the best netminder in the NHL, and the Lightning stopper’s first Vezina Trophy is good evidence. But it’s why he is the best at going post-to-post that is enlightening. “It’s his athleticism,” said one goalie coach. “He’ll get you saves that other guys can’t get to. His explosiveness is off the charts, and he combines that with great flexibility. Carey Price is no slouch, either.” Indeed, a lot of experts still love the Montreal netminder’s game, and it will be interesting to see how Price battles through injuries and a less-than-stellar defense in front of him in the coming years. Vasilevskiy doesn’t have to worry about his lineup, since Tampa Bay was historically good in the regular season last year and the team entered 2019-20 with a huge chip on its shoulder, one that it won’t get rid of until the Lightning lift the Stanley Cup. If they do it, Vasilevskiy and his great movement in the crease will be big factors.

BEST PUCKHANDLING GOALIE: Mike Smith, Edmonton Oilers

“That’s easy,” said one goalie coach. And sure, the 37-year-old Smith has been known as a deft puckhandler for years, but we had to ask the question anyway. Montreal’s Price also garnered support.

BEST BUTTERFLY: Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens

When it comes tothe technical fundamentals of the butterfly style, Price reigns over the category. His combination of proficiency and size go a long way in explaining his career success. Chicago’s Corey Crawford was also mentioned by one goalie coach.

 (Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images)

(Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images)

BEST GOALIE ON BREAKAWAYS: Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights

It’s the scenario every kid dreams of: getting the puck on a breakaway with the score tied and the clock winding down. Or, if you’re a goalie, wrecking that skater’s dream with a wicked save when the pressure is on. In Fleury, the Golden Knights have a stopper who can be counted on in the clutch. “He has an excellent read on shooters and also tremendous patience,” said one goalie coach. “He’s not afraid to come out of his structure to make a save, and he’s got the hand speed and foot speed to make those last-second moves.” While breakaways and shootout attempts aren’t precisely the same, Fleury was one of the better NHL starters in the shootout last season, surrendering just three goals on 16 attempts. Another netminder who got votes was Toronto’s Frederik Andersen, who was often left to fend for himself in previous years behind an unsteady Maple Leafs blueline. Andersen also has very solid numbers in the shootout, with a cumulative save percentage of .762 the past two years.

BEST FIGHTER: Ryan Reaves, Vegas Golden Knights

It’s no secret that fighting in the NHL has been trending down big-time since the 2012-13 lockout, and the speed of today’s game sent many enforcers into retirement. But there are still some heavies in the NHL, and the success of players such as Reaves and Washington’s Tom Wilson have kept the flame burning. According to our experts, Reaves holds the championship belt right now. “He just throws with so much velocity,” said one former NHL enforcer. “He’s got reach, strength and speed. It’s hard to stand in there with him, and that’s why I tip my hat to Evander Kane. He stood in there with Reaves. I don’t think those two are done with each other.” That’s a pretty good bet. Kane, the San Jose Sharks power forward and boxing enthusiast, has kept a running rivalry with Reaves through the press and on social media after the two fought in the playoffs last spring. And unlike a lot of the fighters that came before him, Reaves looks like he’s here to stay. The Golden Knights right winger actually set a career high for average ice time last season, playing nearly 11 minutes per game for Vegas while also tallying 20 points, another career best. Pretty amazing to think Vegas got him from Pittsburgh for minor-leaguer Tobias Lindberg while also convincing the Penguins to throw in a fourth-rounder (especially when he cost Pittsburgh a first-rounder and Oskar Sundqvist in a previous deal with St. Louis). Here’s hoping for another San Jose-Vegas playoff series.

BEST TRASH TALKER: Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins

Catch Marchand with a microphoneon him and you’re likely to get a mixture of the profane and, admittedly, the funny. From non-stop chattering to cutting remarks (“How are you in the league, are 10 guys hurt right now?” is a particularly good one), the Bruins left winger is renowned for his trash-talking ability. So what distinguishes Marchand from some of the other champion chirpers in the game? “He can talk with the best of them, and he’ll back it up,” said one NHLer. “Like, 100 points? You can say whatever you want.” Indeed, Marchand is coming off his first century mark for points and, given he’s once again playing on the best line in hockey with Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak, there’s no reason to doubt Marchand could do it again. The best part? He even gets into his friend’s heads. At the 2019 Memorial Cup in Halifax, former Mooseheads star Nathan MacKinnon was asked about training in the summer with fellow Nova Scotians Marchand and Sidney Crosby, both of whom hit the 100-point mark last season. “I had 99 points,” MacKinnon said. “So Marchy’s gonna be all over me.” Other notable trash talkers include Vegas’ Reaves (“He’s active and he’ll do it on camera,” said one former NHLer) and New Jersey’s Subban (“He’s in your face, and talking helps get him into the game,” said the same retired player).

BEST PENALTY KILLER: Matthew Tkachuk, Calgary Flames

“It seems like every shift there could be a penalty called,” said one NHL player, “whether it’s a trip or something in front of the net.” Though Tkachuk is only entering his fourth NHL season, he already has a reputation as a shift disturber who can bait opponents into bad decisions. Last year, the Flames left winger drew 29 minors. Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher is a longtime favorite in this category, too. “He plays so hard, and he falls down a lot,” said another NHLer. “So he puts a lot of guys in the box.” Many elite players are also good at drawing penalties because of their skill set. McDavid got a vote because of that prowess. “Because he’s so fast,” said an ex-NHLer. “And he’s also nice to the refs.”

BEST HOCKEY IQ: Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning

In a category about intelligence, it’s best not to overthink it. Kucherov’s Hart Trophy-winning performance last season cemented him as one of the top offensive talents in the NHL and a player who has incredible smarts. But there were a couple voters who took a different tack with the category, and they had interesting ideas, too. “It’s gotta be a guy who plays both ways for me,” said one NHL coach. “So Patrice Bergeron is at the top of the list. John Tavares is up there, too. You gotta kill penalties, and that’s where the IQ comes in, because you have to manage the ice and anticipate the play both offensively and defensively.” Another panelist, a skills coach, really likes what Mark Giordano brings to the table. “He’s not a top skater, and it’s a skating league, but he finds his way around the rink and makes elite plays,” he said. “He’s got to be in the right place early.”

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