Puck Lists: The 13 best American NHLers of all time

Glenn Cratty/Allsport
Glenn Cratty/Allsport

(Say hello to a special July 4th edition of Puck Lists from yer boy RL, in which he arbitrarily lists hockey things.)

Today is Independence Day here in the good ol’ U.S. of A, but American hockey should be celebrated year-round because of how good and excellent it is.

With this in mind, why don’t we go ahead and rank the guys who are the best American-born players of all time? Don’t bring up Canada or Russia or Sweden to me on this day. Those countries have their own Independence Days, and it certainly isn’t my fault that Canada — I’m assuming, anyway — decided to have the first day of free agency on July 1 (which, by the by, copy America much?).

Russia’s Independence Day is in the middle of the playoffs. Tough to recognize it. We have better things going on. And tough to come up with more than a handful of good Russian NHLers anyway. Uhh, Alex Ovechkin and Pavel Bure and…. Nikolai Khabibulin? Yikes that list drops off fast.

I don’t know when Swedish Independence Day is. Probably whenever the Kalmar Union broke up, but I don’t know when that is only that it was like 500 years ago. And by the way: You’d have an even better team for the World Cup if the Kalmar Union were still together. Just something to think about.

The future is bright for American hockey, no two ways about it, but a lot of the most talented players the country has developed are still in their late teens and early 20s. Do this list 20 years from now and it will look a lot different, which is a good thing because it shows we’re getting better all the time. Call it manifest destiny. Canada’s list of “best players ever” probably wouldn’t. Call that stagnation.

Anyway, this is a day for America and American NHL players, so here is a ranking of the 13 best. Happy Fourth of July, folks.

(Don’t read past this line if you are not from the U.S.)

13. Jeremy Roenick

The mid-90s was something of a Golden Era for the U.S. in terms of the quality of player league-wide.

He’s one of only a handful of U.S. players to clear 500 goals and 1,000 points in his career, and one of only four to do both (the others are slightly ahead of him on this list).

How about this for a stat: Three straight 100-point seasons in the early 1990s. You’d have to imagine few U.S.-born players

And you know he’s a good American because he says dumbass things he can’t back up all the time, and he’s voting for Donald Trump.

12. Ryan Miller

The thing you have to understand about goaltending is that the U.S. has recently become the best at it, in terms of churning out high-quality players on a regular basis. Of that group, you can really make the argument that Ryan Miller was the first through the door in the modern era.

He’s won a Vezina, and was the best player in the Vancouver Olympics by far (the less said about the team in front of him, the better).

Miller is probably better for what he represents than what he actually is, but man, he was really good in the late 2000s for a minute there. You also rarely see goalies with this kind of ability to carry a heavy load: He had three seasons in four years in which Buffalo made him play at least 65 games, including 76(!!!) in 2007-08.

He’s been in the league for the entire salary cap era, and has only twice posted below-average seasons. More often, he’s adding at least a win or two to his team’s point total. The year he won the Vezina, he added about six. Probably should have won the Hart, too.

(Honorable mention here for Tim Thomas, who didn’t have a long enough career to make the list, but had the best peak of probably any goalie in hockey history besides Dominik Hasek.)

11. Cory Schneider

Schneider seems like heir apparent to the Ryan Miller throne of, “Terrifying American Goalie.” If Miller opened the door, Schneider ran through and ripped it off the hinges without breaking a stride.

Let’s put it this way: While he hasn’t even played 300 games yet and already turned 30, if he retired today, he would technically have the best career save percentage in NHL history. There hasn’t been a single full season in which he was less than a .921 goaltender, and the added value there is unbelievable. In an era in which goaltending is everything to NHL teams, Schneider has been one of the best options in the entire league — and certainly the best American option — for the last three years.

New Jersey is going to use him as a workhorse the next three or four years, and really boost that games-played number to a respectable level.

10. Keith Tkachuk

Tkachuk is also in the class of Great Americans of the Mid-90s with Roenick, but he was just a little bit better at everything.

He didn’t last longer in the league, but he scored more goals. They’re tied in career points per game, but Roenick had a better supporting cast around him for most of his career. Though Tkachuk never broke 100 points in a single season, but from 1995-2002 he averaged 0.53 goals and 1.03 points per game. That’s a whopper of a peak.

9. Phil Housley

Seven-time All-Star, Hall of Famer, etc. He’s one of only five defensemen in NHL history to clear 1,200 points, which is incredible. It speaks to both his longevity and his offensive prowess. The dude had almost 900 assists and 1,500 games played. He scored 338 goals.

How he did all that and finished a minus-53 for his career is amazing! If dude played today, he’d get the Erik Karlsson/P.K. Subban treatment for sure. People would say Kevin Hatcher was better than him.

He’d probably get a lot more praise if he didn’t play in perhaps the best era for NHL defensemen besides the current one. The season he finished highest in Norris voting (third in 1992), the other guys in the top six were Brian Leetch, Ray Bourque, Scott Stevens, Larry Murphy, and Chris Chelios. Good lord.

Also lending credit to Housley’s USA Hockey bonafides: He coached a World Junior team to a gold medal in one of the best tournaments in recent memory a few years ago.

Brian Bahr/Getty Images
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

8. Mike Richter

You obviously can’t have a discussion about American goaltending without bringing up Mike Richter. He played in 14 seasons, recording the third-most games played of any American-born goalie (behind John Vanbiesbrouck and Tom Barrasso).

And while he was a contemporary with those two, he was the best of the group. Neither was above .900 for his career — albeit in an era not known for elite all-time goaltending numbers — but Richter went .904. Among all long-time goalies who played the bulk of their career in the ’90s (Richter played from 1989 to 2003).

During that stretch, Richter is one of only eight goalies to both appear in 600-plus games and carry a save percentage above .900. Other guys on that list include Patrick Roy, Ed Belfour, Curtis Joseph, Martin Brodeur, and Felix Potvin, all of whom were dominant in the era. The other two are Vanbiesbrouck and Sean Burke.

When you’re one of the eight best and most-used players at your position over a 14-year period, you’re really damn good.

7. Joe Mullen

Feels like Mullen often gets forgotten for being really damn good, but man, he was really damn good for a long, long time. Account for the era and all that, but he only had two seasons of less than 0.8 points per game. Those two seasons were when he was 38 and 39 years old, when the First Dead Puck Era was getting underway. So I guess you take that.

In a lot of ways Mullen, who started his career in 1981, was the first really great American player in the NHL: first one to ever score 500. First one to ever score 1,000. It took several years before any of his countrymen did the same.

Won three Cups, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2000. Just a real good player we probably don’t talk about enough because he’s just a little too old for most of us to remember in his prime.

6. Mike Modano

All-time leading scorer among Americans, and the next-closet guy is more than 140 points off the pace. He’s also 21st in career shorthanded goals, which is a fun stat I just learned right now.

One game shy of becoming only the 16th player in NHL history to play 1,500 games, and most among Americans by a margin of four (Housley with 1,495).

5. Patrick Kane

I know, I know. He is not a good person, but when you’re second all-time in points per game among Americans and played in the Second Dead Puck Era, you have to make a list of the best Americans ever. Three Cups, an MVP award, all that stuff. Will probably break every American scoring record by the time he’s done.

Great player, but let’s leave it at that.

4. Chris Chelios

Dude played until he was 48. Forty-eight!

It was for a rotten team (Atlanta) and it was only for seven games (11:10 TOI per night) but you can’t really say anything about that other than “Damn.” He started playing when I was about five months old. He retired when I was 27. Like, holy crap.

As a result, he’s fifth all time in games played, and that’s with his playing around two separate lockouts. Both he and Mark Recchi would have threatened Gordie Howe’s all-time games played record without those work stoppages. Mark Messier might have come back for 2004-05 and assuredly done so. Ron Francis would have almost certainly surpassed it without the 1994-95 lockout. (Anyway, that’s my rant on the NHL artificially protecting Howe’s GP record.)

Chelios is a weird player, though. Only 185 goals and 948 points, but he might have been the Drew Doughty of his time, because he won three Norrises despite playing in the late 80s and early 90s, when you couldn’t throw a puck without hitting five of the best defensemen of all time.

With this in mind, we have to acknowledge that If Chelios Wanted To Score More He Could Have But He Wanted To Focus On Defense And That’s Why He Won Three Stanley Cups But Housley Didn’t Win Any.

3. Pat LaFontaine

He’d be a lot higher on the list if not for Francois Leroux among many other players who gave him a concussion.

Cleared 1,000 points in just 865 games, and had 468 goals in that time as well. In his scoring prime, he was a terrifying player: 93 points in 57 games in 1991-92, then 148 in 84 the next year. And yes, some of that is the era in which he played, but he’s still the all-time leader in points per game among Americans.

He’d almost certainly be higher on the list if he hadn’t been forced into retirement.

2. Brett Hull

Controversial, yes. He was born in Belleville, Ontario, which is in Canada and therefore nausea-inducing in and of itself. But who am I to leave off a list a man who rose above the circumstances of his birth? Like a modern-day Tom Jones (the Henry Fielding one, not the “What’s New Pussycat?” one), here was a hockey player who realized that he could really class himself up by just pretending to be American, and overcoming his inherent loserness as a natural-born Canadian. You have to admire the guy for it.

The stats speak for themselves: 741 goals (fourth-most ever) in 1,269 career games (eighth in goals per game), including 86 goals in 1990-91 (third in goals in a single season). Hart Trophy winner, NHL First Team All-Star three years running, eight-time All-Star Game participant, two-time Cup winner.

That’s a whopper of a career. Too bad about that birthplace, though. Could have been even higher on this list. Sad!

1. Brian Leetch

More than 1,000 points in about 1,200 career games, and another guy affected by two of the three Gary Bettman Lockouts (Jaromir Jagr is, of course, the only one affected by all three).

Only two Norris wins to his name, but he also pulled down a Conn Smythe when the Rangers won in 1994 (eat it, Adam Graves) and a Calder in 1989 (eat it, Jiri Hrdina).

One time scored 102 points in 80 games (eat it, Erik Karlsson). He, Al MacInnis, and Dennis Potvin are the only two guys not named Bobby Orr or Paul Coffey to ever do that. And Leetch is the only American player to do it.

Leetch was also the captain of the World Cup of Hockey team that won in 1996, the only best-on-best tournament win in USA Hockey history.

Basically the ideal American player.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.