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Most exciting NHL players of all time? Here's our list

Monday, 07.11.2011 / 6:00 PM / NHL Insider

By John Kreiser - NHL.com Columnist

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Most exciting NHL players of all time? Here's our list
When certain players take the ice, it's impossible to look away, because the moment you do, something amazing could happen.

There's excitement, and then there's excitement -- the kind that yanks you right out of your seat. The kind that makes you shake your head. The kind that makes you wonder aloud, "How did he do that?"

Players who generate that kind of excitement don't come along every day. Here's a look at some of the NHL's best at bringing us out of our seats over the seasons. 

You might agree with NHL.com's choices. You might think an all-time great–remember we are talking a superior brand of excitement, the players you don't want to miss a single shift. Feel to share a comment about our choices. Oh, and Happy Hockey in July.

Dominik Hasek (1990-91 - 2007-08)

For generations, the idea was to be a "stand-up" goaltender. Aspiring goalies were told to stay on their skates as much as possible. Few goaltenders played what's known today as the butterfly style.

By the time Hasek arrived in the NHL, with Chicago in 1990, the butterfly was in full vogue. But Hasek was more than just a butterfly goalie -- he would do anything, use anything, to keep the puck out of the net. That could mean flopping, rolling onto his back, doing a snow angel, leaving his stick on the ice or gloving the puck with his blocker -- he never gave up on a shot, and found ways to keep pucks from entering the net that other goaltenders hadn't even dreamed of. His unorthodox style may have driven his coaches crazy, but it drove opposing shooters to distraction while earning him the nickname "The Dominator."

Hasek's excitement quota was off the charts -- you never knew what new move he'd come up with to keep the puck out of the net.

The Blackhawks dealt Hasek to Buffalo in 1992, and two years later he had the first of his six Vezina Trophies. In 1997 he became the first goaltender in 35 years to win the Hart Trophy; a year later, he became the first goalie ever to win it in back-to-back years. In 1999, he led the Sabres to their first Stanley Cup Final in 35 years.

The Sabres traded Hasek to Detroit in 2001, and he led the Wings to the Stanley Cup the following spring, and was on another Cup-winner with the Wings six years later. He's still playing, and still driving shooters batty with his "all-access" style of goaltending.

Bobby Orr (1966-67 - 1978-79)

Bobby Orr may or may not be the greatest of all time -- you can make a case for players such as Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky. But Orr was the most revolutionary player of his or any other time.

Before Orr, defensemen played defense -- period. They cleared their own zone, got the puck to the forwards and let them handle the scoring. Even Doug Harvey, a seven-time Norris Trophy winner and arguably the best defenseman of the Original Six era, reached 50 points just once in his career and never scored more than 8 goals.

But Orr had speed and skill at a level that never had been seen from a defenseman. He broke all the rules -- and all the records. Orr won the Calder Trophy as a rookie for the Boston Bruins in 1966-67 after scoring 13 goals and 41 points, unprecedented offensive numbers for a defenseman. In his third season, his 64 points set a League record for defensemen (he also led the NHL with 133 penalty minutes).

But that was just a warm-up act. Orr shattered records in 1969-70 by scoring 33 goals and piling up 120 points, and capped the season by scoring the Stanley Cup-winning overtime goal. One year later, he scored 37 goals, piled up a record 102 assists and became the first (and still only) defenseman to lead the League in scoring. His speed terrified opponents, but thrilled fans who never had seen anyone like him. No defenseman ever had rushed the puck the way Orr had, and none ever had put up offensive totals anywhere near his numbers. Watching Orr go coast-to-coast was a treat -- unless you were rooting for the opposing team.

Orr led the Bruins to another Cup in 1972, got them to the Final again in 1974 (they lost to Philadelphia) and set an NHL mark a year later by scoring 46 goals. He won his eighth and final Norris Trophy that season.

Though he excelled in the preseason Canada Cup in the fall of 1976, it turned out to be his last hurrah. Knee injuries limited him to 10 games in 1975-76, and he managed only 26 games in two seasons after signing with Chicago for the 1976-77 season.

Orr hasn't played a game in more than 30 years and his career scoring records for defensemen have been eclipsed. However, his effects on the sport still are felt today, and there's never been another player like him.

Maurice Richard (1942-43 - 1959-60)

Maurice Richard did one thing better than any player of his generation -- put the puck in the net. He was as unstoppable from the blue line to the net as any player in NHL history. The sight of Richard, eyes ablaze as he attacked the goal, was enough to send a shiver down the spine of any NHL goaltender.

After a promising rookie season was terminated due to a broken ankle, Richard became the most exciting player to hit the NHL in a generation by scoring 32 goals in 1943-44 (leading the Habs to the Stanley Cup) and pumping home a League-record 50 goals in 50 games during 1944-45. Richard, Elmer Lach and Toe Blake became known as the "Punch Line" for the offense they generated.

Richard, a Montreal native, became an icon in French Canada while filling the net. In an era where only stars reached the 20-goal mark, he did it 14 times in a row. He set a record with 26 hat tricks, and in 1944 he had the first eight-point performance in NHL history, a single-game mark that stood for more than 30 years.

"The Rocket" was no slouch at playoff time, either. He scored 82 goals in 133 postseason games, leading the Canadiens to eight Stanley Cups, including five in a row from 1956-60. He called it a career after the 1960 championship and left the NHL as its all-time scoring leader with 544 goals and 965 points in 978 games. Since 1999, the Maurice Richard Trophy has been awarded to the top goal-scorer each season.

Bobby Hull (1957-58 - 1979-80)

In the 1960s and early 1970s, the sight of Bobby Hull racing down the left wing and teeing up a slap shot the likes of which the NHL never had seen filled buildings around the League -- and had goaltenders ducking for cover.

Hull was a big part of the rise of the Chicago Blackhawks from also-ran to Stanley Cup winner in 1961. After scoring 13 and 18 goals in his first two NHL seasons, he erupted for 39 in 1959-60, the first of 13 consecutive 30-goal seasons.

Hull's combination of size, speed and a huge slap shot (augmented by the arrival of curved stickblades in the 1960s) was as big a reason as any that more and more goaltenders began donning masks. Not that it helped -- Hull matched the NHL single-season record with 50 goals in 1961-62, then blew past the record by pumping home 54 in 1965-66, breaking the mark he shared with Maurice Richard and Bernie Geoffrion by getting No. 51 against the New York Rangers.

His talent, good looks and his legendary willingness to sign autographs made Hull the most popular player of his time -- except with opposing goaltenders. He set a personal best with 58 goals in 1968-69 and was coming off another 50-goal season in 1971-72 when the fledgling WHA lured him to Winnipeg, where he continued to pile up goals. He returned to the NHL for a last hurrah when the Jets joined the League in 1979 and finished his career in 1980 in Hartford, where he was a teammate of long-time rival Gordie Howe.

Guy Lafleur (1971-72 - 1990-91)

Perhaps not since Jean Beliveau's arrival a generation earlier had Montreal fans been so eager to see a newcomer as they were when Guy Lafleur stepped onto the Forum ice in the fall of 1971. Lafleur had torn up the Quebec Junior Hockey League, and Montreal GM Sam Pollock did some of his best wheeling and dealing to make sure that Lafleur would play in his home province.

Lafleur was a 20-goal scorer in each of his first three NHL seasons -- not bad, but not what was expected of a player anointed to carry the torch for the next generation of Canadiens greatness.

He blossomed in 1974-75, erupting for 53 goals and 119 points. He bettered those numbers the next season with 56 goals and 125 points, then added 7 goals and 17 points in the playoffs to lead the Canadiens to the first of four straight Stanley Cups.

The sight of Lafleur, his long blond hair flying as he led another rush, became familiar to hockey fans throughout North America. He terrorized goaltenders, putting up six straight seasons of 50 or more goals and 119 or more points. Along the way, he played on five Cup winners, captured the Hart Trophy twice, won three scoring titles and took home the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 1977.

Injuries began to hamper Lafleur after that, but he was coming off a 30-goal season in 1983-84 when he stunned everyone by announcing his retirement after 19 games in 1984-85. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame three years later -- then stunned the hockey world again by making a comeback with the New York Rangers that fall. He was dealt to Quebec in 1989 and finished with two more seasons there, becoming the only player other than Gordie Howe to play in the NHL after being enshrined in the Hall.

Denis Savard (1980-81 - 1996-97)

The NHL doesn't allow do-overs in the draft. If it did, the Montreal Canadiens unquestionably would have wanted one in 1980.

The Canadiens had the first pick in the 1980 draft and picked Doug Wickenheiser, a big, powerful center from Regina. They passed over a speedy little center from Gatineau, Que., named Denis Savard, who went to Chicago with the third pick.

Wickenheiser went on to a serviceable NHL career -- 111 goals and 276 points in 556 regular-season games. Savard had exceeded those scoring marks by the end of his fourth NHL season, by which time he already was one of the most exciting players in hockey history.

Savard may or may not have invented the spin-o-rama, a 360-degree spin and deke that usually left defensemen flat-footed, but he became the player most identified with it. The "Savardian Spin-o-rama" was part of an offensive arsenal that helped him pile up five 100-point seasons in his first eight seasons in Chicago that left baffled defensemen and frustrated goaltenders in his wake.

Ironically, Savard became a Canadien 10 years after being drafted -- the Habs acquired him in a deal that sent Chicago native Chris Chelios to the Blackhawks -- but his magic didn't make the trip. Savard never again scored 30 goals or averaged a point a game. He made it back to Chicago in 1995 and finished his career with the Blackhawks, retiring with 473 goals, 1,338 points -- and thousands of video clips of some of the most spectacular moves in NHL history.

Pavel Bure (1991-92 - 2002-03)

In 1989, the Vancouver Canucks opted to take a sixth-round flyer on Pavel Bure, who had been a sensation at the World Junior Championship a few months earlier and was regarded, along with Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Mogilny, as one of the new generation of Russian stars.

By 1991, all three were in the NHL -- with Bure the last to defect. He joined the Canucks and won the Calder Trophy in 1992 after piling up 34 goals and 60 points in 65 games. That was just a warm-up -- he fired home 60 goals in each of the next two seasons, leading the Canucks to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 1994 before they lost to the New York Rangers. He earned the nickname "The Russian Rocket" for the speed and skill that electrified fans.

Injuries hampered Bure's play until 1997-98, when he burst out again with 51 goals and 90 points. But prior to the 1998-99 season, Bure announced he never would play for the Canucks again, and he was dealt to Florida in January 1999. He scored 13 times in his first 11 games with the Panthers before a knee injury ended his season.

Bure then had back-to-back seasons of 58 and 59 goals with the Panthers, and scored 22 times in 56 games in 2001-02 before being dealt to the Rangers. He had 31 goals in 51 games with the Rangers before his knees forced him to retire after recording 437 goals and 779 points in just 702 regular-season games.

Alex Ovechkin (2005-06 - present)

No player in the last six seasons has terrorized goaltenders or lifted fans out of their seats the way Washington's Alex Ovechkin has.

The Caps took Ovechkin with the first pick in the 2004 Entry Draft, so it wasn't like he was an unknown. But the 2004-05 work stoppage delayed his NHL arrival for a year, and he flew under the radar because of the excitement of the arrival of Sidney Crosby -- the two made their NHL debuts on the same night, Oct. 5, 2005.

Ovi scored twice in his first NHL game and hasn't stopped since. He had 52 goals in his rookie season, beating Crosby for the Calder Trophy, and then became the first NHL player since the mid-1990s to break the 60-goal mark when he reached 65 in 2007-08.

But it wasn't just how many goals Ovechkin scored -- it was the way he scored them. A spectacular goal against Phoenix in his rookie season, scored falling down on his back, told the hockey world he was something special, and he's added to his library of "how did he do that" moments with each passing year.

Ovechkin also is the rare high scorer who enjoys contact. At 6-foot-2 and 233 points, he's bigger than most defensemen, and he's as good at flattening an opponent as he is at putting the puck in the net.

At age 25, Ovechkin already has more than 300 goals. It's safe to say he has he has at least a few more years of bringing fans out of their seats and making life miserable for opposing goaltenders.

Pavel Datsyuk (2001-02 - present)

The 1980s had the "Savardian Spin-o-rama." The 2000s had the "Datsyukian Deke."

Pavel Datsyuk's offensive numbers with the Detroit Red Wings won't match his countryman Ovechkin's totals with Washington -- they are different types of players. But while Datsyuk may not ring up 50 goals, he doesn't have to take a backseat to anyone when it comes to highlight-reel moments.

Datsyuk is the NHL's most accomplished thief -- he's led the League in takeaways in three of the past five seasons, losing his chance to repeat in 2010-11 due to injuries that cost him 26 games and dropped him to 11th. He's also willing to try moves that other players only dream about -- such as the one he made in Game 2 of the opening round of the playoffs against Phoenix this spring, when he broke in on the right side, dragged the puck backward between his legs, pulled it around his left leg and fired a puck that goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov managed to stop it with his pad, only to have Darren Helm easily convert the rebound.

Datsyuk also is a wizard in the shootout -- his 26 goals in the tiebreaker are second among active players, and his 48.1 shooting percentage is fifth among active players with 15 or more goals. He's the kind of player opponents never can take their eyes off. Neither can fans -- they might miss something spectacular.

Quote of the Day

Great players need great players to play with. That's why we'll have a training camp and we'll find who the best two guys are suited to play with Stamkos.

— Tampa Bay Lightning associate coach Rick Bowness on Steven Stamkos' potential linemates for the 2014-15 season