Last off-season the NHL released its list of the greatest 100 NHL players of all time. Following up on my Hockey Hall of Fame model, I dug into this list. I could output some tables of how much my models like those players, but that’s not as fun. I love lists, and I love arguing, so here are five players who should be on the top 100, and who they could take off.
That’s not to say these are necessarily the five greatest players who missed the official cut, nor that the five they remove are the five least deserving on the list. Instead I’ve picked cases that I think are among the best/worst, but also very notable, and even matched up by position when I could.
The nature of a top 100 list
Making the top 100 is tough. Really tough. There are 221 NHL alumni who have made the HHoF. Less than half of them can be in the top 100, especially when you consider the great players not yet eligible for the hall. In my last piece I talked about how Mark Recchi, Paul Kariya, and Claude Provost, among others, were notable HHoF omissions. Think about where the line must be drawn for the top 100.
In preparation for writing this, I finally read The 100 Greatest Players in NHL History (and other stuff) by Greg Wyshynski, Dave Lozo, and Sean McIndoe. Their book is a thoroughly interesting and quick read, so don’t be shy about buying it! As they said, “if a player you think belongs on this list isn’t here, he’s probably something like the 110th best player of all-time in our eyes. That’s still pretty good.” I feel the same way - some of the players I’m about to drop are among my favourite ever, and they are all incredible players.
Think of this another way: 56 players in history have won the Hart trophy as the league’s most valuable player. Only 35 of them made the NHL’s list. 21 players were at one point given the league’s highest seasonal award, and yet aren’t in the greatest 100 of all time. To be in the greatest 100 usually requires being among the top few players in the league at one point, in the top handful for a long time, and a series of awards.
Here’s a teaser for you. Bill Cowley and Nels Stewart won multiple Hart trophies, and didn’t make the cut. Rod Langway, Erik Karlsson, and Pierre Pilote won multiple Norris’s, and didn’t make it. Ed Belfour and Tim Thomas won multiple Vezina’s in the modern era, and didn’t make it. This isn’t an easy list to make.
I already have the HHoF model, which I updated because hockey-reference fixed some broken data. I built a few more to look at this.
- A top 100 model, built from the same inputs that ended up in the HHoF model
- Using knowledge of HHoF membership as a predictor
- Split into pre- and post-expansion models to leverage the Conn Smythe trophy and the 33/67 allocation defined by the NHL
These mostly gave me very similar orderings. All have the disadvantage that they don’t know about narratives. For example, the criteria Wyshynski, Lozo, and McIndoe specified included consistency, peak years, influence, complete players, goalie big games, entertainment, and awards. Algorithmically I can only include what I can measure, which is mostly limited to consistency, peak years, and awards. It doesn’t know that Georges Vézina was the best when the league first started, and then had his career end by early death. It doesn’t know that Peter Stastny was a early European pioneer. It doesn’t know that Tim Horton founded a coffee chain.
Let’s trade some names
Without further ado, here are the five additions, ordered chronologically.
#5 - Aurele Joliat (at the expense of Pavel Datsyuk)
Four time All Star (despite playing half his career before season-end All Star teams were awarded), three time Stanley Cup winner (although hockey-reference seems to simultaneously think he’s won three and four), Hart trophy winner. His point totals don’t seem high, but accounting for the offense in the era, and the season length, he was one of the most prolific point scorers in history.
Pavel Datsyuk. I told you this was going to be tough. One of my favourite players. I rave about him. One of the elite forwards of his generation, with four Lady Byng trophies, 3 Selke’s, and two Stanley Cups to his name. But, his point totals really weren’t very high for his era, he never won a Hart trophy or a Conn Smythe, and he really hasn’t played that many games. He only made one All Star team. He’s a sure-fire hall of famer, absolutely. Top 100 all time? Not quite.
#4 - Tiny Thompson (at the expense of Grant Fuhr)
Tiny Thompson won four Vezina trophies and was a four-time All Star. In most of his seasons he played every game. He retired with 81 shutouts, still 6th all time. None of the goalies anywhere near his era played or won as many games, not until Turk Broda, whose career barely overlapped with Thompson’s. Oh, and he was the first goalie to get an assist.
Grant Fuhr was twice and All Star and once a Vezina winner. He was a good goalie from a weak goalie era. Sure, Fuhr won four cups to Thompson’s one, but Fuhr also had Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier on those teams.
#3 - Joe Thornton (at the expense of Darryl Sittler)
Here are two guys who haven’t won a cup (thus far - I’m still hoping, Joe!). Joe Thornton is climbing up the games played charts, already at 26th. He’s sitting 22nd in career points, currently tied with the legendary Brett Hull. He’s won a Hart trophy, an Art Ross, and was an All Star four times.
Darryl Sittler is a legend to Leafs fans like me. But he didn’t win a single award, was only once an All Star, and didn’t put up nearly the offensive stats or endurance that Thornton has.
#2 - Martin St. Louis (at the expense of Pavel Bure)
Martin St. Louis was the inspiration for this whole project. Everybody was talking about other omissions, and I thought he was yet again overlooked. He won a Hart trophy, two Art Ross trophies, three Lady Byng trophies, and a partridge in a pear tree. He was a five time All Star. He won a Stanley Cup.
Pavel Bure was a tremendously exciting player. He led the league in goals a few times, and was an All Star in those years. His career was unfortunately short, but I’m not handing out points for that. He also never won a cup. Not that it was his fault, given his exceptional play in the playoffs, but the top 100 is full of players who played great in the playoffs and also came home with cups - players a lot like Martin St. Louis.
#1 - Evgeni Malkin (at the expense of Jonathan Toews)
Here are two names that everybody was talking about. Both have a Smythe trophy. Both have multiple cups (with Toews leading 3-2, so far). Even though I’m a massive fan of Jonathan Toews (ever since his dominant performance in the 2010 Olympics), I have to concede that Malkin has a clearer top 100 case.
Malkin won a Hart trophy, two Art Ross trophies, and has been a three-time All Star. Toews has been an All Star once. He also has a Selke trophy, and two Olympic golds (although if we count those there are a few other Russians who might have something to say). Malkin has heavily out-pointed Toews. Their careers have nearly perfectly overlapped, so the Hart trophy and extra All Star nods make it clear that Malkin has been the more appreciated player.
The great thing about this comparison is that they’re both far from through. They could easily add piles of points and awards over the next decade. Today we’re debating their entry in the top 100, but by the time they’re done they might both be clear choices.
So there you have it. I think Aurele Joliat, Tiny Thompson, Joe Thornton, Martin St. Louis, and Evgeni Malkin should have made the top 100, and I’ve got some models to back me up.
It’s a tough list to make cuts on, because of how elite all of the players are. The list was put together pretty well, everyone on it is a deserving hall of famer, and mostly rank in the top 200 of players all time by the HHoF model.