When one speaks of NHL scorers, they're usually speaking about goal scorers. Each year, the leading goal scorer is honored with the Maurice Richard Trophy, named for the first player to reach 50 goals in a season and the 500-career-goal plateau. Washington Capitals winger Alex Ovechkin, the nine-time winner of the Richard Trophy, is garnering headlines as he attempts to catch Wayne Gretzky as the all-time goals leader.
Gretzky's 894 career goals were an impressive achievement, but it was his skills as a playmaker that made him hockey's greatest player. Even if he had never scored a goal in the NHL, his 1,963 assists would still make him the all-time points leader. As his goal production declined by the 1990s, his playmaking skills enabled him to win the Art Ross Trophy in 1990, 1991 and 1994.
The top playmakers aren't feted with an annual award recognizing their achievements. Nevertheless, their efforts are as invaluable as their high-scoring teammates. Today's game features young stars such as defending Art Ross Trophy winner Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers and longtime standout Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby.
Here's our ranking of today's top-10 playmakers. Totals assists, primary assists (those that directly resulted in goals) and scoring five-on-five per 60 minutes up to 2020-21 factored into this compilation. You can express your views on this topic in the comments section below.
Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals
Since his NHL debut in 2007-08, Backstrom is the leader in total assists with 722. Since the NHL began tracking five-on-five assists in 2009-10, he's sixth with 276.
Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames
Gaudreau has reached or exceeded 40 assists six times since his first full rookie season in 2014-15. He's tied for seventh in total assists (328) in that frame, and in five-on-five action, he's seventh in assists (179) and tied for fourth in primary assists (119).
Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals
Since the 2015-16 season, Kuznetsov is sixth with 161 total assists in five-on-five play and tied for fifth in primary assists with 105. His stats tumbled over the past two seasons, but the 29-year-old could bounce back with a solid effort this season.
Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets
Scheifele has reached or exceeded 42 assists in four of the last five seasons. Of his 219 total assists during that period, he was seventh in five-on-five action with 135 and tied for 10th with 77 primary assists.
Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets
Wheeler was third in total assists (313) from 2015-16 to 2020-21. During that period, the Jets captain was 10th in total primary five-on-five assists with 97.
10. Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins
Brad Marchand spent most of his first seven NHL seasons as a pesky second-line winger with the Boston Bruins. He put up decent stats during those seasons, netting 41 or more points five times. Since 2016-17, however, his numbers have been among the league's leading scorers.
A shift to the Bruins' first line in '16-'17 and the subsequent increase in ice time saw Marchand's numbers spike as his playmaking improved. He's reached or exceeded 40 assists in each of the past five seasons, including a career-high 64 in 2018-19. If not for COVID-19 shortening the last two campaigns, Marchand might've exceeded 60 assists again.
Marchand was sixth in total assists during that period with 260. His 1.62 assists per 60 minutes at five-on-five ranked seventh, and he was 10th with 128 total five-on-five assists and 77 primary assists. Based on his performance during that time, the 33-year-old left winger should remain among the league's best setup men this season.
9. Sidney Crosby, PIttsburgh Penguins
The top playmaker of his generation, Sidney Crosby is the offensive straw that stirs the drink for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Since his 2005-06 rookie campaign, he sits second to Joe Thornton (843) with 839 total assists and second to Patrick Kane (336) with 317 total five-on-five assists since 2009-10. Both, however, have played more games than Crosby due in part to his well-documented concussion history.
Crosby's 134 total assists between 2018-19 and 2020-21 ranked 13th overall. However, he's still among the best in five-on-five situations. In that three-season span, he was fifth in primary assists per 60 minutes (1.20), seventh in primary assists (55) and assists per 60 minutes (1.66), and his 76 five-on-five assists ranked tied for eighth.
Now 34 and recuperating from offseason wrist surgery, Crosby is reaching the stage when age and the wear and tear of his long career could be catching up with him. Nevertheless, it would be foolish to bet against him remaining among the top playmakers when he returns to action this season.
8. Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers
Often overshadowed by captain Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau has been just as invaluable to the Florida Panthers' recent rise among the NHL's top teams. The 28-year-old left winger has emerged as one of the league's most productive setup men.
Huberdeau made steady improvement between 2014-15 and 2017-18, collecting 39 assists twice and 42 once. A leg injury in 2016-17 limited him to just 26 points in 31 games. He took a big step forward over the last three seasons. In 2018-19, he reached a career-best 62 assists, followed by 55 and 41 helpers in two COVID-shortened campaigns. He was among the top 10 in assists during the past two seasons.
Throughout most of his career, Huberdeau played alongside Barkov. He was shifted down to the second line last season. That move didn't hurt his output as he finished as their leading scorer with 61 points. Since 2018-19, he sits fourth with 1.21 primary assists per 60 minutes at five-on-five, sixth in primary five-on-five assists with 58 and eighth overall in total assists with 161.