Anonymous NHL player poll 2024: Who’s the best player? Most overrated? Best goalie? Worst road city?

Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon or Nikita Kucherov: Who’s the NHL’s best player?

It’s gotta be McDavid, right?

Not so fast, a surprising number of NHL players say.

“McDavid’s going to get all the votes, I’m sure,” one player told The Athletic. “But I think MacKinnon’s better right now.”

The three may well end up in a dead heat for the Hart Trophy this season, as Kucherov heads into the All-Star break leading the league in scoring, with MacKinnon a point behind and the reigning MVP McDavid surging on hockey’s hottest team.

And then there’s Auston Matthews, headed for a possible 70-goal season. And Sidney Crosby, playing at as high a level as ever.

“Sid is still doing Sid things,” another player told The Athletic. “There’s a lot of players where I go like, ‘Wow.’”

It’s always fun to hear NHL players’ astonishment at the game’s top players, and there was plenty of it in The Athletic’s player poll this season. Our NHL staff spent the first half of the season asking nearly 200 players:

  • Who’s the best player?
  • Who’s the best goalie?
  • Who are the most underrated and overrated players?
  • Who’s the player you’d most like to punch?
  • Best and worst refs?
  • Favorite jerseys?
  • Favorite and least favorite road cities?

We also asked about more nuanced topics like neck guards and gambling. Those results will be coming in stories over the next week.

For now, let’s jump in on the NHL’s great debates.

A bit closer than you’d expect? Probably. But for most, it’s still McDavid.

“There’s just nobody like him,” one player said of the Edmonton Oilers captain. “Nobody does what he does.”

“I don’t think there’s going to be a discussion about that for many years,” another said.

“It’s just everything,” another said. “He can do everything.”

So where does the debate creep in? For many players, the league’s best player in the pre-McDavid era may not be getting his due.

“If there was one game and everything was on the line? I’m going with Sid every time,” one player said of the Pittsburgh Penguins great.

“With Crosby … you’re almost concerned about everyone else because he’s going to find everyone else,” another said. “With McDavid, you’re just trying to catch up to him, and that’s the hardest thing to do. But they’re both great.”

And the MacKinnon-McDavid debate has taken a big step as MacKinnon got his ring and as he plows the Colorado Avalanche toward the playoffs:

“I’ll go with McDavid still, but MacKinnon’s definitely pushing him,” one player said.

“McDavid is the answer, but MacKinnon is right there,” another echoed. “Nobody else jumps onto the ice with a burst of speed like him.”

Among those who picked MacKinnon, competitiveness, explosiveness and winning were the keywords.

“He just brings all his teammates into the fight every night,” one player said. “To me, the most competitive star. And, obviously, he’s a winner.”

“He’s just so explosive,” another said. “Whenever he’s on the ice, something is going to happen.”

“He’s just a horse,” another added. “There’s not much you can do when he’s got the puck.”

And what of the league’s scoring leader, Kucherov, a two-time champion himself with the Tampa Bay Lightning?

“So good at so many things,” said one player who voted for him. “The kind of 200-foot player that doesn’t get enough credit.”

“He just doesn’t get a lot of hype being in Tampa, right?” another added. “He’s a quiet superstar, man. He’s spectacular.”

Justifications for other picks?

On Makar, MacKinnon’s defensive counterpart in Colorado: “As a defenseman, he’s on the ice more and has got the ability to control the game a little bit more.”

On Barkov, the captain of the reigning East champion Florida Panthers: “A true leader on the ice, and you can really look up to him.”

Some will say Vasilevskiy, who enters the All-Star break with a sub-.900 save percentage, hasn’t been the same after all the long Lightning playoff runs and his subsequent back surgery.

NHL players, though, still view him as the Mount Rushmore goalie they don’t want to see in the other net.

“He’s proven it over and over again,” one player said.

“Just a big-game guy,” another said.

“I have never seen a guy that big be that athletic and that competitive,” added another.

Hellebuyck, The Athletic’s prohibitive staff favorite to win the Vezina Trophy this season at the break, was another popular pick.

“He swallows up everything,” one player said.

The New York goalie besties, Sorokin (Islanders) and Shesterkin (Rangers), both got a share of support, as well, and might have split the Russian vote.

One Russian forward, who voted for Sorokin, first made sure that his name was being left off this story. “Don’t tell Shesterkin I said that,” he said.

Fleury, who this season played his 1,000th game and passed Patrick Roy for No. 2 all-time in wins, might have been the biggest surprise, receiving five votes. The beloved icon might be getting credit more for his career achievements and infectious smile than his play in net for the Minnesota Wild, as one player admitted.

“I know he’s not the best, but I like him the best,” he said. “He robbed me stacking the pads earlier in the year. He’s been so good for so long. I’m sticking with Flower.”

Fleury, as The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun reported, could be available on the trade market this year for any GMs sharing that sentiment.

Perhaps even more interesting, Saros, who LeBrun reported the Nashville Predators might be willing to listen to offers on, got some of the strongest endorsements from his NHL peers.

“Simply the best goalie in the league right now,” one player said.

“He’s the most athletic and he reads the play the best,” another said.

A few other sentiments:

On last season’s out-of-nowhere Cup champion, the Vegas Golden Knights’ Hill: “The best goalie in the league right now. He won a Cup.”

On Demko, one of the leaders of the Vancouver Canucks’ successful turnaround this season: “I’ve seen how hard he works.”

After getting a bit of grassroots support for best player, Barkov ran away with the vote here, coming off a Stanley Cup Final run and perhaps being overshadowed in credit for that run by teammate Matthew Tkachuk.

“He’s starting to get some credit now,” one player said. “But I think he still deserves more.”

There was debate as to whether a player of Barkov’s esteem can still be called underrated among some other players, though.

“(Barkov) is not underrated,” said one player, who voted for Rantanen. “He’s a marked man every night.”

“Everyone’s been saying Barkov for so long, but (he’s) not underrated,” another player agreed.

That player voted for Barkov’s teammate, Reinhart, who has 37 goals, second only to Matthews’ 40 in the NHL, and was another popular pick.

“He’s obviously scoring a lot this year, but he’s always kind of done all those things,” one player said.

Point, similarly playing alongside superstars in a nontraditional market (Tampa Bay), received the third-most votes.

“He doesn’t get a lot of attention, but he does everything, man,” one player said.

“He scored 50-something last year (51), and I don’t remember anyone talking about it,” another said. “He’s so fast, and he’s just the engine of that team.”

Keeping with the good-player, small-market theme, seven players pointed to the Winnipeg Jets’ Connor, quietly a point-per-game player each of the past two seasons.

“He’s so good at creating time and space,” one said. “Nobody really talks about him.”

“He doesn’t get much love,” another added. “He just scores every year.”

Other picks?

On Kaprizov, the Minnesota Wild’s star and engine: “He’s a superstar in my opinion, but no one really talks about him in that category of the top guys. He’s a beast.”

On classic underrated pick Slavin from the Carolina Hurricanes: “It’s kind of getting to the point where everyone’s talking about him and people are kind of noticing, but he’s so good. I’ll say him again, but it’s probably the last year. I still think he doesn’t get as much credit as he should.”

And on Charlie Coyle, a veteran stepping into big shoes in the Boston Bruins’ lineup and helping lead them to the East’s best record: “He replaced (Patrice) Bergeron really well. He wins faceoffs and does a lot of things for them.”

He’s the lacrosse-style goal king, was on the cover of EA Sports’ NHL 2023 and is popular with the kids, but can he lead a team to the playoffs?

NHLers still have some doubts about Zegras.

“A lot of hype around him, in terms of some of the cool goals and plays that he’s made,” one said. “I feel like that doesn’t translate to an everyday type of (player). He was on the cover of the NHL (game). There was a lot of hype, I’d say.

“Nothing against the guy. I just think that got hyped a lot instead of the play, consistently, night-in, night-out on the ice.”

Nurse, the second-leading vote-getter, meanwhile, was singled out more for his contract ($9.25 million average annual value) than for his on-ice value or hype.

“He’s a hell of a player,” one player said. “I just think he makes the same as Makar, and that’s kind of crazy.”

Matthew Tkachuk and the Dallas Stars’ Robertson, both coming off 109-point seasons and playing for top teams, register as a bit of a surprise, tying for the third-most votes. The justification? Great players, but not ones who belong in the true top-top tier of NHLers.

On Tkachuk, one player said, “He got overrated in the playoffs last year. Everyone was talking about him being one of the best players in the world. I don’t see it. He’s a great player, but people talk about him like he’s top 10 in the world.”

And another on Robertson: “Sometimes you don’t really see him during the game and he finishes with three points. He still produces, but for me, he’s not like MacKinnon. He’s a game-changer, but not like these guys.”

“I’m sure everybody has said Marchand, right?” one player said. Actually, no! The Panthers’ Cousins seems to have stolen the “most-hated opponent” crown from the Bruins’ captain.

“Played against him a long time,” one player said of Cousins. “Always hated the guy.”

“He’s gonna get a lot of answers on this one,” another rightly predicted.

“I’m buddies with him and I’d still say him,” said a third.

Not that Marchand doesn’t still get some, um, love here, too.

“I love the guy, but it’s probably Marchand for sure,” one player said.

“I mean, Marchand’s always a good (player) you want to punch,” another said.

Other favorite least-favorites?

On the Stars’ Marchment: “I think he dives a little bit.”

On Washington Capitals’ big man Wilson: “He’s not a rat. I respect that. But I’d still like to punch him.”

And on the Buffalo Sabres’ Skinner: “He’s just annoying to play against.”

McCauley and Sutherland are icons of the reffing profession, and as is probably expected, they come in as the top two picks here.

For NHL players, the refs’ approachability and communication are key.

“He’ll talk to you if you get a penalty,” one player said of McCauley, an NHL ref since 2003. “He’ll tell you what you did wrong. He’s not one of those selfish guys who will try to take over a game. He’s one of the honest guys.”

“You can talk to him,” another agreed. “He’ll tell you what he saw on a call you didn’t like — reason with you. There’s more of a human element.”

McCauley’s on-ice flair also got compliments, with one player saying he’s “kinda funny,” another saying “he seems to have fun” and a third saying “I like the theatrics.”

On Sutherland, an NHL ref since 2000, players made a point of how proactive he’ll be in letting them know where the line is.

“He might even come up to me and say, ‘Hey, listen, you were borderline there. If you do that again, I might call you,’” one player said. “He’ll kind of give you a warning if it’s something he thinks is a little ticky-tacky.”

“He communicates the best,” another said. “I remember a few years back, he made a bad call. … We had him the next night, and he waited by our bus, so when (the player) came off the bus, he could tell him he screwed up that call and say he was sorry. Just the best communicator, and guys have a lot of respect for that.”

Other refs got similar kudos for communication, but the most common answer was summed up by one player who voted for McCauley: “He’s the only ref whose name I know.”

In the mid-1990s, refs stopped wearing names on their jerseys, and as a result, “I don’t know any of them,” one player said.

“God, I wish I knew their names,” another added.

“I don’t know enough of them (to answer),” another said. “I’d know them by face.”

The Athletic supports referees and didn’t want to give players this space to take individual potshots, so we’ll leave it at the numbers here, beyond pointing to a few interesting results/trends:

• St Pierre was the top choice despite having a long-term injury and now being out of the league.

• If McCauley and Sutherland got praised for their communication, the opposite was true for votes on worst ref, where commentary focused mainly on not giving players respect, being arrogant and being closed off to conversation.

• And, of course, the votes go with the calls. One player who voted for McCauley as the worst ref said it was nothing personal or about communication. It was just that “when I know he’s the ref, I (get called for a penalty) all the time.”

The Original Six may not have produced a Stanley Cup champion since 2015, but their jerseys still reign supreme, taking all of the top spots here.

“You’ve got to go Original Six,” one player said.

“To me, it was always between the Red Wings and the Blackhawks,” said another. “I think Chicago’s got the best.”

“I like Detroit’s,” another said. “All the Original Sixes are good, but that’s my favorite. It’s such a great logo.”

And on the New York Rangers, the third-place finisher, one player said: “Their home jersey is just so clean.”

If players weren’t going for the NHL’s original teams, it seems, they were going for the most recent ones.

Of the Seattle Kraken (first season 2021-22), one player said, “Those are pretty cool, man. The color scheme is something you’ve never seen before.”

And the previous expansion team, the Golden Knights (2017-18): “It’s different and unique.”

The vote focused on teams’ main home and away jerseys, but quite a few players also singled out teams’ alternate jerseys, none more than the Ducks’, which got six shout-outs.

One of four players who mentioned the Flames’ “Blasty” jerseys said, “I remember Iginla in the horse head.”

And speaking of recent jerseys, of the Seattle Kraken outdoor jersey, one player said, “I think that was the best jersey we’ve seen” and another simply, “Sick.”

Then, of course, there’s the Jersey jersey: “I love those. They’re just so funny and clean-looking.”

Of course. This one had to come down to Sin City and the City That Never Sleeps.

It’s not just the dining options and nightlife. It’s the arena experience, players said.

“Just the atmosphere,” one said of Vegas. “As soon as you get out for warmups, it’s a nightclub vibe. Everyone is just buzzing.”

“The energy in that building is crazy,” another said.

“The atmosphere is sick, the rink’s sick, the hotels are sick,” another added. “The whole trip to Vegas is unreal.”

On the other hand, as one player said, “You can never go wrong with New York.”

“Most places to walk around, most great restaurants you can find,” another said. “And obviously playing in Madison Square Garden is something special every time.”

“I love MSG,” a third agreed.

Other contenders?

On Chicago: “I love the anthem, and I think the city’s great. Good atmosphere. Not as big as New York, so I don’t feel like the walls are closing in on me if I’m there for a few days. I mean, I love New York, but it gets busy in a hurry. Chicago, I think it’s got everything: the arts, the sports, good restaurants. But it’s not as crowded as New York.”

On Sunrise/Ft. Lauderdale: “I love the weather and beaches.”

On Nashville: “I’m a big country music guy.”

On Dallas: “Great weather. Such a nice place to spend a day.”

And Tampa: “The fans are great” and, “It’s just loud, rowdy.”

Cold weather and not much to do around the arena …

It’s not just Winnipeg. That’s the theme with all of the top picks.

But, yes, Winnipeg more than anywhere else.

“It’s always so cold,” one player said of Winnipeg. “I don’t have anything against the people or the city.”

“Cold. Grey. Not much to do,” another said.

“Nothing to do,” echoed a third.

The complaints about Ottawa were similar, though many players said it’s the rink location, not the city.

“I’ve heard the downtown is actually good,” one player said. “But where the rink is … nothing there.”

“We always stay by the rink, and it’s kind of out in the middle of nowhere,” another said.

Buffalo? Same deal.

“It just seems gloomy when you get there,” one player said.

“There’s not much in Buffalo,” another added.

Raleigh, N.C., came in fourth, but the issues there had nothing to do with the climate or local activities.

“Their locker room is awful,” one player said.

“Bad dressing rooms,” another agreed.

“Worst dressing room by far,” said a third.

And what of the Arizona Coyotes and their college arena experiment?

“That arena is dogs—,” one player said.

“Should never be in the NHL,” added another.

“It’s pathetic,” said a third. “It’s not The Show. Can’t take it seriously.”

Complaints elsewhere were a bit more specific, from the sad fan base in San Jose to the size of the dressing-room stalls in Washington to the “hotel we stay in” in Minneapolis/St. Paul. And of course, on Columbus:

“The cannon.”

(Top graphic by John Bradford / The Athletic, with photos from Mike Ehrmann, Jonathan Kozub and Michael Martin / Getty Images)

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