Anytime someone puts together a list ranking the best players in the NHL it’s going to cause some controversy.
And that’s exactly what’s happened with NHL.com’s recent ranking of the league’s top 20 wingers. To the disappointment, and in some cases anger, of Los Angeles Kings fans, neither Adrian Kempe nor Kevin Fiala made the list.
Of course, these lists have to be taken with a grain of salt and don’t really mean anything. But, it’s a good entry point into an interesting conversation. Are Kempe and Fiala top-20 wingers in the league? Or are Kings fans just looking at this through Los Angeles tinted lenses?
Using a combination of stats and my gut, I’m going to try and answer that question.
The Case for Kevin Fiala:
The first stat I’ll use for both players is Evolving-Hockey.com’s goals and wins above replacement. They aren’t perfect stats by any means, but they usually give a strong indication of where a player is helping, or hurting, their team.
Fiala doesn’t show up great in these stats. He’s seventh amongst Kings forwards in wins above replacement and well outside the top 50 league-wide. While sitting first on the Kings and 39th in the league for even-strength offense.
Of course, he’s better than these numbers show but it does point out a flaw in Fiala’s game.
His awful defense.
He’s the worst forward defensively amongst Kings forwards according to Evolving-Hockey’s metrics but almost a full point and only Arthur Kaliyev comes close to him in this category.
And the eye test backs this up, Fiala was terrible defensively last year.
Looking at some of his other stats, Fiala’s game begins to improve.
His 1.04 points-per-game places him 29th among forwards and 15th among wingers. While his playmaking micro stats show him as one of the best playmakers in the league.
His points per-60 minutes place him 15th amongst forwards and eighth amongst wingers.
Taking into account his raw numbers and his very impressive playmaking metrics, I’d consider Fiala in the 12-10 range offensively. He’s still below the big-time superstars like David Pastrnak, Matthew Tkachuk, Nikita Kucherov and Jason Robertson, but he’s in the tier just below those guys.
And if we were just looking at offensive ability, there’s no question Fiala would be a top-20 winger, but we aren’t. Being defensively solid is less important for wingers, but it also can’t be ignored.
This is where it’s really difficult to determine if Fiala is a top-20 winger. Does being a top-12 offensive winger make up for his defensive issues and keep him in the top 20 overall?
The Verdict, Yes:
I went back and forth on this for a while and eventually put the stats down and went with my gut. I watched all 82 games of Kings hockey last season and caught 43 of them live.
In those games, I can’t think of 10 wingers, let alone 20, who looked better than Fiala. Frankly, I’d struggle to think of 20 players who were better than Fiala, let alone wingers.
He’s so dynamic and so dominant when he gets going that he can’t be ignored. When Fiala was on, he was routinely the best player on the ice for either team. And he was on more than he was off last season.
The Case for Kempe:
Starting with Evolving-Hockey.com’s metrics again, Kempe actually shows up better here than Fiala.
He shows up as a fairly complete player here, posting positive results on both sides of the puck and on both special team’s units, finishing with 1.5 wins above replacement.
But, Kempe’s case is really encapsulated by this tweet from BigHeadHockey
Every player in the league with more goals than Adrian Kempe in the last 2 seasons:
— C. McDavid
— L. Draisaitl
— D. Pastrnak
— A. Matthews
— A. Ovechkin
— M. Rantanen
— C. Kreider
— J. Robertson
— K. Kaprizov
— T. Thompson
— M. Tkachuk
— B. Point
— K. Connor
He's a killer. pic.twitter.com/VyzYqJYJBz
— Big Head Hockey (@BigHeadHcky) August 13, 2023
Just 13 players have scored more goals than Kempe over the last two seasons and only eight of them have been wingers. Last season, just five wingers posted more goals than Kempe and only nine wingers scored more goals at 5v5 last season.
Not only has he cemented himself as an elite scorer in the league, but he’s also improved his 200-foot game. In his breakout 35-goal season, Kempe was terrible defensively and never really drove play. Last season, he was solid defensively and showed flashes of high-end play driving.
He’s also a more physical player than he’s given credit for. Of players who scored more goals than Kempe, only Alex Ovechkin delivered more hits last season. He’s also one of the few players in that group, and the only winger, to register a fight last season.
Kempe isn’t a power forward in the mold of someone like Tom Wilson. But looking at the high-skill power forwards, Kempe is up there with the Tkachuk brothers as one of the league’s best. Few players combine the physicality and truly elite goal-scoring he does.
The Verdict: No:
Even with all that said, I couldn’t place Kempe as a top-20 forward in the league. There are just too many players who bring more to the table than Kempe.
I’m a firm believer that scoring goals is the most difficult skill in hockey and elite goal scorers are the hardest thing to find. But Kempe only grabbing 67 total points — 0.81 points per game — isn’t amazing compared to some others.
And while Kempe showed flashes of play-driving ability last year, he doesn’t do it consistently enough to put him in that upper echelon of wingers in the league.
If Kempe scores 40 goals again and adds in a few more assists and takes on more of a driving role on his line. He’s a lock next season, but until that happens he sits just outside the top 20 for me.
I actually had Kempe in the top 20 at first, but as I began to run through potential players to push him out I realized he couldn’t make it. Just for fun, here are my top 20 wingers to give you a sense of how I came to that conclusion. These are in no particular order.
Matthew Tkachuk, Mikko Rantanen, David Pastrnak, Nikita Kucherov, Jason Robertson, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Kirill Kaprizov, Artemi Panarin, Kevin Fiala, Brady Tkachuk, Kyle Connor, Clayton Keller, Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, Brad Marchand, Jake Guentzel, Mark Stone, Timo Meier, Pavel Buchnevich.
When I put together that list, I couldn’t justify Kempe in the top 20. Even though he’s in a group just barely on the outside looking in.