There was a list going around hockey twitter the other day of one fan’s personal pick for the top five players in the league. The rationale this fan provided for their picks was that those five players were the most well rounded players in the league, which overrode other stats that players not on their list might be better at than their picks. The list also happened to include nary a single Leaf, which obviously was just a coincidence and not the entire reason the tweet caught my attention in the first place.
Ok, fine, that’s a lie.
I’ll admit it, when I first saw the list I was entirely taken over by the irrational goblin that lives in my chest and insists that the Leafs are better than literally every other team in the league, and couldn’t think about anything other than how shocked, how outraged, I was that Auston Matthews didn’t make this fan’s top five players. I’m happy to say, however, that after some careful thought, deep personal reflection, and several minutes of breathing exercises, I was still upset.
In an attempt to override this incredibly biased first reaction, and to maybe end up with a different top five list, let’s consider: how do you measure the best players in the league?
There are many metrics by which we might choose to measure a player – some defensive, some offensive, and some a combination of both. We now have access to more analytical models and stats than ever before, many of which have provided a much better, and more nuanced, look at individual players’ skills and impacts on the game. For example, we can now factor for quality of competition and quality of teammates, something which (who would have thought!) turns out to have a pretty big impact on how a player is able to perform.
For me though, I don’t think the phrase “well rounded” has much meaning within the context of ruminating on who the top five players in the league might be. After all, a third liner could be considered well rounded – that is, they do well both offensively and defensively – but are still very much, well, a third liner in all of those measures. Obviously that isn’t quite fair – no one is thinking third liners when they’re talking about the best well rounded players in the league – but I think the point does still stand. What makes the best players, the truly elite players, the generational players, special isn’t that they’re good all over – it’s that they do one thing really, really well, better than anyone else in the world, to the extent that it consistently changes the outcome of games in favour of their team.
The other angle I would add to my argument is that, because hockey is such an offensive-minded game (goals win games! and make hockey not boring!) I do think goals and assists matter more than anything else. A player may be elite defensively (though that is much harder to measure – see this recent piece by Katya for more on that), but for better or worse, the way in which those skills impact the outcome of a game just isn’t as easily seen as those of a player who has elite offensive skill. It’s part of the reason why defensemen rarely make top five lists or, I suppose, why one might argue that it’s impossible to make a top five list that isn’t by player position. I would still argue though that the prioritization of points over defense in measuring greatness is born out by playoff success – after all, the Penguins have several cups to their name that were won with cardboard cut outs of Generic Defenseman #1-6 on their backend.
With all of that in mind, I went ahead and created my own list of who I would argue are the top five players in the league. I’ve done my best to remove my own Leafs bias, and focus instead on the offensive impact of the players and how much they help their team succeed and win games:
- Auston Matthews
- Mitchell Marner
- William Nylander
- John Tavares
- Zach Hyman
Thank you for your time.
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Happy Thursday everyone!