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Ranking the top 20 EA Sports NHL cover athletes of the last 20 years.

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SB Nation is featuring a video game theme week this week across it’s platforms. We rank the top 20 NHL cover athletes since the year 2000 here on Pensburgh!

Mario Lemieux... Photo by Jim Leary/Getty Images

EA Sports’ NHL video game has come a long way since it’s inception for the Sega Genesis console in 1991. However, the game has had an NHL player grace the cover beginning with their first video game (NHL Hockey) that was released in 1991 with L.A. Kings goaltender Glenn Healy on the cover.

It’s especially come a long way since the turn of the millennium in 2000 - keeping up with the trend of coming up with new ideas to go along with new players on the cover of the game. To keep up the trend of SB Nation’s video game theme this week, we may as well rank how the last twenty players have done.

Only one player has been featured twice on the cover in that time span. I won’t spoil it now, so look out for him in the rankings below. And only one player has came home with the Stanley Cup the same year as he was on the cover, and both players mentioned are on the same team. Anyone out there have a guess who those two may be?

I’m only going to rank them on how each player performed in the season they were on the cover, not based on who was the best player in their career. Because obviously Mario Lemieux would win that contest.

So let’s kick things off:

(Dis?)Honorable Mention:
Markus Naslund (VAN), NHL 2005

This was the year of the lockout, so obviously he didn’t score many points in the NHL that year. He doesn’t make the list.

20. Dany Heatley (ATL), NHL 2004
31 GP, 13 G, 12 A, 25 PTS, -8, 18 PIM

Dany Heatly was drafted second overall by the Thrashers in the 2000 NHL Draft and was quickly becoming one of the elite players in the league.

However, in September, 2003, Heatley was involved in a car crash with teammate Dan Snyder that unfortunately Snyder died in. It was a very dark time for all parties involved and eventually ended with Heatley requesting a trade and being granted one to Ottawa the following season.

It’s quite a story and this is probably not the time nor place to discuss it, but if you’re unaware of the incident, it’s very public and very serious.

EA Sports began printing copies of NHL 04 with Joe Sakic on the cover after the fallout of the Heatley car accident.

19. Martin Brodeur (NJD), NHL 14
39 GP, 19-14-6 record, .901 SV%, 2.51 GAA, 3 SO

Martin Brodeur may not have been his dominant self in 2012-13 or 13-14, but he still put up some very good numbers. Considering he was in his 40s and was the the career leader in wins by a goalie, it’s no surprise that he was on the cover of NHL 14.

His numbers weren’t bad, but also don’t catch your eye too much. This was Brodeur’s last year in New Jersey, as he surprisingly played in seven games with St. Louis in the 2014-15 season before retiring from the NHL as the goalie wins leader with 691.

18. P.K. Subban (NSH), NHL 19
63 GP, 9 G, 22 A, 31 PTS, +5, 60 PIM
6 Playoffs GP, 1 G, 2 A, 3 PTS, -3

P.K. Subban was coming off one of his finest seasons in the NHL in 2017-18 when he scored a career high 16 goals and fell one point shy of his career high of 60 points when EA announced that he would be the cover athlete for NHL 19.

Subban is one of the more well-known players and with his large ego and following, he could have been one of the best cover athletes to date. Instead his numbers fell off a cliff and he was traded out of Nashville to New Jersey at the conclusion of the 2018-19 season where his numbers were the worst of his career. It got even worse with for Subban in New Jersey this year.

He’s still got plenty of time to rebound back to his dominant self, but he’s certainly trending in the wrong direction, and very quickly.

17. Dion Phaneuf (CGY), NHL 09
80 GP, 11 G, 36 A, 47 PTS, -11, 100 PIM
5 Playoff GP, 0 G, 3 A, 3 PTS, +2, 4 PIM

Dion Phaneuf burst on to the scene in Calgary as a high-flying and fist-flying defenseman. He scored 54 goals in his first three years in the NHL and found himself on the cover of NHL 09 after setting a career high of 60 points in 2007-08.

He then proceeded to score the fewest goals and points in his four seasons, but Phaneuf still put up very good numbers and averaged over 26 minutes per night. He never topped the 47 points he put up that season again, but has still been a very useful player and has played in over 1,000 games in the NHL.

16. Patrice Bergeron (BOS), NHL 15
81 GP, 23 G, 32 A, 55 PTS, +2, 44 PIM

After years of making a name for himself for his defensive prowess, Bergeron turned enough heads to land on the cover of NHL 15. Bergeron put together back-to-back 70 point seasons early in his career, but wasn’t known for his gaudy point totals and this year was no different.

It turned out to be one of his worst - only scoring 55 points in 81 games, and he was a only a +2 on the season which is tied for the second worst +/- of his career. He still won the Selke Trophy that season despite it being one of his worst statistically on the surface, which tells you how important Bergeron is even if he isn’t scoring 100 points a season.

15. Jonathan Toews (CHI), NHL 16
80 GP, 28 G, 30 A, 58 PTS, +16, 62 PIM
7 Playoff GP, 0 G, 6 A, 6 PTS, +2

After winning his third Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks in 2015, Toews was granted the cover of NHL 16 for the second time in his career. It did not go well for Toews, however.

Toews was never going to lead the league in points, but he usually was right around a point per game pace which is elite and very hard to do consistently. Toews began to show signs of slowing down before winning the Cup in 2015, and he had arguably his worst statistical year in 2015-16 as the cover athlete with only 58 points in 80 games.

That season was the beginning of a three year stretch that saw Toews fail to reach 60 points before he set a career high in goals and points last season. He also put up six points in seven playoff games, which gives him the clear advantage over Bergeron one spot behind him with very similar numbers, despite Bergeron’s Selke Trophy.

14. Mario Lemieux (PIT), NHL 2002
24 GP, 6 G, 25 A, 31 PTS, +/-0, 14 PIM

Not too many 36 year-old hockey players would ever be considered to be on the cover of a sports video game, but not every 36 year-old is Mario Lemieux.

Mario had just made his triumphant return to the NHL in the 2000-01 season when he scored 35 goals and 41 assists in only 43 games as a 35 year old who hadn’t played in the NHL for four years. If ever there was a time for a 36 year old to be on a video game cover, it was this year.

However, things didn’t go well for Lemieux or the Penguins in 2001-02. Lemieux was fighting through several injuries before finally ending his season after only 24 games mainly due to a hip injury. Lemieux did chip in 24 assists and 31 points in only 24 games, so it wasn’t a complete loss of a season, but pretty close.

Lemieux still had a one more great year in him the following year in 02-03, putting up 91 points in 67 games and even returned to the NHL with Sidney Crosby after the 2004 lockout as a 40 year old owner-player in 05-06 before finally calling it quits.

This one is my favorite and most memorable NHL cover of all time.

13. Owen Nolan (SJS), NHL 2001
57 GP, 24 G, 25 A, 49 PTS, +/-0, 75 PIM
6 Playoff GP, 1 G, 1 A, 2 PTS, -5, 8 PIM

Owen Nolan was one of the premier power forwards in the NHL during his time in the 90s. He had a monster year in 1999-2000 with San Jose putting up 44 goals and 40 assists in 78 games along with 110 penalty minutes. He then scored eight more goals in 10 playoff games, earning him the rights to the cover of NHL 01.

He only managed to play in 57 games, but he was a force once again when he was in the lineup. He averaged nearly a point per game and was once again one of the more skilled power forwards in the NHL that season.

12. Claude Giroux (PHI), NHL 13
48 GP, 13 G, 35 A, 48 PTS, -7, 22 PIM

Claude Giroux was quickly becoming one of the more entertaining players in the league in the three years before being the cover athlete, and was getting some MVP consideration after putting up 93 points with the Flyers in 2011-12.

Sidney Crosby may have passed him that baton after that debacle of a playoff series for the Penguins in 2012, and after receiving that baton Giroux was immediately blessed with being on the cover for the lockout shortened 2013 NHL season.

Giroux was again one of the best players in the NHL that year, finishing 13th overall in the league in points (eight less points than Sid in 12 more games for Claude, but who’s counting?). Giroux is still the engine that powers the Flyers to this day, but he couldn’t carry the Flyers into the playoffs in 2013. The Flyers still haven’t had much success in the playoffs since Giroux was on the cover, and haven’t won a series since defeating Pittsburgh in 2012.

11. Jarome Iginla (CGY), NHL 2003
75 GP, 35 G, 32 A, 67 PTS, +5, 49 PIM

Iginla was a no-brainer for the cover of NHL 03 after the year he had in 2001-02. He scored 52 goals in 01-02 to lead the league and also took home the Art Ross Trophy and Lester Pearson Award, but finished second for the Hart Trophy behind Joe Thornton, even though they did tie in the voting percentage. However, Thornton took home the MVP based on more 1st place votes, but Iginla got the cover of NHL 03, which is a decent consolation prize.

Iginla had a much rougher time in 2002-03, but still averaged nearly a point per game and Iggy finished with 35 goals which is a good output by almost any players standards, then and now.

Calgary didn’t qualify for the playoffs in 2003, but they made quite a splash in 2004 as Iginla rebounded in 03-04 with his second Rocket Richard Trophy in three years, tied with Ilya Kovalchuk and Rick Nash. Iginla and the Flames took the Tampa Bay Lightning to a Game 7 for the Cup in 2004, but came up just short before the league went dark.

10. Vincent Lecavalier (TBL), NHL 06
80 GP, 35 G, 40 A, 75 PTS, +/-0, 90 PIM
5 Playoff GP, 1 G, 3 A, 4 PTS, +/-0, 7 PIM

To be honest, it was very much a toss up between Lecavalier and Iginla, but I had to favor Lecavalier for coming out on top in the 2004 Stanley Cup. If you don’t remember the fight between Iginla and Lecavalier from that Stanley Cup Final, it’s a much watch. Iginla got the edge in the fisticuffs, but Lecavalier got the last laugh when he won the Stanley Cup with the Lightning in 2004, and then the league shut down for the next year.

Markus Naslund was on the cover of NHL 05, but when the league came back again for the 2005-06 season, Lecavalier was in the prime of his career and made the cover of the “new” NHL.

He put together a typical Lecavalier season in 2005-06. He finished in the top 20 in goals and in the top 40 in points as well. His 90 PIM were also a career high. He would soar to new heights the following season when he led the NHL with 52 goals and set a career high with 108 points, and he also finished fourth in the Hart Trophy voting in 2006-07.

9. Jonathan Toews (CHI), NHL 11
80 GP, 32 G, 44 A, 76 PTS, +25, 26 PIM
7 Playoff GP, 1 G, 3 A, 4 PTS, -4, 6 PIM

The first time was the charm with Toews. While he was very “Captain Average” for the 2016 season as cover athlete, he had quite an impressive 2011 campaign his first time around as the face behind the game.

His 76 points were only one point behind Brad Richards for top ten honors. It was a very down year for goal scorers and his 32 were 14th most in the NHL that season. It was also the last time Toews would score 30 in a season until last year, eight years later, when he set a new career high with 35. His 76 points in 2011 were a career high mark that also was broken last year when he set the bar at 81.

Toews did have a disappointing playoff in 2011 after winning the Conn Smythe Trophy the year before, but it wasn’t due to lack of effort. His lone goal of their first round loss to Vancouver came in the 58th minute of a 1-0 Game 7 that the Hawks were losing. It also came short-handed. It’s easy to make fun of Toews, but he definitely is a big-game player, and he showed up in that Game 7. Unfortunately for him, he was the only one as the Hawks fell five minutes into OT to Vancouver and watched as the Canucks went all the way to the Finals before coming up short against Boston in Game 7 in 2011.

8. Eric Staal (CAR), NHL 08
82 GP, 38 G, 44 A, 82 PTS, -2, 50 PIM

He may never have gotten the full recognition he deserved for how great a player he is, and how difficult he is to play against, but he was fortunate enough during his first few years in the NHL to make enough noise to land on the cover in 2007-08. After Carolina’s surprising Cup championship in 2006, Staal’s numbers dipped significantly from his 100 point campaign, but he rebounded nicely after being being the face of the game in 2007-08.

He improved his goal totals from 30 to 38 and chipped in four more assists to average a point per game, and his 82 points would be the highest point output by Staal to this day. He’s still one of the better players in the league at 35 years old, and has put together quite a career with 1,021 points in 1,240 career games, totaling 436 goals in those games.

7. Vladimir Tarasenko (STL), NHL 17
82 GP, 39 G, 36 A, 75 PTS, -1, 12 PIM
11 Playoff GP, 3 G, 3 A, 6 PTS, +2

Once again, EA Sports picked a perfect year to have a particular player on the cover. Vladimir Tarasenko was steadily improving each year with the Blues and scored 40 goals and 34 assists in 2015-16, which was worthy enough for him to be the cover athlete in 2017. He scored one less goal in 2016-17, but also recorded one more point than the previous year to reach a career high of 75 points that season.

He got some Hart Trophy consideration that season for carrying much of the offensive load for St. Louis, and his 12 penalty minutes in 82 games earned him second place for the Lady Byng Trophy consideration.

6. Alex Ovechkin (WSH), NHL 07
82 GP, 46 G, 46 A, 92 PTS, -19, 52 PIM

It’s hard to believe that Ovechkin was only in his sophomore year in the NHL, and those stats were actually a disappointment from his rookie campaign. Those numbers are ridiculous for a 21 year old, but he put up 52 goals and 54 assists the year before, but even though he ‘regressed’ from the year before, he still finished fourth in the NHL in goals that season and his 46 that year are the third-most on this list, which lands Ovechkin at sixth place.

5. Auston Matthews (TOR), NHL 20
70 GP, 47 G, 33 A, 80 PTS, +19, 8 PIM

If Ovechkin’s 46 goals in 82 games played lands him in sixth place, Matthews’ 47 in 70 games last year has to rank higher, right? I’d say so. His numbers last year were quite impressive for the 22 year old, and he set a career high in goals and assists, despite the season not being completed. His 47 goals come in second on this list, and it would have most definitely been higher had he played the remainder of the games on the schedule. He was one goal behind Ovechkin and David Pastrnak for the Rocket Richard Trophy.

Alas, 47 goals and 80 points in 70 games is already good enough for fifth place. He could still very easily move up the list depending on how the potential playoffs play out for Matthews and the Maple Leafs. For now he sits in fifth on the list.

4. Connor McDavid (EDM), NHL 18
82 GP, 41 G, 67 A, 108 PTS, +5, 60 PIM

Connor McDavid was born to be on the cover of an NHL video game. He’s as close to a created player in EA’s NHL series as there is in real life. The way his feet move is second to none, and his hands are even faster. And to top that off is the amazing vision and hockey IQ that is on display every time he hits the ice. He could be on the cover every year, and I don’t think many people could argue against it right now.

EA tabbed him in his third season in the NHL and once again he took a big leap forward as the cover athlete in 2017-18. He set a career high in goals with 41 and also chipped in 67 assists to total 108 points that season, which is the most from any player who was the cover athlete since 2000.

3. Steven Stamkos (TBL), NHL 12
82 GP, 60 G, 37 A, 97 PTS, +7, 66 PIM

Steven Stamkos did something that season that only one other player has done this millennium, and that other player happens to be the only one who may come close to Wayne Gretzky’s career goal number. That feat was obviously scoring 60 goals, which has only been done one other time since 2000 when Ovechkin scored 65 goals in 2007-08.

Stamkos was having quite a good time in the NHL during this time, as he posted three straight 90 point seasons from 2009-12. Due to the lockout the following season and injuries over the next several years, he wouldn’t reach the 90 point plateau again for seven more years after the season he was on the cover of NHL 12. EA picked a great time to use him on their cover, and that impressive goal total lands him third on this list.

2. Chris Pronger (STL), NHL 2000
79 GP, 14 G, 48 PTS, 62 PTS, +52, 92 PIM
7 Playoff GP, 3 G, 4 A, +/-0, 32 PIM

This was the dead puck era at it’s finest. And it was also Chris Pronger at his finest. He won the Norris Trophy for best defenseman in the NHL, but also won the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP. He was the first defenseman to bring home that distinction since some guy named Bobby Orr did it in 1972, and those two are the only defenseman to win the award post-WWII. Chris Pronger was one of the kings in the NHL during this time, and Pronger put together one of the most impressive seasons ever by a defenseman that season. He was a one-man army.

To put his season into perspective, Jaromir Jagr led the league in points with 96 (in only 63 games, to be fair) and there were only three 90 point scorers in the NHL that season. Only nine players reached 80 points. Pronger’s 62 points were 11 behind Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom’s 73 by a defenseman, but Pronger was tied for 45th among all players in the league during a time not a lot of goals were being scored. Pronger’s +52 that season is tied for the most with Milan Hejduk and Peter Forsberg of the 2002-03 Avalanche for the most in the NHL since 2000.

His 62 points were four less than Alexei Kovalev’s 66 with Pittsburgh that season, one less than Jarome Iginla, tied with Sergei Federov, and ahead of other some other legends such as Joe Thornton, Eric Lindros, Daniel Alfredsson, Brett Hull and Mark Messier.

This truly was one for the ages for an EA Sports cover athlete.

1. Patrick Kane (CHI), NHL 10
82 GP, 30 G, 58 A, 88 PTS, +16, 20 PIM
22 Playoff GP, 10 G, 18 A, 28 PTS, -2, 6 PIM

Patrick Kane did it all this season. And he did it all at the age of 21. It’s hard to believe that at 21 years old, he was on the cover of a game he probably played since he was a kid (and he still was a kid at the time), he led the Blackhawks in points in the regular season and then put up 28 points in 22 games in the playoffs.

Oh yeah, he also scored the Cup-winning goal in OT in Philadelphia. You know the one - the one were he was the only one in the building that saw it go in. And then the ridiculous story of what happened to that puck after the game. There’s still no answer to where that puck is now a decade later, but there’s no question as to who graced the cover of this game the best in the last 20 years.

Several players may have the eye-popping stats, but Kane still finished ninth in the NHL that season and was two points behind Daniel Briere who put up a massive 30 points that spring with Philadelphia. In the last twenty years, there’s only one player who held the Cup over his head the same year millions of people played a game with his face on it.

That would be Patrick Kane. He’s the Champ.

Poll

Which player was the best cover athlete for EA Sports NHL franchise since 2000?

This poll is closed

  • 3%
    Chris Pronger - NHL 2000
    (20 votes)
  • 0%
    Owen Nolan - NHL 2001
    (5 votes)
  • 46%
    Mario Lemieux - NHL 2002
    (278 votes)
  • 1%
    Jarome Iginla - NHL 2003
    (10 votes)
  • 1%
    Dany Heatley/Joe Sakic - NHL 2004
    (10 votes)
  • 2%
    Markus Naslund - NHL 2005
    (16 votes)
  • 1%
    Vincent Lecavalier - NHL 06
    (7 votes)
  • 6%
    Alex Ovechkin - NHL 07
    (41 votes)
  • 0%
    Eric Staal - NHL 08
    (3 votes)
  • 0%
    Dion Phaneuf - NHL 09
    (3 votes)
  • 6%
    Patrick Kane - NHL 10
    (41 votes)
  • 1%
    Jonathan Toews - NHL 11
    (7 votes)
  • 2%
    Steven Stamkos - NHL 12
    (16 votes)
  • 2%
    Claude Giroux - NHL 13
    (13 votes)
  • 1%
    Martin Brodeur - NHL 14
    (7 votes)
  • 2%
    Patrice Bergeron - NHL 15
    (16 votes)
  • 0%
    Jonathan Toews - NHL 16
    (4 votes)
  • 1%
    Vladimir Tarasenko - NHL 17
    (7 votes)
  • 10%
    Connor McDavid - NHL 18
    (62 votes)
  • 0%
    P.K. Subban - NHL 19
    (1 vote)
  • 4%
    Auston Matthews - NHL 20
    (29 votes)
596 votes total Vote Now