Naming the best players in any sports league is something that people argue about all the time. Definitions of "the best" vary from person to person, and sometimes incidents color people's opinions. Even if a player scores a lot, they may not be considered one of the best because they're lacking in other parts of their game.
The NHL is no different. Every time an All-Star Game roster comes out, or the list of finalists for the league's end of the year awards, or any old list that happens to come out in the media, people argue about it. Rarely is it ever the case where a number of people will look at a roster or a list and think to themselves, "Yeah; that's exactly right."
Hockey is a lot like basketball in how things are set up on the ice. The only difference being the goalies. Goaltending, of course, is a foul in basketball. Outside of the goalies, it all ends up being roughly the same. Defensemen are sort of like guards, the power forward usually ends up at left wing, the small forward at right wing, and the centers are centers. (Wingers are sort of interchangeable.) It's really not all that complicated.
However, the difference between basketball and hockey is that guards are more highly regarded than defensemen are.
It a peculiarity of people to praise offense. Scoring is fun and it's what wins games, right? So, forwards (the center and the wingers) typically get the most praise. Defense is often considered boring, so they defensemen are usually ignored. And since goaltending is the make or break position (not exactly true, but close enough), losses are attributed to goaltending.
As Jacques Plante - a goalie who played in the NHL during the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s and was the first to wear a type of goalie mask regularly - once said:
Suppose you were working at your job one day, and you made a little mistake. Then all of a sudden a red light went on over your desk, and fifteen thousand people stood up and yelled at you that you sucked?
In short, you have the forwards getting credited with a win, the defense doesn't exist, and the goalies blamed for the loss. Not always, of course, but it's a common pattern. This kind of thinking skews who people think the best players in the game are. As you might expect, most will come up with the name of a forward first.
Sidney Crosby, a 24-year-old Canadian center for the Pittsburgh Penguins, has been called the best hockey player in the world. And, at one time, he was. But he's played less than 15 games in 14 months due to concussion issues. While he may pick up where he left off, that still remains to be seen. His four assists in that 8-4 win over the Winnipeg Jets looks very promising, though.
Alexander Ovechkin, a 26-year-old Russian left winger for the Washington Capitals, is struggling this season. He's a very offensive-minded player, but he hasn't lived up to his is previous offensive output. He's currently got half the points he had during the 2007-2008 season. If he snaps out of his funk, he'll be unstoppable once again.
Steven Stamkos, a 22-year-old Canadian center for the Tampa Bay Lightning, gets far less press than either Crosby or Ovechkin do. Which is sad since he'll very likely be the only player this season to score 50 goals. (In comparison, a guy who can 30-35 goals per season is considered a really good forward.) There was a time where it looked like he might make 50 goals in 50 games, but he was unable to keep up that pace.
Nicklas Lidstrom, a soon-to-be 42-year-old Swedish defenseman for the Detroit Red Wings, is considered probably the top defenseman in the NHL. Most professional hockey players will play, if they can, into their late 30s, and by then, their bodies are telling them to quit. Lidstrom shows no sign of slowing down. Which is probably why his nickname is "The Perfect Human".
Shea Weber, a 26-year-old Canadian defenseman for the Nashville Predators, is an offensive breed of defenseman. Not only can he stop opposing forwards from getting to his goalie, but he's a 15-20 goal scorer as well. And for a defenseman, that's a very good output.
Henrik Lundqvist, a 30-year-old Swedish goaltender for the New York Rangers, is probably the best there is in the world at this moment. He doesn't have the best goals against average (think: ERA for pitchers in baseball), nor does he have the best save percentage (how many shots he stops versus how many get past him). He's in the top three in each category, though. But he's a fierce competitor, which is a characteristic that isn't always attributed to a goaltender.
These are just a few of the names bandied about as being the best. Are they really, though? Again, that depends entirely upon your world view. A few might say my short list is a classic example of East Coast bias, after all. But if you want to know what the players think about that, then read The Hockey News's Top 50 NHLers as voted by the players.