Ranking NHL players is not an exact science. So much is up for interpretation and comes down to a matter of preference. We're going to try our hand at finding the best hockey players in the world anyway.
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Too many people take this exercise for granted. It isn't just hockey supporters, either. Fans of the NBA, NFL, MLB, etc. don't often seen the value of player rankings. Some think they're purely clickbait or just mindless endeavors. Rest assured, attempting to decipher the best hockey players in the world is no easy task.
You better also believe it has a purpose. Ranking the top players allows us to see who should be favorites for some of the year-end awards, which in turn gives us an idea of how to bet on NHL props. The best of the best tend to come from Eastern Conference and Western Conference powerhouses as well, which can then help us make decisions about the Stanley Cup playoffs.
So even if you don't agree with the order of or inclusions on our list, please at least realize this process matters.
The Top NHL Players in the World
Finally, try to keep in mind we're looking exclusively at the current 2020-21 NHL season. We will be taking past performances into account and ranking players according to how we believe the pecking order will stand for the rest of the year. But the returns from the 2020-21 campaign to date will remain our heaviest weighted criteria.
1. Conor McDavid, C, Edmonton Oilers
Many pinpointed Conor McDavid as the best player in the NHL entering this season. He has not disappointed.
The 2017 MVP currently leads the league in assists and overall points. His passing truly is divine, and he is among the smartest puck handlers in the business.
If it wasn't for the fact another MVP candidate—who shall remain nameless for now since he'll make this list later—was also on his team, he'd receive far more shine. But we're giving him his flowers here. There isn't another more well-rounded offensive player in the game.
2. Nathan MacKinnon, C, Colorado Avalanche
Raw point totals won't accurately reflect Nathan MacKinnon's value this year. The Colorado Avalanche have lightened his scoring load, so you have to look closer. He has also been hampered by limited availability.
Still, you can see MacKinnon's utility every time he's on the ice. Scant few players sport his blend of speed, power and control. His passing vision is off the charts, particularly for someone who moves as fast as he does both on and off the puck.
3. Leon Draisaitl, C, Edmonton Oilers
It is patently unfair that the Edmonton Oilers house both Leon Draisaitl and McDavid. Not only are they perennial MVP candidates, but they're actual MVPs. McDavid won the Hart Memorial Trophy in 2017 while Draisaitl took home the honor just last season.
Draisaitl has his own case as the best player alive. He is a comparably dangerous passer to McDavid and ranks third overall this season in total points. But he gives up a little optionality as a scorer. McDavid is going to get between the posts with more sleights of hand and misdirection.
Just to be clear, that's not an insult to Draisaitl. He can take over a game with both his scoring and passing as well as anyone. His consistency just isn't on the same level.
4. Sidney Crosby, C, Pittsburgh Penguins
Sidney Crosby might be past his prime at age 33, and his scoring totals are hovering near above-average lows. But the two-time MVP remains among the most impactful players alive.
Consider Crosby the Stephen Curry of the NHL. Defenders are forced to change the way they guard the Pittsburgh Penguins just because he's on the ice. He sees perhaps more attention as a puck handler than anyone else in the NHL.
What he does in those situations continues to be amazing. He won't always get a shot off. He isn't even dishing out assists like whoa. But he's making passes that lead to scores or that preface second passes that do lead to scores.
Certain numbers will push back against this placement. We'll happily ignore them.
5. David Pastrnak, RW, Boston Bruins
This is another instance in which the statistics will say the player has been ranked too high. Ignore them again.
David Pastrnak doesn't have the point totals to support this. He wins this spot by virtue of his plug-and-playness. You can put him on any team, with any set of icemates, and he's going to have a huge impact. The spacing around the net will be better. The overall passing will be smarter. Shooting percentages for the entire team will elevate.
The Boston Bruins are reaping the benefits of his universality in full. He so often cedes status and control to Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron, and it doesn't matter. He's happy to act as a decoy or serve as a vessel that delivers the puck to one of the other two. So few players can be winning talents anywhere and everywhere. Pastrnak is among them.
6. Mitch Marner, RW, Toronto Maple Leafs
Mitch Marner is coming out of the left field to enter this discussion. He wasn't really on anyone's top-player radar ahead of the 2020-21 campaign.
And yet, here he is, placing fourth in total points. He might even be the MVP to date. Leon Draisaitl is the only player on this list with a better plus-minus, and he has the third-highest point shares of anyone here as well, trailing only Draisaitl and Conor McDavid.
At just 26 years old, Marner is very much on the come-up. Keep your eyes on him. He could move up this list soon.
7. Victor Hedman, D, Tampa Bay Lightning
Evaluations of defensemen cannot always include a bunch of stats. Their jobs are not predicated on gaudy lines.
Victor Hedman posts ridiculous numbers anyway. He cleared 50 points last season and is on pace to almost do the same again now. We can't soon forget that he racked up 22 points during the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs alone, either.
On top of underrated scoring, Hedman also brings the nearly unparalleled ability to warp the possessions of his opponents. He knows how to use spacing and angles around the net to his advantage, and teams will struggle to get even a relatively clean shot off when he's in the vicinity.
Already a winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy last season, he might be in line for yet another victory.
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