Kris Letang

Ranking the NHL's Top 100 players for 2020: Nos. 75-51

Ranking the NHL's Top 100 players for 2020: Nos. 75-51

With the NHL getting ready to go back to work with training camps across the league set to start on July 10 for a Return to Play, what better time to discuss the Top 100 players in the NHL right now.

Certainly, we took the shortened regular season into account along with the player’s body of work prior to this year, and with a little projection as to how much room they have to grow in the future. Put it all together and you’ve got a mix of two-way centers, high-scoring wings, hard-hitting defensemen and red-hot goaltenders who combine to get the best 100 players in the league.

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Here’s the second 25 (Nos. 75-51) of those players as we count down from 100 all the way back down to 1 with apologies to familiar players like Phil Kessel, P.K. Subban and Henrik Lundqvist, all of whom fell out of the Top 100 with tough seasons this past year.

75. William Nylander, RW, Toronto Maple Leafs

Now that he’s removed from the contract squabbles, Nylander is back to being one of the best young players on a young, talented Maple Leafs roster. He still has defensive issues and isn’t as dominant as one would like him to be a nightly basis, but he posted 31 goals and 59 points in 68 games before the regular season went on pause in mid-March.

He’s only 23 years old so there’s time to improve, but he’s also clearly not up with peers from his age group like David Pastrnak and Leon Draisaitl.

74. Sebastian Aho, LW, Carolina Hurricanes

The fact that the Aho got both Hart and Selke votes last season at just 21 years old should let everybody know that he’s a force to be reckoned with down in Carolina.

Sure, he went through the whole offer sheet fiasco when he almost bolted for Montreal. But he bounced back with 38 goals and 66 points in 68 games this season before the games went on pause, and he was still a plus-10 while also leading the NHL with four shorthanded goals this season. He was well on his way to 40 goals this season and seems to keep getting better every season.

73. Jaccob Slavin, D, Carolina Hurricanes

Extremely underrated because he’s not a pure offensive defenseman, Slavin is an old-fashioned two-way D-man with size (6-foot-3, 207-pounds), decent offense with six goals and 36 points in 68 games and a plus-30 mark that shows how he excels at both ends of the ice.

Slavin keeps growing support each season for All-Star consideration and the Norris Trophy as well, and is one of the best defensemen in the NHL that nobody talks about. The Stanley Cup Playoffs may have been a bit of a learning curve for him last season, but he just keeps getting better.

72. David Krejci, C, Boston Bruins

After posting 20 goals and 73 points last season in a standout year for the veteran center, the 33-year-old Krejci had fallen back a bit this year with 13 goals and 43 points in 61 games. He was a plus-10 and was playing 17:10 of ice time per game while driving things on Boston’s second line with an inconsistent Jake DeBrusk and a group of musical wingers on the right-hand side. So he wasn’t getting much help either.

Krejci did show how much greatness he is capable of, however, when he centered Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak for a couple of weeks when Patrice Bergeron was out with injury. Krejci has precision passing skills and a keen hockey I.Q. and those things become weapons when he’s playing with big scorers on his line.  

71. Mikko Rantanen, RW, Colorado Avalanche

After back-to-back 80 point seasons, Rantanen took a little bit of a step back this year due to injuries. He had just 19 goals and 42 points in 41 games while the Avs had a hard time keeping their super line of Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon together, and Rantanen was back to being a minus player after a couple of years in the positive.

Rantanen also had six goals and 14 points in 12 games during last spring’s playoffs and showed there’s an extra gear there when it matters most. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound right winger just keeps getting better and better.

70. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, D, Arizona Coyotes

A lifelong member of the Coyotes organization, the 28-year-old Ekman-Larsson was enjoying another solid year with nine goals and 30 points in 66 games in Arizona. He was also only a minus-3 after some pretty rough defensive seasons in the recent past, so that’s not too shabby for a guy who's a minus-92 for his entire NHL career.

He was also one goal short of scoring double-digit goals for the seventh straight season and had only finished under 40 points once in the last seven years.

69. Morgan Rielly, D, Toronto Maple Leafs

Coming off 20 goals and 72 points for the Maple Leafs last season, the bar was set pretty high for Rielly headed into this year. Instead he was with a Maple Leafs team that struggled out the gate and resulted in Mike Babcock getting fired while Rielly took a major step back with just three goals and 27 points in 47 games.

Some of that might have been about losing out on offensive chances to new D-man Tyson Barrie, but perhaps some of it was also about last season being a bit of a monster, aberrational year for the 26-year-old former first round pick. Still, he’s good enough to be the No. 1 guy in Toronto right now.

68. Matthew Tkachuk, LW, Calgary Flames

The 6-foot-2, 202-pound Tkachuk has certainly made a name for himself in Calgary, where he’s a power forward who can beat you with his physicality, his offense and the attitude he brings to the table as well. Like many Flames players, he took a bit of a step back from last season where he posted 34 goals and 77 points while totaling over 200 shots on goal for the first time in his career.

This season, he dipped into the minus and had just 23 goals and 61 points in 69 games, but he’d also become a major crap-stirrer in games against the L.A. Kings and Edmonton Oilers. There aren’t many guys in the league like Tkachuk anymore, so it’s important to fully credit the guys who do play that way.

67. Jordan Binnington, G, St. Louis Blues

The runner-up for the Calder Trophy last season and a player who got Vezina, Hart and All-Star votes while leading the Blues to their first Stanley Cup title, Binnington wasn’t quite as brilliant this year. But he was still solid with a 30-13-7 record along with a .912 save percentage and 2.56 goals against average, and was dealing just fine with heightened expectations after he stormed onto the scene as a 26-year-old rookie.

Binnington could be one of the best in another year or two as he keeps getting comfortable at the NHL level, but he’s already shown he’s a big-time performer in the playoffs.

66. Zach Werenski, D, Columbus Blue Jackets

The 22-year-old Werenski was enjoying his best NHL season this year with 20 goals and 41 points in 63 games while averaging a career-best 23:59 of ice time per game. He also bounced back from a tough defensive season last year to be a plus-9 this season for a Blue Jackets group that wasn’t nearly as talented as they were a season ago.

He should get the most Norris Trophy consideration he’s ever received this year when it comes time to tabulate the votes and he’s just scratching the surface of how good he can be as he gets into his mid-20s.

65. Travis Konecny, C, Philadelphia Flyers

Another member of the 2015 NHL Draft, the 23-year-old Konecny was in the midst of setting career-highs with 24 goals and 61 points in 66 games while becoming one of the young leaders on a Flyers team pointed to the playoffs.

The 5-foot-10, 175-pound winger had topped 20 goals and 40 points in each of the previous two seasons, but it appeared that he’d taken his consistency and overall game to a different level this year while doing much more damage on the power play. The feisty Konecny is a great fit for the Flyers group.

64. Nicklas Backstrom, C, Washington Capitals

With just 12 goals when the season went on pause, it looked like Backstrom was going to miss out on scoring 20 goals for the first time in five years this season, but the playmaking Swedish center was still nearly a point-per-game with 54 points in 61 games. Impressively, only 18 of his points came on the power play, so Backstrom was earning everything he was getting on the ice offensively.

He’s still one of the best dishers in the entire NHL and forms a dangerous 1-2 combo with Alex Ovechkin when they really get going. He may begin seeing decline in his game at 32 years old, but he should still be a mainstay for the Capitals for years to come.

63. Filip Forsberg, C, Nashville Predators

The 25-year-old Predators center has trailed off a little after back-to-back 30-goal seasons from 2015-2017, but he’s still a premium game-breaker for a Nashville team headed for the playoffs.

Forsberg had 21 goals and 48 points in 63 games for the Predators when the regular season went on pause in mid-March, but was also headed to being a minus player for just the second time in six seasons. But the potential is there for the 6-foot-1, 205-pound pivot to really take over games and he’s shown it in the postseason with 21 goals and 44 points in 61-career playoff games.

62. Tomas Hertl, C, San Jose Sharks

Injuries and a lousy Sharks team conspired to railroad his season this year with 16 goals and 36 points in 48 games along with a minus-18 rating, but he’s a premium talent who's shown it in flashes. He also put together a season where he posted 35 goals and 74 points in 77 games last season and earned Lady Byng consideration in the process.

It hasn’t been quite as smooth this season for the 26-year-old center, but everyone knows he’s a big, skilled dominating force when healthy. The 10 goals in 19 playoff games last spring were a testament to that as well.

61. Tyler Seguin, C, Dallas Stars

One of the most athletically gifted players in the entire NHL, the 28-year-old Seguin is another player with so-so numbers this season with just 17 goals and 50 points in 69 games. Some of that is about a much greater attention with the Stars' approach to defense and playing the 200-foot game, but still we’re talking about a guy who just last season had 33 goals and 80 points in 82 games.

Two seasons ago he scored 40 goals for the first time in his career. This year he was barely going to break 20 goals and clearly is better than that when he’s at his best. Both Seguin and Jamie Benn could have stood to be better in Dallas this season.  

60. Braden Holtby, G, Washington Capitals

A two-time All-Star, Vezina Trophy winner, Jennings Trophy winner and Stanley Cup champ, Holtby was not having a good year by his standards in Washington. Holtby had a 3.11 goals against average and .897 save percentage and had lost some playing time to youngster Ilya Samsonov as the season rolled on.

In fact there was some question who was going to man the pipes for the Capitals in the playoffs. Interestingly enough, he hasn’t been quite as good since the Capitals winning season in 2017-18, but he’s still young enough to turn things around at 30 years old.

59. Seth Jones, D, Columbus Blue Jackets

Normally a workhorse who plays more than 25 minutes per game, Jones was injured this season and had just six goals and 30 points in 56 games with a plus-10 rating. But he was averaging over 25 minutes of ice time per game and the pause to the season has allowed him time to get healthy for a return when the playoffs happen in August.

He hasn’t been as good in the last few years as he was when he snagged All-Star honors with 16 goals and 57 points for the Blue Jackets in 2017-18, but he is a No. 1 defenseman who’s fully capable of greatness. The 6-foot-4, 209-pounder has everything you could want in a franchise D-man and he’s got a partner in Zach Werenski who's just as talented.   

58. Johnny Gaudreau, LW, Calgary Flames

Like many other Flames players, Johnny Hockey was not close to his best this year. with nearly half as many goals (18) and points (58) as last season in 70 games played. He was also a career-worst minus-10 for the Flames this year, so he wasn’t his standout self at either end of the ice in Calgary.

Given that he’d averaged around 30 goals and 90 points the two prior seasons and was good enough to finish fourth in the Hart Trophy voting last season, one has to believe that things are going to be a lot better for the 26-year-old Gaudreau when the NHL is playing again. He’s way too good to have struggled like he did this year.

57. Kris Letang, D, Pittsburgh Penguins

A two-time Cup winner and two-time All-Star, Letang has come back from concussion issues to continue being an extremely effective top defenseman for the Penguins. Letang finished this season with 15 goals and 44 points in 61 games while playing to an even plus/minus rating and has averaged over 25 minutes of ice time in each of the last six seasons for Pittsburgh.

Letang has only finished as a Norris finalist once and has been top-5 just twice in his NHL career, which seems like a criminal underrating for a scrappy, skilled player who has been a leader on an excellent Penguins team.

56. Brock Boeser, RW, Vancouver Canucks

The 22-year-old Boeser has been a key part of a youth movement with the Vancouver Canucks, but battled injuries this season while putting up 16 goals and 45 points in 57 games. He’s gone upwards of 20 goals and 50 points in each of his first two NHL seasons.

In the good news department, he was a plus player for the first time after finishing in the minus in each of his first two seasons. It’s about offense with Boeser, though, who features a dangerous shot from the wing and has good size (6-foot-1, 208-pounds) to mix it up physically. He should be back healthy once the playoffs begin while Vancouver hopes he continues to improve after locking him up long-term.

55. Ben Bishop, G, Dallas Stars

The 6-foot-7, 215-pound Bishop has been instrumental in Dallas shifting to a greater defense-and-goaltending approach and was enjoying an excellent year with a .920 save percentage and a 2.50 goals against average. Bishop had teamed with Anton Khudobin to be an outstanding 1-2 combo between the pipes and was coming off an All-Star season last year where he finished as the runner-up for the Vezina Trophy.

He could be in the running again this season as a finalist and would appear to be at the peak of his game at 33 years old. My only question is how long a big-bodied goaltender like Bishop will be able to keep in peak form.

54. Mitch Marner, RW Toronto Maple Leafs

Mitch Marner can certainly score points. After nearly getting to 100 points last season, Marner battled through injuries and early Toronto struggles to still post 15 goals and 67 points in 59 games this year.

Marner is ultra-quick and ultra-skilled while forming a lethal 1-2-3 combo with Auston Matthews and William Nylander, and should be poised to dominate in the Atlantic Division for years to come. Last season he garnered All-Star, Selke and Lady Byng consideration and should continue to threaten in those categories for years while also dangerous with the puck on his stick. 

53. Marc-Andre Fleury, G, Vegas Golden Knights

The 35-year-old Quebec native continues to enjoy a second chapter in his NHL career with the Vegas Golden Knights. MAF was 27-16-5 this season with five shutouts and had decent .905 save percentage and 2.77 goals against average numbers this year.

Flower isn’t always able to stay healthy throughout the year and needs a good backup supporting him these days, but he showed a couple of seasons ago how good he can still be in the playoffs while leading the Knights to the Cup Final. There’s a reason he was a No. 1 overall pick back in the day and is approaching Hall of Fame status with his career numbers and three Stanley Cups. 

52. John Klingberg, D, Dallas Stars

The 27-year-old Klingberg is another Dallas player who seems to have made the transition from all-offense to two-way player this season for the greater good. After routinely racking up double-digit goal totals and big points as an offensive D-man for the run-and-gun Stars, Klingberg six goals and 32 points in 58 games this year while dealing with some injuries.

He was also a minus-10, which tells you the adjustment to tighter defense was a challenge for him. Still, he’s a guy who's garnered All-Star, Norris and Lady Byng consideration during his NHL career and has career highs of 13 goals and 67 points as a defenseman. 

51. Jonathan Toews, C, Chicago Blackhawks

While Toews might not be the guy he once was when the Blackhawks were winning Stanley Cups, he’s still a premier two-way center and Selke Trophy favorite each and every year. Toews had 18 goals and 60 points in 70 games when the regular season went on pause, but was also a minus player for just the second time in his entire NHL career for a struggling Chicago team.

The 31-year-old Toews got off to a rough start to the year before catching fire midway through, but should have plenty of energy stored when Chicago gets to take part in the playoffs this summer. That’s when Captain Serious gets really series.

Haggerty: McAvoy the driver behind any Bruins' future Cup run

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Haggerty: McAvoy the driver behind any Bruins' future Cup run

If and when the Bruins win another Stanley Cup in the next ten years, Bruins rookie defenseman Charlie McAvoy will be the major reason behind it.

Every Stanley Cup winner the past 10 years, save for last year’s aberrational Pittsburgh Penguins crew that did it all in the postseason without an injured Kris Letang, has employed a clear-cut No. 1 defenseman in his prime who plays huge minutes and excels in all situations. The Penguins have Letang when he’s healthy, the Blackhawks have Duncan Keith, the Los Angeles Kings have Drew Doughty, the Bruins had Zdeno Chara moving toward the back of his prime when they hoisted the Cup in 2011, the Red Wings had the same with Niklas Lidstrom in 2008 and the Ducks had Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer in 2007.

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McAvoy, who turns 20 on Dec. 21, isn’t quite there yet, obviously, but he is already a leading candidate for the Calder Trophy while leading all NHL rookies with 23:37 of ice time per game. That is very clearly somebody who's on the road to being a No. 1 defenseman in the NHL and it might not be too far into the future.

Not only is McAvoy the biggest rookie workhorse in the NHL, but he’s averaging more than four more minutes of ice time than first-year players Samuel Girard, Robert Hagg and Clayton Keller. It’s as much about a mindset with McAvoy as it is about the impressive physical gifts he brings to the table.

“There are a lot of people I like to take aspects from. Drew Doughty is one of them. Tyson Barrie is another one I like to watch. I think Kris Letang is an unbelievable defenseman with skating and ability both offensively and defensively,” said McAvoy. “All of these guys are complete players on their teams, they compete in every aspect and they’re all relied on for every situation. Those are the kind of guys I look up to.

“There are a lot of guys where I can try to pull things from their game and make it into my own. [Doughty] has achieved the label of what I want over my career, which is a complete defenseman that can kill penalties, play the power play, play a lot of minutes every night and be reliable and responsible while still being able to contribute all over the ice.”

The stellar first two months of this season are the kind of thing almost assumed for McAvoy after he came in for his NHL debut and averaged 26 minutes per game in Boston’s playoff series vs. the Ottawa Senators last spring. But doing it in theory and doing it, in reality, are two very different things in the world’s best hockey league. McAvoy is the rare young player who’s exceeding the hype. It’s the kind of performance out of a first-year player that’s made life a little easier for Bruce Cassidy in his first full year as head coach in Boston.  

“He’s efficient on the ice,” said Cassidy. “We talk about the big moments, and it doesn’t matter how many minutes he’s played on the ice. He seems to rise up, but he’s also efficient. There is not a lot of wasted energy. He doesn’t come back to the bench exhausted because he’s chasing guys all over the place. That’s hockey sense for one, and he seems to be a guy that can recover quickly, and that’s just in his DNA.”

The Bruins rookie D-man has been touted as this kind of workhorse player since back at his pre-draft rookie combine when he listed the Norris Trophy-winning Doughty as the model for his own game and made it known his biggest goal was to be the rare NHL blueliner able to do everything from power-play quarterback to shutdown defender.

Well, McAvoy is well on his way to that and even more. The teen-aged defenseman is becoming the best Bruins rookie D-man since a guy named Ray Bourque donned the Black and Gold almost 40 years ago and went on to become a generational defenseman and Hall of Famer.

So, where does it all come from? That ability to play huge minutes in all situations without his play suffering? To be able to make a positive impact at both ends of the ice for a team that badly needed their next franchise defenseman?

Some of it is the obvious natural “DNA”, as Cassidy would say, that made him the 14th overall pick in the 2016 draft when the Bruins called his name. It could have ended up being his BU teammate Dante Fabbro or the plummeting Jakub Chychrun as he fell out of the top 10. There were definitely voices at the Bruins draft table advocating for others aside from McAvoy. The right choice prevailed, however, as it so often does in a collaborative group discussion, and it’s easy to see why now with McAvoy’s strong, sturdy 6-foot, 210-pound frame that enduring a heavy NHL workload.

Still, there’s clearly more to it than just raw talent.

There’s also an economy of movement and workload with McAvoy where he makes quality, forward-moving choices in his own end, and therefore doesn’t burn a lot of energy chasing puck carriers or throwing down in front of his net.

“He has the puck a lot and makes good plays with it, so he’s not forced to defend a lot,” said Cassidy. “You expend a more energy generally in defending than you do attacking [in the offensive zone]. He makes his share of mistakes, but he recovers so quickly from them. He’s not a young guy that you have to talk off the ledge when he makes [the mistakes].

“He just gets back out there and understands turning the page. I’ve said that all along. I think that’s why he bounces back quicker than some younger guys, and gets himself back in there and keeps playing. That’s a mental talent that he has.”

Those simple, smart plays and pinpoint choices mean less of the grueling D-zone work on his shifts and a quick recovery time on the bench where he’s ready to hop over the boards again.

“There’s no way to really pace yourself as far as going out there and saying ‘I’m probably going to play this amount of minutes, so I might not push it on this shift.’ You go out and compete as hard as you can, and then you come right back whether it’s two minutes or 45 seconds and then go right back out there,” said McAvoy. “I don’t know if it’s a genetic thing. I don’t think it has anything to do with that. I think it just has to do with the way I play the game. One of the things I’ve heard in college and even before that in the [USNT Development Program] is kind of managing a hockey game.

“You play in a way where you look at a guy like Ryan Suter, and he can play in the high 20’s [for minutes of ice time] and 30 minutes, and he was playing that every game. The reason he could do that was because he was managing the game so well. He could play so effectively that he would make plays with the puck, and always put himself in a position where he didn’t have to overwork. I try and play the game hard and fast every shift – and not lackadaisical by any means – but I also try to play in a way where I’m effective, and I don’t feel tired when I’m coming back from the last shift. It’s also a testament to the stuff we do here with training and everything else too. All you have to do is just look at [Zdeno Chara], and some of our forwards that are playing 20 minutes a night.”

The other area where McAvoy separates from his peers?

The kid has an amazing ability to rise to the big occasions and seems to embrace the big stage rather than shrink away from it. He’s netted game-winners at the international and collegiate level and he’s lit up opponents with mid-ice hits that become the talk of the tournament. There’s a swagger and a confidence that comes with the talent and the work ethic, and that attitude shows in McAvoy’s play. That’s quite the opposite from the Bruins' last young, big-time defenseman in Dougie Hamilton, who most times preferred to be in the background and certainly had more desire to focus on his offensive responsibilities rather than the defensive and physical chores of the job.

“He just loves being out there. He’s not shy in the big moments and he doesn’t get nervous, so there’s another thing where more energy is expended when you’re nervous,” said Cassidy. “It’s just a lot of things in his makeup and in his personality that allows him to [play big minutes]. That’s what I see. He’s a special talent in that way.”

These are star qualities with McAvoy and the fact they’re appearing so early in his NHL career portends great things in his future. Clearly, it isn’t all going to be sunshine when it comes to a young D-man making his way through the NHL, and we see that with the minus-3 rating he carried into the game Thursday night with the Arizona Coyotes.

Clearly, with McAvoy, there is a spectacle aspect to his game where his talent jumps out at you even though he’s a 200-foot defenseman.

The game-winning roofed backhand in the shootout vs. the New Jersey Devils is something you just don’t see many D-men successfully pull off in an NHL game, and certainly not after playing 27-plus minutes of yeoman’s work in regulation play. He’s on pace for 13 goals and 49 points as a rookie defenseman. That would be quite a first NHL season for a player that basically jumped from NCAA to the NHL with just a couple of AHL games thrown in.

But the elite offensive skill sprinkled in with the occasional dazzling play is only part of the story with McAvoy’s impact on the Bruins. Instead, the difference-making quality will be McAvoy’s ability to shoulder a huge workload in all zones without his performance wavering and the ability to potentially do it for close to a 30-minute stretch per game for a prolonged period if/when the Bruins are Cup contenders once again.

The Bruins had that player for close to a 10-year stretch when they signed Chara back in 2006. They went on a run where they qualified for the playoffs eight consecutive seasons, won four divisional titles, appeared in two Cup Finals and memorably hoisted Lord Stanley after a memorable seven-game series in 2011.

Now Chara is 40 and transitioning into more of a straight shutdown defenseman. He simply isn’t capable of being a No. 1 for a two-month stretch in the playoffs. It may not be this season as McAvoy learns the NHL ropes and goes through all the different firsts that every rookie experiences.

But the grand possibilities are already there for the McAvoy and the Bruins a couple of seasons down the road thanks in large part to the best young D-man that the Black and Gold have had in a long, long time. If the Bruins are lucky enough to have another Cup parade over the next ten years with duck boats and all, the name McAvoy is going to be one of the big reasons behind it.