There seem to be two main thoughts when it comes to what constitutes a top-six forward in the NHL. The more traditional perspective generally seems to say that anyone that puts up 50+ points in an 82 game season is at least a top-six forward. The other perspective argues that a top-six forward is anyone that finishes top-180 in scoring (30 teams multiplied by 6 forwards is 180 forwards). Applying the second perspective to the 2016-2017 season, a top-six forward was anyone that had a .43 points per game, or 35 points over 82 games.
But while the second perspective is more logical, I’ve always leaned more towards the first approach. After all, you strive to be a great team and have a great offense, and I never saw guys that could only muster 35 points in the top-six of a team like Chicago or Pittsburgh. But I also never really put this idea to the test until now.
What you’re looking at is the ten highest-scoring teams from this season, with their sixth-highest scoring forward’s production listed, to try and set a baseline for a top-six forward on a top-ten offense in the league.
I think what we’re seeing is the truth might be somewhere in between the two perspectives we listed at the start. Setting 50+ points as a benchmark for a top-six forward seems too high, but 35+ points as the benchmark is a little low. Granted, there’s more that goes into making a team an elite offense, such as how much your highest-scoring forwards score, or how much your defense contributes offense. But generally speaking, maybe the real baseline should be more in the early 40s.
The most important note I’m trying to hit on here though is that there’s a difference between being a top-six forward in the league and being a top-six forward on an offense that’s actually good. And it’s an important distinction that I think the 30×6=180 perspective overlooks. When people talk about a #1 center, they’re really talking about what a #1 center on an elite team would be. When people talk about a #1 defenseman, they’re really talking about what a #1 defenseman on an elite team would be. Being the #1 center or #1 defenseman on your team doesn’t mean your team is actually good. And I think that’s an important distinction to be made with the idea of a top-six forward as well.