Best NHL wingers of 2024: Rankings by players and execs

ByGreg Wyshynski ESPN logo
Tuesday, February 20, 2024

There's a new No. 1 winger in the NHL, according to our panel of 10 players and 10 executives.

Meanwhile, one of the greatest players of all time has seen his support finally dry up.

Welcome to the next set of results from the 2024 NHL Positional Rankings, a unique way to determine the best of the best. Some surveys ask players for their rankings. Others poll executives. The NHL Positional Rankings combine both opinions into one definitive ranking that blends on-ice savvy with boardroom thinking.

For this list we've combined left and right wingers into one category -- a crowded field that should be kept in mind when considering "snubs." We adhere to the NHL definitions of a player's position for the purposes of this ranking.

Here's how it worked: Surveys were conducted over the past month. Respondents were asked to rank their current top 10 players at center, winger, defenseman and goaltender based on a predetermined list of the top 30-40 players at each position. Players ranked on each ballot were given a numerical score -- No. 1 earned 10 points, No. 2 got 9 points and so on.

Ten NHL players were surveyed -- four from the Eastern Conference, six from the Western Conference. They range from NHL award nominees to veteran role players. To balance that perspective, we surveyed 10 people from the hockey operations departments of NHL teams -- six from the East, four from the West -- including two coaches and three general managers.

Combined, their insights led to rankings that go behind fan conjecture and media narratives to reveal the best of the best according to those inside the NHL.

Stats are collected from sites such as Natural Stat Trick, Hockey Reference and Evolving Hockey.

1. Nikita Kucherov, RW, Tampa Bay Lightning

187 points | Age: 30 | Last season: 2nd

It has been a steady climb to the top of these rankings for Kucherov. He was third in 2021. He was second last season. Now, the Lightning star hits the top of the charts during another MVP-worthy campaign.

Through 55 games, Kucherov led the NHL with 94 points, tallying 36 goals and 58 assists. He scored 40 of those points on the power play, including 12 goals. Since the start of the 2021-22 season, Kucherov is third in points per game (1.50), just a fraction behind Nathan MacKinnon for second (1.51).

"He's just brilliant," head coach Jon Cooper told the Tampa Bay Times. "His mind for the game, there are guys that think it better than others. He thinks better than everybody. And then when you mix in his compete level, you've got a pretty darn good player."

Kucherov won his only Hart Trophy in 2018-19, along with the NHLPA player of the year award and the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's top point scorer. He's at the same points-per-game pace (4.7) this season; could he duplicate the hardware haul, too?

Kucherov appeared on every ballot cast and was first overall on 15 of the 20 ballots. Nine of the 10 players we surveyed had him first. One Western Conference forward had him second.

2. David Pastrnak, RW, Boston Bruins

157 points | Age: 27 | Last season: 1st

Last season's top winger drops one spot, which probably has more to do with Kucherov's ascent than anything deficient in Pastrnak's game. He's having one of his finest seasons.

The man they call "Pasta" has 34 goals in 55 games along with 45 assists. He had 113 points last season to establish a career best. He's slightly ahead of that pace on a points per 60 minutes basis for Boston.

He's an offensive engine who isn't reliant on a center to get his game going. Pastrnak has led the league in both power-play goals and even-strength goals during his 10-year NHL career. The last two seasons have seen him up his shot output under head coach Jim Montgomery, leading the NHL with 407 shots on goal in 2022-23.

Pastrnak was the second-place choice on nine ballots and the first choice for one general manager. He and Kucherov were the only two wingers to appear on every ballot.

"I think Kucherov first and Pastrnak right behind him is an entirely defensible choice for top two wingers," one NHL executive concluded.

3. Artemi Panarin, RW, New York Rangers

124 points | Age: 32 | Last season: 7th

After a disappointing postseason by his standards, Panarin vowed to return in 2023-24 with renewed focus. That's manifested in an outstanding offensive season for the Rangers, with 71 points in 54 games. That includes 31 goals, just one tally off his career high.

He's a brilliant playmaker, especially on the power play. Since 2021-22, only three forwards have more assists than Panarin (177): Connor McDavid, Kucherov and MacKinnon.

The Rangers winger appeared on 18 of 20 ballots, having been left off by one general manager and an Eastern Conference executive. He was second overall on four ballots: One general manager and three players.

"I thought he had taken a step back in the past," one NHL executive said, before citing Panarin's improved 5-on-5 scoring numbers for the Rangers this season.

4. Mikko Rantanen, RW, Colorado Avalanche

102 points | Age: 28 | Last season: 5th

It's not that Rantanen needed a signature season. He was already a top-5 winger in the eyes of our panelists last season. But his 105-point campaign for the Avalanche in 2022-23, which included a career-best 55 goals, certainly drew a few more voters to his cause, as he moved up a spot in this year's ranking.

That season also recast Rantanen as someone who could put a team on his back when necessary. MacKinnon missed 11 games, Cale Makar missed 22 games and Gabriel Landeskog missed the season. Rantanen played all 82 games and finished sixth in the Hart Trophy voting.

This season, he scored 70 points in his first 55 games, including 29 goals. Some of his on-ice metrics have gone a little wonky, especially in shot-attempt share relative to his teammates. His individual shot attempts per game at 5-on-5 are down by around two year-over-year. But those are analytic quibbles in the wake of an MVP-worthy season. Rantanen is clearly among the NHL's best wingers.

Or in the case of one voter -- a Western Conference veteran player -- simply the best winger, as he had him first overall ahead of Kucherov.

Rantanen was third on three ballots -- two Eastern Conference executives and another Western Conference player. Curiously, he was left off of five ballots.

5. Matthew Tkachuk, RW, Florida Panthers

86 points | Age: 26 | Last season: 8th

In full candor, this is the player in whose ranking I was most interested this season.

Tkachuk was already a star when the playoffs started last season. What he experienced was the rare "superstar-making performance," as his tenacity, output and heroics combined to make the winger the most consequential player of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs, to the point where his injury was as much the death knell for the Panthers as anything Adin Hill was doing across the ice in goal.

He makes the jump from 8th to 5th here, which is a big leap within the context of these polls ... and yet it still feels insufficient.

Maybe it's a matter of timing: Our voting was done in January when Tkachuk was still trying to shake a slow goal-scoring start. Then he went on a 40-points-in-21-games tear, including 15 goals, as the Panthers surged to the top of the Atlantic Division.

"I'm a huge Matt Tkachuk fan," one NHL executive said. "He's unreal. I know he had the slow start, but the guy played until almost July through an injury."

Tkachuk received three first-place rankings, two from Eastern Conference executives and one Western Conference executive. Where Tkachuk was hurt was among the players: The highest he ranked among his peers was fifth, and Tkachuk was left off five player ballots completely. An interesting divide between the execs that look at on-ice impact and the opponents who play against him, but that's why we do these lists.

6. Kirill Kaprizov, LW, Minnesota Wild

83 points | Age: 26 | Last season: 3rd

As Kirill Kaprizov goes, so go the Minnesota Wild. Or so it would seem.

Up until recently, Kaprizov had not been up to his lofty standards. In the previous two seasons, Kaprizov was sixth overall in the NHL in goals-per-game average (0.59) with a total of 87 goals in 148 games. He had been tracking for just over 30 goals this season for the Wild.

Again, until recently.

The Wild are 7-2-1 in their last 10 games, climbing back into the wild-card race. Kaprizov's offense has been turbo-boosted on a line with Joel Eriksson Ek and Matt Boldy that's been among the NHL's best trios. Look no further than Monday afternoon, when Kaprizov and Eriksson Ek both had six-point games and hat tricks in Minny's 10-7 win over Vancouver.

Kaprizov is now up to 23 goals on the season. He's heating up as the Wild heat up. Which is probably no coincidence.

"Kirill The Thrill" appeared on 17 ballots, the fourth most of any player. His highest place was third overall from a Western Conference executive and a coach.

7. Mitch Marner, RW, Toronto Maple Leafs

71 points | Age: 26 | Last season: 4th

Marner takes a tumble in our ranking after finishing fourth last season with 128 points in the voting. Which is bonkers.

Consider this: Marner received two first-place votes last season. Overall, he was in the top six on 13 ballots. Mitch was having a moment.

Fast forward one year and Marner was top six on just six of our ballots. His highest placement was fourth overall, from a Western Conference executive. The Leafs winger did not receive a single top three vote, again, after getting two first-place votes one year ago. He made all 20 ballots last season; this season, he was missing from four of them.

His production is slightly down from his last two seasons, when he flirted with being a 100-point winger. Marner remains one of the NHL's best two-way wingers as well.

It's a head-scratcher. Although perhaps the emergence of a teammate as one of the NHL's top wingers might have had an impact.

8. William Nylander, RW, Toronto Maple Leafs

57 points | Age: 27 | Last season: NR

Willy Styles didn't make the cut last season. In fact, he appeared on only four ballots, and didn't have a finish higher than seventh on any of them. Then he finished the season with 40 goals and 87 points, both career highs, while continuing to cement his reputation as "The guy who shows up in the playoffs for the Maple Leafs."

"I mean, someone is going to rate him high because of his playoff numbers because it's Toronto," an NHL executive said.

He has continued his offensive dominance for most of this season, with 28 goals and 43 assists in 53 games, in the process earning an eight-year, $92 million contract extension. That made an impression: This season, he made the top 10 on 11 different ballots. Two Western Conference veterans had him second on their ballots, both behind Nikita Kucherov.

So let's just put the theory out there: Maybe the ballots have room for only one Maple Leafs winger at a time to really pop off. Marner's appeal ebbs while Nylander's support flows, although the former still finished ahead of the latter -- for now.

"I think the difference to me -- and this is no slight to Nylander -- is that Marner has done it for longer," another NHL executive said. "But you can't really go wrong with either of them."

9. Kyle Connor, LW, Winnipeg Jets

52 points | Age: 27 | Last season: NR

Connor didn't miss the top 10 by much last season. He had the highest voting point total among players who didn't make the cut. He finished last season with 31 goals, and has 19 goals in 36 games this season for a Winnipeg team that's punched above its assumed weight. But still, getting ninth overall ahead of some significant names that finished behind him is surprising.

Connor made four ballots last season. He made 14 ballots this season. A lot of that support came from the players, eight of whom had him in the top 10, including all four of our Eastern Conference players.

When we showed the final top-10 list to some of the panelists afterwards ... well, let's just say that Connor's placement here was a bit of a surprise.

"A couple players could move up or down a couple spots for me, but the only real crime there is having Kyle Connor in while players like Brady Tkachuk, and Jake Guentzel are out," one executive said. "For me, he's not even the top winger on Winnipeg."

10. Brad Marchand, LW, Boston Bruins

44 points | Age: 35 | Last season: 6th

Marchand recently played in his 1,000th NHL game, which was an appropriate time to think back to what he was back in his first few seasons in the NHL. Did anyone foresee this kind of career for a player who was better known for his antagonism and frequent conversations with the Department of Player Safety than for being one of the premier wingers in the league?

He's closing in on 400 career goals, will likely hit 1,000 career points and is generally considered the second-best left wing of the last 15 seasons, behind Alex Ovechkin. He's the captain of the Boston Bruins and is having another outstanding season, with 35 goals in 55 games, his first season of the post-Patrice Bergeron era.

Marchand appeared on half of our ballots. One Western Conference coach had him second overall on his ballot, right behind Kucherov. He received three votes in the top three.

Honorable mentions

Let's address the biggest change from last year's ranking. Alex Ovechkin was 10th in 2023, appearing on half the ballots and earning one second-place vote. This season, the 38-year-old Washington Capitals star fell out of the top 10.

How far did he fall? All the way to the basement: Ovechkin didn't appear on any ballots from our players or executives. Perhaps it's a different story if left and right wings were ranked separately. Or perhaps perceptions of Ovechkin's game as he tries to chase down Wayne Gretzky's all-time goals record have shifted.

Also dropping out of the top 10 was Dallas Stars winger Jason Robertson, who was ninth in last season's ranking. He was right behind Marchand this season in 11th place.

Robertson finished fifth on two ballots, both Eastern Conference executives. He was named on only two of 10 players' ballots.Robertson was a 46-goal scorer last season and had 18 goals in 55 games so far this season.

Behind Robertson was a tie: Nashville Predators mustache king Filip Forsberg and New Jersey Devils dynamo Jesper Bratt, both with 18 points. Bratt appeared on seven ballots while Forsberg appeared on six. Bratt (3) appeared on more players' ballots than Forsberg (2).

Vegas winger Mark Stone (13),Arizona Coyotes winger Clayton Keller (13) and Valeri Nichushkin of the Avalanche were next, followed by Winnipeg winger Nikolaj Ehlers (12). Every other player received fewer than 10 points.

Pittsburgh's Jake Guentzel appeared on four ballots. The Rangers' Chris Kreider appeared on two of them. Alex DeBrincat and Patrick Kane of the Red Wings each appeared on one ballot.

"I think Brady Tkachuk belonged in the top 10. Not sure why he missed," one general manager said of the Ottawa Senators star who appeared on three ballots and earned six points.

Besides Ovechkin, other notable players not to appear on a single ballot included Canucks winger Brock Boeser, Montreal winger Cole Caufield, Columbus winger Johnny Gaudreau and Flyers winger Travis Konecny.