Last Thursday we unveiled a list of the Top 100 players in hockey going into the 2022-23 season, separated into tiers. It was an exhaustive project, meant to bridge the gap between analytical and traditional minds when it comes to evaluating players. That meant collecting opinions from across the league.
What we learned: everyone has their favorites.
Hockey is a very difficult game to judge in terms of value, because what one person values may be drastically different from the next. It might be why trades are so difficult to come by as teams may simply not see eye-to-eye when it comes to how good a player is. That’s kind of the point of making this list in the first place: creating a bit of a consensus list based on the trusted viewpoints of hockey insiders with the cold hard data from respected analysts.
But that also meant our own disagreements from the final list. The four of us — Sean, Shayna, Dom and Corey — all had our own favorite players we wish were higher. We also had players we wish were lower. We’re all proud of the final list and happy with the collaborative effort, but that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t change a few things with full control.
If we did, these are the eight players who would have been moved up or down … depending on who you ask.
Huh, this was tougher than I thought. Guess I won most of my arguments. That said, for the second straight season, I think I was a bit of a dissenting voice on Svechnikov. This is where I’m obliged to say how good he is, no matter what, and how much I like him (professionally and personally), and talk about how good he is with kids and animals, and link to a Twitter of him doing something cute…whatever it takes. We love all these players with all our hearts — especially the ones you like the most.
That said, I’m not sold on placing him one sub-tier behind the best wingers in the game. I’m not sold on running him alongside Alex Ovechkin and Patrick Kane, no matter how old they are. And I’m not quite down with predicting a major uptick in projection for a second consecutive season. At 22, in his fifth season, he’s approaching “he is what he is” territory.
And don’t get me wrong; I’ll take a 30-goal, play-driving power forward on my first line any moment of any day, but the standard for wingers in our little exercise is high, and we rarely give them the benefit of a generous projection. I’m not sure why he’s the exception to the rule for a second consecutive season. So it’s a minor tweak, but for now — and for at least one more season — he’s a sub-tier higher than he should be. Mix in a brutal playoff and the call gets a little easier.
I’m aware of Kyrou’s defensive issues — as Craig Berube certainly seems to be — but I still think he showed enough last season to land somewhere above 4C. It’s simple enough; he’s a young winger coming off a remarkably productive offensive season. He’s gotten better, year over year, and I’m willing to bet that his five-on-five defense gets up to an acceptable level when you factor in what he brings elsewhere.
Basically, if this is who he has — if he never improves, despite showing himself to be a guy who does just that with each passing season — what he brings to the table already makes him a top-100 player for me. He deserves the same benefit of the doubt we extended to guys like Jack Hughes and Trevor Zegras.
Tier 4A is filled with flawed top-pair defenders, but I think Jones’ flaws should push him down a sub-tier, at least. He’s two seasons removed from being the rover in Columbus which earned him the reputation that he currently has. And sure, the teams around him have really disintegrated; the Blue Jackets’ stock fell in his last season there and the Blackhawks are abysmal. While the quality of the team around him is obviously out of his control, he’s not separating himself enough from his teammates.
On the surface, it’s easy to say he’s coming off a 51-point season which was the second best of his career, so there’s no way his play has actually suffered. But there are a few red flags below the surface for Jones. His on-ice numbers are the worst of his career. That isn’t entirely surprising considering the quality of his teams, but Jones really isn’t that much of a positive influence relative to his teammates. And those concerning trends trickle into his microstats as well, like the fact he’s struggling more with his breakouts and retrievals.
At this point, there’s enough evidence to shift him lower — not necessarily off the rankings entirely, but a sub-tier or two lower because Jones hasn’t been at his best and likely isn’t going to get there this year, either.
Tier 3A is a very good place to be, but I actually think Jack Hughes should be higher. He’s the player that multiple sources pointed to as a riser who could find himself a full tier ahead a year from now. Maybe it’s banking a little too much on potential versus what we’ve actually seen at the NHL level so far, but I think there’s enough for that bump up to at least 2C for the time being.
Two key things stand out for Hughes: his progress from his rookie year and the level he played at when healthy in 2021-22. After an awful year, Hughes progressed in his sophomore season without the results to show for it. Then he popped off with 56 points in 49 games when healthy last year, scoring at an 84-point pace.
At five-on-five last season, Hughes was an excellent source of offense; he was a positive for the Devils, relative to his teammates in shot volume and quality and in goal scoring. Hughes was one of the top forwards at bringing the puck into the offensive zone with control, oftentimes just carrying it in himself; few players were able to match what he created in transition. And the center’s ability to maintain possession led to cycle chances as well. Along with his premier playmaking, Hughes generated a high rate of scoring chances himself and, unlike in his second NHL season, had the finishing talent to make an impact with those shots.
That three-year foundation — especially the awful first season — weighs down his projection for 2022-23. But the growth over that span is what instills confidence in him to outperform it, along with the fact that he should be in a better position to succeed. Hughes’ 2021-22 play, and how it should help him hit the ground running this year, should power him up a tier.
Last year there were four top lines who earned 60 percent of the expected goals together: Boston’s, Toronto’s, Calgary’s and Dallas’. Boston’s line is composed of three franchise players, Toronto’s featured one MVP and one franchise player and Calgary’s had two franchise players. Dallas? Not nearly as much love, not even close. Robertson ranked the highest in Tier 3C — a placement that feels far too conservative.
It’s difficult for a top line to put up those kinds of numbers without an elite driver. The company Dallas’ line is in is telling of that. That’s part of the reason Robertson grades out so high by GSVA: He’s a big-time scorer and great things happen at five-on-five whenever he’s on the ice — especially offensively. Since entering the league, Robertson is one of 12 forwards to be on the ice for over three expected goals for per 60 and 3.5 actual goals per 60. Eight of the other 11 are in Tier 2 or higher and the other three are linemates of players in that tier.
What makes it more impressive is that he’s doing it in Dallas, where offense is hard to come by. Relative to teammates, no one drives goals more than Robertson over the last two years where Dallas scores 1.14 more goals per 60 with Robertson on the ice. He also ranks sixth in relative expected goals for. Combine that with a likely point-per-game season and Robertson projects to be worth four wins next season — the highest in all of Tier 3. And yet, there he is at the bottom of it.
I see the reasons for putting him lower. His supercharged line makes it difficult to properly assess his individual value and he’s not the most dynamic player either. But it’s hard to ignore the results. I’d have him at the top of Tier 3.
“The Big Mistake” is a difficult thing to shake for a defenseman and Weegar learned that big time this offseason after a massive one in the second round.
Despite his modest price tag and the team’s lack of defensive depth, the Panthers spent the summer actively shopping him before including him in the deal for Matthew Tkachuk. His stock dropped heavily and that was reflected in this year’s player tiers where he stayed put in Tier 4A despite another excellent season. Last year, we wanted to see him deliver on the promise he showed in 2021. He did, but the drop in his league-wide reputation was difficult to ignore for the sake of the project.
Personally, Weegar can play on my team any night and belongs somewhere in Tier 3. Over the last two seasons, Weegar has earned a 58 percent expected goals rate which rates in the league’s top five behind Charlie McAvoy, Devon Toews and Cale Makar — all while playing tough minutes. In 2021, his play away from Aaron Ekblad was exemplary and proof that he can drive a pair on his own. Last year he was the team’s best defender at limiting zone entries and by far their best puck-mover — not Ekblad. At five-on-five, the two have been equally efficient point producers with a points-per-60 right around 1.3 points, good for top 10 in the league.
Weegar deserves a lot more credit for his play than he’s getting right now. While there’s some concern regarding how he’ll fare on a new team away from Ekblad, he should have plenty of support on a deep Calgary blue line. In all honesty, it’ll be more interesting to see how Ekblad does without Weegar.
I found myself on an island arguing that Ovechkin was a clear Tier 2 player. I was quite surprised two years in a row how little support I got from my colleagues for him, especially after how productive he was last season. Yes, he’s getting older, he’ll be 37 at the start of the season, and eventually he’s going to hit a wall, and yes, he’s not the first guy over the boards I want for a crucial defensive situation. But Ovechkin is still a pretty special player. He’s a physical force to deal with given his size, frame, speed and physicality. He still gets buckets of chances due to those physical traits and his natural offensive touch. The last time he didn’t get four shots on goal per game was the 2016-17 season. I look at some of the wingers we have in Tier 2 and think he’s right there if not above some of them.
Tkachuk has emerged as a premier power winger in the NHL. He’s an elite scoring chance and shot generator, he was 10th in the league in shots on goal and is a unique type of player. His compete level is off the charts to go with his great size and skill, allowing him to dominate the high-percentage areas of the offensive zone. If the Senators make the playoffs anytime soon I think he’ll be a force in the postseason. He projects to be an impact forward for a long time and I think he will be just as good if not better than he was last season. He would be well into Tier 3 for me, 3B at a minimum and arguably 3A.
(Top photo of Alex Ovechkin: Dan Hamilton / USA Today)