It's the coolest game on ice.

OK, maybe that's actually a tagline created by the NHL's marketing arm, but that doesn't make it untrue.

As difficult as throwing a tight spiral or hitting a 95 mph fastball might seem, the guys who do those things stand on solid ground, not on ice skates.

So hockey wins. And that's just with the rank and file.

When you up the ante to include the sport's most athletically gifted and sublimely skilled players, the entertainment level gets raised straight through the roof.

And, while basking in the glow of the imminent 2021-22 regular season, the B/R hockey writing types put their heads together to determine the dozen players whose entertainment value is the highest.

Scorers. Playmakers. Shut-down defenders. Money goalies.

They're all here for your review. Click through to take a look and let us know what you think with a viewpoint or two—as entertaining as you care to go—in the comments section.

 

Mathew Barzal, C, New York Islanders

A childhood fan of Patrick Kane, the Islanders' 24-year-old center is evolving an East Coast version of the Chicago Blackhawks star.

He won the Calder Trophy as the league's best rookie with an 85-point debut in 2017-18 and has followed up by helping New York reach the playoff final four in each of the last two seasons.

He's the Islanders' top scorer by nearly 50 points across his now-four-year career and is 20th in the league in assists across the same time frame. He's entering the second year of a three-year, $21 million contract as this season begins and figures to be a star, on Long Island or elsewhere, for many years beyond.

"I think his first year he had like 90 points and took everyone by surprise," Colorado Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon told NHL.com. "What an amazing player. I think he leads the league in possession.

"The puck is always on his stick. I love watching him. He's another guy [I love to watch]. There's so many players, but he's up there. He's a pretty special player."

 

Sidney Crosby, C, Pittsburgh Penguins

Every now and then, a star lives up to his promise.

Crosby has done that and more since arriving in Pittsburgh as a franchise-saving No. 1 overall pick in 2005.

He was edged out for the Calder that year by another of the league's all-time greats (spoiler alert: We'll see him later) but has made up for the disappointment with a pair of Art Ross trophies, a pair of Hart trophies, a pair of Conn Smythe trophies and three Stanley Cup wins.

Oh, throw in a pair of Olympic gold medals, too.

He remains one of the league's best players even at age 34, having averaged a point-per-game in each of his 16 seasons, including a 24-goal, 38-assist effort in just 55 games in 2020-21.

And he's still doing the things he did as a kid.

"He would take some 6'5" defenseman, put the puck through their stick two or three times, somehow he would just leverage, outmuscle them when they're leaning on him, get around them," junior teammate Ryan Duncan told Sportsnet. "He'd open up his skates and pivot, go around him and somehow make an unbelievable deke to score on the goalie. I mean, it happened countless times."

 

Adam Fox, D, New York Rangers

You know those top-heavy trades that have prospects thrown in?

Fox has already been a part of two of them.

Still just 23, the 5'11", 183-pounder was drafted by the Calgary Flames and traded to the Carolina Hurricanes in a deal that also sent Dougie Hamilton to Raleigh. He was on the move again 10 months later, this time from Carolina to New York when the Rangers acquired his rights for a pair of draft picks.

To say the latter acquisition has paid off would be an understatement.

He showed a blue line playmaker's acumen as a rookie while assisting on 34 goals, including 12 on the power play, as a rookie across 70 games in 2019-20. More of the same came in 2020-21, along with a Norris Trophy, when he assisted on 42 goals—tops among NHL defensemen—in just 55 games for the Rangers.

"This guy's an elite player in this league," then-Rangers coach David Quinn told Sports Illustrated earlier this year. "I thought he was last year. I know people were talking an awful lot about (Cale) Makar and (Quinn) Hughes and guys like that, but this guy's special." 

 

Quinn Hughes, D, Vancouver Canucks

Another young, smaller-framed and offensively-skilled defenseman, Vancouver's Hughes was a star from the moment he touched NHL ice, earning an All-Star Game berth and qualifying as a finalist for the Calder Trophy.

The 21-year-old had 25 power-play points and 53 overall points in just 68 games for the Canucks during a COVID-shortened 2019-20 season, then came back for 41 points in 56 games in his sophomore effort.

A fan of ex-Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith, Hughes is the oldest hockey-playing sibling in a prolific family that includes 2019 No. 1 overall pick Jack Hughes and 2021 first-round pick Luke Hughes, both of whom play for the New Jersey Devils.

The Canucks' Hughes played the final year of an entry-level contract in 2020-21 and is still negotiating a new deal with the team before the start of the new season.

"When you rewatch video on slo-mo, you still see that (Hughes) is able to make plays through and in traffic and skate himself out of trouble so often," Golden Knights coach Peter DeBoer told the Province. "He's a special player who has the ability, even with pressure and attention, to make plays."