The NHL has a long and storied existence. Legendary teams, lines and players serve as a reminder of days gone by while today’s players continue to forge the legacy left behind by the pioneers of our beloved game.
Like any legendary player, their contributions to the record books survive the test of time. Whether they changed the way the game was played like Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky did, or simply scored at a pace that was once unthinkable at the time like Phil Esposito and Bobby Hull did, every great player has his claim to fame.
Over the years, a number of dominant lines came together for their NHL clubs. The Los Angeles Kings Triple Crown Line consisting of Marcel Dionne, Charlie Simmer and Dave Taylor was arguably the most dominant line of all-time, with the Detroit Red Wings Production Line consisting of Gordie Howe, Sid Abel and Ted Lindsay coming in at a close second.
Whether they played on the Triple Crown Line, the Production Line, The Punch Line (Maurice Richard, Elmer Lach, Hector “Toe” Blake), The Kid Line (Harvey “Busher” Jackson, Joe Primeau, Charlie Conacher, The “LCB” Line (Reggie Leach, Bobby Clarke, Bill Barber) or The Legion of Doom (Mikael Renberg, Eric Lindros, John Leclair), each and every one of those players brought an irreplaceable skill-set to their line, which helped earn them a place in the hockey history books.
But what if the players were not handcuffed by team allegiances and the hands of time, what would the all-time best lineup in NHL history look like?
Rather than simply picking the top statistical players we came up with ten criteria that would help form our roster. We also want to make it clear that we are looking to put together a team, which means two scoring lines, a two-way line, and a checking line are a must.
Keep in mind; we are building a team, not simply awarding the players with the best scoring statistics a spot on the roster.
So, without further delay, here is the All-Time Best NHL Lineup. (All statistics and position references taken from NHL.com.) Let the debate begin…
Best Forwards: The First Line
Left Wing – Bobby Hull
Centre – Wayne Gretzky
Right Wing – Gordie Howe
Putting the best set up man off all-time (Wayne Gretzky) on a line with the man with arguably the best slap-shot ever (Bobby Hull) and “Mr. Hockey” himself (Gordie Howe), was almost a no-brainer.
A quick look at this trio of players’ resumes and you can see why they would be so dangerous together.
Gretzky: 1,487 games played, 894 goals, 1,963 assists (more than any other player has points), 2,857 points, 18 All-Star Games, a career plus/minus rating of plus-518, 91 game winners, 9 Hart Trophies, 5 Lady Bing Trophies, four Stanley Cup Championships, etc., etc.
Howe: 1,767 games played (the most in NHL history), 801 goals (second overall), 1,049 assists (eighth overall), 1,850 points (third overall), four-time Stanley Cup Champion, 23-time All-Star (NHL record), 6-time Art Ross Trophy winner, 6-time Hart Memorial Trophy winner and was in the top-five in scoring for 20 consecutive seasons.
Hull: 1,269 games played, 610 goals (16th overall), 560 assists, 1,170 points (fifth amongst left wingers), 12-time All-Star, two-time Hart Memorial Trophy winner (1965, 1966), three-time Art Ross Trophy winner Lady Byng Memorial Trophy winner, Lester B. Patrick Trophy winner, five-time 50-goal scorer (NHL), four-time 50-goal scorer (WHA), scored 77 goals in 78 games at the WHA level, and was a Stanley Cup winner (1961).
Known as “The Great One”, Gretzky is easily the most dominant player in NHL history and it says here nobody will ever accomplish what Gretzky did offensively…nobody.
Eight of the top offensive seasons belong to Gretzky, he is the only player to hit the 200-point plateau (and he did it four times and in three straight seasons), his 92 goals in one season still stands as the best of all-time, he scored 70 or more goals four times, posted 163 assists in one season (NHL record), boasts eleven 100+ assists seasons, and he did it all with class.
Gretzky also owns the records for most career goals (122), most career assists (260), most career points (382) and most career game winning goals (24) in the playoffs— a tribute to his ability to get it done when it mattered most. Of note, Gretzky scored his 122 playoff goals on 299 shots. Brett Hull, scored 103 career playoff goals on 784 shots.
We could go on and on about Gretzky’s single-season, career and playoff records, but there is not enough time.
Simply put, there is Gretzky, and then there is everybody else. His dominance is well documented and his many records should stand the test of time.
Gordon “Gordie” Howe dominated hockey like few others. He was a warrior, as quick with his shot as he was to lay an elbow on opposing forwards and, like Gretzky, a class act.
Known to many as “Mr. Hockey” for his commitment to the game, Howe was also responsible for the phrase “Gordie Howe Hat Trick”, which meant a player had scored a goal, notched an assist and had a fight all in the same game.
Like many great players, Gordie dominated the score sheet for decades. Starting his NHL career in 1947-48, Howe owns the record for the most regular season games played (1.767), most NHL seasons played (26), most consecutive 20-goal seasons (22), led the league in playoff scoring a record six times, made the most All-Star appearances (23) and was the oldest player in NHL history to play at the age of 52 years, 11 days.
Howe never hit the 50-goal mark, but he did come close, notching 49 in the 1952-53 season. He would have to wait until the 1968-69 season before he’d hit the 100-point plateau (44 goals, 59 assists, 103 points) in one season— a feat he would only duplicate at the WHA level in 1973-74 (100 points) and 1975-76 (102 points), respectively.
Still, Howe changed the way the game was played, setting the template for all future power forwards as a player that could do it all— score goals, set up plays, make hits and drop the gloves with the best of them.
Let’s face it, Howe would be great on any line, in any era. Howe could dig the puck out of the corners, clear the net, make the tough pass, score big goals, stand up for his teammates and provide excellent leadership, on and off the ice. Howe’s scoring prowess, toughness and agility easily makes him the best power forward of all-time, and the perfect compliment to the ultra-talented Gretzky and the sharp-shooting Bobby Hull.
Known as “The Golden Jet” for his excellent skating ability and blazing speed, Bobby Hull is the only left winger to average more than a point per game (1,170 points/1,063 games played) amongst the top ten at his position. He owned a legendary slap shot and his wrist shot was no slouch either.
Highly competitive and regarded as a bit of a joker, Hull was known for starting a game off by taking aim at a goaltenders head with one of his famous slap shots. Given the speed at which Hull’s slap shots arrived many opposing goalies were terrified of Hull’s shot, often resulting in more than a few goalies waving their glove at Hull’s shot in favor of getting in its way.
Gretzky’s overall skill, Hull’s scoring ability and Howe’s all-around game would undoubtedly gel, making this the most potent hockey line of all-time. On any given night all three of these players could notch a hat-trick, and I dare say former Toronto Maple Leafs’ star Darryl Sittler’s record ten-point night would be in jeopardy on a nightly basis!
Combined the trio of Gretzky, Hull and Howe lit the lamp a total of 2305 times and recorded 3572 assists for a grand total of 5877 points.
While the Statistics are incomplete for Howe and Hull on NHL.com, one can imagine just how potent this trio would be on the power-play and how defeated the opposing team would feel if this trio were to step over the boards!
Five-on-five, on the power play or short handed, a trio of Hull, Gretzky and Howe would dominate any hockey era.
Best Forwards: The Second Line
Left Wing – Brendan Shanahan
Centre – Mario Lemieux
Right Wing – Jaromir Jagr
Without question, Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr exhibited some of the best chemistry in NHL history. The inclusion of Brendan Shanahan on the second line would surely strengthen the duo of Lemieux and Jagr, making this one of the most intimidating lines ever to lace ‘em up.
Arguably the best European player of all-time, Jagr was magical with the puck and his skating is amongst the best I’ve ever seen. Jagr is an immense talent, encompassing a unique combination of speed, skill and size, which makes him one of the most talented players ever.
Through 1,346 career games, Jagr lit the lamp a total of 665 times (11th overall) and added 988 assists (12th overall) for a total of 1,653 points (8th overall). Jagr also ranks first overall in game-winning goals (114) and overtime goals (16), making him the undisputed champion of clutch play. Jagr also holds the unique distinction of being the only active player to make this team.
If not for a variety of injuries and illnesses, Mario Lemieux may very well have given Wayne Gretzky a run for his money in many offensive categories. Even with his injury woes, Lemieux still managed to score 690 goals (9th overall) and register 1,033 assists (10th overall) for a combined 1,723 points (7th overall).
Lemieux scored 172 career playoff points (76 goals, 96 assists) in just 107 games played, ranking him 17th overall, but putting him near the top in terms of playoff points per game. He also registered 29 career playoff power play goals, ranking him sixth in that department.
When Mario was on his game nobody was as dominant as he was, skating through opposing defenses with ease and making goal scoring look like child’s play. Not to be missed is Mario’s superb leadership abilities and his unrelenting drive to come back against the odds.
At first glance, Brendan Shanahan’s name may look a little out of place on this team— that is until you consider Shanahan’s considerable accomplishments.
A dominant force on the ice in every facet of the game, Shanahan ranks second in career goals by a left winger with 656, third overall in points by a left winger with 1,354, seventh overall in penalty minutes by a left winger (2,489), first in shots by a left winger with 5,086 and first overall in game winning goals amongst left wingers.
Shanahan won three Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings, played in eight All-Star games, and is the only NHL player to ever notch 600 goals and 2,000 penalty minutes. Shanahan also registered 134 playoff points (60 goals, 74 assists), which ranks him second all-time amongst left wingers and 36th overall.
Like Gordie Howe before him, Shanahan was the prototypical power forward of his era. Shanahan’s leadership, career plus/minus of plus-151, toughness and ability to intimidate, all while being one of the most lethal offensive NHL players of all-time, makes him the right choice to play on the second line with Lemieux and Jagr.
Best Forwards: The Third Line
Left Wing – Luc Robitaille
Centre – Mark Messier
Right Wing – Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard
He had more goals (668) and points (1,394) than any other left winger in NHL history. He played in eight All-Star games, spanning three decades (1988-2001). His 726 assists ranks him second amongst all left wingers and his 247 power play goals ranks him second to only Dave Andreychuk amongst all left wingers. His name? Luc Robitaille.
Not known as a physical player, defensive stalwart or great skater, Robitaille made the best out of what the hockey God’s gave him— a keen eye for gaping holes in opposing nets and a great shot.
Known as “Lucky” throughout his NHL career, Robitaille’s poor skating almost kept him out of the NHL all together. With scouts worried about his skating ability, Robitaille was drafted in the ninth round (171st overall) of the 1984 NHL Entry Draft.
Robitaille’s skating always fell under criticism, but it was hard to point the finger at him when he scored with such ease. With great hands and a keen hockey IQ, Robitaille was able to record one of the best NHL careers of all-time— all this from a player the scouts said would never play because of his poor skating!
Robitaille probably would have benefited from a kick in the butt every once in a while. With Mark Messier and Maurice “Rocket” Richard on his line, he will never get away with taking a night off— as he was often accused of during his career.
The bottom line is, nobody was better offensively at the left wing position than Lucky Luc Robitaille. And for that reason, it was next to impossible to leave him off our team.
When the NHL names its leadership award after you, it is hard to argue the fact that Mark Messier is one of the NHL’s best leaders, ever.
Messier ranks third overall in assists with 1,193, seventh overall in goals scored with 694 and second all-time in points with 1,887. Messier brought home two Hart Memorial Trophies (1989-90, 1991-92), one Conn Smythe Trophy (1983-84), two Lester B. Pearson Awards (1989-90, 1991-92), played in fifteen All-Star games and won six Stanley Cups—1983-84, 1984-85, 1986-87, 1987-88, 1989-90 with the Edmonton Oilers— and 1993-94 with the New York Rangers.
Messier’s playoff accomplishments include 109 goals (second all-time) and 186 assists (second all-time) for a total of 295 career playoff points, good enough for second all-time only to Gretzky’s 382 career playoff points.
While Messier’s career achievements speak for them self, it was his publicly guaranteed victory in Game Six of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals against the New Jersey Devils that made him famous to the people of New York and many American’s.
Messier scored a natural hat trick in the third period of that game, giving his team a crack at the Devils in a winner takes all game seven, which the New York Rangers would later win in double overtime.
To top it all off, Messier would score the Stanley Cup winning goal in game seven of the 1994 Stanley Cup Final, making him the only player to captain two separate teams to a Stanley Cup victory— hard to believe with all the great captains throughout NHL history!
Known for his blazing eyes, determination and relentless attack on opposing goaltenders, Maurice “Rocket” Richard was the most exciting player of his generation.
While Richard’s offensive totals are only average (he ranks 25th overall in points by a right winger and 84th overall amongst all forwards), there is no denying his dominance in his era.
In a time when 30-goals was an excellent season, Richard was the first player to score fifty goals in a season, beating out Boston Bruins forward Herb Cain by 18 goals for the league lead that season (1944-45). Richard scored thirty or more goals on nine occasions and hit the 40-goal or more mark five times in his career.
Like Messier, Richard was an iconic leader, tough as nails and had the ability to intimidate his opponents.
As great as Richard was, putting him on this team was the hardest decision I had to make. Names like Guy Lafleur, Mike Bossy and Brett Hull will undoubtedly come up in the comment section. That said, it all came down to legendary status here, and Richard is bigger than any of them.
Since 1999, the NHL has awarded the Maurice Richard Trophy to the league’s leading goal scorer during the regular season— a tribute to Richard’s scoring abilities.
Best Forwards: The Fourth Line
Left Wing – Bob Gainey
Centre – Bobby Clarke
Right Wing – Jari Kurri
Now that we have established our three scoring lines, let’s take a look Bob Gainey, Bobby Clarke and Jari Kurri— the three players that will make up our shutdown unit.
Known as one of the best defensive forwards of all-time, Bob Gainey helped the Montreal Canadiens win five Stanley Cup Championships. Gainey won an NHL record four Frank J. Selke Trophies (awarded to the NHL’s best defensive forward) and owned a career plus/minus of plus-196.
Known for his attention to detail and strict training, Soviet Union national Coach Victor Tikhonov once called Gainey “technically the best hockey player in the world today”.
Of course, Tikhonov’s comments were made in 1979 and hockey has changed quite a bit since then. That said, for a member of the Soviet Team to award Gainey with such a compliment resonates in time and helped secure Gainey a place on the fourth line ahead of former teammate Steve Shutt— who also got a lot of consideration for this position.
Gainey’s role on this team would be simple— shut down the opposition’s top line. Given Gainey’s legendary defensive play, he should have no trouble doing that, especially when you consider the skills of his line mates.
If ever there was a “team player”, Bobby Clarke will go down in history as the ultimate in that department.
Clarke’s 358 goals (46th all-time), 852 assists (15th all-time) and 1,210 points rank him 25th in overall scoring all-time.
That said, there was much more to Clarke’s game than simply scoring. Clarke could intimidate players with his constant checking, chirping and dirty tactics and when you retaliated Clarke would make you pay with one of his 99 career power play goals.
Unlike many forwards, Clarke could play at both ends, posting a single season plus/minus rating of plus-83 (tenth best all-time) and posting a career plus/minus rating of plus-506— good enough for fourth all-time and second amongst forwards all-time, just 12 points behind the Great One’s plus-518.
Arguably the games first “super-pest”, Clarke was an integral part of the Philadelphia Flyers “Broad Street Bullies” era. Clarke embraced the role of the super-pest and offensive catalyst all-in-one, leading the Flyers to back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships in 1974 and 1975.
Clarke was a nine-time All-Star, Frank J. Selke Award winner, three-time Hart Memorial Trophy winner, Lester B. Pearson Award winner, Lou Marsh Award winner and a Lester Patrick Trophy winner.
As much as Clarke is famous for his play with the Flyers, sadly, the “slash” incident stands out from the rest of his career.
During the Summit Series of 1972 between Canada and Russia Clarke was often referred to as Canada’s “best player”. While Clarke was an effective scorer during the series, it was his physical play and ability to shadow top players that made the biggest difference.
With his team unable to find an answer for Russian forward Valeri Kharlamov, Canada’s assistant coach John Ferguson called Clarke over to the bench, looked over at Kharlamov and said, “I think he needs a tap on the ankle”. Clarke knew exactly what was expected of him, and on Clarke’s next shift he laid a “two-handed slash” across Kharlamov’s ankle, breaking it in the process and all but eliminating the Russian’s most dominant player from the series.
Often criticized by Russian fans (and hockey fans in general) for this incident, Clarke took ownership of the dirty deed, but never once appeared to be sorry for what he did. In the minds of many “the slash” remains one of the most disgusting acts in all of hockey, in Clarke’s mind he was only doing what his team needed to win.
Clarke’s ability to throw opponents off of their game with his chippy play, combined with his offensive and defensive prowess makes him the ultimate fourth liner on our team.
Known as one of the best two-way players in NHL history, Jari Kurri is best known for his offensive prowess as part of the Edmonton Oilers Stanley Cup winning teams.
Kurri owned an incredible one-timer, which led to a ton of goals, but his defensive work was also an integral part of the Oilers’ success.
Edmonton Oilers, Personnel Director Barry Fraser once called Kurri the Oilers “most complete player”— quite the compliment with players like Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Paul Coffey to compete with.
Kurri’s 1,398 points ranks him 20th all-time, including 601 goals (18th all-time) and 797 assists (30th all-time). Kurri also notched 150 power play goals (40th all-time), 37 shorthanded goals (seventh all-time) and 67 game-winning goals (40th all-time), backing up Fraser’s comments.
Kurri’s 135 point season (71 goals, 64 assists) ranks him 33rd all-time, while the 71 goals he scored that season ranks him 11th all-time. Kurri earned a plus/minus rating of plus-76 that season, ranking him 19th all-time in that department.
Kurri’s playoff numbers include 106 goals (third overall) and 127 assists (seventh overall) for a total of 127 career playoff points, good enough for seventh all-time.
The trio of Gainey, Clarke and Kurri would match up well with just about any top offensive unit and has the ability to shut down any trio known to man. They would be as dangerous five-on-five as they would be shorthanded— nobody would want to be on the ice with this crew.
If Gainey, Clarke and Kurri couldn’t beat you on the score sheet they would surely wear you down with their unrelenting checking and unmatched desire to win at all costs.
Read the full installment of the “Best Ever” series here:
This article was originally written in December, 2012.