Alex Ovechkin might have an outside shot at breaking Wayne Gretzky's all-time goal record, but it's safe to say that No. 99's all-time assist mark will remain the NHL standard until the end of time. With 1,963 career helpers, Gretzky is more than 700 assists ahead of runner-up Ron Francis (1,249) and third-place Mark Messier (1,193).
The NHL's leading active set-up man is 41-year-old Joe Thornton, with 1,089 career assists. That's an incredible total – good for seventh all-time – and it's nearly 900 less than Gretzky. Thornton might one day be joined by Sidney Crosby in the NHL's exclusive 1,000 Assist Club – there's only 13 members at present – but after that, we'll probably have to wait and see how Connor McDavid performs for the next decade or so.
Let's take a look at the NHL's top 10 all-time and top 10 active assist leaders.
Top 10 all-time NHL players: Career assists
Wayne Gretzky 1,963
Ron Francis 1,249
Mark Messier 1,193
Ray Bourque 1,169
Jaromir Jagr 1,155
Paul Coffey 1,135
Joe Thornton 1,089
Adam Oates 1,079
Steve Yzerman 1,063
Gordie Howe 1,049
Great pass: When you're more than 700 career assists ahead of the next guy, there's going to be some stats that really jump out. To wit: Gretzky owns the NHL single-season record of 163 assists – that's an average of more than two assists per game – set in 1985-86, when he also chipped in 52 goals on his way to establishing the league's single-season record of 215 points. More incredibly, Gretzky owns the NHL's top seven all-time single-season assist marks and 11 of the top 12 (hitting 100-plus assists in all 11 seasons). Mario Lemieux is the sole interloper with 114 assists in 1988-89, the season he set his career high with 199 points. Bobby Orr is the only other NHL player to ever record 100-plus assists in a season, with 102 in 1970-71. Lemieux came close again with 98 in 1987-88, Adam Oates had 97 in 1992-93, and Thornton had 96 in 2005-06.
Best of the rest: Ron Francis doesn't get a lot of notice as the NHL's second-most prolific set-up man, probably because he spread out his career total of 1,249 helpers over 23 big-league campaigns. Francis topped out with 92 helpers for Pittsburgh in 1995-96, and reached 50-plus assists a total of 16 times...Like Francis, Mark Messier took the long way to his total of 1,193 assists, playing 25 NHL seasons to get there. His best effort was an 84-assist output with Edmonton in 1989-90...Ray Bourque is the league's all-time assist leader among defensemen, with a personal best of 72 helpers in 1986-87...Jaromir Jagr's still got it – he had 14 assists in 39 games as a 48-year-old in the Czech League last season. In the NHL, his high-water mark was 87 with Pittsburgh in 1995-96...Paul Coffey joins Bourque as the only defensemen in the top 10. He reached 80-plus assists four times, including a career-high 90 with Edmonton in 1985-86, the same season he set the all-time NHL record for goals by a defenseman with 48. Add it up and Coffey had 138 points, one less than Orr's all-time 'D' record of 139...See below for Joe Thornton...Adam Oates had a five-year run in which he posted at least 79 assists every season, including the aforementioned 97 in 1992-93 as well as 90 – in just 61 games – in 1990-91...Steve Yzerman's best offensive season came in 1988-89, when he set personal bests with 65 goals, 90 assists and 155 points...Gordie Howe took over as the NHL's all-time assist leader in 1957-58 and held the crown for 30 years before Gretzky overtook him with his 1,050th helper on March 1, 1988.
Top 10 active NHL players: Career assists
Joe Thornton 1,089
Sidney Crosby 801
Ryan Getzlaf 691
Nicklas Backstrom 684
Evgeni Malkin 660
Patrick Kane 633
Patrick Marleau 626
Anze Kopitar 617
Jason Spezza 599
Eric Staal 585
Go Joe: In a non-Wayne's world, Thornton's advantage of nearly 300 assists more than second-leading active player would stand out. He's padded his total with campaigns of 96 and 92 assists – no other active player has had more than 87 assists in a season (Nikita Kucherov in 2018-19). Thornton sits seventh all-time, but he's 46 assists behind Coffey and 66 behind Jagr. He likely needs to play beyond 2020-21 to move up the list any further.
Within range: Crosby, 33, needs almost 200 assists to become the 14th NHL player to reach 1,000. If he can average 40 assists per season for the remaining five years on his contract, that would get him there. There's always the injury/concussion factor, but he's looking good. Crosby's career high came in 2006-07 when he posted 84 assists.
Best of the rest: Ryan Getzlaf was at his most helpful in 2008-09 when he collected 66 assists. At 35 with a lot of miles, it's going to be very difficult to get to 800, never mind 1,000...Nicklas Backstrom, meanwhile, turns 33 in a week and trails Getzlaf by just seven assists. And as you're probably aware, he usually lines up with a pretty good goal-scorer on his left side. Backstrom has been a virtual lock for 50-plus assists almost every season, but can he do it for six more years and reach 1,000 before he ages out? Highly doubtful...Evgeni Malkin is 34 and has played fewer than 70 games in seven of the past eight seasons. His window to 1,000 is all but closed. But let's give him a stick tap for his 78-assist effort in 2008-09, the fifth-best single-season total among active players after Thornton (97 and 92), Kucherov (87) and Crosby (84)...Patrick Kane turns 32 next week, and he set his career high with 66 assists as a 30-year-old in 2018-19, so there's a chance he gets to 1,000. A slim, not very likely chance, but a chance nonetheless...Patrick Marleau has his eyes on the NHL's all-time games played record, not the assist mark. He maxed out with 52 helpers in 2005-06...Anze Kopitar is a gimme for 40 assists every year, with a personal best of 57 in 2017-18. At 33, he's got a shot at 800...Jason Spezza piled up 71 assists for Ottawa in 2005-06. Look for the 37-year-old to join Thornton, 41, on Toronto's old-time-hockey power play...Sophomore Eric Staal was the best Eric Staal, setting career highs with 45 goals, 55 assists and 100 points in 2005-06. He's had a renaissance the past few seasons, but at 36 his ceiling is 700 assists.