Pro Hockey Talk Year In Review: Top NHL Players From 2021

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Pro Hockey Talk is taking a look back at the year in hockey. We’ll be presenting you with the best NHL goals, saves, stories, players and more as we remember 2021.

There have been some truly incredible individual performances over the past calendar year in the NHL, from the stunning numbers we have seen from Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in Edmonton, to the ageless performance of Alex Ovechkin in Washington.

They are just some of the big names that highlight the top players list from the past year.

Also on the list are an MVP candidate that has helped lead the Rangers’ rebuild, the best goalie in hockey, and a franchise-changing player in Minnesota.

The list only takes into account performances from Jan. 1 through now and separates forwards, defenders, and goalies.

To the list!

Forwards

Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers. The numbers are staggering. Since the start of the calendar year McDavid has played 85 regular season games and recorded 154 points. The next closest player is his teammate, Leon Draisaitl, at 133 points. No other NHL player as of Monday has more than 100 (Auston Matthews is third at 99 in 79 games). Add in the playoffs and he is at 158 points in 89 games. He makes defenders look helpless at times.

Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers. There was a time when his contract was viewed as a mistake. Now it might be a bargain. He and McDavid are the best 1-2 punch in the NHL and are dragging the Oilers as far as they can by themselves. If only they had a supporting cast around them.

Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs. He has scored 61 goals in only 79 games over the past year, an absolutely incredible pace. During 2021 he has led the league in total goals, even-strength goals, and is fourth in power play goals. He is going to be a yearly contender for the Rocket Richard Trophy (he has already won it one time) and will probably win it multiple times.

Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche. He is not quite on McDavid’s level (who is right now?) but he is not far behind on the next tier. His goal scoring has been off to a slow start this season when he has been on the ice, but he is still on top of the league in points per game this season and including playoffs has 104 points in 75 games.

Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals. What he is doing in the first part of the 2021-22 season is just absolutely incredible. Not only is he not slowing down, he might be having one of the best offensive seasons of his career. He is doing that at age 36. It is not just the goal scoring, either, as he is in contention to potentially win another scoring title. Every year at the start we wonder if this is the year he might start to slow down. He never does. He is still scoring at a 50-goal pace over 82 games. Wayne Gretzky’s record is within sight.

Artemi Panarin, New York Rangers. Most big, long-term free agent contracts fail to match the expectations. In most cases you are getting into bidding wars with other teams to pay top dollars for players that have already played their best hockey for somebody else. It is why most of those long-term free agent contracts result in a buyout or trade. Panarin looks like he is going to be one of the exceptions to that. He has become the centerpiece to the Rangers’ rebuild and is one of the best offensive players in the league and has become a yearly regular in the MVP discussion. He averaged 1.28 points per game in 2021 and is a game-changer on nearly every shift for a Rangers team that is now one of the top teams in the league.

Kirill Kaprizov, Minnesota Wild. He is not the only reason for it, but Kaprizov’s arrival in Minnesota has completely changed the outlook of the team. He has given them the superstar player they have lacked and helped make the Wild one of the most entertaining teams in the league. He does not have the most goals or points in the league since his arrival, but few players have done more to impact their team than him.

Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins. You can hate him all you want, but you would love to have him on your team. So would your general manager and your head coach. He has become such a complete player these past five years, dominating possession, playing great defense, and becoming one of the absolute best offensive players in the league. There is almost no weakness to his game, and all of the numbers (traditional and underlying) confirm that. Not only is he a force at even-strength and on the power play, he has eight shorthanded points (most in the league), including five shorthanded goals over the past year. Crazy stat: When he has been on the ice in shorthanded situations this past year the Bruins have scored eight goals, and allowed only 12 goals. Not only does he help shut down opposing power plays, he helps nearly outscore them.

Defense

Adam Fox, New York Rangers. Fox is the total package. He won the Norris Trophy in just his sophomore year and has returned even better in his third season. The Rangers have a superstar level play at every position and that is what is giving them a chance to do something significant this season. Every contending team needs a top-tier blue liner that can impact the game in every phase, and the Rangers already have it in Fox.

Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche. Makar is special, there is no other way to put it. He might already be the best player on the Avalanche, including MacKinnon. If he is not already the best player on the Avalanche, he is not that far from being there. He finished second to Fox in the Norris Trophy voting for the 2020-21 season but is probably going to win it at least one time in his career. He is off to an absolutely incredible start this season. Since Jan. 1, when Makar has been on the ice during 5-on-5 play the Avalanche have outscored teams 71-48, controlled 60 percent of the total shot attempts, have a commanding edge in scoring chances and expected goals, while Makar has 21 goals and 70 total points in 67 games. Those would be superstar scoring numbers for a forward. For a defenseman it is almost unbelievable.

Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning. Hedman’s 2020-21 regular season was not up to his normal level of dominance, but it was still outstanding. But then he was outstanding in the playoffs in helping the Lightning win back-to-back Stanley Cups and has been back to being his usual dominant self in the first part of the 2021-22 season.

Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins. McAvoy does not put up the points that the other players in this group do, but there are few defenders in the league that play a better all-around game than him. There is a wave of young talent at the position starting to take over with Makar, Fox, and Quinn Hughes leading the way, and McAvoy is right there at the top with them.

Goalies

Juuse Saros, Nashville Predators. It is wild that he did not finish higher in the Vezina Trophy voting a year ago. Not only was he one of the best goalies in the league, he almost single-handedly dragged a mediocre Predators team to a playoff berth. He has been just as good this season. Of the 18 goalies that started at least 45 games since Jan. 1, Saros was tied for first in all situations save percentage (.926), first in even-strength save percentage (.939), and has had five shutouts.

Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning. If you are putting together a ranking of the best players in hockey Andrei Vasilevskiy should not appear anywhere lower than fifth. He is that good. He is on the elite tier of players in the league across all positions. There is not a better goalie in the world right now and he has been consistently dominant since becoming the Lightning’s starting goalie during the 2016-17 season. His regular season numbers are consistently among the best in the league, and for two consecutive playoff runs he has played every minute for a back-to-back champion, never getting a day off or being pulled for an off night. But we are only including the most recent playoff run for this exercise here, and all he did during that postseason was post a .937 save percentage and record five shutouts. In 24 appearances to start this season he is 17-4-3 with a .928 save percentage and two shutouts. He is as dominant as any other player in the league and plays the most important and impactful position.

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