We’ve rounded up our picks for greatest players to grace the ice in the NHL since the league was formed in 1917, including a mix of all positions.
Comparing offensive players to defensive players and goalies is like comparing apples to oranges, so we didn’t bother ranking them but merely wanted to present the best in history. All statistics come from Hockey-Reference.com.
Our picks span all eras of the league’s history, including many Hall of Famers and even a few current stars. Did your favorite NHL legend make the list?
Years in the league: 1989-2008
Eddie “The Eagle” Belfour had a stellar career between the pipes at all levels of the sport, winning a Stanley Cup, an Olympic gold medal and an NCAA championship. Despite initially being undrafted, he now ranks third among all NHL goaltenders in career wins, ninth in shutouts and fifth in total minutes played. Belfour won his Cup with the Dallas Stars in 1999 but is best remembered for his years with the Chicago Blackhawks, where he won two Vezina Trophies, given each year to the league’s best goalie.
Years in the league: 1950-1971
Like many players who were part of the Montreal Canadiens in the 1950s-1970s, all Jean Béliveau did was win. He won 10 Stanley Cups as a player with the Habs and another seven as an executive with the team, giving him the most Stanley Cup wins of any person in NHL history. He was seen as revolutionizing the game due to the speed of his shots, his stick-handling ability and his smarts on the ice.
If the Canadiens are the New York Yankees of hockey history, Béliveau was their Lou Gehrig, retiring in 1971 as the team’s all-time leader in points and its greatest playoff scorer.
Years in the league: 1977-1987
If Mike Bossy’s career had been longer, it’s scary to think what he could have done. He makes a strong case as the greatest pure scorer in NHL history, turning in more than 50 goals per season in nine of his 10 seasons in the league, including five with at least 60 goals. Bossy is an icon in Long Island, helping lead the New York Islanders to four straight Stanley Cup titles from 1980-1983. Back injuries ended his run early but Bossy still reigns as the NHL’s all-time leader in goals-per-game average.
Years in the league: 1979-2001
A Boston legend, Ray Bourque is one of the most dynamic defenders the NHL has ever seen. Despite being a defenseman, he’s 11th in all-time career points and has more shots on goal than any player in league history. During his 22 seasons, he made the All-Star game 19 years in a row and won the Norris Trophy five times, which recognizes the league’s best defenseman. He finally won a Stanley Cup in his final season, playing with the Colorado Avalanche in 2001.
Years in the league: 1991-2015
Arguably the greatest goalie in hockey history, Marty Brodeur holds the NHL’s all-time record for wins and saves by a goaltender — and it’s not even close. In addition to 691 wins, his 125 career shutouts is the best ever and nobody has played more minutes in goal.
In 21 seasons with the New Jersey Devils, he won three Stanley Cups and helped the team make the playoffs 17 times. Brodeur won the Vezina Trophy four times in his career and stands as the only goalie to ever win at least 40 games in eight different seasons.
Years in the league: 1989-2003 (inactive during the 2004-2005 season)
The “Russian Rocket” thrilled hockey fans for over a dozen seasons in the NHL. He was twice the league’s top scorer and had five seasons of at least 50 goals, making you wonder how much more he could have done if injuries hadn’t cut short his career. As it was, Bure finished fifth all-time in goals per game and is the league’s greatest penalty-shot scorer.
Years in the league: 1969-1984
The busted-up face of the Philadelphia Flyers’ Broad Street Bullies glory days of the 1970s, Bobby Clarke won two Stanley Cups and three Hart Trophies as NHL MVP during his years with the team. More than 34 years after his retirement, he sits at fifth all-time in plus-minus (aka goal differential). Clarke proved to be a great teammate, finishing his career at fourth all-time in assists as of 1984.
Years in the league: 1980-2001
One of the few all-time great hockey players who could be considered a journeyman, Paul Coffey played for nine different NHL teams during his career, which is more than any other Hall of Famer. Coffey is counted among the greatest scoring defensemen in hockey history, once tallying 48 goals in a single season, which is still a record for the position. He won four Stanley Cups in his career and still stands as the best in terms of career playoff goals and playoff points by a defenseman in NHL history.
Years in the league: 2005-present
The moniker “Sid the Kid” may no longer apply to this 31-year-old NHL veteran who has lived up to all the hype from when he was drafted No. 1 overall in 2005. A natural leader on the ice, Crosby has led the Pittsburgh Penguins to three Stanley Cup titles in his time with the team and has won the Hart Trophy twice as NHL MVP. He’s had several seasons cut short due to concussion-related injuries but appears to have plenty of winning left in him as the face of the league.
Years in the league: 1971-1979 (absent the 1973-1974 season, during which he was a legal clerk)
Long before becoming a member of Canada’s Parliament, goalie Ken Dryden put together maybe the most staggeringly efficient career in NHL history. He played only seven full NHL seasons but, in that time, won six Stanley Cups and five Vezina Trophies. Dryden’s insane .740 career winning percentage will likely never be surpassed and he stands alone with the NHL’s all-time best adjusted goals against average.
Years in the league: 1968-1984
One of the best goalies in NHL history, Tony Esposito still holds the records for wins and shutouts for the Chicago Blackhawks franchise. His own Hall of Fame career sometimes gets overshadowed by older brother Phil Esposito, but Tony won a Stanley Cup to go along with three Vezina Trophies. Today, Esposito holds the NHL’s all-time mark for goals saved above average, surpassing second place by a considerable margin.
Years in the league: 1981-2004
If you were looking for a player who could make your entire team better, Ron Francis is a great choice. One of the NHL’s all-time great passers, he has the second-most assists in league history with 1,249. He was a constant presence on the ice in his 23-season career, finishing fourth all-time in NHL games played and fifth in career points. Francis won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1990s.
Years in the league: 1979-1999
Very few sports have an agreed-upon greatest player but hockey is one of them. Name a marquee offensive statistic and Wayne Gretzky probably holds the NHL’s all-time record in it. Career points, goals scored, assists, hat tricks — he’s the best in all of them. Oh, and he also won four Stanley Cups and nine Hart Trophies. They don’t call him “The Great One” for nothing.
Years in the league: 1953-1971
The Iron Man of NHL goaltenders, Glenn Hall is the only goalie in league history to make at least 500 consecutive starts. Hall is seen as an innovator of his position and won the Vezina Trophy three times. He also won two Stanley Cups and was named to 13 straight NHL All-Star games.
Years in the league: 1948-1969
A standout for the Montreal Canadiens’ dynasty in the 1960s, Doug Harvey stands as one of the NHL’s most feared defenders ever. He won six Stanley Cups to go along with seven Norris Trophies, given to the league’s best defenseman. In 2017, his longtime Habs teammate Tom Johnson told NHL.com that Harvey could have played any position on the ice and been great at it, including goalie.
Years in the league: 1991-2008
Possibly the most feared goaltender in hockey history, “The Dominator” earned his powerful nickname. Hasek won two Stanley Cups, six Vezina Trophies and is the only goalie to have won two Hart Trophies. His .9223 career save percentage is the best in NHL history and his goals against average is the best of anyone who played past 1941. A tireless competitor until the end, Hasek didn’t retire from the NHL until he was 43 years old.
Years in the league: 1947-1980
Nobody in NHL history had a career like Gordie Howe’s. “Mr. Hockey” spent a record 26 seasons in the league and played in more games than any other player in history. He won four Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings and six Hart Trophies and was regarded for his prolific scoring abilities. Among the ridiculous NHL records Howe holds are total games played (1,767), having 22 seasons where he scored at least 20 goals, playing his final game at the age of 52 and having the best mark for adjusted goals scored.
Years in the league: 1958-1980
Chicago’s blond bombshell, “The Golden Jet” was one of the league’s most thrilling players in his day. Hull won a Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks and two Hart Trophies, while also leading the league in points three times. Hull could crush the puck, with NHL.com writing that he was “blessed with a blistering slap shot.”
Years in the league: 1987-2006
Like father, like son. Bobby Hull’s son, Brett, stepped out of his dad’s mighty shadow and put together a Hall of Fame career of his own. Hull won two Stanley Cups and a Hart Trophy, helped by his prolific scoring ability. Hull scored at least 50 goals in five straight seasons, including 86 in one year, and stands at fourth in terms of career goals scored in NHL history.
Years in the league: 1991-2018
Arguably Europe’s greatest contribution to the NHL, Jaromír Jágr might be the most clutch scorer in league history, having made more game-winning goals than any other player. Jágr stands at second in total career points with 1,921 and at third in career goals scored with 766. His 15 consecutive seasons of scoring at least 30 goals is also an NHL record. In addition to winning two Stanley Cups and a Hart Trophy, Jágr won five Art Ross Trophies from 1995 to 2001, given yearly to the league’s top points scorer.
Years in the league: 2008-present
One of America’s greatest hockey products ever, 29-year-old Patrick Kane has already won three Stanley Cups in just eleven seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks. In 2016, he became the first American NHL player to ever lead the league in scoring and to win the Hart Trophy. Kane is another young player who has lived up to his own hype, scoring at least 64 points in every season since his debut and averaging more than a point per game.
Years in the league: 1972-1985 (came out of retirement to play again from 1989-1991)
Despite his sweet nickname, “The Flower,” Guy Lafleur was something NHL defenses wanted no part of in the 1970s. He made history as the first player in league history to score 50 goals and 100 points in six consecutive seasons, setting the trend for prolific scorers who would follow. He won five Stanley Cups with the Montreal Canadiens, as well as two Hart Trophies. He’s the all-time leading points scorer in Habs history.
Years in the league: 1985-1994, 1996-1997, 2001-2004 and 2006
Despite towering at 6 feet 4 inches tall, “The Magnificent One” moved like a man half his size on the ice. Numerous health issues kept his career stats from reaching the heights it likely would have but he currently sits at eighth in career NHL points, as well as second in goals per game and assists per game. He had an incredible 10 seasons of 100 points or more.
Lemieux won two Stanley Cups as a player with the Pittsburgh Penguins but ended up buying the team and leading them to three additional titles as the franchise’s owner.
Years in the league: 1992-2012
You can make a strong argument that Nicklas Lidstrom is the greatest defenseman in NHL history. He won seven Norris Trophies and four Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings, becoming possibly the legendary franchise’s best player not named Howe. He played 20 seasons with the Red Wings and the team made the playoffs every single year in that stretch. His career plus-minus is eighth best in NHL history, proving the difference he made to his teammates.
Years in the league: 2006-present
Despite his laundry list of milestones, all achieved while playing in the world’s biggest media market, Henrik Lundqvist remains overlooked by some hockey analysts. Lundqvist was left off of the NHL’s 2017 list of its 100 best players — the only player on this list not to make that one — but he’s the only goalie in NHL history to reach 30 wins in every full season he’s played, was the fastest goalie to ever reach 400 wins and holds the NHL record for most combined saves in the regular season and playoffs.
He’s also been called the most clutch goaltender in NHL history thanks to his outstanding performances in game sevens of various playoff series.
Years in the league: 1979-2004
A teammate and captain of several greats on this list, Mark Messier won six Stanley Cups in his stellar career, split between the Edmonton Oilers and New York Rangers. He ranks third all-time in points tallied, second in total games played and eighth in goals scored. His playoff production makes him a true legend, as Messier ranks second in career playoff points among all NHL players. He also won two Hart Trophies and was named to 15 NHL All-Star Games.
Years in the league: 1967-1979
Ask a group of hockey fans who the greatest player of all time was and you’re virtually guaranteed to get a few who will tell you it’s Bobby Orr. The Boston Bruins icon is a true legend of the sport and one who came to define his position as a defenseman. He won eight straight Norris Trophies and two Stanley Cups. His most ardent fans will point to his career plus-minus of plus-582, which is second in NHL history, and the single season his plus-minus was plus-124, a record that will likely never be touched.
Orr was such an all-around hockey freak that he once won the Norris Trophy (best defenseman), Art Ross Trophy (most regular-season points), Hart Trophy (regular-season MVP) and Conn Smythe Trophy (playoff MVP) in a single season — another feat that’s not likely to ever be matched.
Years in the league: 2006-present
“Ovi” has proven his scoring might again and again, launching himself into the conversation of the NHL’s greatest goal scorers ever with plenty of seasons left in his career. He’s won the Hart Trophy three times as the league’s MVP and finally won a Stanley Cup in 2018, putting to bed one of the only knocks against him. His goals-per-game average is sixth best in NHL history and ranks ahead of Wayne Gretzky’s. If he stays dominant through his 30s, he’s got a chance to pass “The Great One’s” goal-scoring record.
Years in the league: 1953-1975
Few hockey players were as innovative or smart as Jacques Plante. The six-time Stanley Cup winner was the first goalie to regularly wear a mask, designing and making them himself in the early days. Aside from having the brains to protect his face from flying pucks, Plante was a serious force between the pipes. He ranks seventh all-time in wins and save percentage, as well as fifth in shutouts. He also won a record seven Vezina Trophies.
Years in the league: 1943-1960
“Rocket” was a hero to all hockey fans growing up in Quebec in the 1940s and 1950s. Maurice Richard won eight Stanley Cups as a player with the Montreal Canadiens, his own hometown team. He was an innovator in terms of offensive production, becoming the first NHL player to ever score 50 goals in a season and the first to ever reach 500 career goals. In 2000, Richard’s funeral was treated like a national day of mourning in Canada, and his was the first state funeral ever given to a non-politician.
Years in the league: 1973-1992
Another Habs legend, Larry Robinson won six Stanley Cups with the team in the ’70s and ’80s. In 20 career seasons, Robinson didn’t miss the playoffs a single time. But if you think he just got lucky by being on good teams, think again. He ranks first all-time with a plus-minus of plus-722.
Years in the league: 1985-2003
Any argument about the greatest goalie in hockey history has to include Patrick Roy. He ranks second all-time in wins and minutes among NHL goaltenders and he won four Stanley Cups. His dominance in the playoffs made him the only NHL player ever to win the Conn Smythe Trophy, as playoffs MVP, three times. In 2004, the writers of The Hockey News named him the greatest goalie ever — and many will still agree with that.
Years in the league: 1989-2009
The captain of two Stanley Cup-winning Colorado Avalanche teams, Joe Sakic spent his entire NHL career with that franchise, dating back to when it was called the Quebec Nordiques. Sakic was a deadly shooter, tallying at least 100 points in six different seasons and currently standing at ninth all-time in points scored.
Years in the league: 1950-1970
Another name that belongs in the conversation of greatest NHL netminders is Terry Sawchuk. He played for five teams during his long career but is most remembered for helping the Detroit Red Wings secure three Stanley Cup victories in the 1950s. When Sawchuk retired in 1970, he held virtually all the major goaltending records but now sits as sixth in career wins, second in shutouts and fourth in minutes. His career shutouts record stood for 40 years before finally being broken.
Years in the league: 1927-1940
In the 1920s and 1930s, Eddie Shore showed people how brutal hockey could be by defining the role of a defenseman. He won four Hart Trophies during his career, a record among defensemen that will likely never be touched, and he likely would have dominated Norris Trophy voting if his career hadn’t predated the honor. He won two Stanley Cups with the Boston Bruins, the first two in the franchise’s long history.