The 23 Top NHL Centers of All Time Ranked

two hockey player taking a faceoff

An ice hockey center is the most important skater on the ice. They have to be involved in both the offensive and defensive aspects of the game. To be an effective center in the NHL, you must be a Swiss army knife, able to handle many different roles. From playmaker to shut-down defender to face-off master, the center is truly a jack of all trades. Today, we will rank the top NHL centers of all time.

Hockey coaches in leagues all around the world rely heavily on their centers to carry the team on their backs. There’s no taking shifts off or lollygagging with this group. We’ll go through all the great, both past and present day. From the unparalleled genius of Wayne Gretzky to the tenacious spirit of Mario Lemieux, from the relentless drive of Mark Messier to the modern-day wizardry of Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid, these players represent the pinnacle of the center position.

What is a Center in Hockey?

In ice hockey, a center is one of the three forwards, and can you guess what part of the ice they are positioned in?? That’s right, the center of the ice, if you divide the rink lengthwise into thirds. Although one of the things that makes hockey the best sport is the free-flowing nature of the game, so centers must be interchangeable with the other forward positions.

For an in-depth look at the center position and the roles associated with it, you can read our article on ice hockey positions here.

Top NHL Centers of All Time

Now, we’ll go through our list of the best NHL centers of all time. Here are the factors we took into consideration when ranking the centers.

  • Points and points per game
  • Stanley Cups and playoff success
  • Defensive ability
  • Intangibles like leadership and toughness

Top Centers in the NHL TODAY

It’s hard to compare active players with historic players because they still have far to go, although Sidney Crosby would be somewhere in the middle of these rankings if he retired today. But McDavid’s in his late 20s; who knows how high up this list he’ll be in 10 years? Probably pretty close to the top. 

Note – These point totals are from January 2024, when this article was written. 

Nathan MacKinnon

306 G (Goals) – 519 A (Assists) – 825 PTS (Points) – 1.1 PPG

Stanley Cups – 1

From his early days in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, you could tell Nathan MacKinnon was special! He has a unique blend of speed, skill, size, and some sandpaper grit to top it off. Nate Dogg can take over a game at any time with his dynamic play, either with a huge hit, his blazing speed, or his ability to shoot the puck.

He was a crucial part of the Colorado Avalanche’s Stanley Cup team in 2022. He still has a long way to go in his career, and he should make his way onto this list in the future, especially if he can get another Stanley Cup.

Evengi Malkin

486 G – 778 A – 1264 PTS – 1.15 PPG

Stanley Cups – 3

Evengi Malkin, or Geno as he’s known, is not just Sydney Crosby’s sidekick. He’s a great player in his own right. He’s 40th on the NHL all-time points list and could climb into the top 30 when he retires. This three-time cup winner and Conn Smythe Trophy winner in 2009 has proved he’s an elite center.

Malkin started his career on a hot streak, winning the Calder Memorial Trophy as Rookie of the Year with the Pittsburg Penguins. He’s one of the best Russian players of all time and a sure-fire Hall of Famer.

Anze Kopitar

407 G – 770 A – 1177 PTS – 0.9 PPG

Stanley Cups – 2

You might be surprised to see Anze Kopitar on this list because he flies under the radar. He isn’t a social media star, and his quotes are pretty boring, but he’s everything you’d want in a franchise center and captain. He’s the ultimate two-way center, and his defense might be better than his offense. And his offense isn’t too shabby, as he’s third on the NHL’s active points list of centers.

For almost two decades, Kopi has been shutting down the opponent’s top scorers as the captain of the Los Angeles Kings. He was instrumental in their two Stanley Cups in 2012 and 2014. Kopitar won the Selke trophy for the NHL’s best defensive forward twice and has been a finalist for the award many times. And he’s one of the best penaltykillers in the league. 

Connor McDavid

317 G – 587 A – 904 PTS – 1.5 PPG

Stanley Cups – 0

The sky is the limit for Connor McDavid! When it’s all said and done, I wouldn’t be surprised to find him at the very top of this list! That’s right, I said it: he has the potential to be the greatest player of all time, period! His stickhandling and skating are better than Gretzky’s. I’ve watched hockey for a long time, but I’ve never seen anyone move like McDavid.

His 1.5 points per game rank third on the NHL’s all-time centers list. McJesus has led the NHL in points five times, and we’ll probably have to update this every year. He’s been named MVP three times. So far, all these mind-boggling numbers haven’t translated to success in the playoffs. McDavid’s Oilers have never made it past the conference finals. He needs a couple of Stanley Cups to be the GOAT.

Sydney Crosby

572 G – 971 A – 1543 PTS – 1.26 PPG

Stanley Cups – 3

It’s rare when a top-rated prospect lives up to all the hype, but that’s precisely what Sidney Crosby has done and more! I think it’s safe to say Sid The Kid has been the best center and maybe the best overall player in the 21st century. And he still has a couple of more years left, so who knows how high he can climb on this list when he finally hangs up the skates.

Crosby entered the league in 2005 and took over the NHL right from the start. He is the youngest player to reach 100 points and somehow did not win Rookie of the Year. That must have fired him up because he did even better in his second year, winning the Hart Trophy as the NHL MVP. Then Sid took the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup and became the youngest captain to hoist the best trophy in sports.

Top 17 Centers in NHL History

Here’s our list of the top 17 NHL centers of all time.

#17 Joe Thornton 

430 G – 1109 A  – 1539 PTS – 0.9 PPG

Stanley Cups – 0

With a beard as legendary as his passing skills, Jumbo Joe Thorton ranks 13th on the all-time NHL point list. Combine his elite skills and vision with a massive 6’4” body frame, and he was one of the most deadly playmakers in hockey history. 

Thornton was the captain of both the Boston Bruins and San Jose Sharks for most of his lengthy 25-year career. He has two 100-point seasons and, in 2005-06, won the Hart Memorial and Art Ross trophy as the league MVP. Despite his impressive numbers, Joe was never able to win a Stanley Cup. He’s in the conversation of best hockey players to never win a cup.

#16 Patrice Bergeron 

427 G – 613 A – 1040 P – 0.8 PPG

Stanley Cups – 1

We had to put Patrice Bergeron on this list, or we’d have all of New England pissed off at us! While his point totals aren’t that impressive, he might be the best defensive center of all time, as evidenced by his record six Selke awards. It’s hard to say who is the best faceoff man in hockey history, but I’d put Bergeron up against anybody. 

He’s definitely the king of intangibles; the longtime captain of the Boston Bruins was all heart and soul. During the Bruins 2011 Stanley Cup Final, he played with a punctured lung and scored the game-winning goal in overtime. Tough doesn’t begin to describe this guy! 

Patrice Bergeron, a hockey player bending over getting ready for a faceoff

#15 Adam Oates

341 G – 1079 A – 1420 PTS – 1.06 PPG

Stanley Cups – 0

Adam Oates was among the best passers ever, earning him the nickname The King of Assists. His teammates loved playing with him wherever he went because they knew they would get the puck. Oates played 19 NHL seasons for seven teams and even became a coach after his playing days were over. 

#14 Doug Gilmore

450 G – 964 A – 1414 pts – 0.96 PPG

Stanley Cups – 1

Doug Gilmour, the little engine that could. At 5’10” and 175 pounds, he wasn’t the biggest guy on the ice, but his heart was gigantic. Gilmour was gritty and gutsy and played like every game was his last. He was the kind of player you couldn’t help but root for. 

He won the Selke trophy and was known for his smart play and defensive positioning. And he was tenacious on the forecheck and backcheck.

#13 Mike Modano

561 G – 813 A – 1374 PTS – 0.92 PPG

Stanley Cups – 1

Mike Modano has the most goals and points of any American-born player in NHL history. He was also one of the fastest; his blazing speed was second to none. And his shot had laser-like precision and accuracy. 

He was a member of the now-defunct Minnesota North Stars and stayed with the franchise as the team moved to Dallas, where they won their only Stanley Cup in 1999. He was also a very popular player and was instrumental in making hockey popular in Texas and The South.

Mike Modano, a hockey player, one of the top NHL centers of all time

#12 Jacques Lemaire

366 G – 469 A – 835 PTS – 0.98 PPG

Stanley Cups – 8

Jacques Lemaire was critical to The Montreal Canadians’ eight Stanley Cups in the late 1960s and 1970s. He played after the expansion era when players didn’t wear helmets.

His career was cut short by injuries and a desire to coach, but no player in the modern era has more Stanley Cups than Jacques Lemaire. He also played in the famed Montreal Forum, one of the iconic hockey arenas where the pressure was greater than in any other city.

#11 Stan Makita

541 G – 926 A – 1467 PTS – 1.05 PPG

Stanley Cups – 1

Stan Makita was the first Slovak-born player to hoist The Stanley Cup in 1961 with the Chicago Blackhawks. Stan the Man is widely considered the best center of his era, with four Art Ross Trophies to show for it as the NHL’s highest scorer. He also won two MVP awards and was a ten-time All-Star. 

He was also an intimidating figure and as tough as they come, which you had to be playing in an era with the hated Broadstreet Bullies. But Makita could hold his own and wasn’t afraid to dish it out, and he racked up 1270 PIMs during his 20-year career.

#10 Peter Forsberg

249 G  – 636 A – 885 PTS – 1.25 PPG

Stanley Cups – 2

Oh, what could have been? You have to wonder how great Peter Forsberg would have been if injuries hadn’t derailed his brilliant hockey career. “Foppa,” as he’s affectionately known, is one of the best Swedish hockey players of all time. He only played seven full NHL seasons and parts of six others as chronic foot and back injuries cut his career short. 

When he was healthy, Forsberg was an absolute beast on the ice! He had a unique combination of size, speed, and some of the best hands I’ve ever seen in my life, making him one of the best playmakers the league has ever seen.

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#9 Bryan Trottier

524 G – 901 A – 1425 PTS – 1.11 PPG

Stanley Cups – 6

Four Stanley Cups in a row wasn’t enough for Bryan Trottier; he had to go to the Pittsburgh Penguins and win two more at the end of his playing career and top it off with one as an assistant coach with the Avalanche. To say Trottier is a winner is an understatement; he stepped up his game in the playoffs as a key contributor to the legendary New York Islanders dynasty of the early 80s. 

The team was led by one of the all-time best coaches, Al Arbor, who got the most out of his players, and Trottier was a prime example of that. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the playoffs in 1980. He wasn’t that big, but he wasn’t afraid to fight with the best of them!

#8 Ron Francis

549 G – 1249 A – 1798 PTS – 1.04 PPG

Stanley Cups – 2

If I asked you who the 5th highest point scorer in NHL history is, I’d bet you don’t know it was Ron Francis. Full disclosure: I didn’t either until I looked at the list. You might call Ron Francis a compiler, as he played 23 seasons in the NHL and played with legends like Mario Lemieux and Jagr as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins, but he was a great player in his own right.

Francis was a great defensive center as he won the Selke Trophy, and he could throw his 6’3” frame around, as evidenced by almost 1000 penalty minutes. After his playing days ended, he moved into the front office and is now the GM of the Seattle Kraken.

#7 Marcel Dionne

731 G – 1040 A – 1771 PTS – 1.31 PPG

Stanley Cups – 0

Marcel Dionne is the highest-scoring player never to win the Stanley Cup; he’s number six on the NHL’s career points list. His problem was that he played in the 70s and 80s, and as great as he was, he was overshadowed by other legendary teams and players. Add in his lack of playoff success, and many younger hockey fans have never heard of him.

He played with LA Kings and those sweet purple and gold sweaters for most of his career.  Dionne led the NHL in points in 1980, winning him the Art Ross Trophy. He’s also seventh on the most career hat tricks.

a hockey player, Marcel Dionne skating with the puck

#6 Phil Esposito

717 G – 873 A – 1590 PTS – 1.24 PPG

Stanley Cups – 2

Now we’re getting into hockey royalty here; Phil Esposito was a true legend of the game! Espo was lucky enough to play for three historic franchises: the Blackhawks, Bruins, and Rangers. He tallied over 100 points six times in his illustrious career and was the first player in NHL history to reach the 100-point mark in a single season. Espo led the league in points five times in total and four seasons in a row in the early 70s. 

He was a force in front of the net and had a clutch-scoring touch the league had never seen before. His brother, Tony, was a goalie and a hall of famer as well. I’m sure they made each other better as kids playing pond hockey in Ontario, Canada.

#5 Joe Sakic

625 G – 1016 A – 1641 PTS – 1.19 PPG

Stanley Cups – 2

You don’t get a nickname like “Mr. Clutch” without being able to step up your game in big situations, and that’s exactly what Joe Sakic did! He has one of the best shots the NHL has ever seen and could absolutely fly down the ice. But maybe the most impressive part of Sakic’s game was his leadership; when Joe talked, people listened!

Sakic has such a great hockey mind that he has excelled in his post-playing days as an executive for the Colorado Avalanche. He was the GM when they won the Cup in 2022, making him just the third person to win a Stanley Cup as a player and a GM for the same team. When you think of the Colorado Avalanche, you think of Joe Sakic. He played his entire 21-year career with the same franchise, which is rare in sports, first as a member of the now-defunct Quebec Nordiques before they moved to Colorado.

#4 Steve Yzerman

692 G – 1063 A – 1755 PTS – 1.16 PPG

Stanley Cups 3

Steve Yzerman was a leader of men; he was small in stature at 5’11 and 180 pounds, but his heart was as big as it gets! If you want to talk about mental toughness, Stevie-Y would be #1 on that list. Nobody was as fierce a competitor as Yzerman. He won the Stanley Cup three times as a member of his beloved Red Wings, the team he played his entire 22 seasons with. During one of those Stanley Cups, he played the deciding game with a broken leg.

Scotty Bowman, the best coach of all time, called Yzerman the smartest and toughest player he’s ever coached. His post-playing career has been pretty impressive, too! He was the architect behind the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Stanley Cup runs. And now he’s back with the Red Wings, running the front office as general manager. Can he restore the glory to hockey town?

#3 Mark Messier

694 G – 1193 A – 1887 PTS – 1.08 PPG

Stanley Cups – 6

Mark Messier, or The Moose as he’s known, was one of the toughest guys ever to lace up his skates in the NHL. He had decent size at 6’-1” 210 pounds, but he played like he was 6’-5” 240; he just trucked people and was an immovable object in front of the net. Messier wasn’t just big; he was clutch. Messier had a knack for turning up the heat when it mattered most; he has the second most playoff points in NHL history.

The Moose was the heart and soul of every team he played for, including the legendary Edmonton Oilers dynasty of the 80s. He is the only player to be the captain of two different Stanley Cup-winning teams, the Oilers and the New York Rangers. To pay homage to this great leader, the NHL has the Mark Messier Leadership Award they hand out yearly.

#2 Mario Lemieux

690 G – 1033 A – 1723 PTS – 1.88 PPG

Stanley Cups – 2

Mario Lemieux raising the Stanley Cup, he was one of the top NHL centers of all time

Mario Lemieux, aka “Super Mario,” wasn’t just a legendary hockey player but a force of nature. He was an athletic freak; at 6’-4” and 235 pounds, he shouldn’t be able to move the way he did. This guy showed us what sheer willpower looks like on skates. With hands that seemed to weave magic with the puck, Lemieux wasn’t just playing; he was performing art.

Unfortunately, Mario battled numerous serious ailments for the majority of his career. He had chronic back and spine pain, hip problems, and Hodgkin’s lymphoma. In some games, he was in so much pain one of his teammates had to tie his skates for him. Despite all his problems, he kept coming back and persevering over whatever challenge was in front of him.

He was a three-time Hart Trophy winner (MVP) and led the league in points for six seasons, and this was at the same time other legends such as Gretzky and Messier were playing. After he retired, he became owner of his beloved Pittsburgh Penguins, where he won another three Stanley Cups. Mario Lemieux is the only man to win the Stanley Cup as both an owner and a player.

#1 Wayne Gretzky

894 G – 1963 A – 2857 PTS – 1.92 PPG

Stanley Cups – 4

I’m sure you’re shocked at who came in as the greatest center in NHL history, The Great One. Even if Wayne Gretzky never scored a single goal, he would still be the NHL career points leader. He was indeed a wizard with the puck and could do pretty much anything he wanted out there. His vision on the ice was unparalleled; he seemed to see plays develop seconds before anyone else, a skill that made him not just a scorer but the most prolific playmaker ever.

We can fill six pages with the nine-time MVP’s stats and records, but we’ll keep it simple. Gretzky’s innate understanding of the game, exceptional talent, and relentless work ethic redefined what being a center in the NHL meant. 

Wayne Gretzky’s influence extends far beyond the ice rink; he transformed the NHL. His groundbreaking trade to the Los Angeles Kings made ice hockey relevant on the West Coast. Before he got to LA, there was one team in the Southwest USA, and now there are five. What I love the most about Gretzky is that he’s so humble; he always says that Gordie Howe is the greatest hockey player ever. But it’s not an opinion, it’s a fact that Wayne Gretzky is the GOAT.

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