Ranking the NHL's 10 greatest rookie classes since expansion
Asked to describe the NHL’s rookie class of 2015-16, one scout offered took only a moment before offering unqualified praise. “This could be one of the best ever,” he told SI.com.
Led by Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, this year’s crop is loaded with franchise superstars and impact players. Freshmen such as Dylan Larkin of the Red Wings, Oscar Lindberg of the Rangers, Artemi Panarin of the Blackhawks and Max Domi of the Coyotes are making an immediate impact with their new teams and creating high expectations for what they might achieve down the road. Many others could follow them. It is clear that the talent in the Class of 2015-16 runs deep. But how does this group stack up against the greatest classes of all-time? Here’s a look at the 10 we judged to be the deepest and most important to date since the NHL expanded from the Original Six for the 1967-68 season:
Headed to the Hall: Steven Stamkos, Drew Doughty
Honorable mentions: Jonathan Quick, Pekka Rinne, Claude Giroux, Max Pacioretty, Jakub Voracek, Alex Pietrangelo, Steve Mason, James Neal
Other than the presence of two world-class goaltenders in Quick and Rinne, this group boasts a depth of talent similar to this year’s class. Stamkos, who scored his 500th ;point on Monday against Boston, is a perennial candidate for the Richard Trophy while Doughty is always in the discussion for the Norris. Pacioretty and Giroux, captains of two revered franchises, are quietly laying the foundation for their own HOF candidacies. Voracek is a criminally underrated playmaker and maybe the finest winger in the league not named Ovechkin.
Hockey Hall of Famers: Ron Francis, Dale Hawerchuk, Grant Fuhr, Joe Mullen
Honorable mentions: Bernie Nicholls, Bobby Carpenter, Brent Sutter, Neal Broten, Thomas Steen
This is the year of players who lived in the shadows. Francis might be the most quiet legend in NHL history, having amassed 1,798 points to rank fifth on the all-time scoring list but he rarely earned the spotlight playing in Hartford or in Pittsburgh behind Mario Lemieux. Hawerchuk was one of the most prolific players of his day, topping the 100-point barrier six times, but always seeming somehow smaller during the heyday of Gretzky. Fuhr knows something about that—he backstopped the Oilers to four Stanley Cups in five years but rarely received the acclaim of his high-scoring teammates. Mullen is remembered as one of just five American players to reach the 500-goal plateau, and Nicholls is one of eight men to score at least 70 goals in a single season.
Hockey Hall of Famers: Mats Sundin, Sergei Fedorov
Headed to the Hall: Jaromir Jagr
Honorable mentions: Mike Richter, Peter Bondra, Curtis Joseph, Owen Nolan, Keith Primeau, Tie Domi
As European talent became more accessible to the NHL, top young players began streaming across the Atlantic. Sundin became the highest-scoring Swede in NHL history, with 564 goals and 1,349 points. Fedorov set the standard for Russian skaters, netting 1,179 points. And the ageless Jagr continues to smash records after becoming the top scorer from the Czech Republic. He now stands within striking distance of Mark Messier and the second spot on the all-time scoring list. The supporting cast is just as impressive. Bondra scored 503 goals, most ever by a Slovakian-trained player. Joseph ranks third on the all-time wins list. Richter is one of just 31 goalies to win 300 games. Domi ranks third with 3,515 penalty minutes.
Hockey Hall of Famers: Scott Niedermayer
Headed to the Hall: Teemu Selanne, Eric Lindros, Sergei Zubov
Honorable mentions: Felix Potvin, Keith Tkachuk, Joe Juneau, Bill Guerin, Ray Whitney, Alexei Kovalev
This was a deep and talented class highlighted by a brilliant top end. Niedermayer was the ultimate winner, the only man to win the Stanley Cup (four times) along with Olympic gold, a World Junior Championship, a World Championship and a World Cup. Selanne scored 684 goals (11th all-time) and set the rookie mark with 76 in 1992-93. Lindros was an unmatched blend of skill and brute force who authored four seasons of 40 goals or better before injuries diminished his effectiveness. Zubov, despite winning Cups in New York and Dallas, ranks as the most underappreciated stars of his era, a player who dominated possession before anyone realized its importance. Guerin and Tkachuk were elite power forwards who established themselves as part of America’s greatest generation. Kovalev might have been the most talented player never to win a scoring title, and Potvin helped usher in the wave of Quebec-born goaltenders that dominated the game for two decades.
Headed to the Hall: Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Henrik Lundqvist
Honorable mentions: Dion Phaneuf, Ryan Miller, Jeff Carter, Brent Seabrook, Ryan Suter
Sure this was a double class, the product of the labor-related cancelation of the 2004-05 season, but that depth was critical to getting the league back to top speed in short order. Crosby, with two Hart, two Art Ross and three Pearson trophies to go along with two Olympic golds and one Stanley Cup, is poised to go down in history as one of the 10 greatest ever to play the game. Ovechkin, closing in on 500 goals in just his 11th season, has secured his place as one of the most dangerous snipers of all-time. And Lundqvist has ranked among the top-six vote-getters for the Vezina Trophy in each of his previous 10 seasons, establishing a nearly unmatched legacy of consistent excellence. The rest of the class is littered with key members of multiple Cup winners (Seabrook and Carter) along with players who routinely earn invites to the All-Star Game.
Hockey Hall of Famers: Steve Yzerman, Pat LaFontaine, Doug Gilmour, Cam Neely, Chris Chelios
Honorable mentions: Tom Barrasso, Kelly Hrudey, Claude Lemieux, John MacLean
Amazing how many players in this class went on to define their franchises. Yzerman arguably displaced Gordie Howe as the ultimate Red Wing. Neely epitomized the hard-hitting soul of the Bruins. Gilmour became the fighting heart of the last significant Maple Leafs era. Chelios may have been the greatest American-born player. And LaFontaine topped the 30-goal mark seven times, exemplifying excellence and clean play. Lemieux and Barrasso weren't quite as well loved, even by their own teammates, but both were exceptional players who made major contributions to multiple Stanley Cup wins.
Hockey Hall of Famers: Pavel Bure, Nick Lidstrom, Dominik Hasek, Rob Blake
Honorable mentions: Tony Amonte, John LeClair, Derian Hatcher, Vladimir Konstantinov
This class boasts a trio of generational talents and remarkable depth. With six Vezinas and two Harts, Hasek was not just the finest keeper of the decade, but also arguably the best and most impactful player, period. Lidstrom not only captured seven Norris Trophies, he finished among the top-five vote getters in 13 of his final 14 seasons, earning recognition as one of the greatest defenders of all time. Bure’s star didn't burn quite so long but it was equally bright. He claimed the Rocket Richard two of the first three seasons it was awarded and scored at least 50 goals three times earlier in his career.
Hockey Hall of Famers: Marcel Dionne, Guy Lafleur, Ken Dryden
Honorable mentions: Richard Martin, Rene Robert, Reggie Leach, Rick Kehoe, Gilles Meloche
These are three stellar headliners. Dionne ranks fourth on the all-time goals list (731) and sixth in points (1,771). Lafleur won two Hart Trophies, three scoring titles and was a first-time All-Star for six consecutive seasons. Dryden played just eight years, but won six Stanley Cups and five Vezinas to establish himself as one of the finest netminders in history. Martin and Robert flanked Gil Perreault on Buffalo’s French Connection, one of the top lines of the era. Kehoe and Leach each had 50-goal seasons. A game-changing class.
Hockey Hall of Famers: Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, Larry Murphy, Denis Savard, Peter Stastny, Dino Ciccarelli
Honorable mentions: Dale Hunter, Tim Kerr, Chris Nilan, Dave Christian
No class produced more Hall of Famers than ’80-81, with six members earning their blue jackets. Two players—Coffey and Kurri—remain among the NHL's top-20 all-time scorers, while Murphy, Savard, Stastny and Ciccarelli crack the top-50. Hunter and Nilan earned their own unique places in history, ranking second and ninth, respectively, on the all-time penalty minutes list. Kerr, who potted 50-plus goals in three consecutive seasons, might be the most underappreciated sniper of his era
Hockey Hall of Famers: Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Ray Bourque, Mike Gartner, Mark Howe
Honorable mentions: Kevin Lowe, Rob Ramage, Paul Reinhart, Duane Sutter, John Ogrodnick
Even absent the presence of Gretzky, the greatest offensive weapon in NHL history, this class still would have topped the list. Many from this year’s class spent time in the World Hockey Association, thus excluding them from the Calder Trophy race (eventually won by Bourque) but that doesn’t preclude them from consideration here.
This class literally rewrote the NHL record books. Gretzky owns every offensive mark worth mentioning. Messier passed Gordie Howe to rank second on the all-time scorer list (1,887). Bourque became the top-scoring defenseman in NHL history with 1,579 points. Gartner is one of just seven players in history to reach the 770-goal plateau. And Howe was a four-time First Team All-Star and three-time runner-up for the Norris.