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8 Debate: Several players vie for No. 1 Left Wing

by Corey Masisak

It is an argument that inspires passion in every rink, sports bar and living room where hockey is being played or is on the television. It can incite elevated heart rates in person and long discussion threads on the Internet.

Who is the best? and NHL Network gathered 10 writers and television personalities and asked that very question. Each was asked to rank their top eight in eight categories -- centers, left wings, right wings, defensemen, goalies, coaches, general managers and guys who wore the No. 8 sweater.

The voting, which took place for all eight segments in mid-February, is complete and the points have been tallied. Here is our answer to the simple question, who are the best in the NHL?

Last week this series debuted with the top centers in the NHL, a list with plenty of room for discussion but a clear hierarchy at the top. This week the focus is on left wing, where there is far less clarity.

For some players it isn't easy to determine which side of the ice they typically play on, but for this exercise each wing was given an official position based primarily on where they played last season or the past couple of seasons. That's why Alex Ovechkin is going to be part of the rankings this week while Ilya Kovalchuk won't appear until next week.

Daniel Sedin
Daniel Sedin
Left Wing - VAN
GOALS: 8 | ASST: 15 | PTS: 23
SOG: 62 | +/-: 9

Twenty players received at least one point in someone's top eight and three earned a top-five ranking but did not appear on any of the other nine lists. Only three -- the players who sit at Nos. 1, 2 and 3 on the final list -- appeared on each of the 10 ballots.

There is clearly a group of super-talented left wings with consistency issues on the ice, and that was reflected in the voting. That group includes Ovechkin, Marian Gaborik, Patrick Marleau and Thomas Vanek -- each received at least four top-four votes, but only Vanek appeared on all 10, and four members of the panel placed him sixth or seventh.

Though team accomplishments appeared to be a big factor in the center rankings, two of the top eight left wings have their name on the Stanley Cup. The same can be said for seven of the 20 who received at least one vote.

Here are the voting results. NOTE: A player received eight points for a first-place vote, seven for a second and so forth to one point for an eighth-place ranking (number of first-place votes in parenthesis).

1. Daniel Sedin (1 first-place vote) -- 64 points

8 Debate: Top LW voting results

  • 1. Daniel Sedin (1) - 64 points
  • 2. Zach Parise (4) - 60 points
  • 3. Thomas Vanek (3) - 52 points
  • 4. Alex Ovechkin (1) - 38 points
  • 5. Patrick Marleau - 37 points
  • 6. Marian Gaborik (1) - 29 points
  • 7. Bobby Ryan - 23 points
  • 8. Patrick Sharp - 11 points

Others receiving votes: Milan Lucic (11), Chris Kunitz (7), Jeff Skinner (6), Dustin Brown (5), Loui Eriksson (4), Brad Marchand (4), Gabriel Landeskog (3), Max Pacioretty (2), Patrik Elias (1), Evander Kane (1), Scott Hartnell (1), Matt Moulson (1)

Sedin and his twin brother, Henrik, always have been linked, from draft day through early-career criticisms and each winning a scoring title to nearly winning the Stanley Cup with the Vancouver Canucks. Henrik checked in at seventh on the list of top centers; Daniel claims the top spot among left wings.

In a group marked by inconsistent voting on some of the top players, Sedin slots in at No. 1 because of his consistency. Two others received more first-place votes, but Sedin was a top-three left wing for nine of the 10 voters. Sedin has four 80-point seasons and likely would have two 100-point campaigns were it not for an injury in 2009-10.

"Few, if any, have displayed the type of consistency that we've seen from Daniel Sedin over the past decade," deputy managing editor Brian Compton said. "Alain Vigneault knows from the beginning of training camp that he's getting between 30 and 40 goals from his top left wing. That has to be a good feeling."

2. Zach Parise (4) -- 60

Someone from the Parise family has played in arguably the two best international hockey events (or at least two of the top three) in the history of the sport. Parise's father, J.P., played for Canada in the 1972 Summit Series. J.P.'s son was one of the top players at the 2010 Winter Olympics and scored the game-tying goal late in regulation of the gold-medal game for the United States before Sidney Crosby captured the glory for Canada in overtime.

Parise is one of the top two-way players at the position, and that's not taking anything away from his offensive prowess -- he has five straight (healthy) 30-goal seasons. He is in the first of a 13-year deal with the Minnesota Wild after signing one of the richest contracts for a free agent changing teams in League history.

"I voted Parise as my No. 1. I don't see a left wing in the game now that does more for his team on a nightly basis than Parise," senior writer Dan Rosen said. "He's a threat to score on every shift, but beyond that he's a hard-nosed wing that plays a straight-line game and is effective in all three zones. If I'm a centerman, Parise is the exact type of player I want on my left side because he does it all. He was the heartbeat of the Devils when he was in New Jersey and I think he's becoming that in Minnesota. You'll know when he fully becomes the heartbeat of the Wild because that is when they will turn the corner and be a contender."

3. Thomas Vanek (3) -- 52

Thomas Vanek
Thomas Vanek
Left Wing - BUF
GOALS: 13 | ASST: 16 | PTS: 29
SOG: 79 | +/-: 4
The best Austrian in League history, Vanek had 43 goals as a 23-year-old, but his output in the past five seasons for the Buffalo Sabres has fluctuated. He's had more than 64 points once since his breakout campaign, but there was one more 40-goal season and he would have had a chance for another if this season was 82 games.

The Sabres have not advanced past the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs since his first season, but he had five goals in a seven-game series loss to the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010-11. Vanek got off to a monster start to 2012-13 but has cooled of late.

"Vanek had 40-plus goals twice in a span of three seasons, but hasn't come close to that total in the past three seasons," columnist John Kreiser said. "Before his hot start this season, he was a good player who wasn't playing up to the performance level he had shown earlier in his career. Also, he plays for a team that hasn't done much in recent years, making him easier to overlook."

4. Alex Ovechkin (1) -- 38

Three years ago, Ovechkin is probably a unanimous choice at No. 1 on this list. Two years ago, he is probably comfortably in the top spot. He might have even been up there near the beginning of last season.

Ovechkin is a two-time League MVP, and a five-time First Team All-Star. He was once the NHL's most exciting player and the top foil to Crosby as the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins became the League's top rivalry.

After four 50-goal seasons out of five to start his career, Ovechkin had "just" 70 in the past two seasons -- great numbers for most, but not enough for someone expected to finish his career as one of the all-time greats. He had 65 points a year ago, and a slow start to this season, both for the team and personally, compounded the criticism.

"I just think Ovechkin has become far too one-dimensional over the past few years," Rosen said. "He can score. There's no denying that. And he is a powerful player, very difficult to handle when he has space and speed. However, when he was on the left wing he was becoming too predictable and wasn't doing enough to change his game or at least to help in other areas. I still think he can get back to being the superstar player he was, but right now I'm not seeing it."

This panel was clearly divided on Ovechkin. Rosen and Deputy Managing Editor Adam Kimelman left Ovechkin off their lists, and three others had him sixth or seventh.

"Despite his early-season struggles, [Ovechkin] is still the most explosive wing in the League," Compton said. "There are certainly other left wings with better statistics at this point, but with the game on the line, there's nobody I'd rather have carrying the puck into the offensive zone."

5. Patrick Marleau -- 37

Patrick Marleau
Patrick Marleau
Left Wing - SJS
GOALS: 12 | ASST: 6 | PTS: 18
SOG: 73 | +/-: -2
Like San Jose Sharks linemate Joe Thornton, Marleau has been a talented, productive player for years. Their lack of team success, at least until back-to-back Western Conference Finals appearances in 2010 and 2011, drew criticism, and the legacies of both would look a lot better with a Stanley Cup run on it.

Marleau is the franchise's all-time leader in goals and points. He was the youngest player in NHL history to reach 1,000 games with the same team, the third-youngest overall. He has won gold medals with Canada at the Winter Olympics, World Championship and the World Cup.

After starting the 2012-13 season with a historic goal-scoring run, Marleau -- and the rest of the Sharks -- have cooled. Expect him and Thornton to be among the top-scoring tandems by season's end, and the Sharks to be in contention in the Western Conference again.

6. Marian Gaborik (1) -- 29

Talent has never been an issue for Gaborik, but health certainly has. He has played more than 65 games in three of the past eight NHL seasons. He has at least 40 goals in each of those healthy campaigns.

His one subpar season on a per-game basis was 2010-11, when he had 22 goals and 48 points in 62 games, and Gaborik is streaky enough he could have approached 40 goals with the extra 20 games. His per-game numbers also are down this season, as he, Brad Richards and Rick Nash haven't been able to carry the New York Rangers the way some people might have expected them to.

"Gaborik was an All-Star last season and has scored 40-plus goals in two of the past three seasons," Kreiser said. "He gutted out the playoffs last spring playing with one healthy shoulder and scored the Rangers' first triple-OT goal in 41 years. He's off to a slow start this season; how much of that is shoulder-related is hard to say, but the operation and rehab likely affected him."

7. Bobby Ryan -- 23

Bobby Ryan
Bobby Ryan
Right Wing - ANA
GOALS: 6 | ASST: 12 | PTS: 18
SOG: 42 | +/-: 1
Quick, name the only Anaheim Ducks player with four consecutive 30-goal seasons … it isn't Corey Perry or Ryan Getzlaf. Ryan might not receive the same attention his two teammates -- or another Ducks star, Teemu Selanne -- do, but he's been a consistent producer whether he played on the "Big Three" line or the second unit.

Ryan is still young (26 on St. Patrick's Day) and is still scoring goals. Whether it is with Anaheim for the next decade or somewhere else, he's likely to continue mixing a lot of goals with some grit.

"Ryan has flown under the radar for his whole career, beginning with being selected with the pick immediately after Sidney Crosby in 2005 but not becoming an NHL regular until 2009," Kreiser said. "He's a consistent 30-goal scorer but has never had the really big year that Getzlaf and Perry have -- and consistency tends to be overlooked."

8. Patrick Sharp -- 11

Speaking of players who get overshadowed by other stars on their club, Sharp has been one of the top "secondary" scorers in the NHL for years. A no-doubt top-line guy on many teams, Sharp has been shuffled around at the different forward positions and on the top two lines for the Chicago Blackhawks, but they have been able to count on him for 60-plus points in four of the past five seasons (and injury might have prevented a fifth).

Sharp won the Cup in 2010 with the Blackhawks and was the All-Star Game MVP in 2011. His goal scoring was down a little this season but the points and strong two-way play were still there until he suffered a separated shoulder Wednesday (he's expected to be out at least three weeks).

Note: Sharp and the Boston Bruins' Milan Lucic finished with the same number of points but Sharp earned the nod in the top eight because he appeared on more ballots.

Milan Lucic
Milan Lucic
Left Wing - BOS
GOALS: 4 | ASST: 9 | PTS: 13
SOG: 31 | +/-: 7
Others receiving votes: Milan Lucic (11), Chris Kunitz (7), Jeff Skinner (6), Dustin Brown (5), Loui Eriksson (4), Brad Marchand (4), Gabriel Landeskog (3), Max Pacioretty (2), Patrik Elias (1), Evander Kane (1), Scott Hartnell (1), Matt Moulson (1)

The players who just missed received a lot of support from one or two voters or received a little from several. Lucic earned two top-four votes but no other top-eights, and Kunitz and Skinner had one top-four ranking.

Brown, who captained the Los Angeles Kings to the Stanley Cup in June, is the only player who didn't make the top eight to appear on three ballots.

"I would have thought after what we witnessed during the Stanley Cup Playoffs last spring that Brown would have wound up on every ballot," Rosen said. "I had him at No. 7. To me he's a no-brainer to be on this list because he combines some skill with toughness and an unbelievable emotional level that he gets to on a nightly basis to lead the Kings. There are more skilled forwards in the game, but it's hard to find a guy with more will than Brown. His will makes up for whatever he may lack in skill. He's a winner."

Brian Compton
Dave Lozo
John Kreiser
Corey Masisak
Dan Rosen
1. Ovechkin 1. Parise 1. Gaborik 1. Parise 1. Parise
2. Vanek 2. D. Sedin 2. Ovechkin 2. D. Sedin 2. Marleau
3. D. Sedin 3. Marleau 3. D. Sedin 3. Ovechkin 3. D. Sedin
4. Marleau 4. Gaborik 4. Ryan 4. Vanek 4. Vanek
5. Ryan 5. Ovechkin 5. Parise 5. Gaborik 5. Sharp
6. Parise 6. Vanek 6. Marleau 6. Ryan 6. Landeskog
7. Eriksson 7. Ryan 7. Vanek 7. Brown 7. Brown
8. Pacioretty 8. Sharp 8. Moulson 8. E. Kane 8. Pacioretty
Shawn Roarke
E.J. Hradek
NHL Network
Mike Johnson
NHL Network
Barry Melrose
NHL Network
Adam Kimelman
1. D. Sedin 1. Vanek 1. Parise 1. Vanek 1. Vanek
2. Parise 2. D. Sedin 2. D. Sedin 2. D. Sedin 2. Kunitz
3. Ovechkin 3. Marleau 3. Marleau 3. Lucic 3. Parise
4. Gaborik 4. Lucic 4. Gaborik 4. Skinner 4. Ryan
5. Ryan 5. Parise 5. Sharp 5. Parise 5. Marchand
6. Vanek 6. Ovechkin 6. Vanek 6. Marleau 6. D. Sedin
7. Eriksson 7. Gaborik 7. Ovechkin 7. Ovechkin 7. Sharp
8. Marleau 8. Brown 8. Skinner 8. Elias 8. Hartnell

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