neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Hello, and welcome to our FiveThirtyEight hockey chat! The crew is back together, and I’m ready to drop the puck on a debate we had to blow the whistle on with minutes left on the clock last chat: Who’s the best player in the league?
In the spirit of March Madness, I took the liberty of making a bracket — complete with play-in games for the last four seeds — of players who might potentially be in the convo for the NHL’s best player. My selection process included the past few years of stats and award voting, along with this year’s favorites, with an emphasis on performance in 2021. (Feel free to @ me with complaints about the “committee”’s seeding.)1 For each matchup, I’m looking for the player whom you would rather have if you were trying to build a team to win this year. I’ll put things to a vote from the group, so provide a short stat and/or piece of video evidence for your choice, and the winners will advance until we have an official champion!
I do want to dig into the “why” behind each pick, but we can also do more of a quicker rapid-fire run through the play-in contests.
emily (Emily Scherer, designer): Four Bruins, love to see it.
neil: That reminds me: We will need a total commitment to neutrality in this exercise, haha.
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Anyway, we’ll start with the 16-seed battle between two defensemen — Charlie McAvoy of the Bruins and Jeff Petry of the Canadiens. (Again, let’s keep it unbiased!) McAvoy has great possession numbers and is one of the brightest young D-men in the league, while Petry leads all blueliners in goals this season. Who ya got?
terrence.doyle (Terrence Doyle, contributor): I’m looking at this bracket, and i’m already getting anxious about being wrong.
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julian.mckenzie (Julian McKenzie, contributor): Petry is playing the best hockey of his career right now. And he’s gotten better and better since he joined the league.
terrence.doyle: I have to go with Charlie here. Petry is having a monster season, no doubt about it. but even if the Bs have been slumping lately, they’re still one of the best defensive teams in the NHL, and Chucky Mac (his new nickname, according to me) is a big reason why.
neil: This is why I struggled so much with this one (and took the cop-out of tossing them in the play-in).
julian.mckenzie: Is that all on Charlie, though? If you’re in this to win now, why not take the player who’s better right now?
terrence.doyle: No no, they’ve been good as a unit at limiting shots, especially dangerous shots, which is big because their goaltending has been … suspect at best.
neil: I agree with Julian that Petry has been better this year — in a pretty big outlier career year — while McAvoy has a brighter future. But what say you, Emily, as the deciding vote?
emily: If we’re going with winning now, I think I’d have to go with Petry here.
neil: 🚨 We have a winner! 🚨
(And this is really saying something, since you are a diehard Bruins fan, Emily.)
terrence.doyle: Yeah, Petry is scoring on 15 percent (!!!) of his shots this year, which, as you said Neil, is an outlier in terms of his career numbers. He’s been sorta mediocre throughout his career (maybe a tad better than mediocre, to be fair), whereas McAvoy is likely to win a Norris or two in the future. But, fine, I’m fine with Petry for the WIN NOW factor.
julian.mckenzie: Petry will also help on the power play for this fictional win-now team we’re thinking of.
(sees Petry’s future opponent in the bracket)
Well. It was fun while it lasted!
neil: Hmm, maybe there will be a Cinderella story though! (There won’t.)
OK, now let’s talk about the 15-seeds, reigning Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck of the Jets against former Stanley Cup winner Marc-Andre Fleury, who’s having an amazing year for the Golden Knights. Who do you take?
terrence.doyle: It’s Fleury for me.
julian.mckenzie: I love how Fleury has bounced back this year. Helps that he doesn’t have that sword through him.
terrence.doyle: The playoff experience and the Cup winning know-how, coupled with the big year — no-brainer for me. Plus he’s like the nicest dude in hockey.
julian.mckenzie: Connor deserves some credit. He’s still putting up decent numbers one year removed from winning a Vezina. But Fleury is my pick.
emily: Definitely taking Fleury here for the same reasons everyone else has said, plus I love the gold pads and helmet combo.
terrence.doyle: That is such an 1970s/80s save. All or nothing, I love it.
julian.mckenzie: Got it with his stick!!!!! Incredible.
neil: Worthy of a play-in round winner!
Now, for the 14-seeds, I paired up a couple of former Selke Trophy winners who have been known to slide into MVP talk as well: Patrice Bergeron of the Bruins — who I know Terrence and Emily have feelings about — and Anze Kopitar of the Kings, who is having a vintage season and helping L.A. exceed expectations. Who’s the pick?
julian.mckenzie: You really cannot go wrong with either center. This is hard.
terrence.doyle: This is such a diabolical decision on your part, Neil.
neil: Hey, take it up with the “selection committee”!
(Note: I am the committee.)
julian.mckenzie: Is that adjusted points stat for Kopitar … true? 102 points?!
neil: It normalizes to an 82-game schedule, so not 102 in this short season so far, lol.
julian.mckenzie: Still, that’s impressive.
neil: Yeah, he has been outstanding this year.
terrence.doyle: Yeah, that’s wild. He’s also creating more points per game than Bergeron. But that’s also never been the main part of Sweet Pat’s game either (though he’s still pretty useful offensively, of course).
julian.mckenzie: I’ll pick Kopitar.
neil: Terrence, Emily — will it be party-line Bruin picks?
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terrence.doyle: I’m going Bergeron. Biased? Sure. But he’s been unbelievable to watch closely for the past 17 years (17 years!!!), and I wouldn’t want any other player to lead a team through the playoffs on a Cup run.
They’re both unbelievable, though, and unbelievably consistent.
emily: If I want to win, I want Bergeron there on the team, in the locker room, in a faceoff, etc.
emily: Imagine the team bonding activities he’ll organize for a playoff run! I want that energy.
julian.mckenzie: I’ll give him points for the track suit.
neil: Fanny packs for all. This is a great pick.
terrence.doyle: Bergeron was once named one of Boston’s most fashionable ppl, fwiw.
(Also: not hard, fwiw.)
neil: All right. Our last play-in contest is between a couple of Tampa Bay Lightning forwards who either dealt with injuries last season (Steven Stamkos) or are currently doing so (Nikita Kucherov). If both are healthy and available to play, however, who would you want to build around for this season?
julian.mckenzie: Give me Kucherov.
terrence.doyle: Kucherov. He’s been the most valuable player in the NHL since 2018 in terms of goals above replacement.2 When healthy, he might be the best player in the world.
julian.mckenzie: I hope he can still be that superstar player after his long-term injury. But when he’s on, he is one of the league’s best players. Stamkos was once that, but he’s a good 1B or No. 2 behind Kucherov now.
neil: Seeding Kucherov was tough here because I wanted to focus on 2021. But as you said, he’s been SO good before being hurt this year.
terrence.doyle: One of those players who is “undefendable.” Feels like he’s going to score or create a goal every time he touches the puck.
neil: Is it a sweep, Emily?
emily: 🧹 🧹 🧹
julian.mckenzie: Bring out the brooms!
emily: I’d take Kucherov, and it looks like we may see him back in time for the playoffs?
julian.mckenzie: So many people have been mad about this — Kucherov skating while on long-term injured reserve as “caP cirCumveNtioN.” It’s within the rules!
So many other teams would do the same thing if it happened to them.
emily: Even calling what he’s doing in that video “stickhandling” is being generous!
terrence.doyle: His stick touches the puck, anyway.
OK, here’s how the bracket looks after the play-ins:
julian.mckenzie: I see an upset or two…
neil: Probably not for this one, though — I have a feeling this will be a true rapid fire: No. 1 Connor McDavid vs. No. 16 Jeff Petry.
julian.mckenzie: Yeah, Jeff. Sorry. You’re not toppling the best player in the world.
terrence.doyle: Connor, of course. Putting up ridiculous numbers, yet again. (Being wasted by a wasteful franchise, yet again.)
julian.mckenzie: Petry knows a thing or two about that franchise.
emily: Can I choose McDavid so I can help him win?
julian.mckenzie: Putting Petry up against McDavid is like putting up an everyday vehicle, a really reliable Honda Civic, against a Koenigsegg.
terrence.doyle: I don’t even know what that is …
neil: I’m more of a Civic guy myself too, lol.
julian.mckenzie: No knocks on Civics. They are great. Can get you from Point A to Point B.
They’ve got nothing on a Koenigsegg. And Connor is that. He’s a super-fast, super-skilled, super-talented forward who can lay claim to being the best player in the world.
terrence.doyle: Too fast imo.
julian.mckenzie: Anyway. Connor wins.
neil: All right, next it’s an All-Boston first-round matchup with David Pastrňák versus Brad Marchand — aka the Bruins’ leading scorer last year versus their leading scorer this year. Kind of a Ferrari vs. a Lamborghini if we’re extending this metaphor … ?
julian.mckenzie: Pastrňák is so good, man.
terrence.doyle: This is also diabolical, Neil.
neil: It’s diabolical that they have TWO players of this caliber!
julian.mckenzie: On the same line …
emily: Don’t you dare call it the “Perfection Line,” Julian!
Only NBCSN calls it that.
julian.mckenzie: Fine, I won’t. But good lord, a line with Patrice Bergeron, Pastrňák and Marchand is diabolical!
terrence.doyle: I’m going 🍝 because he’s the kind of player opposing teams watch warm up and say, “Damn it, this dude is gonna hurt us tonight, huh?”
julian.mckenzie: And then he does.
terrence.doyle: He, like Kucherov, just sorta looks like he’s gonna create something special every time he touches the puck. Of course, it’s nice to have Patrice and Marchand to get you the puck.
julian.mckenzie: Marchand, as well, can hurt opposing teams. He can score while also being super annoying.
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neil: One of the most annoying great players ever tbh.
julian.mckenzie: He has that balance right, at least better than players like Tom Wilson.
terrence.doyle: Yeah, I mean, I’d despise the dude if he weren’t a Bruin. As it stands, he’s one of my favorite ever players. But great as he is, he’s not David Pastrňák great.
julian.mckenzie: So Pastrňák it is?
emily: Get “Barbie Girl” playing in the locker room 🍝 🍝 🍝
julian.mckenzie: “So I missed the Barbie girl song” LOOOLLL
terrence.doyle: Such a lovable madman. 😍
emily: I want my hockey team to be FUN and a little mad.
terrence.doyle: Very much same.
neil: This next one is admittedly kinda weird. Sidney Crosby would have won this bracket many times in the past, but is putting up a career low for points per game. Meanwhile, Victor Hedman may be a defenseman, but he is actually in the Best Player convo as people finally appreciate how great he is.
terrence.doyle: I think there are better offensive players in the league right now than Sid. I’m not sure that there is a better defenseman in the game than Hedman. Going Victor here.
(I understand that that will be controversial …)
neil: (You’re talking to the guy seeded Sid 12th, so I get it.)
julian.mckenzie: Sidney’s career-low for points per game is still better than so many NHL players.
neil: All but 24, to be exact.
emily: I’m still trying to comprehend this Crosby goal.
terrence.doyle: That goal 😭
julian.mckenzie: I think there’s a LeBron James comparison to be made here.
There are other players, stats-wise or otherwise, who year after year end up in the MVP discussion, and can maybe be considered the best player right now. But we still view LeBron as the best in the world.
The same is true in the NHL, where McDavid types enter the discussion, but Crosby is still right up there. And if you’re in the business of winning now, it is extremely difficult to pass him up.
terrence.doyle: That’s a fair point. If I were a team like the Bruins who, outside of the top line, cannot score 5-on-5 goals for the life of them, I’d want Sid over Hedman. And Sid is, imo, a top 5 ever player. But sticking with Hedman here for the sake of the exercise.
julian.mckenzie: I’m taking Crosby.
I think it’s great that Victor Hedman is starting to get his due — he probably should have won the Norris last year. (That Conn Smythe made up for it.) But Sid is a top-five player of all-time.
I can think of so many defensemen who are better than Hedman all-time. How many players can you do that with Crosby?
terrence.doyle: Maybe three?
julian.mckenzie: That’s still fewer than Hedman.
neil: Break the tie Emily!
emily: 😬 😬 😬
I went back and forth!! But I think at the end of the day, he’s one of the best in the game now, even if he’s no longer “The Kid.”
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neil: We have our first upset! If we can call it that, because you are right, you really can’t go wrong taking Crosby in any context.
Speaking of upsets, the 4-vs-13 matchup could be ripe for that if we think Kucherov will be his old self again post-injury. Then again, Patrick Kane is getting a lot of MVP buzz for what is looking like one of the best seasons of his career this year.
Who ya got?
terrence.doyle: Kucherov, for the same reasons as stated above.
julian.mckenzie: I’m willing to give Patrick Kane his due. Chicago is a playoff team largely because of him and — checks notes — Kevin Lankinen?!
Not to mention he’s a winner, a player who can step up in big moments time and time again
Not that Kucherov isn’t, but Kane has done it time and time again.
neil: Yeah, and he has more points per game this year than in any of his 100-point seasons, though obviously he’ll end up under that because of the short schedule.
julian.mckenzie: If you value PDO, he’s currently having his best year in that stat category too.
terrence.doyle: (I would be remiss not to mention the accusations of violence against Kane. Not a guy I want in the locker room, fwiw.)
julian.mckenzie: That’s very true, Terrence. He’s a tricky player to consider when you add those factors in.
terrence.doyle: Yeah. Probably the best American player ever. But also an accused rapist (even though the charges were eventually dropped).
neil: I struggled with that as well — and left Panarin out for a similar reason — but felt like we at least had to include Kane for the purposes of the bracket. Totally fair to eliminate him on that basis, though.
julian.mckenzie: While I was willing to give Kane his due for his on-ice play, I have no problem with him being eliminated.
I’ll take Kucherov.
emily: Kucherov as well.
neil: OK, it’s a sweep for Kucherov. Now let’s look at another really tough one balancing an all-timer who is still great (Alex Ovechkin) versus a young star with seemingly unlimited skills (Nathan MacKinnon). This will be really hard, I think, but who do you all pick?
julian.mckenzie: Hey Terrence …
But Neil, you’re killing me with this matchup.
neil: Haha, I know I know!
julian.mckenzie: Because no man in the NHL might have been BADDER than Ovechkin.
The man with the goal of the century.
The man who continues to score goals, and probably would’ve scored more had his coaches just let him score and not tried to change him into a player he wasn’t. If he didn’t have lockouts, either, who knows where’d he be.
terrence.doyle: THAT GOAL
I know the goal without having to be shown the goal.
neil: I mean, it is wild that we are having legit discussions about him chasing Wayne Gretzky’s goals record. I never thought that would happen.
julian.mckenzie: I want him to at least get to 800.
terrence.doyle: Man, Ovi might actually be my favorite player of all time.
julian.mckenzie: I don’t have to think about it. He’s my favorite.
terrence.doyle: He’s such a joy. 😂
julian.mckenzie: His flair, his style, his ability.
Thank God he has a Cup. It might be his only one, but he has one. Because him retiring without a Stanley Cup would have been so tough to swallow for NHL fans.
emily: Yes, I’m glad that Cup pressure is finally off. It’s so hard to see great players just continue to try and chase after one.
terrence.doyle: I love that he’s this perfect mix of size and speed and skill. With a little nasty. He’d make sense in, like, five different decades of hockey.
emily: Now he’s just out there having fun, climbing up the most goals ladder!
terrence.doyle: If he retired without one, I’d probably think about it and be sad about it once a week for the rest of my life.
neil: I love that ad so much, lol.
julian.mckenzie: Crosby might be considered the better player between him and Ovi, but the latter was so much more fun to follow and a much better goal scorer.
terrence.doyle: 100 percent.
STILL, though, I gotta go MacKinnon here, because I honestly think he might be the best player on earth at the moment.
This is my favorite goal of the season and it’s not even close.
neil: I knew that goal would come up.
terrence.doyle: It’s WILD.
julian.mckenzie: Because I don’t like the idea of agreeing with Terrence on everything, I’ll take Ovechkin.
terrence.doyle: 😂 fair
emily: Ha! I’ll take Ovechkin too.
julian.mckenzie: MacKinnon is so close to being to the best player in the world.
neil: Ooooh. So Sid and Ovi survive.
terrence.doyle: I am not upset to lose this vote.
emily: He’s close, but I don’t think he’s quite there yet.
julian.mckenzie: Nope! I think he might need a down year from Connor.
If nothing else, MacKinnon is closer to a Cup than McDavid is.
neil: Yeah, a Cup would definitely complicate that conversation.
emily: Excellent point, Julian.
neil: OK, let’s move on for a matchup between an offensive machine (Auston Matthews) and a two-way force, as we discussed earlier (Patrice Bergeron). Who are we taking?
julian.mckenzie: Oh, boy.
terrence.doyle: Pains me to say it, but I gotta go with Matthews here for his goal-scoring ability. Just can’t stop scoring this season.
julian.mckenzie: And he’s doing it with one healthy wrist right now.
terrence.doyle: Yeesh, that’s right.
neil: And somehow he’s on a 64-goal pace per 82 based on goals per game.
emily: Will stick with Bergeron here, though it’s a close one.
neil: So Julian, sounds like a Matthews pick for you to break the tie?
julian.mckenzie: Yup yuppers.
neil: Now let’s do a really weird comparison: goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who is the Vezina front-runner, against defenseman Cale Makar, who has at times (when healthy) seemed like the Norris front-runner. Who would you rather have right now, though?
julian.mckenzie: Makar. I think he’s the prototype of what defensemen should be like in the NHL today. Dynamic, puck-moving, offense-creating rearguard.
terrence.doyle: Yeah, Makar for me too. For all the reasons Julian just mentioned.
Good goaltending is a big key to team success, for sure, but individual goaltenders can blow so hot and cold that I’d never want to build a team around one, as good as Vasilevskiy is.
neil: Never trust a goalie!
terrence.doyle: LOLOL, I’ll subscribe to that newsletter.
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julian.mckenzie: And if you’re building a good team and your forwards and defense are great, you can get by with just a good goalie. Doesn’t have to be all-world, just needs to be reliable.
emily: ^ Ditto!
neil: Speaking of goalies, let’s finish the round with Marc-André Fleury … against Leon Draisaitl. I have a guess how this will go …
terrence.doyle: Leon. Top five player on the planet right now. Second best player from the 2014 draft class.
neil: Oh, behind Aaron Ekblad?
terrence.doyle: LOLOL 🍝
emily: What the heck, I’ll go Fleury here.
neil: Somebody had to stand up for the netminders!
julian.mckenzie: Leaning Leon. Might be one of the more underrated Hart Trophy winners ever.
terrence.doyle: Leaning Leon is the Kings of Leon’s shoegaze band.
julian.mckenzie: Can’t forget about Drai.
neil: His dynamic relative to Connor is a fascinating one — and one maybe we shall settle head to head …
Right now, here’s the bracket:
julian.mckenzie: Oh, baby.
neil: So let’s keep it rolling. McDavid vs. Pastrňák. What’s the pick?
julian.mckenzie: McDavid, easily.
terrence.doyle: Oof. It’s McDavid, I’m sad to admit it.
emily: Pasta is a key piece (er … dish??), McDavid is the piece. McDavid.
terrence.doyle: Pasta is, for me, top five in the game currently. But yeah, idk, McDavid is probably THE best. So, Connor.
julian.mckenzie: The appetizer, entree, main course, dessert…
neil: Connor “The Whole Meal” McDavid wins.
All right, next up: Crosby vs Kucherov. This one might come down to how healthy we think Kucherov can be when he returns, right?
julian.mckenzie: Crosby, for the reasons I mentioned above.
emily: Crosby, I’ll take the guarantee here.
terrence.doyle: I’m gonna go Kuch for reasons stated above, even though I know it’s a losing vote.
julian.mckenzie: Man, remember those concussions that had us worried about Crosby’s health and whether he’d even be the same player …
Imagine if HE had a clean bill of health for his career and didn’t miss as much time.
terrence.doyle: Probably translates into a couple more Cups …
julian.mckenzie: Him playing on the only team to win back-to-back Cups in the salary cap era (all post-injury) is impressive enough.
neil: Really a testament to how great his talent and drive to keep playing at such a high level were, and still are.
So let’s move on to another matchup of legend versus younger star: Ovechkin vs. Matthews. Sniper versus sniper!
julian.mckenzie: The past/present vs. the present/future.
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emily: I went against him last round, but this time I think I’ll go Matthews.
julian.mckenzie: I’ll take Ovechkin.
terrence.doyle: I’m flip-flopping here and going Ovi because he, like me, was born in 1985, and I need to believe for my own reasons that old dogs can indeed learn new tricks
emily: LOL. I think that’s why I went Matthews — I believe in the power of the youth.
terrence.doyle: The kids are all right!
neil: Wow, so Matthews is out of the tourney. Shocker!
julian.mckenzie: A lot of shockers! And a lot of reliance on players who’ve done it before.
neil: The hockey gods do shine on veteran leadership in the playoffs.
terrence.doyle: We’ve all got our GM hats on, apparently.
julian.mckenzie: Always on.
neil: So now we end the round with Cale Makar, the last d-man standing, against Leon Draisaitl. Can Makar pull off the upset??
julian.mckenzie: Oh, my.
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terrence.doyle: I go Makar because you can’t win a Cup without a great blueliner. and he could be his generation’s greatest.
julian.mckenzie: Yeah, wow.
You need guys down the middle to push you through. I love Makar, but I feel picking Draisaitl is the more sensible choice, if picking between the two.
emily: 👆 Yep, in this round, I’ll go Draisaitl.
neil: Leon wins a close one. You all made him sweat it out though.
julian.mckenzie: And this guy is the reigning Hart Trophy winner!
neil: I know, smh. (Lol)
So now we have our Final Four:
Let’s get right to the BIG battle. McDavid vs Crosby. One we’ve all been waiting for.
terrence.doyle: Connor. All that veteran know-how is great, but McDavid has officially taken the torch.
julian.mckenzie: Connor is the next guy to take it over from Crosby. And I believe in Connor McDavid so much, I’d take him, right now, over Crosby.
julian.mckenzie: He is super special.
terrence.doyle: I wish he played for a real team. 😈
julian.mckenzie: Imagine if they kept all those No. 1 overall picks. Well, maybe not all (sorry, Nail Yakupov).
neil: Oh, man. If we want this chat to last another hour we can go off on the Oilers.
julian.mckenzie: Yes lol
emily: Next time!
neil: Right, right. Lol
emily: We haven’t even touched the Rangers-Flyers game last night!
neil: As a Flyers fan, the less said about that the better …
Anyway, let’s settle our other semifinal. Ovi vs Leon. Who ya got?
julian.mckenzie: Je prends Ovechkin.
terrence.doyle: I’m choosing chaos: Ovi.
neil: Incredible. So no all-Oilers Final.
terrence.doyle: Neil’s Diabolical Selection Committee doesn’t get its preferred final, ratings crash.
julian.mckenzie: I’m happy that Leon Draisaitl got this far!
neil: All right. Let’s settle this bracket:
McDavid vs Ovechkin, for the crown of Best Player.
julian.mckenzie: Connor McDavid.
terrence.doyle: Connor for me as well.
julian.mckenzie: We have a winner!
terrence.doyle: Nice little player, that Connor.
julian.mckenzie: Special lad.
emily: Appreciate the ⭐️ stars ⭐️ there, Neil.
neil: Haha, well I had to make it special. So congrats to Connor McDavid! We will send him a framed copy of this bracket, which I’m sure will rest on a shelf above the Hart Trophy.
emily: Next to a big open space on the shelf …
Just waiting …
julian.mckenzie: For a Stanley Cup.
terrence.doyle: Maybe someday … when he doesn’t call Edmonton home.