The dawn of a new decade is always a time for reflection. It is a time when people look back and reminisce about their favorite moments and experiences of the last 10 years. However, for hockey fanatics like myself, the start of a new decade is the perfect time to take a look back at the NHL’s top players, teams, coaches, trades, and so on throughout the past 10 years.
With that being said, let’s kick off 2020 by looking at who I believe were the NHL’s top five playmakers of the 2010s.
5) Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
There is no doubt that Connor McDavid is one of the most exciting players in the league. In my opinion, he is the most exciting and creative player in the NHL and in the world, and it would be an injustice to exclude the Canadian from this list for only playing in the league since 2015.
The centerman is a prolific passer and goalscorer, has elite puck-handling ability, and is the fastest skater in the league—all skills which he uses to his advantage to dazzle fans and create goal-scoring opportunities for both himself and his Edmonton Oilers teammates.
The 22-year-old has proved to be one of the league’s best assist-makers during his young career, recording 286 regular-season assists since the 2015-16 season and finishing as one of the top three players in assists per season three times. He led the league with 70 assists in the 2016-17 season, and he leads the league with 42 assists in 2019-20. He has also ranked within the top-five players for the most assists per game in the league each season he has played. He generated a league-best 0.85 assists per game in the 2016-17 season, and his 1.00 assists per game are second only to Evgeni Malkin’s 1.04 assists so far in 2019-20.
The four-time All-Star led the league in points in the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons with 108 and 100 points, respectively, and he leads the NHL in 2019-20 with with 64. McDavid has also ranked among the top players in the league for the most goals created in a season for four-straight seasons, finishing first in 2017-18 with 40.5 goals created and second in 2016-17, 2018-19, and 2019-20.
If those statistics don’t speak for themselves, just take a look at this unreal display of his playmaking ability:
Should McDavid rank higher on this list? Probably, but you can easily expect the Canadian to top the rankings as the NHL’s best playmaker of the 2020s.
4) Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks
It is safe to say that the Chicago Blackhawks would not have been as successful as they were throughout the 2010s without Patrick Kane. The first-line right winger helped lead the team to eight playoff appearances and three Stanley Cup championships over the decade, earning himself the Conn Smythe Trophy, Art Ross Trophy, Hart Memorial Trophy, and Ted Lindsay Award along the way.
Like McDavid, Kane is a player who is a defenseman’s worst nightmare: he is one of the best stick-handlers in the game, has a wicked shot, and is renowned for his sensational, creative passing. He is one of those players who makes every player around him better when he steps on the ice, and his elite playmaking ability is invaluable to the Blackhawks.
Kane was the NHL’s best point-scorer of the decade with 802 points. He was the only player to hit the 800-point mark in the 2010s, finishing 14 points ahead of Sidney Crosby in second place with 788. These numbers earned Kane five top-10 finishes in the points department during the 2010s, including first place in the 2015-16 season with 106 points. He also recorded 68 assists in the playoffs during the decade.
Over 60 percent of his points last decade were assists (487). He spent four seasons in the 2010s in the top 10 for assists and three seasons in the top 10 for assists per game. His best ranking was third place in both categories at the end of the 2015-16 season with 60 helpers and 0.73 assists per game. The American ranks eighth among active players in overall assists (611) and sixth among active players in assists per game (0.65).
The 31-year-old also created over 0.40 goals per game five times throughout the decade, earning himself top-10 honors in five seasons. He created the most goals per game in the NHL in the 2015-16 season with 0.50 average. He is sixth among active players in this department with an average 0.39 goals created per game.
Kane was one of, if not the, best playmaker in the NHL during his prime in the early to mid-2010s. Chicago’s success has since dropped over time, but the winger still remains one of the most exciting playmakers in the league.
3) Henrik Sedin, Vancouver Canucks
Henrik Sedin, the eldest of the Sedin twins, is not only one of the best playmakers of the decade, but he is easily one of the best of all time. The centerman consistently used his high hockey IQ and creative vision to create goal-scoring opportunities for his teammates—often his brother Daniel, one of the best left wingers of the decade—and generate impressive numbers throughout the 2010s.
Henrik was, without a doubt, the NHL’s best playmaker in the first three seasons of the 2010s. He generated a career-best and league-leading 83 assists and 112 points to begin the decade in the 2009-10 season, and he led the league in assists the following two seasons (75 in 2010-11, 67 in 2011-12). He recorded four 50-plus-assist seasons in the decade before his retirement at the conclusion of the 2017-18 season. He ranks 26th in all-time NHL assists with 830 helpers.
The centerman also finished four times as one of the top-five players with the most assists per game in the decade, topping the standings twice in 2009-10 with 1.01 assists per game and 2010-11 with 0.91. He ranks 52nd overall in NHL history with 0.62 assists per game.
Sedin ranked in the top 10 in points and points per game during four seasons in the 2010s. He ranks 65th overall in all-time points in the NHL.
His playmaking ability is largely responsible for the Canucks’ success in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons. He helped Vancouver earn back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies both seasons with league-leading assist numbers, and he led the team all the way to the 2011 Stanley Cup Final against the Boston Bruins with a team-best 19 assists and 22 points.
2) Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
It would be impossible to make this list without including Sidney Crosby as one of the top playmakers of the decade, and for good reason, too. Not only do many people view the Pittsburgh Penguins’ center an an outstanding playmaker, but many journalists at top media outlets like The Hockey News, ESPN, and NBC Sports have named “Sid the Kid” as the best player of the last decade. However, best player and best playmaker are two separate categories, and therefore he ranks second on this list.
Crosby is extremely smart on and off the puck, a creative passer, one of the best skaters in the NHL, and has tremendous stick-handling ability, which makes him one of the best playmakers in the NHL. He is also deadly when it comes to creating goal-scoring opportunities at even strength and while on the power play. His elite skill helped him lead the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, capturing the Conn Smythe Trophy in each postseason.
It is not a secret that Crosby was a dominant playmaker statistically speaking in the 2010s. To begin, he ranked four times in the top-10 goalscorers in the last decade, bringing home the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy in 2009-10 and 2016-17 seasons with 51 and 44 goals, respectively. He finished four times as player with the most goals created per game throughout the decade, and he leads all active players in this department with 0.47 goals. He was also a top-10 finisher in points for eight seasons in the decade, earning the Art Ross Trophy at the end of the 2013-14 season with a league-leading 104 points.
The 32-year-old was one of the league’s best assist-makers. He was one of the top-10 players in assists at the end of seven seasons in the decade, and finished the 2013-14 season with the highest amount of helpers (68)—his highest total of the 2010s. He trails only Joe Thornton for the highest number of assists among active players with 782. Crosby also finished in the top five for half the decade in terms of assists per game. He earned the most assists per game in the 2012-13 season (1.14) and 2013-14 season (0.85), and he leads this category among active players with 0.81 assists per game.
So why didn’t Crosby finish first on this list? These statistics, without a doubt, support the claim that he was the best player of the 2010s. However, as I stated before, best player and best playmaker are two different categories. I believe that this next player was simply the most gifted playmaker of the last 10 years, and he deserves recognition for all that he has done in this role for his franchise.
1) Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals
Perhaps the most underrated, undervalued, and unselfish player in the league, Nicklas Backstrom was the NHL’s best playmaker of the 2010s. He is not the flashiest player, but he has an incredible hockey IQ, has unmatched chemistry with his teammates, is one of the best passers in the game, and is, without a doubt, a genius with the puck on his stick. In my opinion, nobody else should top this list.
An extremely gifted passer on the league’s winningest team of the decade, the veteran Swede recorded the most assists (512) and power play assists (233) out of all players in the decade. Slotted alongside the league’s top goalscorer of the decade, Alex Ovechkin, on Washington’s first line and first power play unit, it is no surprise that the duo led all NHL players in their respective departments for the decade.
Backstrom recorded seven 50-plus-assist seasons during the last 10 years, including a career-high 68 assists to begin the decade in the 2009-10 season. He consistently placed within the top-three players in assists per season throughout the 2010s, topping the list with 60 helpers in the 2014-15 season. Backstrom spent six seasons in the top five for assists per game—seven total in the top 10—and ended the 2014-15 season with a league-best 0.73 assists per game. He ranks third among active players and 21st all-time in this category with 0.72 assists per game. He also ranks fourth in terms of assists (664) among active players and 64th overall in NHL history.
The career-long Capital found himself among the top-10 players in points four times throughout the decade. Backstrom averages 0.97 points per game—the seventh-best total among active players—and ended 2019 by tallying his 700th point of the decade. He is one of only four players to reach that mark in the 2010s. He also finished within the top 10 in terms of goals created at the end of the 2009-10 and 2016-17 regular seasons.
Of course, it is impossible to forget how integral Backstrom was in the Capitals’ Stanley Cup run in the 2018 playoffs, registering 18 assists—13 while on the power play—and 23 points in 20 games before lifting the Cup. His primary assist on Ovechkin’s go-ahead, power-play goal in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final is the perfect example of his patience, vision, and precision as a playmaker.
It has been a pleasure to watch Backstrom’s brilliance over the last 10 years, and I look forward to seeing what else he has up his sleeve before his likely retirement in the 2020s.
Christopher Williams is a junior journalism student at Emerson College in Boston. He fell in love with the Washington Capitals at an early age, and it’s been his dream ever since to cover hockey as a journalist. Christopher is a staff writer for Emerson’s student newspaper, The Berkeley Beacon, where he writes the Boston Bruins column. He is also a sports reporter for Emerson’s TV station, WEBN-TV Boston, where he has covered the Boston Bruins, Beanpot Tournament, and Boston University men’s hockey.