25. Joe Thornton
Joe Thornton might be the most underappreciated superstar in the history of the league. Instead of being celebrated for his ability, production and overall dominance, he has spent most of his career listening to criticisms about playoff shortcomings (that were not his fault) and not yet winning a championship (also not his fault; but this year’s San Jose Sharks team seems to have an outstanding chance). He is the type of player who 10 or 20 years after he retires, the hockey world will look back and wonder why he was not held in higher regard during his playing days. He might be one of the top five playmakers in the history of the sport and has a defensive game to match. He has never been a great goal-scorer, but he is good enough, and his playmaking more than makes up for whatever shortcomings he has when it came to scoring goals.
24. Joe Sakic
Before they relocated and became the Colorado Avalanche, the Quebec Nordiques had a run of high-draft picks in the mid to late 1980s who would help build the foundation of a two-time Stanley Cup winner (in Colorado). The first of those to be put in place was their 1987 first-round pick, No. 15 overall, Joe Sakic. Sakic would go on to be the centerpiece of the franchise for the better part of the next two decades as one of the league’s best two-way centers. He finished his career in the top 16 in goals, assists, total points, and he collected several pieces of hardware, including a pair of Stanley Cup rings, an MVP award, a Lester B. Pearson Award (best player as voted on by the players) and a Conn Smythe Trophy.
23. Ron Francis
Ron Francis was never the most dominant player in hockey, but there is a lot to be said for sustained excellence over two decades in the world’s best league. When all is said and done, Francis is in the top five all time in assists, points and games played and was an exceptional two-way center and playmaker and a key cog for a two-time Stanley Cup winner in Pittsburgh.
22. Pavel Bure
Like Eric Lindros, this isn’t about career totals or championships; this is about playing the game at the highest level and dominating in a way few others have. Pavel Bure was a total game-changer when he arrived in Vancouver in the early 1990s and spent a decade as the most dangerous goal scorer in the league. With better health and a more offensive friendly era, who knows what he would have been capable of. Even with all of that, he was still a four-time goal-scoring champion who twice topped the 60-goal mark until his knees gave out.
21. Eric Lindros
Maybe a controversial pick for the top 20, but Eric Lindros was a force unlike anything anyone had ever seen when he entered the NHL. An unmatched combination of size, skill, speed, strength and determination, Lindros was an astonishingly dominant player from the moment he arrived in the league. The only thing that slowed him down and kept him from reaching his peak potential was concussions. Even so, he still did enough to be considered one of the all-time greats.
20. Marcel Dionne
Marcel Dionne’s career was defined by three things: longevity, productivity and never being fortunate enough to play on a championship-winning team. He is one of the most productive and prolific offensive players in league history, but because he never played on a team that was good enough to get even remotely close to a Stanley Cup he is mostly forgotten. How much different would his career look today with even one championship on his resume? How much better would his reputation be? Significantly better, for sure.
19. Charlie Conacher
By far the most dangerous goal scorer of the 1930s, Charlie Conacher finished as the NHL’s leading goal scorer five different times in his career, and for the first six years of his career he was a point-per-game player. That level of production was almost unheard of in the early 1930s, and as of the 1936 season he was one of just four players in league history at that time to average such a pace. Among his peers at the time, there was quite simply no one close to him.
18. Howie Morenz
We are going way back in time for this one, but Howie Morenz was one of the NHL’s first superstars, playing in the 1920s and winning three MVP awards throughout his career. During his first 10 years in the NHL, he scored 41 more goals than any other player in the league and was one of only two players in that era to top the 200-goal mark, between 1923 and 1933.