Thursday, January 26, 2017

The NHL 100 Is Hockey's Hottest Thing To Argue About

The NHL's Top 100 Players Of All Time list is really hot in the streets now. If you've missed the talk around it, essentially the league is listing (but not ranking) the best 100 hockey players to ever play to honor the 100 year anniversary of the NHL.

The whole thing is essentially just something to enrage Hockey Twitter, because How The Fuck Are They Going To Leave Eric Lindros Off Of The List and other complaints.

But some actual hockey writers - as opposed to internet commenters - put their heads together and released a detailed book to allow them to put themselves in the shoes of the NHL panel that was creating the official list. They created their own list, and the actually ranked it. I imagine that it was as stressful a sports book as has ever been published.

That book is The 100 Greatest Players In NHL History (And Other Stuff) by Greg Wyshynski, Dave Lozo, and Sean McIndoe. It's 110 pages long, and - fun fact - you can't buy a paper copy. It's a Kindle exclusive.

McIndoe, of course, is also known as Down Goes Brown on Twitter, and he's among the best league-wide hockey writers in the business. In his piece today for Sportsnet (link here), McIndoe elaborated on the eight things he learned in the creation of his Top 100 list. It's a great read, especially for those of us who don't understand the minute details of old-time hockey.

One passage caught my attention, and I think it's an important discussion for hockey fans to have: how much did Wayne Gretzky overshadow everyone else who played in the same era?
When we were building our list, we rated each player in various subjective categories. But we also had a column for major awards, because that seemed like a sanity check..
And in general terms, that worked. But then you get to 1980, and you run into a problem: Wayne Gretzky. He wins a ridiculous eight straight Hart Trophies, a streak that doesn't end until 1987. And when it does, Mario Lemieux steps in and wins three of his own. Mix in one more for Gretzky and two for Mark Messier, and that barely leaves any room for an entire generation of centers. 
The same is true of first-team all-star honours, where Gretzky and Lemieux combine to take home 13 out of 17 honors from 1981 to 1997. And when it comes to the Art Ross, Gretzky, Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr combine for a stunning 21 straight wins.
We'll use that 21-year window of Art Ross Trophy victories (1980-2001) as our point of reference, to see who was overshadowed by that dominant Gretzky-Lemieux-Messier-Jagr quartet. Because there's no doubt that those four are among the best to ever play hockey, and I'm sure their hogging of all the major awards is going to reflect poorly on the legacy of some other good-to-great players.

For reference, here are the awards we are going to care about:

  • Hart Memorial Trophy, for the league's most valuable player
  • Art Ross Trophy, for the league's top point scorer
  • Conn Smythe Trophy, for the league's most valuable player in the playoffs
The Conn Smythe, to be sure, is a more volatile award than the regular season awards. It generally goes to a player of the team that won the Stanley Cup, and there are only like two dozen games to establish one's case for the award. But the playoffs are where heroes are made, or whatever, so we're going to include it. At the very least, it will allow us to see who else should be in contention for these "Top 100" lists from that era. 

In those 21 (or 22?) years from the 1979-80 season through the 2000-2001 season, Gretzky won 9 Hart trophies, 10 Art Ross trophies, and 2 Conn Smythe trophies. Lemieux won 3 Harts, 6 Art Rosses, and 2 Conn Smythes. Messier won 2 Harts and a Conn Smythe. Jagr won 1 Hart and 5 Art Rosses. 

So, if you're keeping score at home, of those 22 seasons (I did the math) (I counted on the Hockey Reference website with my mouse), that quadrumvirate won 15 Hart trophies, 21 Art Ross trophies, and 5 Conn Smythe Trophies. 
Who else was even good in those two decades? Let's look at some options.

Art Ross Trophy Winners

Marcel Dionne

We'll start with the only other guy to win the Art Ross trophy, though it was the very first year we were tracking. Dionne, who came up with the Red Wings organization and played the bulk of his career with the Kings, won his first and only Art Ross in the 1979-80 season. He was still certainly a competitive player after Gretzky took over, and he was in contention for first-team All Star and Lady Byng (the sportsmanship award) honors through the mid-80's. 

He finished his career with 1,348 games played and 1,771 points, and I imagine he will be on almost everyone's Top 100 list. But he's probably from the generation right before we're looking to explore for this exercise. 

And now we've determined that every Art Ross Trophy in the time period we're looking at was won by one of those Gretzky-Lemieux-Messier-Jagr guys. What about Hart trophies? Who else won those?

Hart Memorial Trophy Winners

Brett Hull

Hull was the league's MVP in 1990-91, in the middle of a five-year stretch in which he scored 339 goals (!) and 551 (!!) points. That's an incredible peak, and it's almost even more impressive that he followed those five years up with ten more years where he averaged 32.8 goals and 69.0 points. 

I think he's unquestionably on the list. We should just move on. 

Oh yeah, about that average yearly point total - nice. 

Sergei Fedorov

Federov's Hart came three years after Hull's (Messier and Lemieux were the meat on that sandwich). That 1993-94 season came toward the front end of his 13-year tenure in Detroit, and it was such an impressive season for him that he also won the Ted Lindsay award (the NHLPA's MVP) and the Selke trophy (given to the best defensive forward). 

Over the course of his career, he was a top-25 finisher for the Hart 4 times and for the Selke 11 times. In an era where 100-point seasons were the norm for star players, he managed to be one of the best defensive centers in the NHL. 

Eric Lindros

Big E is a Hall of Famer and one of they most physically gifted players to ever play the sport of hockey. His lone MVP season was the year after Fedorov's, 1994-95. In a lockout-shortened 48-game season, Lindros scored 29 goals and 70 points. That's a 50-goal, 120 point pace for a full season, which is right around what he accomplished the following season (47-115). 

The question with Lindros, of course, is his lack of longevity. Whereas Hull and Fedorov both had 15-year peaks, Lindros stormed on the scene with 7 Hart-conversation-worthy seasons followed by a rash of injuries and decreased production. 

The other argument you can make against Lindros, though it really sucks for me to have to acknowledge it, is the fact that Hull won two Stanley Cups, Fedorov won three, and Lindros made the Eastern Conference just three times (they lost to the Red Wings in their only Cup Final appearance). Like it or not, that counts. 

And, because I am a huge homer: if the Quebec Nordiques, the New York Rangers, and the NHL didn't conspire to try to fuck the Flyers out of acquiring Lindros, they would have been able to add two first-round picks to their roster. And, because hindsight it 20/20, obviously those picks would have been Saku Koivu in 1993 and Jose Theodore in 1994. 

Dominik Hasek

Speaking of Theodore, let's bring up the goalie that is most closely associated with him. Hasek, who was always so underpaid that he couldn't afford a real goalie helmet, is the only goalie to win the Hart twice. He also did it in back to back years, and he dominated (pun intended) the league during the 1996-97 and 1997-98 seasons. 

In this aforementioned era where 100-point players were common, Hasek had a six-year peak with a save percentage of 0.930. His total Goals Saves Above Average during that window was 296.5 0- that's an average of 0.82 goals per game, which I have to imagine is the highest measure of a goalie making up ground for his team ever. 

For reference, Carey Price's Hart trophy season saw him total 36.70 GSAA, which would have put him just 0.31 goals above Hasek's worst year in that span. 

Chris Pronger

I wish Corsica and Hockeyviz were around for Pronger's prime. He is, of course, still an active NHL player, but he hasn't really played since November 2011. His prime, if we're looking at his career chart, probably spanned from his rookie season with Hartford (1993-94) to his final full season in Philadelphia (2010-11). The peak, of course, was the 1999-2000 Hart trophy right in the middle, when he was a member of the St. Louis Blues. 

Pronger, because he is a defenseman, doesn't have stats that blow you away like some of the other guys we've looked at here. For his 2 years in Hartford plus his 9 years in St. Louis (he was traded for Brendan Shanahan between those stops), he was usually good for 5-15 goals, 30-60 points, 100-ish penalty minutes, and a whole hell of a lot of "that guy is tough to play against."

But other than his 6'6", 220-pound frame, what made him tough to play against? Was he excellent at transition defense? Did he have a way of winning puck battles in his own zone? Was his 6% career shooting percentage deceptively low? 

I'm asking these all rhetorically, because I have no idea how they evaluated defensemen before advanced stats were a thing. Obviously he was good at something or some combination of things, because he won the Norris trophy for being the league's best defenseman the same season he won his Hart for being the overall MVP, and he finished in the top fifteen in Norris voting 12 separate times from 1996-97 to 2010-11. 

Joe Sakic

Sakic played 20 season in the NHL. They were all with one franchise. That is unique. The franchise was the Quebec Nordiques and then it became the Colorado Avalanche (insert PFT Commenter-style joke about leaving French Canada for Denver). 

Folks, it looks like Sakic and the boys left (something racist about French Canadians) and (something about marijuana). Nailed it. 

Anyway, Joe Sakic. He epitomizes everything I was trying to do with this exercise. He played from 1988 until 2008 (like Pronger, he ended his season in November). That first half of his career was played in the seasons during which Gretzky won his final Hart, Messier won both of his, and Lemieux won all three of his. 

Sakic bid his time to let those guys get out of the way, and then finally led his team to be an annual playoff contender for the second half of the 90's (and beyond, obviously). He didn't win his MVP award until his age-32 season, despite more than a decade of elite play. He was always great - he finished 8th in Calder Memorial trophy voting his rookie year and 7th in Hart trophy voting two years later - but he really couldn't shine until the real cream of the crop aged past their competitive primes. 

Jaromir Jagr, of course, does not age.

Jose Theodore

I was going to end this with Sakic because his Hart year was the last season in which the Gretzky-Messier-Lemieux-Jagr group won their consecutive Art Ross trophies. 

But we've already mentioned Theodore here in the Lindros section, and he won the Hart trophy after Sakic in 2002. The long-time Canadien and one-time Av, Cap, Wild, and Panther certainly peaked in the 2001-02 season. It was the only season he got Vezina votes, and one of only two seasons he got Hart votes (he finished 19th in 2003-04 but didn't receive a single Vezina vote. 

If you're wondering how he could have received 1 second place, 2 fourth place, and 1 fifth place vote for MVP but not a single vote for first, second, or third for the league's best goalie, that would be because the Hart is awarded by the Professional Hockey Writers' Association and the Vezina is awarded by NHL general managers. Take from that what you will. 

There is another reason that we should discuss Theodore here, and it has nothing to do with hockey. He won the Bill Masterton Memorial trophy in 2009-2010 as the player who "best exemplified the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey." 

Like the Hart trophy, the Masterton is awarded by the PHWA. While his votes in 2003-04 might not have been warranted, this award was almost unquestionably earned. It is a heartbreaking story, so prepare yourself to get emotional. 

Theodore's 2009-10 season - his best since his Hart season - came following the death of his two-month-old son. I would like to urge you to read this Washington Post interview with Theodore, whether you're unfamiliar with the story or just haven't thought about it in a while. 

This post took us all over the place, and in a way I'm glad we got to include Theodore. His story is as emotional as humanly possible, and his work to raise money for the NICU at Children's National Medical Center has no doubt saved hundreds of parents from experiencing the loss that he and his wife had to endure. 

I don't really know how to close this, because this emotional ending really snuck up on me at the end of the work day. So I'll close with two quotes from Jose about loss and moving forward: 
"I was so angry and frustrated and sad and everything you can imagine," Theodore said. "I was just going on the ice, wanting to practice so hard to make up for lost time."
"I don't like the word 'easier,' " he said. "It's more like you deal with it."

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