NHL’s Top 5 Passers of the Decade

Another decade of hockey has been completed, making it another ten years of amazing and jaw-dropping moments. Many of these would not have been possible without one of the most important skills in the game, the pass. You might ask, haven’t we had this list already? Well, yes and no. The best playmakers are usually forwards, but the best passers are not always of the forward variety. This list welcomes in the defencemen, who are sometimes the best passers on the team, even though they do not always show up in the highlight reels or even the scoresheet.

NHL Top 5 Passers of the Decade with Nicklas Backstrom, Henrik Sedin and Joe Thornton

Just passing the puck cleanly out of the defensive zone and through the neutral zone is a skill in of itself. Passes don’t always translate to assists. Sometimes the biggest plays are the ones that get the puck into the offensive zone, even though that pass occurred way before a goal was actually scored.

Passing is also a skill that is appreciated not only by the statistics it produces but also by the players and coaches that witness them. So without further ado, let’s welcome the new decade with the top five passers of the 2010s.

5. Erik Karlsson

Since the dawn of the decade, Erik Karlsson has been the most dominant defenceman in the NHL. He paced all defencemen in points with 567 in the 2010s, which also included 439 assists. He spent nine seasons with the Ottawa Senators before getting traded to the San Jose Sharks and subsequently signing a long term contract with them. Over the course of his almost 11 seasons in the NHL, he has dazzled us with his speed, hockey IQ and most of all his sublime passing skills.

Karlsson’s ability to get it out of the defensive zone and into the hands of his forwards is second to none. His vision and creativity can be compared to some of the superstar forwards that accompany him on this list, that’s how amazing his passing skills are. If you don’t believe me or the stats, just take a look at the insane pass that he made to Senators forward Mike Hoffman in the 2017 playoffs.

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That pass was no fluke as it went in the air and on the tape of the on-rushing forward, it was a designed play by Karlsson. It looked like a quarterback passing to a wide receiver, Hoffman didn’t need to slow down or settle the puck, just skate onto it. You couldn’t draw up a prettier play if you tried. Even Boston Bruins’ head coach Bruce Cassidy was in awe of the play.

Honest to God, it’s an all-world play. … He saucered it over our guy’s head, so that’s one you’ve got to tip your hat to Karlsson.

From ‘Boston sportswriters — no strangers to great defencemen — are blown away by Karlsson’, Ottawa Citizen – 4/21/17

That pass along with many others is the reason he takes the number five spot on the list.

4. Henrik Sedin

There is one thing that has always been synonymous with Henrik Sedin, and that is passing. Over the course of his career with the Vancouver Canucks, he racked up a staggering 830 assists, mostly to his brother Daniel and the winger they happened to have on their line at the time. His passes were creative, smart and sometimes magical. When you watched his saucer pass, it was like you were witnessing a once in a lifetime event.

Henrik’s vision rivaled the Great One, as it seemed like he had eyes in the back of his head sometimes. Now that could be because he had innate chemistry with his twin brother Daniel, but we saw those passes occur on multiple occasions with other forwards too, so it’s not just because of that. It’s not difficult to find an insane pass on a highlight reel, that’s how often it happened. So I will leave you with a few examples, which of course includes his brother’s playmaking talents as well.

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Henrik’s passes benefited not only his brother but the many wingers that had the privilege of lining up next to him. Former linemate Alex Burrows, who had the most success with him put it perfectly when he said,

Give them the puck as many times as possible, and go to the net and have your stick on the ice. Be ready at all times to get the puck back because they’re going to make those crazy saucer passes — forehand, backhand, no-look, through the legs.

Alex Burrows

We should actually be including Daniel here as well since he also possessed many of the same talents his brother Henrik did. But Henrik has always been a passer first, while Daniel scored many of the goals. So he gets the honor of the fourth spot on this list.

3. Nicklas Backstrom

Swedish players must be good at passing because Nicklas Backstrom is the third player from the Tre Koner to appear on this list. When he was drafted by the Washington Capitals fourth overall in 2006, he was already anointed as a future top-line centerman and playmaker for Alexander Ovechkin. He has definitely lived up to the hype and was one of the NHL’s top assist men in the 2010s. In fact, he was second only to the next man on this list.

Backstrom does most of his damage on the power play feeding perfect passes to the Great Eight, which elicits his deadly one-timer. Ovechkin may play five-on-five with Evgeni Kuznetsov now, but he still benefits from his elite hockey IQ and vision with the man advantage.

Nicklas Backstrom (19) hoists the Stanley Cup
LAS VEGAS, NV – JUNE 07: Washington Capitals Center Nicklas Backstrom (19) hoists the Stanley Cup with Washington Capitals Left Wing Alex Ovechkin (8) to celebrate defeating the Las Vegas Golden Knights 4-3 during game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final between the Washington Capitals and the Las Vegas Golden Knights on June 07, 2018 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, NV. (Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

His passes are not only precise, but they are also telepathic, as Los Angeles Kings’ forward Martin Frk can attest to from watching him from the opposing team’s bench.

When you watch him, he’s got the touch…He sometimes does this no-look pass…He sees the ice very well, so he can do that. Especially on the power play, when you need to score, he can make those passes and it’s usually an easy tap-in for the guys there.

Kings forward Martin Frk

Just like the Sedins, he has many types of passes in his arsenal that he can bring to any battle. Since he started playing with Ovechkin in 2007, Backstrom has helped set up 254 of his goals. Show me a great goal scorer, and I will show you a great centerman. He would not have put up the same goal totals without him. However, Backstrom probably would have similar assist totals without Ovechkin, that’s how gifted a passer he is. Because of this, he takes the number three spot on this list.

2. Claude Giroux

Claude Giroux may be a bit of a surprise on this list, but when you look at his total assists during the 2010s, he leads the pack with 495 of them. He is also fourth in total points with 719 during that span. His passing skills are marveled by his teammates every day, as they are the recipients of many of his elite passes.

Claude Giroux Philadelphia Flyers
Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Travis Konecny, who played on his line with the Philadelphia Flyers knows this as well as anybody as he scored 20 goals with him as his setup man. Without him, he scored a grand total of four. That’s how much his passes make a difference.

A lot of times when you don’t even see the play, the puck ends up on your stick. He’s got that vision that not a lot of guys in the league have. Maybe not anybody. He might be, if not the best passer in the league and the best offensive threat, he’s right up there.

Flyers forward Travis Konecny

Giroux has been a major part of the Flyers’ offense for the better part of 12 seasons and has developed into a leader and primary setup man for many of the offensive stars that have come through the organization. His vision and passing skills make the players around him better. Without him, they are not the same. That’s why he gets the honor of being named the second-best passer of the 2010s.

1. Joe Thornton

We finally get to the top of the mountain, and it’s there we get to see the man they call “Jumbo Joe”. Joe Thornton has been in the league for a long time, 23 seasons in fact. He has been a part of almost three decades of hockey and only played for two teams, the Boston Bruins and the San Jose Sharks. Just like Henrik Sedin, he has always been known for his ability to distribute the puck. He currently sits seventh all-time in assists with 1,082 and at age 40, can still make a pass that will make your eyes pop out of your head.

Related: Top 5 Moments of Joe Thornton’s Career

San Jose Sharks' Joe Thornton
San Jose Sharks’ Joe Thornton (AP Photo/Josie Lepe)

Thornton’s passing skills are second to none, just ask childhood friend and former Sharks teammate, Brian Campbell.

If there’s a hole the size of a puck in between your skates, he’ll find it and thread it through..You know what he’s going to do and you still can’t find a way to defend it.

Former NHL defenceman and San Jose Shark Brian Campbell

The best passers also don’t always pass the puck, they sometimes use it as a form of deception. Thornton does this better than most as he doesn’t only have 1,084 assists, he also has over 400 goals to his credit. That makes him even more dangerous, as goaltenders don’t know what he is going to do when he has the puck.

If you cheat (for the pass), you’re going to give him an easy goal…You definitely respect his playmaking; it’s in the back of your mind, but you do what you can…He can shoot it or make a great pass.

Anaheim Ducks goaltender John Gibson

Just like Giroux, Thornton has created goal scorers out of nothing. Devin Setoguchi and Jonathan Cheechoo are just two examples of players that benefitted from his elite vision and passing skills. They both had career seasons aligned with the bearded wonder, then disappeared after leaving his side. When he finally retires, he will forever be known as one of the best passers the NHL has ever seen. He’s not only the best passer of the 2010s, but of all-time.

The 2010s Saw Many Great Passers

It was difficult to cut this list to five players as the 2010s saw many great passers come through its doors. Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, Evgeni Malkin, Patrick Kane and many more did not even make it on this list, and they are certainly deserving as well.

Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby
Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

However, all of the players deserve to be here as they helped define the art of the pass in the 2010s. Without them, the decade would not have had the goal scorers it did. A great pass can be as important as a great goal, sometimes even more so. So let’s take a moment to thank the passers, as we journey into a new era of the coolest game on earth.