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Iginla? Thornton? Kovalchuk? Who's the best?

by John Kreiser
Who's the best offensive player of the 21st century? It depends on how you're answering the question.

When it comes to goals, Calgary's Jarome Iginla is the runaway winner. The Flames' captain enters the 2008-09 season with 283 goals since 2000-01, 24 more than Jaromir Jagr and 28 more than Marian Hossa. But Iginla's average of 40.4 goals in seven full seasons takes a back seat to Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk, who's fourth overall with 254 goals, but has averaged 42.3 in his six NHL seasons. And they're both well behind Alex Ovechkin's average of 54.3 in his three seasons since joining the Washington Capitals in 2005.

If points are the criterion, Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks is the leader with 648 (92.6 per season), seven more than Jagr. Ottawa's Daniel Alfredsson is a distant third at 578, followed by Colorado's Joe Sakic (569) and Iginla (566). Thornton has done the majority of his work as a setup man -- his total of 450 assists in the past seven seasons is 68 more than Jagr and 101 ahead of Sakic in the top three.

Iginla is the new century's best in two other categories. He's tops in game-winning goals with 49 (five more than Jagr) and No. 1 in scoring at even strength with 183 (12 ahead of Jagr). Iginla is one of 14 players to reach double figures in shorthanded goals -- he's one of six who has 10; Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis is tops with 25, two more than New Jersey's Brian Rolston.

Not surprisingly, Detroit defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, a six-time Norris Trophy winner, tops all players in plus-minus at plus-182. Wade Redden, now with the Rangers, is next at plus-135, followed by Marek Malik at plus-126. Alex Tanguay, now with Montreal, is tops among forwards at plus-138.

Iginla does have one oddity that's almost impossible to match. Of the 566 points he's scored in this century's seven seasons, he's split them evenly -- 283 goals and 283 assists.

Marty's No. 1 -- The issue of who's been the best offensive player so far this century may be open to debate, but the question of who's the best goalie isn't.

New Jersey's Martin Brodeur dominates the goaltending numbers across the board. Brodeur is tops with 294 victories (86 more than runner-up Evgeni Nabokov of San Jose) and 648 points (Nabokov is also second, with 459). Brodeur's 54 shutouts are 15 more than Nabokov, and his 2.20 goals-against average is tops among all netminders with more than 300 appearances; Roman Cechmanek (2.08 in 212 games) and Dominik Hasek (2.12 GAA in 286 games) are tops if the limit is lowered to 200.

Brodeur has also been the busiest netminder -- he's played 31,270 minutes in 521 games, faced 13,344 shots and made 12195 shots. Olaf Kolzig, who spent all seven of seasons this century with Washington before signing with Tampa Bay this summer, is second in all four categories.

Fast starters -- The Ottawa Senators and Tampa Bay Lightning both are beginning their 16th NHL seasons as part of Bridgestone NHL Premiere 2008 -- the Senators play two games against Pittsburgh in Stockholm and the Lightning face the New York Rangers twice in Prague. If past form is any indicator, the Senators and Bolts should come home with no worse than a split.

Ottawa is first in all-time winning percentage on opening night. The Senators have an 8-2-5 record, good for 21 points and a .700 percentage. Tampa Bay stunned the NHL by routing Chicago to win its opener in 1992 and has enjoyed great success on opening night ever since, going 9-4-2 for 20 points and a .667 winning percentage that's third overall (Quebec/Colorado is second at .696).

In contrast, neither of their opponents has fared especially well on opening night. The Rangers are 33-35-13 (.488, 20th overall) in their 81 season openers, though they have won their last three. And the Penguins are 16-18-6 (.475, 21st), including two losses in their last three openers.

Missing you? -- Opening night might be one time when the Rangers especially miss Jagr, who's now playing in Russia. He had a pair of assists in last year's 5-2 win against Florida, giving him 30 points in season openers -- tying Ray Bourque for the most points on opening night.

The Rangers will be hard-pressed to match their fast start in each of the last two seasons. Jagr scored 29 seconds into the Rangers' 2006-07 opener against Washington and Michal Rozsival connected 37 seconds into last year's win against Florida. Neither of those is close to the all-time record -- Minnesota's Kent Nilsson scored 10 seconds into the North Stars' 1986-87 opener against Quebec.

Room for improvement -- Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin carried the scoring load for the Penguins last season when Sidney Crosby was injured -- he wound up finishing second to Alex Ovechkin in the scoring race with 106 points. But there are areas of his game that still need improvement -- and one of the biggest is his work in the faceoff circle.

Of the 86 players who took enough draws to be ranked last season, Malkin came in dead last at 39.3 percent -- the only qualifier to win less than 40 percent of his faceoffs. He was 2.7 percentage points behind the next-lowest qualifier, Buffalo's Jochen Hecht (42.0). Making things even worse for the Penguins was the fact that another Pittsburgh center, Jordan Staal, was third from the bottom at 42.3 percent. Not surprisingly, the Penguins were last in the League at winning faceoffs -- 46.1 percent, down from their League-worst 47.0 percent in 2006-07.

One good sign for the Penguins: Crosby, who was 85th among 88 qualifiers in 2005-06 at 45.5 percent, improved to 49.8 percent in 2006-07 and won more than half his faceoffs for the first time last season, improving to 51.4 percent despite missing several weeks with a high ankle sprain.

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