The Best NHL Forwards Ever: A Lineup For the Ages

Over the National Hockey League’s 107-year history, we have had many legendary players take part in the coolest game on ice. The storied franchises of the Montreal Canadiens, Edmonton Oilers, and New York Islanders brought us legends like Wayne Gretzky, Guy Lafleur, Mike Bossy, Gordie Howe, and more, who dazzled us every time they stepped onto the ice.

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The last 20 years have brought a new era of stars like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, and more recently Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, and Auston Matthews. The question is do these names deserve a spot on the Best NHL Forwards Ever team? THW is here to answer that question and more!

The Best NHL Forwards Ever: A Lineup For the Ages Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Wayne Gretzky

On this team, we endeavor to create a forward group that transcends the sands of time and puts players from different eras on the same team. Some names will always have a place here, but as time moves on and new superstars emerge, other names will inevitably be dropped.

Since this is a hockey team, we won’t be just loading it with offensively inclined stars. We will also include exceptional two-way players as well. So without further ado, let’s introduce the team!

Best Forwards: The First Line

Alexander Ovechkin – Wayne Gretzky – Gordie Howe

Imagine “The Great One” (Wayne Gretzky) and “The Great Eight” (Alexander Ovechkin) together. What an exciting era that would be. The all-time assist leader by a wide margin paired with one of the most lethal goal scorers in NHL history. Add “Mr. Hockey” (Gordie Howe) to the mix, and you have probably one of the most dangerous lines ever to step onto the ice. Just glancing at these three players’ resumes should convince you of their place on the top line of this team.

Gretzky: 1,487 games played, 894 goals, 1,963 assists, 2,857 points, 18 All-Star Games, a career plus/minus rating of plus-518, 91 game-winners, nine Hart Trophies, five Lady Bing Trophies, and four Stanley Cup Championships with 382 points in the postseason.

Howe: 1,767 games played (the most in NHL history), 801 goals (third overall), 1,049 assists (eighth overall), 1,850 points (third overall), four-time Stanley Cup Champion, 23-time All-Star (NHL record), six-time Art Ross Trophy winner, six-time Hart Memorial Trophy winner and was in the top-five in scoring for 20 consecutive seasons.

Ovechkin: 1,426 games played, 853 goals (second overall, most by a left winger), 697 assists, 1,550 points, 312 power-play goals (most in league history), nine-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner (the most in NHL history), three-time Hart Memorial Trophy winner, 12-time All-Star, and Stanley Cup champion.

Known as “The Great One”, Gretzky definitely lives up to his name, even to this day. The next closest player to his point total is Jaromir Jagr with 1,921 points. That’s a 936-point difference, which is probably another amazing career’s worth of points. No one will ever touch his offensive numbers, period.

Gretzky is the only player to eclipse the 200-point plateau, which is a feat in itself. He wasn’t content to leave it there though, he went on to do it three more times. Mario Lemieux almost did it in the 1988-89 season, accumulating 199 points. In the modern era, Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning was the only one to get close (if you can call it that) in 2018-19 with 128 points.

He also owns multiple records for goal-scoring that no player will ever get a sniff of. He had four 70-plus goal seasons, which is unheard of in the modern era. Even Ovechkin hasn’t scored that much in a season (he got close with 65 in 2007-08). If that’s not impressive enough, Gretzky also had a season (1981-82) where he scored 92 goals, which is utter insanity. To get to that total, he had to have scored multiple goals in almost every game.

Wayne Gretzky
Wayne Gretzky, Edmonton Oilers, circa 1983 (Photo by B Bennett/Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)

Gretzky didn’t only perform in the regular season, he was other-worldly in the playoffs as well. He leads the league in all-time points and goals with 382 and 122 respectively. He also owns the record for most game-winning goals with 24. This was all done in the pressure cooker of the playoffs. No one could stop him, it didn’t matter what time of year it was.

The bottom line is, Gretzky is the best player ever, no dispute. He was not only the ultimate playmaker, but he could also score goals too. The thing that put him over the top was his hockey IQ. He just knew the game and could anticipate things before they happened. He even used the surroundings to his advantage, utilizing the reflection in the glass to see where his teammates were on the ice. His brain made him the Great One.

Gordie Howe was a rare combination of skill, physicality, and endurance. Overall, he played 32 seasons of professional hockey, including 26 seasons in the NHL. That is an amazing feat, considering the type of physical game he played on a nightly basis.

That’s not to say that he didn’t have his share of injuries. He even had one that left him in critical condition following a collision with Ted Kennedy of the Toronto Maple Leafs. It left him with a concussion, a fractured skull, and a broken cheekbone and nose. Most players would probably hang it up after that, but being the warrior that he was, he recovered and led the league in scoring the following season. Oh yes, he also won his first Stanley Cup before his recovery was even complete.

Howe’s career spanned almost three decades of hockey. He saw his share of superstars, including the rookie season of a player by the name of Gretzky. Not many players who were born in 1928 could say that. He also was a model of consistency. Not including his rookie season, he never finished with less than 40 points. Even at 52 years young, he was able to hit the 40-point plateau at the end of the season. If that’s not consistent, I don’t know what is.

Because he played the game so long, he even had the chance to suit up with his sons in an NHL game. The amazing thing was that he could keep up with them and produce as well. Not many fathers can put that on their resume, that’s for sure. Howe never put up the numbers his two counterparts did, but he is arguably the most complete player to ever play the game.

Now we come to Ovechkin, aka the Great Eight. Ever since he entered the NHL in 2005, scoring has been his middle name. In his rookie season, he took the league by storm scoring 54 times in 81 games. He then had a bit of a sophomore slump, if you could call it that, during the 2006-07 season when he only scored 46 goals. Overall, he has had nine 50-plus goal seasons and has only had one season in which he scored less than 30. He’s a natural goal scorer pure and simple. It’s just what he does.

When he’s not scoring goals with his patented one-timer, he’s destroying guys on the forecheck. As of this writing, he has an unprecedented 3,272 hits to his credit over his career. That means he consistently accumulates over 200 hits per season. Players definitely have to keep their heads up when he’s on the ice.

Many people wonder why he scores so many goals. It’s not just because of his lethal shot and immense creativity. He shoots from everywhere and it’s always on the goaltender. He consistently is either at the top of the league or in the top five in shots. In fact, he’s never had a season with less than 300 shots launched at the net. To quote Gretzky, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take”. Ovechkin must have that tattooed somewhere on his body because he sure takes that to heart.

Surprisingly, Ovechkin actually has a chance to usurp Gretzky in the all-time goal department.

Ovechkin, Gretzky, and Howe would be a handful for any opposing team’s goaltending and defence core. Two generational snipers who can agitate along with the greatest player of all-time. They would probably score a goal almost every shift. Gretzky certainly had his share of talented linemates, but he would have a hay day with these two on his flanks.

Combined, they have 2,548 goals between them. Imagine being a defenceman trying to stop the three of them flying down the ice. Good luck is all I have to say.

Best Forwards: The Second Line

Sidney Crosby – Mario Lemieux – Jaromir Jagr

This line reunites Mario Lemieux with his protege in Sidney Crosby and former sidekick in Jaromir Jagr. The All Penguin Line could give the top line a run for its money.

Sidney Crosby, Mario Lemieux
Sidney Crosby and Mario Lemieux (Flickr/wstera2)

The familiarity between the three of them gives them an instant edge over the top line. Crosby actually played a part of his first full season with Lemieux by his side and Jagr spent seven seasons riding shotgun with him. The creativity, smarts, goal-scoring and playmaking skills amongst these three are off the charts. They would be an advanced stat expert’s dream.

Lemieux was a generational talent, pure and simple. But his career did not start out drama-free. Despite spending his entire hall of fame career with the Pittsburgh Penguins, he actually refused to come up to the podium and put on the jersey when they drafted him first overall in 1984.

I didn’t want to go to the table because the negotiations are not going well, I didn’t want to put on a Pittsburgh sweater, because they don’t want me bad enough,

Mario Lemieux

But the crisis was eventually averted and he went on to play 17 seasons with the Penguins setting and breaking multiple records along the way. He even groomed a new superstar to take his place in the form of Crosby. He actually continues to oversee the franchise from his spot in the owner’s box.

Lemieux was a rare talent to be sure, capable of beating you with power and finesse. No two goals were ever the same and you never knew what to expect when he stepped onto the ice. The only thing you knew was that it was going to be special. If not for injuries and health issues, Lemieux probably would have touched or outpaced many of Gretzky’s career numbers. Despite not playing 1,000 games in the NHL, he still put up over 1,700 points. That’s a career many players could only dream of.

Jagr, who was Lemieux’s longtime linemate, was just as special. The dynamic duo put together seven seasons of greatness with the Penguins. Combined they accumulated 621 goals and 1069 assists for a grand total of 1,690 points. They also won two Stanley Cups together. Not many duos can boast those types of numbers. In his prime, Jagr was an enviable combination of size, speed, power, and finesse. Like Lemieux, he could beat you in multiple ways.

Over his career, he had 766 goals (fourth overall) and 1,155 assists (fifth overall) for a total of 1,921 points (second overall). He is second only to Gretzky in that category. Ovechkin may usurp Jagr eventually as the best European player of all time, but he still holds that distinction.

Finally, we come to the second active player to join this list, Sidney Crosby. When Lemieux was nearing the end of his career, many Penguins fans were wondering who would succeed him as their superstar. Then they drafted Sid the Kid. Touted as a generational talent by many draft pundits in 2005, Crosby did not disappoint. By the end of the 2006-07 season, he had already put up 222 points and won a Hart Trophy as the MVP of the NHL.

Crosby was lucky enough to have Lemieux to bounce ideas off of in his rookie season. A generational player himself, he could give Crosby advice that no other player could. To this day, I believe his quick adjustment to the NHL was because of Super Mario. Lemieux saw the greatness in him and even acknowledged that he was a better player than he was at age 21 (he put up 107 points compared to Crosby’s 103).

Sidney Crosby Pittsburgh Penguins
Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

He’s a better player than I was at the same age, for sure. Some of the things he does on the ice, his strength, skating ability, is incredible, his passion for the game and his will to be the best each and every shift, his work ethic…He’s got it all.

Mario Lemieux

Over his career, which is still not over, by the way, Crosby has 592 goals and 1,004 assists for a total of 1,596 points. He keeps climbing the record books, currently 10th in the NHL in all-time points. If he stays healthy, which is a big if, he could challenge the top five. He already has three Stanley Cups, two Hart Trophies, two Rocket Richard Trophies, two Art Ross Trophies, and two Conn Smythe Trophies to his credit as well.

Yes, I realize that Crosby is a centerman, but on this team, he is going to play the left wing. Along with the potent top line, this team has a 1B line that could dominate teams night in and night out.

Best Forwards: The Third Line

Luc Robitaille – Bryan Trottier – Mike Bossy

Until recently, Luc Robitaille held the distinction of being the top goal-scoring left-winger of all-time. That honor now belongs to Ovechkin. However, that does not discount the career Lucky Luc Robitaille had in the NHL. Drafted in the ninth round in 1984 by the Los Angeles Kings, he was the definition of a longshot. If he was in the draft now, he never hears his name because that round does not exist anymore. So basically he was not expected to do anything in the NHL, let alone get his name in the record books.

The Kings’ top pick that year, defenceman Craig Raymond (6th overall), only played 191 games in the NHL. Actually, the other 11 players selected by the team that year played a grand total of 242 games. That was just a drop in the bucket compared to the 1,431 games Robitaille accumulated in the league. He also put up 668 goals and 726 assists for a total of 1,394 points. The seven players picked ahead of him only had 100 points. If that’s not a steal of a pick, I don’t know what is.

Despite not being the fastest skater, Robitaille just knew how to score. In his first season in the NHL, he scored 45 times, winning the Calder Trophy. He never experienced the sophomore slump either, putting together 111 points in his second season. His best came in 1992-93 when he had 125 points, which still stands as the most a left-winger has ever put up. Not bad for a ninth round pick that couldn’t skate and would never make it in the NHL.

Bryan Trottier was a beast for the New York Islanders in their dynasty years. He could do it all, score, pass and even shut down the opposing team’s stars, even though he was a star himself. He played 15 seasons on the island, where he filled out quite the resume. He currently paces the team in all-time assists (853) and points (1,353). He also led the Islanders to four straight Stanley Cup Championships.

Along with that, Trottier won the Calder, Art Ross, Conn Smythe, and Hart Trophies in his career. He also was in consideration for the Selke Trophy for best defensive forward finishing in the top-20 in voting multiple times. In fact, he was second only to Doug Jarvis of the Montreal Canadiens in voting during the 1983-84 season.

Islanders Dynasty
New York Islanders Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy, Stanley Cup (THW Archives)

Trottier was prolific on both special teams, scoring 158 power-play goals and 17 short-handed goals. His plus/minus numbers were also insane finishing with a gaudy plus-449. Basically, pick a statistic and he was good at it. His best season came in 1978-79 when he finished with 134 points (47 goals, 87 assists). During the dynasty years, he had five straight seasons where he passed the century mark.

Just like the rest of the players on this team, he dominated in the playoffs. In 221 playoff games with the Islanders and Penguins, he accumulated 183 points (71 goals, 112 assists). He had 12 game-winning goals, cementing himself as a clutch player as well. He was just exceptional in all aspects of the game.

Finally, we come to one of the most prolific goal-scorers of all time and Trottier’s partner in crime, Mike Bossy. He fills out this legendary line on right-wing. Still the record holder for most consecutive 50-goal seasons with nine, Bossy just knew how to bulge the twine. He even accomplished the near-impossible feat of scoring 50 goals in 50 games during the 1980-81 season. Unfortunately, a degenerative back injury prevented him from adding more to the record books, as he was forced to retire at age 30 because of it. Imagine what he could have done if his body cooperated.

Over his short 10-year NHL career, Bossy lit the lamp 573 times. There was only one season where he didn’t hit the 50 goal plateau, a feat unheard of in the modern era. He also lifted the Stanley Cup four times and was a clutch player to boot with 85 goals and 17 game-winners during the most difficult time of the year.

Best Forwards: The Fourth Line

Bob Gainey – Steve Yzerman – Bobby Clarke

Bob Gainey was never the best offensively, but he sure could shut down the opposition’s top forwards. His defensive acumen even forced the NHL to create a new award called the Selke Trophy to honor players of his abilities. Obviously, he won it a total of four times along with five Stanley Cups. He even won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1978-79 for the 16 points he put up that postseason.

Gainey played with heart, passion, and leadership his entire career eventually being named captain of the Montreal Canadiens in 1982, a role he held for eight seasons. He was also one of the toughest players of his generation.

No player I ever covered has ever worked harder, hit harder or played through as much pain…No player I have ever known has led better by example.

Red Fisher, The Montreal Gazette

Gainey dedicated his entire career to shutting down the best forwards in the league. He did it with relentless checking and a motor that ran for days.

His forechecking was exceptional. He was so fast, he could get in on the defenseman — and then he could get back. His back pressure as a back checker was always strong. He could hound teams up and down the ice. He could skate for miles; he could skate forever. It seemed like he never got tired.

Former Canadiens’ Head Coach, Scotty Bowman

Despite not putting up the same offensive numbers the rest of his hall of fame linemates did, he was as valuable to his team as any of them. If not for his contributions, the Canadiens don’t win the Stanley Cups they did.

Just like Gainey, Steve Yzerman was a leader and consummate professional his entire career. Oh yes, he put up a lot of points as well. In fact, he was one of only three players to put up 150 or more points in a season. Drafted fourth overall by the Detroit Red Wings in 1983, he put together six 100-plus point seasons, accumulating 1,755 points over a 22-year career. He also won three Stanley Cups over that span.

Not only was he the ultimate leader in the regular season, but he also put his team on his back in the playoffs. Even with an injured knee in 2002-03 where he only played 52 games in the regular season, he had 23 points in 23 playoff games en route to his third Stanley Cup. He basically played on one leg leading his team to a championship. If you looked up leader in the dictionary, you would see Yzerman’s name etched right next to it.

He retired in 2006 but continues to add to his legendary resume. It turns out he isn’t just a genius as a hockey player, but as a general manager as well. After a highly successful stint with the Tampa Bay Lightning, he has returned to his stomping grounds in Detroit. The Red Wings hope he has more left in the tank to create another legendary era with him at the helm. If the past is any indication, they are in for a treat.

Finally, to round out the best ever forwards is the legendary Bobby Clarke. Famously part of the Broadstreet Bullies era in Philadelphia, he made a name for himself by being one of the toughest players in the NHL. Just like his linemates, he was a captain and a fearless leader.

NHL Milestone Tracker

Over the course of his career he racked up an impressive 1,210 points (all with the Philadelphia Flyers) which included 358 goals, 852 assists, 1453 penalty minutes and a gaudy plus-507. He could probably give Gainey a run for his money with his defensive play. The difference between them is that Clarke could put up points and rack up the penalty minutes as well. His best two seasons in the NHL saw him hit the century mark in both categories.

Clarke was one of the best two-way players of all-time. He was also a warrior in both special teams racking up 99 power play goals and 32 shorthanded goals in his career. Two seasons he led the league in goals when down a man.

Performing in the playoffs is usually a trademark for any great player and Clarke was no different. Before he even turned 25, he had won two Stanley Cups with the Flyers while accumulating 119 points (42 goals, 77 assists) along the way. In the back-to-back championships, he had 34 points and four game-winning goals. He also won the first of his three career Hart Trophies. By the time he hung up his skates, he had won the prestigious Selke Trophy too, putting an exclamation point on a career dedicated to monstrous two-way play.

This line would reak havoc on any scoring line with their dedication to tough two-way hockey. Gainey, Yzerman, and Clarke also demand respect as they all were legendary captains of their respective franchises. They epitomized the legacies of the Canadiens, Red Wings and Flyers. You couldn’t go one minute without talking about the contributions of these players to their teams. Now they bring their leadership and tenacity to the fourth line of our team.

Read the full installment of the “Best Ever” series here: