Best NHL Players Of All Time: Top 5 Legends, According To Experts

Hockey is a worldwide sport with millions of players and fans all around the globe. Although the National Hockey League (NHL) is the ultimate proving ground for the best hockey players in the world, hockey is played from the youth level up to college and it’s one of the most popular sports in the Winter Olympics. With all the love for hockey, it’s quite the debate to discuss the best NHL players of all time. But, before we dive in, let’s also take a look at some of the ways the game has evolved over the years. 

Certainly, the advent of High Definition Television (HDTV) helped usher in new generation of hockey fans. With crystal clear HDTV, hockey fans could ‘see’ the puck and follow the game of hockey as never before. However, one area of the game that hasn’t changed much is fighting. Hockey players fight, and although players and proponents feel hockey fights are a necessary part of ‘regulating’ the game, a recent study suggests otherwise. Every professional hockey team has what’s known as an ‘enforcer.’ Enforcers help protect star hockey players with their willingness to fight opposing players and proponents of hockey fights say this is a necessary aspect of the game. However, a recent study by researchers at The Ohio State University found that hockey fights, or the threat of hockey fights, don’t prevent more violence on the ice. According to the lead researcher, if fighting was really a deterrent, it would lower the number of violent penalties potentially injuring players. Instead, researchers found the opposite is true as every single additional fight a team engaged in was linked to more violent penalties against them. 

Even though hockey fights might not be good for player safety, they do make for an entertaining hockey game for fans, especially when your team wins the game. However, another recent study found that the thrill of a hard-fought hockey victory increases the odds of a heart attack in men under 55 years of age. A team of researchers from the Montreal Heart Institute examined the correlation between Montreal Canadiens games and local hospitalizations. The team found that when the Canadiens win, hospital admissions spike in Montreal for men under 55. In fact, cardiologists see a clear rise in ST-elevation myocardial infarction (STEMI), or heart attack, according to the study. Furthermore, the highest admission rates occurred after nail-biter home victories, with a 40 percent increase in younger and middle-aged men. Interestingly, more heart attacks were seen after these close wins than losses. Obviously, hockey is a thrilling sport full of extremely passionate fans. 

So, who are the greats in the rink? StudyFinds did the research, consulting 10 sports, NHL, and hockey-oriented websites in an effort to bring you the best NHL players to ever play the game. As always, feel free to share your thoughts on the best NHL players with us in the comments section below!

image of hockey players on the ice
Hockey player (Photo by Tallok on Openverse)

The List: Best NHL Players of All Time, According to Sports Experts

1. Wayne Gretzky (1978-1999)

Topping the lists of the best NHL players of all time is none other than ‘The Great One,’ Wayne Gretzky. This player personified hockey throughout the ’80s and ’90s and he was clearly the face of the NHL in that time. Gretzky’s name is synonymous with hockey and likewise. To put it simply, Wayne Gretzky is to hockey what Michael Jordan is to basketball

image of Wayne Gretzky in a Rangers uniform
Wayne Gretzky (“Wayne Gretzky New York Rangers” by Håkan Dahlström is licensed under CC BY 2.0.)

“The Great One is the best scorer ever, and it’s not close. For a simple explanation of Wayne Gretzky’s dominance, consider this: He totaled 1,963 assists over his 21 years. No player in history has collected more goals and assists combined than he has assists, and you can add 894 more goals to that account. Mario Lemieux is the only other player to register 160 points in a season, hitting the mark four times. Gretzky did it nine times, maxing out at 215 and breaking 200 four times. Gretzky, who hoisted the Stanley Cup four times, captured 18 All-Star nods, 10 Art Ross Trophies and nine Hart Trophies. He holds numerous career records—most notably points, goals and assists—in both the regular season and playoffs,” writes Bleacher Report

Gretzky’s career totals are absolutely absurd and his nine Hart Trophies, which is the NHL’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) award, are definitely the most ever. “With 2,857 career NHL points, 936 more than the next-best player, Wayne Gretzky is the clear choice as the league’s all-time greatest player. Gretzky holds the record for goals, assists, and points in both the regular season and playoffs. He led the league in points 11 different times and is the only player in history to reach 200 points in a single season, which he did four times. Gretzky won nine Hart Trophies, including a span of eight in a row in the 1980s. Gretzky led the Edmonton Oilers to four Stanley Cups and was awarded the Conn Smythe for two of them. Due to an incredible career that will most likely never be surpassed, Gretzky’s number 99 was retired league-wide in 2000, the only NHL player to ever receive that honor,” explains Franchise Sports

True, Gretzky’s career will not be duplicated anytime soon. Still, not all athletes parlay their individual success into championships the way Gretzky did. Gretzky’s dominance is legendary: “No player in North American professional sports has dominated the way Gretzky did in the 1980s, routinely winning scoring titles by 70-plus points while setting records that will never be touched. The final damage: Nine Hart Trophies, 10 scoring titles… two Conn Smythe Trophies, and four Stanley Cups. He is, quite simply, the greatest player who ever lived,” furthers The Score

2. Gordie Howe (1946–1971 & 1973–1980)

Next up on the list of the best NHL players of all time is Detroit Red Wings legend, Gordie Howe. He began his NHL career in 1946 and he continued playing well into his 50s. When you hear that a player played into their 50s, you might think they weren’t quite as effective as they once were, but that wasn’t the case with Howe. 

Gordie Howe and Terry Sawchuk
Gordie Howe and Terry Sawchuk (“Gordie Howe & Terry Sawchuk 001” by rchdj10 is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.)

“Gordie Howe broke into the NHL with the Detroit Red Wings in 1946. After 32 professional seasons—and even skating alongside his sons Marty and Mark—the right winger played his last game in 1980. Mr. Hockey spent 25 years in Detroit, winning six league MVP awards, six scoring titles and four Stanley Cup championships. He became the author of the ‘Gordie Howe Hat Trick,’ which is accomplished with a goal, assist and a fight in a single game. Howe, who also played six seasons in the WHA, wrapped up his career with 41 points as a member of the Hartford Whalers. Otherwise, 1,809 of his 1,850 NHL points happened in Detroit. Nobody has appeared in more NHL games (1,767), and his 22 consecutive 20-goal NHL seasons remain unmatched. Those marks are likely to stand the test of time,” explains Bleacher Report

Gordie Howe was one of the toughest players to ever lace up a pair of skates in the NHL. The ‘Gordie Howe Hat Trick’ is still evoked by NHL announcers and pundits, but his legacy is built on his endurance and scoring ability. 

“Mr. Hockey Gordie Howe was Gretzky before ‘The Great One’ came around. Howe scored 20-plus goals for 23 consecutive seasons, even scoring 15 goals when he was 52 years old. You read that right, 52 years old! Age isn’t the only impressive number. Howe became the first player to score 800 career goals. Howe ended with 801 career goals in 26 NHL seasons and 174 other goals in six WHA seasons. Howe has six MVP awards, six scoring titles, and four Stanley Cup championships. Until Patrick Marleau surpassed him in April 2021, Howe held the record for most games played in the history of the league, with 1,767,” adds Lines

“Howe was awarded the Hart Trophy six times in his career, which is the second most all-time. His 1,767 games played are behind only Patrick Marleau for most ever, while his 1,850 points are the 4th most in league history. Howe’s best seasons came in the 1950s when he had a stretch of four straight years leading the league in points. He helped lead the Detroit Red Wings to four Stanley Cups in a span of six seasons between 1950-1955 (1950, 1952, 1954, 1955). Howe played in 23 All-Star games in his career, which is a record that will likely never be broken,” adds Franchise Sports

3. Mario Lemieux (1984-1997 & 2000-2005)

Skating into the third spot on the list of the best NHL players of all time is perhaps the most beloved Pittsburgh Penguins player ever, Mario Lemieux. Mario Lemieux was similar to Gretzky in that he was a pure scorer, and if not for Gretzky, Lemieux would be considered the best hockey player of his generation. Regardless, Lemieux deserves his own spotlight, and the title of all-time NHL great. 

“Despite battling cancer and back problems during his career, Mario Lemieux is one of the best NHL players of all time. Looking at Lemieux’s stats shows how unbelievable of a player he was. He averaged 1.883 points per game, which is only 0.038 behind Wayne Gretzky for the best points per game average in NHL history. Lemieux sits 8th all-time in points with 1,723 points, which he did in just 915 games. He is the only player in the top 35 in career points to have played less than 1000 games. The greatest Penguins player ever, Lemieux led the team to back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992 and was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy both times. He would go on to have 10 seasons of 100 or more points, with his best season coming in 1988-1989 when he had 199 points,” writes Franchise Sports

Lemieux’s 199-point season was truly remarkable. However, Lemieux battled adversity off the ice as he was diagnosed with cancer in the middle of his Hall of Fame career. The cancer diagnosis kept Lemieux off the ice for a while, but not for good. 

“One of the greatest goal scorers ever, Mario Lemieux owns four of the 17 highest single-season outputs in league history. Wayne Gretzky is the only other player to tally 69 goals on four separate occasions. Lemieux began his storied Pittsburgh Penguins days with six consecutive 100-point campaigns, peaking at 199—the fifth-most ever—prior to an injury-shortened 1990-91. He’d ultimately record four more 100-point years despite a bout with cancer interrupting the prime of his career. After initially retiring in 1997, he soon became the majority owner of the financially ruined franchise. Lemieux eventually returned to the ice in 2000 and played five more seasons. The Pittsburgh legend totaled 1,723 points, won three Hart Trophies and two Stanley Cups and made nine All-Star teams,” explains Bleacher Report

Three MVPs, two championships, and a staggering nine All-Star game selections all help make the case for Lemieux as one of the best players in NHL history. It’s beyond comprehension to think that a player could battle cancer and still put together one of the most legendary careers of all time, but Lemieux made that happen and he even made a run at Gretzky’s dominance.

“Of all the ‘if onlys’ hockey fans lament, Mario might be the most popular choice next to Orr. In his prime, Lemieux posed a legitimate threat to Gretzky’s dominance, coming within one agonizing point of reaching 200 in a magical 1988-89 campaign. He ended up with six scoring titles, three Hart Trophies, nine All-Star nods, and two Cups – and deserved so much more,” adds The Score

4. Bobby Orr (NHL Player from 1966-1978)

Speaking of Orr, the fourth spot on the list of the best NHL players of all time belongs to none other than the legend. Bobby Orr is the first defenseman to make the list, and for great reason, too. Orr was a spectacular defender who could score the puck with the best of them. Similar to Lemieux, Orr’s career was impacted by injuries. The only difference was that Orr played in an era with far less advanced medical practices, so there wasn’t much that doctors could do to help him get back on the ice. 

“Much like Ken Griffey Jr in baseball, Bobby Orr was plagued by injuries and could have had an even better career with better luck. Regardless, Orr scored 120 points and [won] the league scoring championship as a defenseman in the ‘69-’70 season. He surpassed 100 career points 6 times in his career. Orr also took home eight consecutive Norris Trophies as the league’s top defenseman. Playing just 10 seasons, Orr finished with 888 points in just 631 career games,” explains Lines

 “Famous for his leaping celebration in the 1970 Stanley Cup Final, Bobby Orr was the first historic offensive defenseman. In 1969-70, he became the first defenseman to ever lead the league in points (120). Orr finished second with a career-high 139 the next season before returning to the No. 1 spot with 135 in 1974-75. But his offensive contributions are only part of Orr’s greatness; he secured eight straight Norris Trophies as the league’s top defenseman. Injuries shortened his career, but Orr notched 270 goals and 645 assists for 915 points—all of which were records for his position at the time,” writes Bleacher Report

That was eight straight defensive MVPs for Bobby Orr, who is arguably the best scoring defenseman of all time. However, it’s sad that injuries shortened his career. Bobby Orr could have placed much higher on the list of the best NHL players of all time had he not been plagued by injuries. 

“For nine magical seasons, Orr revolutionized not only his position, but the way the game was played as a whole. His two scoring titles were the first – and only – ever won by a defenseman, and are part of a resume that includes eight Norris Trophies, three Hart Trophies, a Calder, two Conn Smythes, and the single-season record for points by a defenseman (139),” adds The Score

5. Mark Messier (NHL Player from 1978-2004)

Legendary New York Rangers player, Mark Messier, was a member of the Edmonton Oilers dynasty of the 1980s, but his greatness was often overshadowed by teammates like Gretzky. Messier went on to win a Stanley Cup with the New York Rangers, solidifying his spot as one of the best NHL players in history. 

Mark Messier
Mark Messier (“Mark Messier” by Blee3467 is licensed under CC BY 2.0.)

“After rolling alongside Gretzky, Kurri, and the rest of the Oilers’ superstars in the 1980s, Messier proved he could lead his own Stanley Cup champion, guiding both Edmonton and the New York Rangers to titles in the 1990s. He evolved from a hit-first forward into a gifted two-way player, reaching the 100-point plateau six times while winning a pair of Hart Trophies,” writes The Score

“Mark Messier’s 26-year NHL tenure included 12 seasons as a member of the Edmonton Oilers, two stints with the New York Rangers and a three-year stop for the Vancouver Canucks. The 15-time All-Star celebrated the majority of his accomplishments with the Oilers, winning five Stanley Cups and claiming one MVP honor. He won another championship with the Rangers in 1994, providing clutch moments in both the conference and Cup finals. Messier crested the 100-point mark six times—including 107 in a second MVP season, this time in New York—and sits third in NHL history with 1,887 career points,” adds Bleacher Report

Quietly, Messier made his way to third on the NHL all-time career points list while putting together one of the best NHL careers fans have ever seen. Messier was able to win a staggering six Stanley Cups over his illustrious career, and the list of Messier’s individual awards and accomplishments seemingly goes on forever. 

“There are only a few that have had a better career than Mark Messier. Messier played over 1,750 games over his 25-year career, collecting the third most points all-time with 1,887. Messier won six Stanley Cups in his career, with the most memorable one being his lone championship with the New York Rangers in 1994. He had 30 points in 23 playoff games that year, helping the Rangers end the ‘Curse of 1940.’ Messier played in 15 All-Star games in his career, tied for the 4th most all-time. His other accomplishments include two Hart Trophies, two Ted Lindsay Awards, and a Conn Smythe Trophy,” furthers Franchise Sports

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  1. Although I agree with the selection there is one thing that should be remembered about Gretzky and Lemieux. Lemieux never had the physical protection that Gretzky had on ice. Hit Gretzky and you had to deal with McSorley. When did Gretzky ever carry two players on his back and score a goal one handed? If Lemieux hadn’t had the back and cancer problems I think he’d of been right up there with Gretzky. Don’t get me wrong; there’s no question about Gretzky’s ability or acumen in business or on the ice.

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