November 24, 2009
(No, the first decade of the 21st century doesn't technically end until 2011. Save your bellyaching. But we've had nine NHL seasons and one stolen from us since 1999-2000, and Yahoo! Sports has decided it's time to rank the best and worst of the last "decade." Enjoy, and snark freely in the comments.)
How you choose to define, or quantify, the "best" player in the NHL over the last decade will determine your level of agreement with this ranking, which is sure to be one of our most controversial End of Decade lists.
Do you judge greatness based on flashy stats? Championship rings and playoff performance? Individual awards? Do you factor in intangibles like leadership or reputation?
We took everything into account for our Player of the Decade countdown, which focuses on NHL achievement rather than bringing international hockey into the equation. Every spot on the list is up for debate, but we feel as though these 10 players defined the 2000s for professional hockey. Keep in mind that the 2000s meant one set of rules, a work-stoppage, and then another set of rules.
Here are the 10 best players of the last decade ...
Before he left for the KHL in 2008, Jagr amassed 737 points in the decade, leading the NHL in assists (69) in 2000-01 and points in two seasons (1999-2001). He was the player-voted MVP in 2000 and 2006, and made four all-star teams.
The problem for Jagr is that his masterpiece came in the last season of the 1990s: That 127-point MVP campaign with the Pittsburgh Penguins. In the 2000s, he spent two fantastic years with the Pens before losing his smile with the Washington Capitals for two-and-a-half average seasons. He found his game again with the New York Rangers, posting stellar numbers despite playing in a defensive system.
But the previous decade was more memorable for Jagr. And not just because of the mullet.
No, his 44 points in 59 playoff games wasn't impressive, and neither was the constantly underwhelming performance from his teams in the postseason. But Thornton was arguably the best assist man of the decade, leading the League three times in that category; and his 96-assist, 125-point MVP season remains of the decade's truly remarkable personal achievements.
Sakic only played 59 games in his last two seasons (curse you, demonic snow blower!) before retiring last summer for the Colorado Avalanche, which dragged down his stats significantly. He ended up with 650 points for the 2000s, although he never led the NHL in any major offensive category during the decade -- outside of plus/minus in 2000-01 (plus-45).
That 2000-01 season the best of Sakic's career: 54 goals, 118 points and both the Hart and the Pearson (and the Lady Byng ... can't forget about sportsmanship).
Why does he rank above Jagr and Thornton, who outscored him? Because neither of them played in a Stanley Cup final in the last decade, let alone led all playoff scorers 13 goals and 26 points as Sakic did in 2001. More importantly, neither of them earned the right to have their name on the Stanley Cup as Sakic did for the second time.
He was a star player and a formidable leader. Intangibles count ... as they do for this next dude, too.
The Calgary Flames captain was a five-time all-star, a two-time NHL leader in goals (2001-02, 2003-04) and the Pearson winner for his 52-goal season of 2001-02. (He was famously jobbed out of the Hart in a controversy that forced a change in vote tabulation.) Overall, Iggy had 718 points in the 2000s.
He led all playoff scorers with 13 goals in the Flames' 2004 runner-up campaign for the Cup. He then captained the team to four consecutive playoff appearances after that loss. Inconsistency and questionable managerial decisions have undermined the Flames since that pre-lockout Cup run; but no one dare say any of that is Iginla's fault.
Niedermayer solidified his credentials as an all-time great defenseman with two Stanley Cups, one with the New Jersey Devils and the other with the Anaheim Ducks; and his clutch offense and shutdown defense earned him the Conn Smythe in 2007. He won his first and only Norris Trophy in 2003-04.
Niedermayer began the decade with many wondering what he could accomplish offensively if freed from the Devils' systematic defense. He sufficiently answered the question by scoring 216 points in four seasons with the Ducks after signing with Anaheim as a free agent in 2005. He had 415 points overall in the decade.
Also the unofficial winner of the best salt-and-pepper playoff beard award, for what that's worth.
Pronger ahead of Niedermayer? Absolutely.
He tallied 420 points despite being limited to five regular season games in 2002-03 due to an arthritic left wrist and a torn right ACL. Two of Pronger's achievements in the last decade are unmatched by Niedermayer or any other defenseman.
The first was his 1999-2000 season that saw Pronger finished with a career-best 62 points and a plus-52 to lead the NHL, winning both the Hart and the Norris trophies as a member of the St. Louis Blues.
The second was that Herculean effort in the 2006 postseason, as Pronger carried the Edmonton Oilers to within one victory of the Stanley Cup with an effort that had some calling for him to win the Conn Smythe in a losing effort. It was, without question, one of the most dominant postseason runs for any athlete in the NHL over the last decade, perhaps even two decades.
Should Pronger fall a few notches because of the weight of his baggage? Because he and his wife broke the hearts of Edmonton fans before claiming those fans burned his kid's crib? Because of the suspension history, including the Stampy the Elephant moment with Ryan Kesler(notes)?
It's legacy-tarnishing stuff, but not enough to overpower Pronger's unparalleled accomplishments on the ice.
Yeah, we've arrived at this point in the countdown. And if Sidney's here, you know who's ranked ahead of him, sample size be damned for both of them.
Ignoring the Beatles/Stones, Luke/Han, Tastes Great/Less Filling dynamic between Crosby and Ovechkin is ignoring one of the great debates of the decade. Their placement on this list is a de facto "Player of NHL 2.0" contest, as they're the most dominant players of the post-lockout era.
The case for Sidney: 132 goals and 265 assists for 397 points in 290 games. He led the League in points in 2006-07 with 120 as a 19 year old, the year he won the Hart and the Pearson. He had 63 points in 49 playoff games, including that masterful 15-goal performance to lead the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup last season; and while Ovechkin won the individual stats battle in their classic semifinal confrontation, Crosby has the series win and the Cup.
That means something, for sure; but it's not enough to overtake Ovechkin on the Player of the Decade countdown. Had Crosby remained healthy in 2007-08, when he was limited to 53 games, perhaps he overtakes Ovechkin's points lead and/or wins some more hardware to rival the Russian's trophy case. But that's projection and conjecture, when the reality is that Ovechkin's had the better decade and, thus, career so far.
The Washington Capitals winger entered this season with 219 goals, 201 assists and 420 points in 324 games. No, he doesn't have a Stanley Cup; or even a conference title, of which Crosby has two. But he has nearly everything else.
Check out the Hockey-Reference.com honors and awards sections for Crosby and Ovechkin. Statistically, Ovi's accomplishments dwarf those of Sidney -- leading the League in goals twice and points once, while also leading the NHL in categories like power-play goals. His 2007-08 seasons was, in our estimation, the best of the decade for an individual player (non-goalie).
It's also no contest when it comes to hardware: Ovechkin has doubled up Crosby in Hart trophies and Pearson awards, while famously winning the Calder in a rookie season that seemed predestined to be Crosby's time to shine.
There are other factors to consider: Crosby's defense, Ovechkin's physical game, the talent both players did or did not skate with at various times in their decade of dominance. But, overall, Ovechkin gets the nod; though this stats vs. prestige debate could very well define their rivalry by the end of their respective careers.
At some point in the last decade, Brodeur began to receive proper credit for his historic numbers between the pipes for the New Jersey Devils. After coaching changes, system changes, rules changes and changes in the personnel in front of him, the fact remained that Brodeur posted some of the best stats of his career during the 2000s to go along with some incredible personal accolades.
His Devils captured two Stanley Cups in the decade, with Brodeur in consideration for the Conn Smythe in 2003 that eventually went to J.S. Giguere. He entered this season with 356 wins, although that total was aided by the advent of the shootout, where Marty excelled. Four of his five best save-percentage seasons occurred in the last 10 years; three of his five best seasons for goals-against average occurred in the same duration. He posted 65 shutouts in the last decade.
He won the Jennings Trophy twice and four Vezina Trophies, validating his status as one of the elite goalies of the last quarter century. Not bad for a fatso.
But not the Player of the Decade, either.
"When you've won so many Norris Trophies than you can play a game of Jenga with them, I'd say that warrants inclusion on this list."
Lidstrom's six Norris Trophies for best defenseman aren't an NHL record: Doug Harvey has seven and Bobby Orr has eight. But those players competed in a slightly smaller League, and Lidstrom's remained king of the mountain despite challenges from some stellar, Hall of Fame-potential defenseman, two of whom are on this list.
Simply put, he was the total package. An offensive player who tallied 574 points, his four best point-scoring seasons all coming in the 2000s. A defensive player who was a plus-232 for the decade, frequently logging more than 28 minutes a night for the Wings. A leader who won the Conn Smythe for the Wings' 2001-02 Stanley Cup champions, and who then captained a second Detroit team to the Cup in 2007-08. And he made it look frequently effortless.
We previously broke down the Lidstrom/Brodeur dynamic when The Sporting News named the defenseman as its player of the decade, a decision we obviously endorse. Looking back at our ranking here, what we said then still stands in the final analysis:
The best two players of the last 10 years were a defenseman and a goaltender, and that speaks volumes about which positions are underappreciated in the NHL, as well as the marketing challenges the League's faced in selling guys who keep pucks out of, rather than put them into, the net.
Brodeur and Lidstrom never received the marketing push of a Crosby or an Ovechkin; they'll have to just settle on being legendary performers at their given positions in the NHL.