Zach Werenski

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.

Werenski contract a pretty obvious blueprint for getting McAvoy deal done

Werenski contract a pretty obvious blueprint for getting McAvoy deal done

For most of the summer, the talk has been that Bruins restricted free-agent defenseman Charlie McAvoy was looking for a long-term team with the B’s on his second contract. Certainly, it was encouraging from the perspective that McAvoy, 21, wants to remain in Boston for a long, long time and loves being a member of the Bruins.

The former Boston University standout said as much at Bruins breakup day back in the middle of June.

"I don't want to go anywhere. [Boston] is the best place on earth," said McAvoy back in June. "This is home for me now. I live here in the summer. I love it here. I want to be here forever."

But there was also a common-sense belief that a shorter bridge deal would make a lot more sense for both sides. After all,  McAvoy has missed almost 50 games with injuries and health issues in his first two NHL seasons and really hasn’t put together the kind of dominant season that precedes a monster, maximum-term contract, particularly for a player coming out of his entry-level deal.

McAvoy certainly appears on track to be a No. 1 defenseman and has averaged seven goals and 30 points his two NHL seasons. He kicked it up a notch in the run to the Stanley Cup Final when he averaged 24:30 of ice time and posted two goals and eight points in his 23 playoff games. But the Bruins admittedly would like to see McAvoy put together a healthy, strong and consistent season before they shell out the huge term and megabucks similar to the eight-year, $60 million contract Aaron Ekblad signed with the Florida Panthers.

Bruins President Cam Neely said as much in his sit-down with NBC Sports Boston this summer when asked about McAvoy.

“You look at a player that’s had some health issues two years in a row at a young age,” said Neely to NBC Sports Boston, referencing McAvoy. “You look at that and say ‘Okay, is that going to stay the same or is it just bad luck?’ We all can see what Charlie is capable of doing. You’d like to see a bigger sample size, obviously. Since the cap has come into effect we’ve all seen deals that have been signed where three years down the road you say it’s not as good as you anticipated it would be.

“Charlie has had three playoff years and two full seasons where he hasn’t been healthy. A lot of times obviously that’s not his fault, but it’s nice to have a better sample size of where a player is going to go. You see the skill set that [McAvoy] has. We want both Charlie and Brandon [Carlo] to be Bruins for their whole career, but we also have to do what’s right for the organization.”

Similarly from McAvoy’s perspective, if he were to take a two-to-three-year deal for $5 million to $6 million per season now then he’d set himself up for a massive payday a couple of years down the line provided he plays up to his major talent.

Enter the three-year, $15 million contract signed by Zach Werenski and the Columbus Blue Jackets this week that’s exactly the kind of bridge deal envisioned for McAvoy and the Bruins. Werenski, 22, has averaged 13 goals and 42 points in his first three NHL seasons, has missed just nine games in those three seasons and played in all 82 games last season while averaging 22:54 of ice time.

On paper, Werenski has done a ton more than McAvoy to this point in his career and stayed healthy while doing it for Columbus. Werenski is an obvious, direct comparable contract to McAvoy and Flyers RFA Ivan Provorov and should set up the template for both of those contracts to be in a very similar neighborhood when they are finally signed. McAvoy may want a six-to-eight-year contract and perhaps someday he’ll get it once he’s played like a franchise defenseman for an extended period.

Still, the precedent has now been set this fall and now it’s up to McAvoy to sign for fair market value without missing too much training camp. The longer he holds out for something that simply isn’t there will become a problem for the player and the team.

Don Sweeney was asked about it at the Prospects Challenge tournament in Buffalo and referenced that the Werenski deal is going to have an impact on the McAvoy talks.

“I haven’t checked my phone since you and I started talking, I think the deal just came down,” Sweeney said Tuesday afternoon in Buffalo to a group of reporters. “Every deal allows things to continue to take shape. We’ll be in touch, as we have been, with Charlie and Charlie’s group, as well as Brandon’s group.”

It’s the way of the Bruins. Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak all took market value, or a little less, in order to set up Boston’s salary cap structure for years to come. Now, it’s up to McAvoy to come to terms with the way the restricted free-agent market is playing out and get a bridge deal done with both sides that could lead everybody involved to greatness in the near future.

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Haggerty: Bruins' only choice is signing Pastrnak rather than trading him

Haggerty: Bruins' only choice is signing Pastrnak rather than trading him

At this point in the negotiations between David Pastrnak and the Bruins, it should be painstakingly clear that there will be no easy option for the Black and Gold. 

Months ago, the Bruins and Pastrnak’s camp discussed a deal in the neighborhood of six years and $36 million, as first reported by CSN New England, but that ship sailed when Connor McDavid, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Ryan Johansen and Leon Draisaitl all signed massive contracts as young, restricted free agents in a summer where elite young players saw their market go way, way up.

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So, the Bruins will need to step up and find some sort of middle ground on a long-term deal between $6 million per season and the $8.5 million per season that Draisaitl received, or they’ll need to somehow get Pastrnak’s camp to agree on a shorter bridge deal that comes with all kinds of risk down the line. Either option could include a Pastrnak holdout into training camp as both sides brace for the best deal possible. That’s something that would begin to impact this year’s team in a negative way.

The other, almost unthinkable, option: A trade of another talented young player. Don Sweeney and the Bruins have already stated they don’t want to trade the 21-year-old right winger, who is coming off a 34-goal, 70-points point season, and that goes in line with everything Sweeney and Cam Neely have said since Dougie Hamilton essentially forced them to trade him away to the Calgary Flames.

Neely and Sweeney have been consistent in their message of saying the Bruins are done “sprinkling their talent around the rest of the league”, and everyone is on the same page evaluating Pastrnak as a massive talent. So a trade involving Pastrnak doesn’t appear on the horizon and it really shouldn’t as long as the Black and Gold think the game-breaking, young right winger wants to remain in Boston.

What would a trade of Pastrnak look like if Sweeney and the Bruins did get to the point where the nuclear option was necessary?

Felger and Mazz earlier this week floated the scenario of a Pastrnak-for-Noah Hanifin trade with the Carolina Hurricanes making a lot of practical sense for the Bruins. Certainly, the Bruins are looking for a young left-shot defenseman who could be an heir apparent to 40-year-old Zdeno Chara and the jury is way out as to whether young prospect Jakub Zboril will ever be that guy. There’s also the fact that acquiring Hanifin would allow Sweeney to go full circle after he tried to trade up to nab the former Boston College D-man in the 2015 draft, in which the Bruins made three consecutive selections in the middle of the first round.

But let’s be honest here. The 20-year-old Hanifin hasn’t quite developed in Carolina as many projected when he was a lottery pick for the Hurricanes. He wasn’t even a top-four defenseman for most of the year in Carolina while falling short of 18 minutes of ice time per game, and he was a team-worst minus-19 in 81 games for the Hurricanes.

If the Bruins ever actually did trade Pastrnak, they’d need to get the same kind of elite, young player in return. It’s clear Hanifin isn’t anywhere close to the level of a player who busted out for 34 goals and 70 points last season. A deal that would make more sense for the Bruins would be another member of the 2015 draft class in Columbus, D-man Zach Werenski, but there’s no way the Blue Jackets would deal a player that looks like a Norris Trophy contender for the next 10 plus years. That’s the rub with potentially dealing Pastrnak and what puts the Black and Gold into such a difficult spot.

If the Bruins did indeed trade a young, star player for another team’s top young player, they are going to have to show the player they bring in the money just like they’re eventually going to have to pay Pastrnak. And another team isn’t going to trade away their young star if they’ve already got him locked up in a reasonable long-term contract.

The bottom line with No. 88 is that he’s the perfect fit for the speedier, skilled philosophy that the Bruins are emphasizing these days and that the B’s don’t have anything else in their organization that’s even close to his game-breaking, electric ability. 

The best possible solution for Sweeney remains figuring out a way to close a deal with Pastrnak on a contract that will keep him happy and productive in Boston, and in doing so avoiding another futile repeat of the Original Six organization’s handling of Phil Kessel, Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton over the past 10 years.