Who are the NHL’s top 10 wingers? Execs, coaches, players make their picks


The coach on the other end of the phone scanned ESPN’s 2021 NHL position-by-position ranking player pools, his stress level increasing.

“We’re talking about the best of the best,” he said, sighing. “Now you’re asking me to vote for the best of ‘the best of the best.'”

Well, yeah, that’s sort of the point. We wanted those inside the league to cut through the media narratives, ignore (but appreciate!) the enduring legacies and reveal which star players have “it” and which ones don’t. Which, admittedly, can be a stressful venture.

Here’s how it worked: Surveys were conducted over the last two months. Respondents were asked to rank their top 10 players at center, winger, defenseman and goaltender, based on a predetermined list of the top 20-30 players at each position. Players who were ranked in the top 10 on each ballot were given a numerical score – No. 1 earned 10 points, No. 2 earned 9 points and so on.

There were 10 NHL players surveyed – seven skaters, three goaltenders. There were 10 people on the hockey operations side surveyed, from coaches to general managers to player personnel executives.

Here are the positional rankings for wingers for the 2020-21 season, according to those in the NHL we surveyed. The rankings for defensemen (Wed.), centers (Thurs.) and goalies (Fri.) will follow this week. Stats are collected from sites such as Natural Stat Trick, Hockey Reference and Evolving Hockey. There are some surprises here, to be sure.

Why was the 24-year-old Bruin ranked as the No. 1 winger in the NHL?

“I don’t know, maybe his personality?” joked a rival NHL forward. “No, I think some of these rankings are just too close to call. That’s why it’s tough to make an ‘order’ of any kind. But Pastrnak has absolutely been on fire when he’s not been hurt the last few years.”

Pastrnak has 100 goals in his last 157 games, tied with Alex Ovechkin for the best goals-per-game rate since 2018-19 (0.64). He shared the Rocket Richard Trophy with Ovechkin last season as the league’s top goal-scorer, with 48.

Pastrnak has 26 points through 21 games this season, including 14 goals. He leads the Bruins in expected goals above average (7.8) this season.

Oh, and not that it matters, but our anonymous NHL player is correct: Pastrnak is one of the league’s delightfully goofy players, including a recent interview after the NHL’s Lake Tahoe game where he lamented missing a locker room dance party to “Barbie Girl” while wearing “Macho Man” Randy Savage sunglasses.

Pastrnak was given three first-place votes — by an NHL general manager, a forward and a goaltender — and six second-place votes. In total, Pastrnak was in the top five on 18 of 20 ballots, more than any other player was.

He got the nod for the top slot. But it was close.

Given how many respondents fervently praised Kucherov, the fact he placed second is a surprise.

“He’s No. 1, for sure,” said one coach, a sentiment echoed by four others who ranked him first. Kucherov’s five first-place votes were the most for any winger.

Since 2017-18, there isn’t a winger that comes close to matching Kucherov’s point production numbers. He has 313 points in 230 games, skating to a plus-65. Patrick Kane has 312 points in that span, but that’s over 265 games. Kucherov’s 1.36 points-per-game average ranks him second among all skaters behind human highlight reel Connor McDavid (1.48).

That dominance extends to the postseason as well, as Kucherov has a 1.18 points-per-game average over his last 45 playoff games, ranking him fifth among those who have played at least 20 games in that span.

Last season, he had 85 points in 68 games. This season he has … none. Kucherov has missed the entire regular season due to offseason hip surgery, depriving the Lightning of their top winger while, admittedly, bailing them out of a salary cap boondoggle.

Is this an “out of sight, out of mind” situation for the voters? Perhaps. While 17 of them had Kucherov in their top five, one NHL goaltender left him off of his ballot completely. That’s likely the margin between Kucherov being atop the podium and settling for silver behind Pastrnak.

The Breadman earned two first-place votes, both of them coming from player personnel executives. That their front offices are known for being analytics-friendly likely isn’t a coincidence — Pararin is seventh over the last two seasons in expected goals scored above average (21.2) among all skaters.

“He controls the game, and it doesn’t matter who he’s playing with,” said one NHL coach.

The winger has earned his reputation for driving play offensively during his time with Chicago, Columbus and New York. He’s a puck possession machine, which helps the Rangers keep the heat off of their own end. When Panarin is on the ice, the Rangers have a .932 even-strength save percentage over the last two seasons. It’s only .921 when, say, Mika Zibanejad‘s line is out there.

Overall, 15 respondents had Panarin in their top five among wingers, and he appeared on every ballot. A clear, but solid, No. 3 among wingers.

Figuring out Ovechkin’s place in the ranking proved difficult for some individuals. There were 13 respondents that had him in their top five, including three that ranked him as the NHL’s top winger. Four respondents had him ranked between No. 7 and No. 10 overall.

But three voters had him outside of their top 10 altogether. All three were on the player personnel side, including one general manager.

Ovechkin has 14 goals and 11 assists in 27 games this season, scoring six goals in six games recently to bolster that stat line. While his production remains strong, a few respondents noted that the shortcomings in the 35-year-old’s defensive game have become more glaring as he gets older.

Even those who supported him were conflicted.

“What’s the criteria for Ovechkin? The Ovechkin that was playing during their Cup year was a star. So maybe this is sort of a legacy vote for me,” said one NHL coach, who had him 10th on his ballot.

With 42 points in his first 32 games this season, Kane has played himself in the Hart Trophy conversation for helping to elevate the Blackhawks into a playoff race. Whether he remains there is inexorably tied to whether his team remains in that race, but Kane is likely to still end up among the NHL’s top scorers this season.

Kane earned three first-place votes in our survey: Two from general managers and one from a defenseman. Four respondents had him off of their ballots entirely, a mix of players and front office personnel.

“Other wingers play off of centers, but he plays like a center,” said one coach who had Kane ranked second overall.

Stone received two first-place votes: One from a player personnel executive and another from a veteran goaltender. He has 35 points in 28 games this season to lead the Golden Knights, with 27 points coming at even strength. Only McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Kane have more.

Defensively, he remains one of the NHL’s most skilled pickpockets, tied for the league lead in takeaways (31) this season, and with 231 over the last three seasons combined — more than 50 greater than Ryan O’Reilly, who is second in that span.

Stone is the best defensive winger in the NHL. Alas, the Selke Trophy for best defensive forward has remained a “centers-only” prize since 2003.

In praising all the things Stone does well, one NHL coach drew a contrast with his Vegas Golden Knights teammate Max Pacioretty.

“Pacioretty scores but doesn’t impact the game in a number of ways beyond that. There’s not really a ‘B’ game to him,” he said. “Stone does all the work.”

7. Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins
84 points | Age: 32

Only six voters had Marchand in their top five. The only one that had Marchand ranked first overall was a veteran forward whose team has been a notable rival of the Bruins — “game recognizes game,” one imagines.

“I love everything about the way he plays,” said the player. “His grit, his poise with the puck. The way he shoots and the way he passes. He can play on the power play and the penalty kill. And he’s a winner because of it.”

Marchand has 34 points in 28 games this season, leading the Bruins in points while Pastrnak leads in points per game (1.24 to Marchand’s 1.21). Few players in recent memory can claim the glow-up Marchand has had in his NHL career, going from an agitator who delivers the occasional cheap shot to a player who has scored at a 30-goal pace for six straight seasons — while also being an agitator who delivers the occasional cheap shot.

He appeared on every ballot save for one, which was cast by a player personnel executive.

Marner is fourth in the NHL in points (40) through 32 games, with 26 of them coming at even strength. Over the last three seasons, only Kucherov, Kane and Pastrnak have a higher points-per-game average among right wings than Marner (1.16).

Yet the highest anyone had Marner ranked was third overall, and only six respondents had him in their top five. Potential factors: Having a star teammate in Auston Matthews as a hype magnet, and having a contract investment ($10.903 million against the cap annually) that his numbers still may not substantiate in the eyes of some people — like the four respondents that completely left Marner off of their ballots, two of whom are veteran goaltenders.

One NHL coach, who had Marner sixth on his ballot, doesn’t understand why he doesn’t get more appreciation, especially for being a well-rounded player.

“He’s a complete game-changer. And no one ever gives him credit for his defense,” he said.

Rantanen has elevated his game this season with 35 points in his first 29 games, which tracks to be the best points-per-game average of his career (1.21) if it holds.

Does he benefit from playing major minutes with Nathan MacKinnon? Undoubtedly, and their line with Gabriel Landeskog is a puck-possession monster, with a goals-for percentage over 77% at 5-on-5 when on the ice this season. But in the 110 minutes Rantanen has played without MacKinnon, his lines have had a 53.6 expected goals percentage.

Landeskog received only one seventh place vote in the survey. Ten respondents had Rantanen ranked from Nos. 5-7.

“Landeskog is a good solid player. But he doesn’t have the dynamics, on that elite level, like Rantanen has,” said one NHL coach who had the Finnish winger in his top 10.

Snagging the last spot in the top 10 was Svechnikov, the Hurricanes’ 20-year-old right wing. After a star-making sophomore campaign in which he scored 61 points in 68 games, there’s been a little regression for him this season. Svech had 23 points in his first 30 games this season, but skated to a minus-2 and was just a smidge above replacement level in expected goals scored above average (0.7).

One veteran defenseman had Svechnikov third overall, the highest placement for the winger on any ballot. “He’s really good and has a physical presence to him now. A lot of guys when they get hit, they tend to shy away from contact after that. But not him,” said the blueliner.

But Svechnikov only appeared in the top 10 on half of the ballots. Most respondents echo the sentiments of one NHL coach: “I think he’s going to be on the list soon, but he hasn’t quite done enough for me yet.”

Honorable mentions

The next highest point total was for Calgary Flames winger Matthew Tkachuk (33), which was notable because one NHL skater among the voters had him first overall on his ballot — ahead of Pastrnak, Kucherov and Panarin.

“He does it all. He’s on the top PK units. He finds a way to score goals. And you have to be aware of him on the ice at all times,” said the skater.

He was the only player to receive a first-place vote and not make the final top 10. There was one player who received a second-place vote and only to fall short of the final ranking: Buffalo Sabres winger Taylor Hall, who was ranked there by a player personnel executive for an Eastern Conference team. Well, when the NHL has conferences, that is.

There were 23 wingers eligible for this ranking. Here are some other players of note:

Kyle Connor, Winnipeg Jets (10 points): “He scores. He scores a lot. When you look at his production the last couple of years it’s hard to argue with him [being on the list]. I think he’s got the ability to impact games with his speed and his willingness to go to the net,” said an NHL coach.

Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames (3 points): “I really like him, but at the end of the day he’s a little too light,” said an NHL coach.

Patrik Laine, Columbus Blue Jackets (2 points): “He’s a hard one to judge. He’s an elite shooter. He can score from the outside, and his shot is on another level. But he doesn’t do much else,” said one NHL coach.

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