NHL now and later poll: The best players, teams now and in four years

Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid are both generational talents. Who do current NHL players, coaches and executives think is better between the two? Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

Who is the best team in the NHL now? Who will it be four years from now? Sidney Crosby has been the face of the league for more than a decade, but has 21-year-old Connor McDavid taken over?

ESPN spoke to more than 50 players, front-office executives and coaches before the season to take the pulse of how those in the league view both the current landscape -- and what it will look like on the not-so-distant horizon.

This exercise, if nothing else, is a reminder of how fast things can change in a league with total parity. Last year, in this same space we mused: "Don't worry, Winnipeg Jets fans. You might not be Stanley Cup favorites now, but at least one evaluator likes your odds in 2022!" This year? The Jets have received a ton of love -- as a team that could win now.

Without further ado, our second annual Now and Later Rankings:

Best player in the league right now

Last season, we polled 53 folks on this question, and 33 picked Crosby. McDavid picked up 18 votes while Erik Karlsson had two.

This year, we're sensing a changing of the guard. It was McDavid's name that came up most often. Of the 56 respondents to this question, 35 chose McDavid. Another 19 selected Crosby.

Wondering about those stray votes? One is for Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin. Said a fellow Eastern Conference player (not on the Capitals): "He carried that team early in the year and they won the Stanley Cup, the hardest trophy to win in sports. That's why he's my pick."

The other vote is for Chicago Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane. Said one NHL All-Star from an Eastern Conference team: "I love the way he plays. He's so smart, so patient with the pucks. He can make unpredictable plays that nobody expects. He doesn't have a lot of speed, but he uses other tools. Before I was in the NHL, he was my favorite player, and I still enjoy watching him on highlights. Usually I look forward to playing Chicago just to play against Kane and see what he does."

Back to the Crosby/McDavid conundrum, here's how one player justified voting for McDavid -- after he remembered he voted for Crosby in this same poll last year: "Don't get me wrong, Sid is still Sid. One of the best players of his generation and all time. But Connor is a special talent. The speed he has and the way he can create things on the ice -- that combination is hard to stop."

An assistant general manager offered his support for McDavid as such: "If I'm building a team from scratch, he's who I'm building it around."

Added a Western Conference player: "Take Connor away and Edmonton is the worst team in the league."

A front office executive's perspective: "He's had individual success, the team success will come."

One NHL coach opted for Crosby: "Plays in all situation. The ultimate leader. He's been able to accomplish a lot in terms of individual and team success. He's still got plenty in the tank."

An Eastern Conference center says he has been matched up against both Crosby and McDavid -- and he finds Crosby to be "harder to play against."

"Playing against Connor obviously is not easy," he continued. "He's extremely fast, that's his best attribute: his speed. But for me, I'm kind of fast and I can keep up with him a little bit so it's not as hard. Whereas Sid is fast, and skilled and works harder than anyone in the league, in my opinion. Just how hard he works to get to the net makes it hard to stop."

Summed up one Western Conference player, who waffled between Crosby and McDavid, before ultimately choosing McDavid: "I guess I've never thought about it, but yeah, Connor really has taken over as the guy. He's the player everyone strives to be, though 99 percent of us don't have the skill to ever do the things he can."

Best player in the league four years from now

We had 54 responses to this question. One player suggested the best player in the league four years from now will be "a new guy. Someone we don't know [yet]."

Other than that, we saw a lot of love for McDavid, with a whopping 43 votes. Crosby, interestingly, still had two votes (he'll be 35 when the 2022-23 season begins). Auston Matthews had six votes (after picking up four votes in last year's survey) while Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones, Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin and New York Islanders center Mathew Barzal had one vote apiece.

The McDavid gushing was nearly universal. Said one NHL general manager: "I don't think he's slowing down anytime soon."

Regarding Matthews, one player -- who has played with Matthews through U.S. hockey -- was effusive with praise for the 21-year-old Maple Leafs center. "He's one of the most special players I've ever seen," the player said. "He makes everyone around him better. When all is said and done, 15-20 years from now, I think he'll have a couple MVPs and hopefully one day he'll lead his team to a Stanley Cup."

Added another Eastern Conference player, in choosing Matthews: "He's only going to get better."

Best team in the league right now

The NHL is a "what have you done for me lately?" league, and responses to this question were steeped with recency bias. This year, 29 of the 51 respondents picked Washington.

"They just won the Cup, how can you not pick them?" one veteran player said, in an oft-echoed refrain.

For the record, last season the then-twice-defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins dominated, with 31 of 39 votes. Oh, and while we're talking about last year's mistakes, the Chicago Blackhawks picked up three votes last season. Let's just say ... their season didn't pan out as expected (and they didn't receive any votes this summer).

The San Jose Sharks did not receive any votes, but a bulk of the polling was conducted before the team traded for Karlsson, the two-time Norris Trophy winner.

Much of the non-Washington love was reserved for Tampa Bay, which had 10 votes. Five votes went to the Jets while the Maple Leafs picked up three votes and Nashville Predators had two. One respondent picked the Pittsburgh Penguins.

In choosing Tampa Bay, an Eastern Conference player said: "You look up and down that roster and it's pretty stacked. They've had some good runs and great experience."

A front office executive picked the Predators "for their depth. They have the best depth in the league."

Best team in the league four years from now

Answers for this question were all over the spectrum. The Maple Leafs, however, picked up the most votes (20 out of 51). When asked why the Maple Leafs were his pick, one Western Conference player said: "Well, to make everyone happy." (The player grew up in the Toronto area).

Another Western Conference player offered a more analytical take: "They've got some really good young players that if they can keep developing, I think they're going to be pretty scary."

An assistant general manager opted for the Lightning (who had seven votes) -- though it should be noted his vote came in before the news that GM Steve Yzerman was stepping away.

Eight respondents picked the Jets. "They're big and physical and a really tough team to play against," a fellow Western Conference player said. "So many of the guys came up through their system and are going to be there for a while."

An All-Star from a Western Conference team offered his support for the Philadelphia Flyers: "I liked their team a lot last year, and they added JVR [James van Riemsdyk]. Got some good defensemen. Once they get a goaltender, they'll be scary good."

One Western Conference player selected the Florida Panthers. "They have some good, young players," he said. "So why not?"

Which team will surprise us?

Of the 58 people polled for this question, there was a universal theme: the Buffalo Sabres are this season's trendy sleeper. Interestingly, 29 people -- across all levels -- independently identified the Sabres as the one team that will surprise and exceed expectations.

The Sabres, of course, were bottom-dwellers last season, which led them to select Dahlin No. 1 overall.

Said a Western Conference All-Star: "You see what they did this summer, and they lost Ryan O'Reilly, obviously, who is a really good player. But they added so much depth. Tage Thompson, he's a good young player. I've seen him play. Jeff Skinner is going to score a bunch. And they have Dahlin who everyone says is the real deal. They can't mess this up, right?"

Another player singled out another Sabres addition: "I know Patrik Berglund really well, he will be a sneaky good player. So I think he'll help them more than people think."

The Arizona Coyotes, who had a strong second-half finish, were the second-most popular pick.

"I feel like they've done some really good things the past couple years," one Western Conference player said. "Plus, everyone likes their coach [Rick Tocchet]."

Added another Western Conference player: "I think Arizona's going to be better than people think. They gave us a lot of trouble last year, and quite honestly, I think they're just a better team than people give them credit for."

One NHL coach picked Columbus, as did an Eastern Conference player. "A team like Columbus -- nobody ever gives them any press, but they battle and they play and they've got some really good players," the player said. "I don't know what it is, maybe it's because Columbus is a bit of a smaller town, a smaller city, and so maybe they get overlooked. But they've got a really good team."

Other teams who got some love in this category were the Calgary Flames, Florida Panthers, New York Islanders and Anaheim Ducks.