NHL99: A project ranking the greatest players in modern NHL history

Astronomy and space exploration reached new heights in 2022
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Who is the greatest NHL player of all time?

Easy, right? Wayne Gretzky.

Who else but the player who, over a 20-year NHL career, has scored the most goals, assists and points in league history? At the time Gretzky retired, he held 61 NHL records and most still hold today.

Gretzky’s place at the top of the charts seems hardly debatable, so we’re not going to debate it. Instead, it’s the other 99 spots that follow #99 that we need to sort through.

Welcome to NHL99, a project that aims to put a new spin on a familiar idea: who are the top 100 players in NHL history after the 1967 expansion? Let’s face it, there have been several previous attempts to name the best players of all time, so this is our starting point and main setting.

We didn’t want to go back to the same old ground. Instead, we wanted to try something new, and the post-1967 NHL seemed like a good place to start. Why? Because that’s when the game and the hockey industry fundamentally changed. Instead of six teams, there were suddenly 12. Instead of a league dominated almost exclusively by Canadians, a trickle and eventually a flood of players arrived from all corners of the world.

Today begins the countdown. We call it NHL99 because there are 99 places to debate on our top 100 list and the number 99 resonates with hockey fans around the world.

So spoiler alert, Wayne Gretzky is #1 on our list. You could argue that Gretzky actually belongs in the Hall of Fame in two categories – as a player and as a builder. Arguably, no one has done more to develop the NHL game, on and off the ice, than Gretzky.

But it becomes interesting and controversial after Gretzky. Nine writers from Athleticism were voted in this project: Eric Duhatschek, Dom Luszczyszyn, Shayna Goldman, Ian Mendes, Scott Wheeler, Sean Gentille, Michael Russo, Sean McIndoe and James Mirtle. Voters each submitted a list of 100 players in the spring of 2022, before the start of the playoffs, and points were awarded based on position: 100 points for No. 1 on the list, one point for No. 100 , etc. . Gretzky got a perfect score of 900 points. At the end of the project, we will reveal everyone’s ballots and total points. If this sounds familiar, it’s because Athleticism has done similar projects with the NBA, NFL and MLB.

With our top 100 list, the countdown begins now. But it’s more than just a countdown. From now until February, we’ll be revealing one player a day, six days a week, as well as an in-depth feature hopefully full of stories, angles and trivia about those players that you have never read before. More than 40 writers from all over Athleticism newsroom contributed to this project.

Now, some important caveats about the process, starting with recognizing that any list discussing the greatest of all time will be subjective and may involve some recency bias. And again, we’re strictly focusing on the NHL from 1967 to present.

This should be very clear because you won’t find Gordie Howe on our list. Is it sacrilege to have a list of the greatest players of all time without Mr. Hockey? Maybe, but Howe only played 369 NHL games from 1967-68 and spent six seasons in the WHA. So he went out. You won’t find Bobby Hull or Maurice Richard or Howie Morenz either.

Our trickiest and most complicated picks involved players who straddled both ends of the spectrum. Some fell through the cracks because their biggest impacts came before 1967. Some who will eventually qualify didn’t make the roster because they’re still early in their careers.

Our threshold was 400 games completed at the end of the 2021-22 regular season, which is the criteria for games played to qualify for an NHL pension. So Auston Matthews (407 career games) made it, barely. Cale Makar did not; he played only 173 regular season games in the NHL. It’s a hard line to draw, but you have to draw the line somewhere.

The overall goal was simple: tell 100 gripping stories about 100 influential NHL players and, ultimately, perhaps, generate conversation about who might have made the list and who got overlooked.

One caveat though: if you want to add your favorite player or challenge one of our picks, you’ll also need to subtract someone from the list.

What you discover over time, as the list counts down, might be easier said than done.

(Photo: Bruce Bennett, Gregory Shamus, Mike Powell, Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

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