Ranking the NHL's top wingers for 2021: Execs, coaches, players debate the top 10

The coach on the other end of the phone scanned ESPN's 2021 NHL position-by-position ranking player pools, his stress level increasing.

"We're talking about the best of the best," he said, sighing. "Now you're asking me to vote for the best of 'the best of the best.'"

Well, yeah, that's sort of the point. We wanted those inside the league to cut through the media narratives, ignore (but appreciate!) the enduring legacies and reveal which star players have "it" and which ones don't. Which, admittedly, can be a stressful venture.

Here's how it worked: Surveys were conducted over the past two months. Respondents were asked to rank their top 10 players at center, winger, defenseman and goaltender, based on a predetermined list of the top 20-30 players at each position. Players who were ranked in the top 10 on each ballot were given a numerical score -- No. 1 earned 10 points, No. 2 earned 9 points and so on.

There were 10 NHL players surveyed -- seven skaters, three goaltenders. There were 10 people on the hockey operations side surveyed, from coaches to general managers to player personnel executives.

Here are the positional rankings for wingers for the 2020-21 season, according to those in the NHL we surveyed. The rankings for defensemen (March 30), centers (Apr. 6) and goalies (Apr. 7) will follow. Stats are collected from sites such as Natural Stat Trick, Hockey Reference and Evolving Hockey. There are some surprises here, to be sure.

1. David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins
152 points | Age: 24

Why was the 24-year-old Bruin ranked as the No. 1 winger in the NHL?

"I don't know, maybe his personality?" joked a rival NHL forward. "No, I think some of these rankings are just too close to call. That's why it's tough to make an 'order' of any kind. But Pastrnak has absolutely been on fire when he's not been hurt the last few years."

Pastrnak has 100 goals in his past 157 games, tied with Alex Ovechkin for the best goals-per-game rate since 2018-19 (0.64). He shared the Rocket Richard Trophy with Ovechkin last season as the league's top goal scorer, with 48.

Pastrnak has 26 points through 21 games this season, including 14 goals. He leads the Bruins in expected goals above average (7.8) this season.

Oh, and not that it matters, but our anonymous NHL player is correct: Pastrnak is one of the league's delightfully goofy players, including a recent interview after the NHL's Lake Tahoe game where he lamented missing a locker room dance party to "Barbie Girl" while wearing "Macho Man" Randy Savage sunglasses.

Pastrnak was given three first-place votes -- by an NHL general manager, a forward and a goaltender -- and six second-place votes. In total, Pastrnak was in the top five on 18 of 20 ballots, more than any other player was.

He got the nod for the top slot. But it was close.