The Top 10 Left Wingers in the NHL

Over the last few years, I have published top 10 positional rankings for NHL players, but with a fantasy hockey focus. This time around, I am going to offer my thoughts on the top 10 players at each position, but with a focus on the actual sport itself.

Read on to find out who the top 10 left wingers in the NHL are.

Fantasy hockey and hockey are similar in many ways (great NHL players tend to be great in fantasy hockey), but it isn’t always the case. A lot more goes into winning hockey games than offensive production (the team with the most goals wins, but it takes more than just offensive talent to generate offense).

A lot of what a hockey player does won’t show up on the stat sheet (be it a goal, assist, hit, blocked shot, and so on), and this list will hopefully reflect the actual hockey-playing ability of the top players at each position more accurately.

And even with the increase in usage and availability of so many useful “advanced” statistics in recent years, hockey players are still valued on their intangibles – things they bring to the ice that can’t necessarily be quantified very easily.

First up is a look at the left wingers. The strength of the position has taken a hit over the last few years, with natural left wingers Ilya Kovalchuk and Alex Ovechkin moving over to the right side (and in Kovalchuk’s case, back to Russia, too).

Former professional hockey player Justin Bourne wrote a great post on the topic of left wing and right wing over at the Score a few months ago. Typically, wingers play on their strong sides (so left shooters play left wing, and right shooters play right wing). This allows them more opportunities to receive passes and handle the puck on their forehand compared to their backhand. This is particularly helpful for breaking the puck out of the defensive zone.

Ovechkin – once a left winger, now a right winger

But there also are wingers that have thrived playing on their “off side.” This included both Ovechkin and Kovalchuk for a while, as it gave them more opportunities to step into one-timers and to cut into the center of the ice before firing shots on goal.. Eventually, though, other teams figured out ways to limit scoring opportunities this way (often by forcing these players to make plays on their backhand). Adam Oates was an assistant coach in New Jersey and he moved Kovalchuk over to the right side to give him more opportunities to make plays. Kovalchuk thrived. Oates has since gone on to become the head coach in Washington, and he had a similar impact on Ovechkin (although it took complete buy-in and some adjusting from the big Russian).

Pascal Dupuis plays right wing in Pittsburgh, Alex Burrows moved over to the right side in Vancouver, and James Neal flanks Evgeni Malkin on the right side. On the below list, though, only two of my top 10 left wingers are right-handed shots.

The criteria for these rankings:

Contracts and salary weren’t taken into consideration. This isn’t a ranking of trade value or market value, but of hockey-playing value.

Age was also taken into consideration, but not significantly.  Potential and upside are great, but this list is about ranking the best players at this present moment. However, if two players were deemed to be exactly equal, the younger player would get the slight edge.

Hockey is a team sport, and there are a lot of variables at play when putting together a top team. Would you pick a talented scorer or a power forward if given the choice? Well, it would depend on a few things – linemates, the playing style and strategy of the team, the makeup of the rest of the roster, and so on.

Imagine you are constructing a team to play a full 82-game season starting tomorrow. That is the thought process I used with these rankings.

1. Zach Parise

It is rare for a big-money free agent to live up to the hype and expectation in year one, but Parise did exactly that playing for his hometown Minnesota Wild. He isn’t the flashiest player on this list (heck, he may not even make a list of the top 10 in that regard), but he simply outworks and outhustles opposing players every time he is on the ice. Having the work ethic of a fourth line grinder combined with the talent and skill of a first liner is an unbeatable combination.

Parise checked in at number 28 on my recent rankings of the top 50 NHL trade values, and he would have finished significantly higher if contracts were not taken into consideration. He isn’t overpaid (relative to other professional hockey players, of course), but he is owed a large chunk of change for a very long time.

After tearing his ACL in 2010-11, he came back strong the next season with a 31-goal, 69-point campaign. He scored 18 goals in 48 games for the Wild last season – a 31-goal pace. Parise has scored at least 30 goals in every full season he has played in since 2006-07. His best offensive campaign came back in 2008-09 with the Devils (45 goals and 94 points). Parise picked the Wild for many reasons (playing close to home, financial security), but one of the most important ones was the future outlook of the organization.

Minnesota isn’t an elite hockey team right now, but they have an elite future. Not many teams boast a comparable collection of young talent (Jonas Brodin, Mikael Granlund, Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle, Matt Dumba… the list continues on).

Parise also draws penalties better than almost any other NHLer. According to the Hockey Abstract, only Dustin Brown (surprise, I know) and Darren Helm have higher penalties drawn-to-taken ratios per 60 minutes of ice time since 2008-09 than Parise.

Parise is one of the most well-rounded players in hockey, and if I could pick one left winger to have on my team starting today, he’d be the guy.

2. Taylor Hall

This isn’t a pick based on upside or potential, even though Hall doesn’t even turn 22 years old until this November. He is already one of the most dominant forwards in hockey, a fact that should impressive you even more when you take into consideration where he plays.

Hall made the cut for my recent Team Canada roster for the Sochi Olympics next year (alongside Sidney Crosby no less), but he still fails to get the respect he deserves from many in the hockey world. Hall has everything working for him – for old school hockey fans, he passes the “eye test” (which means you don’t have to know the nuances of hockey or be well-versed in statistical analysis to watch Hall and recognize his talent instantly). He is a puck-possession and shot-generating monster, and because of this the advanced stats guys love him, too. He was the engine that drove his linemates (Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins), and subsequently, the entire Edmonton roster in 2013. It is rare for a winger to have that kind of impact on a team, especially at the age of 21.

Hall suffered a few injuries during his first two years in the league due in large part to a style of hockey that many perceived to be “reckless.” He has since learned to pick his spots better, but his game hasn’t changed all that much – he flies around the ice at 100 miles an hour, usually with the puck on his stick. He isn’t as polished or as sound defensively as a few guys below him on this list, but there is no denying that he has the ability to be significantly more impactful in a positive way.

Hall’s playmaking is also an underrated part of his game. From the Hockey Abstract:

Strange things can happen in shorter seasons, but Crosby was still on top in 2012–13, with 5.42 passes per game. Only Edmonton’s Taylor Hall, who was second with 5.00, was within a full pass per game of Pittsburgh’s phenom.

3. Henrik Zetterberg

Zetterberg is the prototypical Swedish hockey player in many ways – humble and soft-spoken off the ice, responsible defensively, technically sound, skilled and unselfish with the puck. But he is so much more than that. It is ridiculous to think that 209 players were drafted ahead of him in 2009. In 123 career postseason games, he has scored 55 goals and added 59 assists. And since 2005, no other player has as many postseason goals as Zetterberg does. He is the rare player who has better production in the playoffs, when the games are more physical, tighter-checking, and lower scoring.

Zetterberg’s 2007-08 season should go down as one of the greatest in the modern era. He began the season by recording points in 17 consecutive games (setting a team record). He finished the season with 92 points (in only 75 games), and added 27 poitns in 22 postseason games. He set an NHL record with 116 shots on goal during the postseason. Zetterberg also scored the game-winning and Stanley Cup-clinching goal against Pittsburgh in the Final, and was awarded the Conn Smythe for a dominant six-game performance up against Sidney Crosby.

Zetterberg has a similar ability as Parise to draw penalties. Since 2008, he ranks ninth in penalties drawn-to-taken. What this stat should tell you – good players who have the puck a lot (like Zetterberg and Parise) are tough for opposing players to contain under the confines of the NHL rulebook.

Zetterberg is also a great example of a player who holds more value in real life than in fantasy hockey. He is still a very good offensive player at this point in his career, but his commitment to defense and ability to step his game up in pressure situations isn’t really reflected in any measurable statistic used for fantasy hockey.

4. Daniel Sedin

Figuring out where to rank the Sedin twins individually is difficult (or impossible). So much of what makes Daniel and Henrik successful is their chemistry together, so how can their talents be accurately quantified alone? Well – they can’t. However, that doesn’t mean that they should be ignored when discussing the league’s best players. Henrik proved in 2009-10 that he can produce without Daniel (who missed close to games with a foot injury).

The Sedins are durable, extremely talented offensively, and reliable defensively. They played tougher minutes in 2013 than they have at any other point in their careers, and their respective production took a hit because of it. Daniel and Henrik still have the reputation as players who wilt in the postseason (they have had great performances and some not-so-great performances – as usual, the answer lies somewhere in between).

Alain Vigneault did a great job of creating offensive opportunities for Daniel and Henrik (through a strategy that saw them start the majority of their shifts in the offensive zone). And they made the most of the added opportunities, winning back-to-back Art Ross Trophies and emerging as two of the best offensive talents in hockey.

The numbers back up that success, too. Over the past five years:

When Daniel Sedin is on the ice, the Canucks get 18.7 more attempted shots per 60 minutes than their opponents, or about one extra attempted shot every 3.2 minutes.

Regardless of your stance on them, they are two of the best hockey players on the planet, and that won’t change for at least another two or three years.

5. Patrick Marleau

Hey, would you look at that!? Another player with a reputation as a playoff underperformer (although you think 57 goals in 140 games would speak for itself). Marleau, once a speedy two-way center, was converted into a speedy two-way left winger a few years ago. His game works well on the wing because he is more of a shooter than a playmaker, and because his size and speed make him awfully tough to contain as he flies down the wing or in behind the opposing defensemen.

Marleau is seen as a microcosm for San Jose’s playoff struggles by some (that means you, Mr. Roenick), fairly or not. The Sharks have played in a few Conference Final matchups but have yet to take the final step to the Cup Final. Is it really fair to blame players for a lack of postseason success? Yes and no. Winning the Cup definitely helps a player’s reputation (and it should), but not winning a cup shouldn’t necessarily hurt a player’s reputation as much as it sometimes does.

Not counting the lockout-shortened 2013 season, Marleau has scored at least 28 goals in every season since 2002. That is consistency (a skill/attribute that is underrated among professional athletes). There are left wingers below Marleau on this list who are younger, have more upside, and have already won a Cup, but as of right now, Marleau is a more complete hockey player.

The argument could be made that there isn’t a single NHL forward over the past 10 years who has been as universally underrated as Marleau has (perhaps one of the honorable mentions on this list). He makes his teammates (a lot) better, he’s one of the best postseason scorers in hockey,

6. Thomas Vanek

Vanek is one of a handful of NHL players who is capable of driving the production of his line all by himself (and that’s a good thing as he will have to do exactly that this season in Buffalo). Outside of John Tavares, there isn’t a more skilled NHL player from within five feet of the net than Vanek. His hand-eye coordination is ridiculous, his hands are silky-smooth, and he shoots the puck with laser-like precision.

Vanek has been one of the most consistent scorers in hockey over the past many years. Only 12 active NHLers currently hold a 35+ goals per season average, and Vanek is one of them (others include Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, and Sidney Crosby). And of those 12 players, Vanek plays the fewest minutes (by a pretty significant margin, too). More ice time doesn’t always equal more production, but it typically helps. Vanek doesn’t kill penalties, and that likely contributes to his lack of overall ice time, but he can create offense like few players in hockey.

7. Jamie Benn

How good is Jamie Benn? Perhaps the better question – how good is Jamie Benn going to be? Well, we are very likely going to find out this season. Drafted out of the BCHL as a left winger, Benn was moved to center a few years ago in Dallas (largely out of necessity). He picked up the position quite quickly. Moving from wing to center is never an easy move, and the fact that Benn had to do it while playing brutally tough minutes on a team without much depth behind him makes it all the more impressive.

With Dallas’s busy summer (adding three natural centers to the roster, including Tyler Seguin, Benn’s present and future running mate), Benn is headed back to the wing. He is big and strong, a great skater, and has one of the best wrist shots in hockey. Playing center for a few years will no doubt benefit him in the long run, as it gave him a different perspective on offense (and a greater appreciation for the defensive side of the game). Benn struggled through 2013 with a nagging wrist injury – probably not the best injury to have for a player who earns his keep with his hands and wrist shot.

The Stars are a team on the rise, and Benn will be at the forefront of any success they have. He has a little added motivation after being left off of the list for Team Canada’s summer evaluation camp.

8. Milan Lucic

When he is on his game, there isn’t a player in the NHL who is as physically dominant as Lucic is. Blessed with tremendous size and strength, the former Vancouver Giant has worked his tail off to develop from a depth player in the WHL to a star forward in the NHL. His success in Boston has led to more than a few NHL teams burning an early draft pick on a project forward in search of the “next Lucic.” Spoiler alert – there isn’t one. Lucic was playing Junior B hockey in Canada only a few years ago, and even at that level he was far from a sure thing. He was a physically imposing player in junior hockey, but many felt that the Bruins picked him too early back in 2006 (50th overall).

Lucic is a tremendous offensive forward, too. He sees the ice really well and of course uses his size to create separation from opposing defensemen. His 2013 regular season was a bit of a struggle (seven goals in 46 games), but his game turned around when it mattered (seven goals in 22 postseason games). In a seven game series, there aren’t many forwards who have the potential to be as impactful. His toughness and physicality isn’t forced, either. Lucic doesn’t have to try to be intimidating – he is intimidating.

9. Evander Kane

In a year or two, Kane will be among the top two or three on this list. But he still has some growing and developing to do as a hockey player. He is an extremely dynamic talent and has the size and strength to dominate opposing defensemen physically, while possessing the speed and skill to deke around them. Kane needs to learn to use his teammates better (to be fair, he played most of the time with a way-over-the-hill Olli Jokinen last season), but he is right on track in terms of development.

Relative to his age, Kane’s goal production already borders on elite. Check out the company he is keeping with his production at the age of 20.

10. Patrick Sharp

Sharp has quietly developed into one of the best two-way wingers in hockey. He has been able to do this largely away from the radar because there is so much star power on Chicago. Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, and Patrick Kane generate more buzz and attention than Sharp does, but the former Flyer is arguably just as important to the team’s overall success.

Over the past six seasons, he has scored over 25 goals in five of them (and over 30 goals in three). His 2013 season was a disappointment (six goals in 28 games), but bad luck (6.8% scoring rate) and injuries (he missed 20 games) are equally to blame.

Honorable Mentions:

Patrik Elias

One of the most underrated forwards of this generation – Elias has won multiple Cups, he has scored at every level and in every situation, and he’s a very solid two-way forward.

Andrew Ladd

Ladd has had an interesting career. Although is still only 27 years old, he has won two Stanley Cups, been named a team captain, been called a bust, and developed into a top line winger. Ladd was picked fourth overall back in 2004 by the Hurricanes, but never lived up to the hype in Carolina. In Chicago, he developed into a solid depth forward, scoring a combined 32 goals over his two full years there. However, after an offseason trade to Atlanta in 2010, Ladd’s career has really taken off. He scored 29 goals that year with the Thrashers, and added 28 the next season after the move to Winnipeg. In 2013, Ladd scored at a 31-goal clip (18 goals in 48 games).

It took more time than Carolina (and probably Chicago) expected, but Ladd has arrived as a versatile top line star in the NHL.

James van Riemsdyk

18 goals in 48 games last season with Toronto was a sign of things to come. If only the Leafs had a top line center to play with their two (or three if you want to include Joffrey Lupul) top line wingers.

Max Pacioretty

Pacioretty will be on this list next year (and for many years after). He does everything well – skate, hit, score, pass, defend.

Matt Moulson

Sure, Moulson has benefitted tremendously from playing with John Tavares, but it still takes an incredible amount of talent to score 30+ goals every season.

Gabriel Landeskog

Landeskog is already one of the better two-way forwards in hockey, and he was born in 1992. He will very likely take a back seat to several flashier and higher-profile teammates in the future, including Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon. However, there probably won’t be a player on Colorado who will be as integral to the success of the team than Landeskog.

Dustin Brown

A natural right winger who has moved over to his off side, Brown has developed into a strong two-way forward. Loved in Los Angeles for his bruising style of play (and loathed everywhere else for his frequent embellishment), Brown is an impactful hockey player for the Kings  in so many ways.

Brad Marchand

With some of his antics and cheap plays, people sometimes forget how good Marchand is at playing hockey. He is a tremendously skilled offensive player, and it’s easy to forget that he is only 5-8 with how he plays the game (fast and hard).

Chris Kunitz

He finished 2013 on a 38-goal, 89-point pace (projected over a full 82 game season). If he produces at that rate again in 2013-14, he will find a spot on the top 10. Kunitz does a lot of things well, but his best attribute is his ability to mesh with Sidney Crosby. Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t always easy to play alongside the best hockey player on the planet.