Mikita among top playmakers in NHL history
Let's face it -- the guy who puts the puck in the net is the one who gets the lion's share of the attention. His teammate who helped make the play happen is often overlooked.
But players who have the combination of skill, hands and vision, who see the play before it happens and can get the puck to teammates in prime scoring position, are at least as dangerous as the guys with the big goal-scoring numbers. Their ability to draw opponents to them and find the open man makes everyone better. They're the guys that make the highlight-reel goals happen -- and they're invaluable.
Here's a look at some of the great playmakers in NHL history:
10. Henrik Sedin
The passing half of the Sedin twins (Daniel is more of a shooter) has never scored more than 29 goals in a season, but has been one of the NHL's best setup men for the past six seasons. Henrik has at least 60 assists in each season since 2006-07, and his 83 in 2009-10 helped him lead the NHL in scoring and win the Hart Trophy as MVP.
Henrik is a master at holding the puck down low and cycling it before finding an open shooter. He and Daniel have formed one of the NHL's most effective offensive tandems for the past several seasons, with Henrik distributing and his twin brother finishing.
9. Peter Stastny
The most prolific of the three Stastny brothers to play in the NHL didn't arrive in North America until 1980, when he defected from Czechoslovakia at age 24 and joined the Quebec Nordiques. He wasted no time making an impact, becoming the first rookie in NHL history to record 70 assists in a season, then boosted that number to 93 in 1981-82 on the way to a 139-point season.
Stastny averaged more than 77 assists in his first six seasons and finished his career with 789 in only 977 games -- his average of .808 assists per game is fifth among the top 100 on the all-time list.
8. Stan Mikita
Mikita may have taken a back seat to Bobby Hull in terms of popularity on some of the Chicago teams of the 1960s and early 1970s. But while Hull bombed away with one of the great slap shots in NHL history, Mikita made his living setting up teammates.
Mikita was the NHL's top scorer four times in a five-year stretch from 1963-64 through 1967-68, and he set League records with 62 assists and 97 points in 1966-67. When Mikita retired in 1980, his 926 assists were more than anyone in NHL history except Gordie Howe. He's still 17th on the all-time list.
7. Joe Thornton
The San Jose Sharks captain may be the best pure passer in the NHL today.
Boston made Thornton the first player taken in the 1997 NHL Draft, and he put up 65 and 50 assists in his final two seasons with the Bruins. But they traded him to San Jose in November 2005, and he went on to win the scoring title and the Hart Trophy by piling up 96 assists -- 72 of them in 58 games after the deal. Thornton had 92 assists the following season and has 754 in 1,027 career games.
At 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds, you'd think Thornton would be a crash-and-bang player. Instead, while he uses his size to protect the puck, he's especially slick in close, finding teammates open with quick passes through traffic.
6. Peter Forsberg
Injuries limited Forsberg to only 708 NHL games, but he was a devastating playmaker when he was in the lineup. Forsberg had 86 assists in 1995-96, his second NHL season, and led the League with 77 in 2002-03 -- after missing all of the previous season with injuries.
That was also the last season in which he played more than 60 games -- but his career average of .898 assists in the 708 games in which he played is fourth on the all-time list. His skill and tenacity -- and his ability to find open teammates and control the puck down low -- were such that his numbers would have been a lot higher had he been able to stay on the ice more.
5. Sidney Crosby
Like any great passer, Crosby often seems to have eyes in the back of his head. He came into the NHL with the uncanny ability to find open teammates seemingly without looking at them -- making him nearly impossible to defend against. He's a good enough shooter that opponents can't lay off him and play for a pass -- but if they get too close, he's able to find the open man for quality scoring chances.
Crosby had 63 assists as a rookie in 2005-06 with a Pittsburgh team that was next-to-last in the overall standings. He added 84 in '06-07 on the way to the scoring title, and had 70 more in 2008-09 while leading the Penguins to the Stanley Cup. The only thing that's slowed him down in the last two years has been concussion problems -- he's played only 63 games since the start of the 2010-11 season, but has 63 assists in those games.
4. Mario Lemieux
There wasn't much Lemieux couldn't do on a hockey rink. He may have been the most physically talented player ever to lace on a pair of skates. And though he tends to be remembered more for his goal-scoring ability, Lemieux was even better at setting up teammates than he was at putting the puck in the net himself.
Lemieux finished his career with 1,033 assists in only 915 regular-season games -- making him one of only two players in NHL history to average more than an assist per game. His numbers might have been even higher had he not had to deal with a barrage of injuries and illnesses that shortened and ultimately ended his career prematurely.
3. Adam Oates
If you were a goal-scorer, Oates was the guy you wanted on your line. Though he was never drafted and didn't begin his NHL career until age 23, Oates became one of the most prolific passers in NHL history -- his assist total in the 1990s was second only to Wayne Gretzky. He led the League in assists three times and was in the top 10 on 12 occasions.
Oates is also the only player in NHL history to center for three 50-goal scorers. He was the principal setup man for Brett Hull in St. Louis, Cam Neely in Boston and Peter Bondra in Washington. Oates had 79 or more assists in five consecutive seasons from 1989-90 to '93-94, then let the NHL in assists in 2000-01 and repeated in '01-02 -- at the age of 39.
His prolific passing skills (1,079 career assists) earned Oates a berth in the Hockey Hall of Fame -- he will be inducted this fall.
2. Bobby Orr
Orr's career offensive totals have been eclipsed by several defensemen in the three-plus decades since his knees forced him to retire at age 31. But it's hard to picture any defenseman putting up the kind of offensive numbers Orr produced before his knees went out.
Orr was the fastest skater of his day -- maybe the fastest player ever -- and was the first defenseman to rush the puck on a regular basis. But he was most dangerous when he led the rush and was able to dish to a teammate for a wide-open shot. Orr didn't want his teammates standing around watching him skate around opponents -- he wanted them involved, ready to receive a pass when the defense tried to stop him.
Orr is still the only defenseman to lead the NHL in scoring -- he did it in 1970-71 with 139 points, 102 of which were assists. He had at least 72 assists and 101 points in each of his last six full seasons.
1. Wayne Gretzky
Walter Gretzky always told his son to get to where the puck was going, not where it had been. If you played with The Great One, the place it was usually going was onto your stick, often in prime scoring position.
Gretzky's brilliance and creativity more than made up for his lack of size and speed. He was the first player to regularly use the net as a way to screen out defenders -- so much so that the area behind the goal became known as his office. His on-ice vision was unparalleled, and like a good chess player, he was usually two moves ahead of the opposition.
He also had a gift for knowing when to pass and when to shoot -- when opponents played him to pass after his first two seasons, he started shooting more often and scored 92 goals, an NHL record that still stands.
Gretzky made anyone who played with him a threat to score. His skill and creativity were such that teammates who could get themselves into good scoring position knew they'd better be ready for a pass. His 1,963 career assists (in 1,487 games) represent a mark that will be almost impossible to break.