The first decade of the new century has seen an explosion in talent around the NHL. For all the brilliance of decades past -- the Original Six era, the dynasties of the 1970s and 1980s, the rise of teams like Pittsburgh, Detroit and New Jersey in the 1990s -- you can make a good case that the level of talent in the NHL today is as high or higher than it's ever been. With young stars joining the League each year, that level should continue to rise.
But who are the cream of the crop in the 2000s? Which players have risen above their peers? Here's a look at the best of the best for the first decade of the new century.
Teams: New Jersey Devils (2000-present)
The quality of goaltending around the NHL has never been higher than in the current decade. Even teams that struggle generally have goaltenders who are capable of beating the NHL's best on any given night. But for all the brilliance in goal over the past decade, New Jersey's Martin Brodeur stands alone.
Brodeur exits the decade as the NHL's all-time winningest goaltender and shutout leader. He owns three Stanley Cup rings in his career (two in the 2000s), made the NHL's First All-Star Team three times during the decade (no one else did it more than once) and won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's top goaltender four times. His 2006-07 season (an NHL-record 48 wins, a 2.18 goals-against average and 12 shutouts is one of the great performances of all-time by a goaltender.
No goaltender has ever handled the puck with Brodeur's skill. Few have shown his endurance (he passed Roy earlier this month for the most minutes played by a goaltender in a career). He's the all-time winner in shootout victories as well.
"He's one of the best there is, and there's a lot of reasons for it," said Devils President and General Manager Lou Lamoriello, who drafted Brodeur in 1990's first round. "He loves the game and he works at it every day. He respects his teammates and is a team player. He's been with us from Day 1 and he's never changed. No matter what success he has, he's the same person and he loves to win."
Teams: Detroit (2000-present)
As the Devils built around Brodeur, so have the Detroit Red Wings used Lidstrom as the core of the NHL's most successful team of the decade.
Lidstrom owned the Norris Trophy, given to the NHL's top defenseman, during the 2000s. He won it six times in a span of seven seasons from 2000-01 through 2007-08 while making the First All-Star Team six times (and the second team in 2008-09).
To watch Lidstrom is to watch a master at work. He's not going to amaze you with his speed, but he gets where he has to go. He's not the most physical defenseman you'll ever see, but he's plenty big enough. There's been no one better over the past several years at running a power play, triggering a breakout and doing anything and everything that needs to be done to win hockey games.
"He's the greatest that I've ever played against … and with," Wings forward Todd Bertuzzi said earlier this season. "I was in during an era where there were some pretty darn good defensemen, Scott Niedermayer, Al MacInnis and all that. Just playing against him year after year after year and being fortunate to be on the same side as him you can appreciate the kind of talent that he has. Just his character and his demeanor, and what he brings to the game and to the city of Detroit.”
"Nick Lidstrom is one of the greatest defenseman of all time," said Wings broadcaster Larry Murphy, a Hall of Famer who was Lidstrom's partner in the late 1990s. "He's done it all. The guy that makes the game look so easy, but it's not. Count on him, game in, and game out."
Teams: New Jersey (2000-04); Anaheim (2005-present)
Were it not for Lidstrom, we'd all be talking about how Niedermayer was the best defenseman of the decade. But he'll have to settle for being second -- think of him as the 2000s version of Brad Park to Bobby Orr.
Niedermayer won the one Norris Trophy (2004) that eluded Lidstrom during his seven-year run. He also led the Devils to a Stanley Cup victory over Anaheim in 2003, then was named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner in 2007 when he led the Ducks to the only Cup in franchise history.
That came after Niedermayer left New Jersey -- where he had won three Cups -- to join his brother Rob in Anaheim.
"I was a Devil from the time I was a teenager to a father of three," Niedermayer said after joining the Ducks. "It might not make sense to people, but there was no reason to leave. With Anaheim, there were just reasons to go there, if that makes any sense."
Niedermayer has never put up enormous offensive numbers, but few defensemen (and probably none in this decade) could match him on sheer skating ability. But Niedermayer is much more than a flashy skater -- he's superb on the rush, an excellent passer and solid in his own zone. He's clutch, too -- Niedermayer leads all NHL defenseman in regular-season overtime goals with 13.
Teams: Colorado (2000-09)
Colorado Avalanche from the day the franchise arrived in Denver in 1995 through his retirement this past summer.
"It's all I ever wanted to do," Sakic said at his retirement ceremony in July. "I just wanted to be a hockey player, and that's all I am."
And what a hockey player he was.
His best season came in 2000-01, when he won the Hart, Pearson and Lady Byng trophies after scoring 54 goals and 118 points, then led the Avs to the Stanley Cup. When, as team captain, he was handed the Cup after the Avs' victory over New Jersey in Game 7 of the Final, he didn't skate around with it but handed it off to Ray Bourque, who had waited 22 seasons to win a championship.
He was also a First-Team All-Star in 2001-02 and '03-04, and had 36 goals and 100 points as a 37-year-old in 2006-07.
"Without a doubt, he was the face of the franchise for over two decades," team president Pierre Lacroix said on opening night when the franchise retired his No. 19.
Teams: Washington (2005-present)
Many players are good. A few are great. Alex Ovechkin is unique.
From Oct. 5, 2005, the day he burst onto the NHL scene with a pair of goals in the Washington Capitals' 3-2 victory over Columbus, Ovechkin has played the game with the kind of skill and panache that sets him apart from his peers.
Ovechkin has helped turn the Capitals from an NHL also-ran into a contender that has become the toast of Washington -- and perhaps the toughest ticket in town. No one in the NHL scores goals with his flair -- and volume (his 65-goal performance in 2007-08 was the most by anyone in more than a decade). Perhaps more important is that while other stars seem to work at playing hockey, Ovechkin appears to enjoy every second he's on the ice, whether it's firing another puck past a goaltender, running over an opponent or celebrating another goal or Washington victory.
One thing he wants to celebrate is a Stanley Cup.
"I don't want to say I'm going to score how many goals. I just want to win. That's all. Personal stats are good, but I'm always going to first think of the team. It has always been that way."
-- Alex Ovechkin
With three 50-goal seasons, three First-Team All-Star nods and 200-plus goals before his 25th birthday, don't be surprised if Ovechkin is also on the All-Decade team 10 years from now as well.
"I just have a dream and I followed this dream all the time," Ovechkin said of playing in the NHL. "I don't spend much time with my friends. I just spent all my time in the hockey arena. When I was a kid I had a great time, but still I had to do all the time to be who I am right now."
Teams: Calgary (2000-present)
The Calgary Flames took a lot of heat in December 1995 when they traded fan favorite Joe Nieuwendyk, one of the remaining links to the 1989 Stanley Cup-winning team, for journeyman center Corey Millen and a kid named Jarome Iginla, the Stars' first pick in the Entry Draft that summer. But 14 years later, you'd be hard-pressed to fine anyone in Calgary who thinks the Flames made a bad trade.
Iginla is the prototype of the 21st-century power forward, and few if any players performed at such a sustained level of excellence throughout this decade. He had more than 30 goals in every season, beginning in 2000-01, had two of the 15 50-goal seasons in the League during the decade, won the Art Ross Trophy in 2001-02, the Rocket Richard Trophy twice and was a two-time First-Team All-Star. He was also instrumental in leading the Flames to within a game of the Stanley Cup in 2004, leading all players with 13 playoff goals. In addition to his offensive exploits, he provides the kind of physical presence that few big scorers do.
Though he got off to a slow start this season, any doubts that Iginla is still at the top of his game disappeared when he was name the NHL's First Star for November.
"He's just so positive -- he just kept saying, 'it's gonna break. It's my month,'" teammate Craig Conroy said. "He has total confidence in himself."
Teams: Detroit (2000-01 and 2005-present); New York Islanders (2001-03; St. Louis Blues (2003-04)
All Chris Osgood does is win. A lot. And often. And in big spots.
Osgood is one of the few athletes who's been getting better as he gets older. He left Detroit when he wound up as the odd-man out in the fall of 2001, and all he did was lead the Islanders to their best season since 1992-93. He led the Blues to the playoffs the following spring, then returned to the Wings in 2005 and reinvented himself as an even better goaltender than the one who led Detroit to the Stanley Cup in 1998.
Osgood was a key to the Wings' Cup win in 2008 and nearly got them another one last spring. He's approaching 400 career wins and is putting together a resume that will make it tough to keep him out of the Hall of Fame.
Honorable mention: Evgeni Nabokov, Miikka Kiprusoff.
Teams: St. Louis (2000-04); Edmonton (2005-06); Anaheim (2006-09); Philadelphia (2009-present)
When you start the decade by winning the Norris and Hart trophies, it's hard to find anyplace to go but down. Still, Pronger played with skill and a nasty edge throughout the 2000s, helping the Oilers to an unexpected trip to the Final in 2006 and teaming with Niedermayer to help the Ducks go all the way the following spring. He's still playing major minutes and providing both offense and a physical presence on the blue line.
Teams: New York Islanders (2000-01); Ottawa (2001-06); Boston (2006-present)
The reigning Norris Trophy winner has turned himself from merely the NHL's biggest defenseman to one of its best. The Islanders let Chara go too soon and saw him develop into one of the NHL's better defensemen with Ottawa. The Bruins signed him in the summer of 2006, and he's improved even more, in Boston. His big shot can terrorize goaltenders, and his size and physical presence make life easier for his own goalies.
Honorable mention: Sergei Zubov, Sergei Gonchar, Dan Boyle, Rob Blake
Teams: Pittsburgh (2005-present)
The revival of the Pittsburgh Penguins traces to the arrival of Crosby in the 2005 Entry Draft. The most heralded draftee of his generation has lived up to the hype -- and then some. Crosby was a 100-point scorer as a rookie, the first teenage scoring champ, the youngest captain in NHL history and the youngest one to lift the Stanley Cup, which he did in his fourth season with the Penguins. He's another near-lock for the All-2010s team.
Honorable mention: Joe Thornton, Vincent Lecavalier
Teams: Pittsburgh (2000-01); Washington (2001-04); New York Rangers (2004-08)
Jagr was one of the great physical talents in NHL history, and figures to have a one-way ticket to the Hall of Fame when he finally hangs up his skates. His 121-point season with the Penguins in '00-01 was one of the great performances of the last 20 years, considering the dearth of scoring at the time, and his 54-goal, 123-point effort in 2005-06 carried the Rangers to their first playoff berth since 1997.
Teams: Atlanta (2001-present)
He plays in Atlanta, not exactly a hockey hotbed, so it's easy to overlook Kovalchuk's performance throughout the decade. The No. 1 pick in the 2001 Entry Draft has done nothing but put the puck in the net since arriving in the NHL. He passed the 300-goal mark early this season and has stepped up his game since being named captain of the Thrashers midway through last season. At age 26, he could wind up with 600-700 goals before he retires.
Honorable mention: Martin St. Louis, Markus Naslund, Dany Heatley, Daniel Alfredsson