October 19, 2006

Single Season Magnificence

A look at the 10 greatest regular seasons in NHL history

Every season the NHL witnesses a few amazing year-long individual performances that resonate hockey greatness. Last season we watched the emergence of Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, Jonathan Cheechoo, Dion Phaneuf, and the re-emergence Jaromir Jagr.

In a really magical season we are able to watch a player turn in a campaign that becomes legendary or, even better, transforming. The achievements of that season may garner iconic status because of historical significance, dramatic impact, defining nature, or statistical dominance.

Without taking into account the Stanley Cup playoffs, it has been a while since we’ve seen a player’s regular season efforts reach a status of truly important in NHL history. We might have to go back to Dominik Hasek’s days in Buffalo for that.

All of this got me thinking: Which individual season is truly the greatest? With over 90 seasons and countless great performances, I have narrowed my choices down to five key performances.

In my estimation, the single most consequential NHL campaign was turned in by Bobby Orr in 1969-70. In his fourth NHL season, the 22 year old Orr captured the Hart, Norris and Art Ross trophies. Yes, the Art Ross. Bobby Orr became the first and only defenseman to win the league’s haloed scoring championship. It was a signature moment in a career that revolutionized the way the game is played.

Perhaps the great writer Jack Falla sums it up best:

“Orr had broken scoring records by such huge margins and played with such creativity and abandon as to alter a half century of tactical hockey orthodoxy about the proper role of a defenseman.”

He didn’t just redefine how a defenseman should play. He influenced how a hockey was to be played. Offence was expected from blue liners, marking a fundamental change in the hockey landscape. This was the transition season.

A culturally significant winter of hockey has to be Rocket Richard’s 50-goals-in-50-games season of 1944-45. In dramatic fashion, Richard became the first and for quite a while the only 50 goal scorer in NHL history. Doing it in a 50 game season is all the more amazing. Those numbers have ever since been benchmarks of NHL greatness. A 50 goal season remains as magical today as ever. 50 goals in 50 games is a benchmark even the NHL’s greatest snipers have trouble matching.

Although maybe not as culturally significant, in my opinion no player had a more impressive season in NHL history than Mario Lemieux in 1992-93. En route to challenging Wayne Gretzky’s record of 215 points, Mario is diagnosed with cancer in a lymph node in his neck. He would take two months off, under goes intense radiation therapy, including in the morning of his return to the NHL. In his time off, he surrendered his scoring lead to Buffalo’s Pat Lafontaine, but the physically, emotionally and mentally exhausted Lemieux scores 56 points in 20 games after cancer treatment to best the Sabres center by 12 points. Mario truly became super in this season, scoring 69 goals and 160 points in only 60 games while winning the Ross and Hart trophies.

You can not mention the greatest individual seasons without mentioning Wayne Gretzky. The Great One dominated regular seasons in the 1980s, winning scoring championships by landslides and owning the MVP awards. It is tough to pick one season as his best, but 1981-82 is hard to top, even though Gretzky did just that point-wise 4 years later. But in 1981-82, the 22 year old rewrote the NHL record book, raising the bar to an unthinkable height. After scoring 50 goals in an unbelievable 39 games (only Richard and Mike Bossy had scored 50 in 50 at this time), he finished the season with 92 goals, 16 more than the previous record held by Phil Esposito. Gretz added 120 assists, bettering his own NHL record by 11 helpers, to set a mind-boggling 212 points in a single season. While he would score 200 points in 3 following seasons, including 215 in 1986, it was the goal scoring totals and the raising of the bar of excellence that gives the nod to Gretzky’s 1981-82 season as his most important.

The fifth most important NHL season goes back to Mario Lemieux. Just a couple of seasons after Gretzky scored 215 points, totals never to be challenged most thought, Mario does just that. Missing 4 games, the 23 year old falls a whisker shy and finishes with 199 points. His 85 goals rank as the 4 highest of all time, and his 114 assists made him just the third player, with Orr and Gretzky being the others, to register 100 assists in a season. Lemieux also wrestled away the scoring championship from Gretzky for a second straight year, blowing away the new LA King by 31 points. Mario Lemieux emphatically arrived in a stratosphere reserved for Gretzky.

There are other great seasons, to be sure, including many of Gretzky’s campaigns in the 1980s. Here’s a quick look at 5 more NHL campaigns of great consequence.

Phil Esposito’s 1970-71 campaign saw him destroy NHL records with 76 goals (Bobby Hull had 58) and 152 points (Espo had 120 two years earlier as the NHLs first 100 point player, prior to that Hull and Stan Mikita owned the NHL record at just 97) has to be acknowledged.

In 1928-29 George Hainsworth backstopped the Montreal Canadiens while establishing two amazing single season records. His 22 shutouts (in a 44 game season!) and 0.92 GAA are untouchable. Rule changes such as forward passing followed the next year, guaranteeing these marks will never be touched.

In 1980-81, Mike Bossy became the only player since Rocket Richard to score the magical 50 goals in 50 games, notching two goals in the dying minutes of game 50. He finished with 68 goals.

In 1966-67, Stan Mikita dominated the NHL. His 97 points (tied with team mate Bobby Hull) set a new standard of excellence in the NHL, as did his 62 assists. He became the first NHL player to take home a hat trick of regular season trophies – the Art Ross, the Hart and the Lady Byng.

Teemu Selanne may have had what most people consider the best rookie season when he debuted in 1992-93. His 76 goals led the league and blew away Mike Bossy’s old rookie record of 53 goals. His 132 points also shattered Peter Stastny’s freshman mark of 109.


Anonymous said...

you rock boby orr

Mempo said...

What - No Doug Harvey??? In his career he would get 7 James Norris trothies, 6 Stanley Cups, 11 consecutive All-Star selection and could control the pace of a game like no one before, or since - with the possible exception of Gretzky, Lemieux or to a lesser extent Orr. I played against Orr in the Juniors in 64 - and while Orr was very good - he always needed to be protected - as he was later with the Bruins.

RELAYER said...

The "fighting Jean Beliveau" of 1955-56 that scored 47 goals in 70 "full strength 6-team league games" and followed it up with 12 goals in 10 games (better than the 12 in 9 games by Rocket Richard in a WW2 "weaker league") His 59 goals in 80 games (comparable to a goal a game in 1944-45...based on game averages...i "adjusted it to 81 goals in 80 games" much like the Rocket with 56 in 56 or 68 in 65) including the playoffs was never broken during the "6-team league". A record 7 goals in the 5 game final. On November 5, 1955 he scored 3 goals in 44 seconds to help MONTREAL create the famous "end minor penalty on a goal" rule
as they'd quickly put the game out of reach!

I talked to an old DENTIST from BRANTFORD, ONTARIO (players like Bill Cook, Wayne Gretzky) and asked him who was the best that he had saw (expecting to hear ORR or HOWE or GRETZKY and RICHARD)...but he said HOWIE MORENZ!!! Being born in 1906 he also saw Walter Johnson pitch in a 2-1 loss in 1921 as well!

Unknown said...

The article is based on single season magnificance, not best players. I'd have to say great job with article Joe. If there was anything missing it would have to be the lack of consideration of old time hockey. Problem is, is that there is such a limited amount of information with which to make informed decisions about past single season endeavors. Your site here is my favorite hockey site I've found thus far. Keep'er goin'!

Anonymous said...

Another great article. Any player, of any sport, playing on the same day they receive radiation treatment stands out though. Winning the scoring title on top of that is simply amazing.

Anonymous said...

This list was obviously compiled by someone who dislikes Gretzky and refuse to acknowledge his greatness. To put Gretzky in at #3 and for only one season borders on laughable and conveys a lack of objectivity and comparative analysis. Gretzky did exactly what Orr did to the record books and changed the way the game was played. I watched him early on and he so dominated that he elevated the play of everyone around him. Messier would not have become the player he was without watching and playing behind Gretz. Lemieux's seasons should only be considered after at least two of Gretzky's when objectively analyzed. Sorry, but sympathy should not factor into the analysis. Also, Lemieux had Gretzky's records to aim for in a game changed by "The Great One".

Unknown said...

The 44-45 season is tainted and should not count. Most of the greats of the day did not play that year.

RELAYER said...

Howie Morenz in the tight checking "no goal hanging, no forward pass" season of 1928 ...33 Goals and 18 assists (when you had to make a great play to get an assist) in a 44 Game Season is certainly a great year (I also noticed that with few exceptions MOST players ...greats or otherwise have their best seasons in their 20's and usually around age 24-25 (maybe 22 for Orr and to a lesser degree Gretzky, but like Morenz they had 6-7 TRULY GREAT YEARS). So if we are talking about sustained skill over a 1-2 year period, there are many players to consider. I find the 0.75 Goals per game (from a 2-way player in a 3-4 Goals Per Game team in a roughly 4 GPG NHL) more impressive than a Goal a Game (and 1-2 assists as well) player that played in a 8+ Goal per game NHL. Even that old dentist from Brantford (Gretzky's Home Town, Bill Cook's as well...) thought that Morenz was "more exciting to watch".

Regarding 1945, well that year Montreal had a strong team and 4.56 Goals for and 2.42 GA for 6.98 Goals per game. So compare that to Bobby Hull's 54 in 65 in a 6.1 Goals-Per-Game Chicago Team (implies that Hull would have scored 62 goals in 65 games had he had the easier compstition that the Rocket faced). So what would Bobby Hull have done in 1945 plating for Montreal?

We'll never know for sure but my "calculation" implies that 47.5 (say 48 goals in 50 games) in a roughly "7 goal per game NHL" is what the Bobby Hull of the 118+ MPH Slapshot, 105.9 MPH wrist shot and 96 MPH Backhand would have done! A very impressive achievement and so what the ROCKET DID was and STILL IS an outstanding achievement of goal scoring, great "Punch Line" to help him or not!

Believe it or not the "50 in 39 by Gretzky is roughly an EQUAL accomplishment...

...go grab your calculator if you don't believe me!

...his 92 goals in 80 games...well the ROCKET of 1944-45 would have scored 102!

Or you could send Gretzky back to 1945 and assuming he wasn't speared (ie. made it through the season) he'd have had 41 goals!

So if you are truly FAIR MINDED, the 50 in 39 by Gretzky is like the Rocket's 50 in 50! Both are GREAT!

Morenz's statistics (when FAIRLY COMPARED) are astounding and after allowing for the level of play you still have to reduce his goals by 2/3 to put him open a par with Beliveau and Esposito for goal scoring over a 7 year period (a case of a smaller player playing 45 minutes a game versus 25-30 for an Esposito or a Young Beliveau).

Now if you ask me I'd rather have an Yzerman or a Sakic go up against a Gretzky than against a Beliveau or an Esposito (Messier is a bit more like Beliveau and Esposito but I daresay both Espo and Beliveau were better and in heavy going, I'd take those 2 over Gretzky any day)...just look at Espo's 1 goal and 2 assists against the Soviet Union in Game 8 in 1972 and he made all 3 of those goals happen under pressure comparable exceeding even that of a World Cup Final in Soccer!

Morenz was voted the top Hockey Player of the 1st Half of the 20th Century with players like Eddie Shore, Cyclone Taylor, Newsy Lalonde, Charlie Conacher, etc. getting fewer votes...you'd have to be the "Babe Ruth of Hockey"!

As for Doug Harvey, it is true, he controlled the game better than anyone else!

RELAYER said...

The best guidelines for any sport would be to have respect for ALL GENERATIONS of players and COMPARE FAIRLY as tight checking can shut down even the greatest of players and by averaging the goals per game is one way to get the real value of a goal as 2 goals in a game with 5 goals is usually a better chievement than 3 in a 10 goal game and of course it is easier to score if you play for a powerhouse team. Neither Gretzky or Orr did it alone and that is yet another reason why The Rocket is so highly regarded...after the great years of the "Punch Line" he didn't get as much help (later he did with Geoffrion, Moore, Beliveau etc., but for 5 years or so Montreal had to rebuild) and he constantly was a target of prejudice and he DID "go in the corners" and fight for the puck and fight the "Killer Dill's" and Gordie Howe's that were sent against him (win or lose). So as Dick Irvine supposedly stated in
that movie about The Rocket "Nobody went to the net like the Rocket!"... also the saying "Best Player from the Blueline In" was very true too, especially in the Playoffs!

Dr. Mxyztplk said...

From a statistical point alone, as of course I never saw him play, the 1917-18 NHL season of Joe Malone with Montreal Canadiens of 44 goals in 20 games would seem to deserve inclusion here.

RELAYER said...

Dr. Mxyztplk (reminds me of the Superman Comics) justifiably mentioned the great Joe Malone's great year in 1917-18 (inaugural NHL Year) and the competition from a Goals For/Goals Against point of view for the Montreal Canadiens of 1917-18 was comparable to what the 1981-82 Edmonton Oilers (roughly 9 per game as in 22 games 115-84 ...just over 9..Oilers/82 was 417+295=712 in 80 games...so 8.9). In theory...send the 1981-82 Gretzky back in time ...he would have been hard pressed to match the output of Malone's great linemate Newsy Lalonde that season (who had 23 Goals in 14 games...so he might have had a very respectable 34-35 in 21 had he been healthier that year) with something like 28 goals in 22 games...Newsy was a Great Lacrosse player and much physically tougher as well as meaner than Gretzky...so this 44 goals in 20 games PLAYED (22 game SCHEDULE) was one of the Greatest Performances without question. Usually the teams of the WW1 era played 1 set of players 45+ minutes so you had to be like a Shore, Harvey, Hull, Orr or Gretzky to be able to handle that much ice time. Typically smaller too as there were no vitamins and few or no comparable replacements (12 players per team versus 24 or more now). It does look like Malone would have easily outscored Gretzky in either era if only GOALS were considered but Gretzky was the better playmaker and would have had as many points as Malone. So I'd guess 28-20 for 48 points to match
the 44-4 of Joe Malone. This is the "200+ point Gretzky" we are talking about too! The 20 assists would have been a RECORD by 5 assists and only 1 assist was awarded per goal.
Certainly in his prime Joe Malone was one of the greatest ever GOAL SCORERS and had more 5+ goal games against TOP NOTCH COMPETITION than any other player that ever lived!

Anonymous said...

Brett Hull's 87-goal season is statistically the greatest goal-scoring achievement. His 87 goals were far beyond the the highest goal scorers. Beliveau's 47-goal season was mentioned. Statistically, it's among the best ever.

Joe Pelletier said...

Just a few years earlier Wayne Gretzky also scored 87. He also scored the all time record of 92 goals in a season!

Kelly said...

Anonymous your comments are absolutely ludicrous. I don't know whether to laugh or cry. You CANNOT recalculate stats and here's why. Lets simplify things to make my point. Lets say I play in a 4 team league and each teams plays 20 games. Each team averages 5 goals per game for a total of 100 goals. Lets say I get 50 goals and the top scorer on the other 3 teams also get 50 goals. That means I scored 50 out of the leagues 400 goals. The next season the top 3 scorers on each of the other teams (from the previous year) don't play. My team once again scores 100 goals with me scoring 50. The other 3 teams score 50 each. So this year I have scored 50 out of 250 goals. A much greater accomplishment? No, the exact same thing! It wasn't any easier or tougher for me to score. It was exactly the same. That's why you can't recalculate with any amount of accuracy. Everything is what it is. If it was so easy to score when Gretzky played then why didn't a bunch of players put up his numbers? Simply stated when you start crunching actual numbers you will find that Gretzky probably had at least 5 of the 10 most impressive seasons of all time.

Kelly said...

My apologies to Anonymous. My comments were meant for RELAYER. Too many concussions for me!

relayer said...

Good arguments all round. Just to be sure that nobody thinks I am a Gretzky basher, it is fairly obvious he is the greatest POINT getter, and greatest PLAY-MAKER and one of the greatest goal scorers but some were a bit better at putting the puck in the net and at 2-way play as well as having more of a physical presence (especially Howe, Harvey, Shore, Richard, Orr, Lemieux, Beliveau and Bobby Hull among the top 10). Yes, Gretzky was good at getting short handed goals and played like 2 excellent forwards rolled into 1 but he wasn't the best at everything. He was unique and Great which will either make you admire his offensive talent or make you look for chinks in the armor as there was nobody quite like him before or since. His "offensive puck control" was also 2nd to none which is something that few people mention as well.

Relayer said...

The change in statistics from the last year of the old 6 team league to the 12 team NHL of 1967-68 prove my point. Tougher competition, tougher to score. In 1969 both Danny Grant and Norm Ferguson had excellent rookie years with 34 Goals but were they as good as Howie Meeker (27 with a 5 goal game) or Boom Boom Geoffrion with 30 back when checking was tighter? I don't think so!

BigMike79 said...

Wayne Gretzky also had tons of talent skating alongside him. Coffey, Kurri, Messier and Anderson all in the Hall of Fame. A dozen other players who were All Stars. Most people would say hes the greatest of all time.

Personally, I think Mario Lemieux was the greatest of all time. The way he individually took over most games may never be seen again. In terms of greatest seasons of all time, like i mentioned with Gretzkys amazing line-mates, Lemieux made careers.
Lemieux made very good players great i.e. Kevin Stevens, Mark Recchi. Good players very good Dan Quinn, John Cullen and turned guys who were out of the NHL once they left the Penguins into 40 goal scorers i.e. Rob Brown, Doug Sheddon, Warren Young. Pittsburgh constantly won out on trades because Lemieux made minor leaguers look like all stars, general managers got burnt often.

If you took Gretzky off the Oilers, they still have a very good shot at the Stanley Cup

If you took Lemieux off the Penguins I'm not sure they make the playoffs

Anonymous said...

All solid picks. Some are obvious. A few need emphasizing.

1) Hainsworth getting 22 shutouts will NEVER even be challenged, let alone in just 44 games. Most people today would hate it, but I'd love to see what a forward pass-less game looked like.

2) Scoring 50 goals remains impressive in the 80+ game era. The Rocket did it in just 50. That pace is incredibly demanding. Ask Mike Bossy. Just 2-3 "off-games" and you're in big trouble. But if you consider how few goals were scored back then (only 1 other player got 30 that year), it's a VERY significant accomplishment. It's also worth pointing out his legendary "intensity" earned The Rocket plenty of time in the sin-bin(4th place). So, he might have scored a couple more.

3) Orr followed Doug Harvey's lead and did a "moonshot" with the Defence position. Folks today don't give offensive defenders a thought. But when Orr started, the only offensive role for a defender was a good breakout pass and/or shot from the point. Orr had both AND could take skate end-to-end and score, or pass it off to Espo to put in the empty net. Orr also played great defence.

4) That said, Espo's 76 goals and 152 points in 70-71 is still incredibly impressive. But let's put this in proper context. Excluding Espo's teammates, just his 76 goals ALONE would have given him more points than EVERY player other than Bobby Hull (96) & Norm Ullman (85)! Jean Beliveau & Dave Keon would tie him at 76. In fact, the entire Minnesota North Stars only scored 191 that season. Meanwhile, Espo was a part of 152 goals.

However, it's NOT fair Mario should occupy 2 spots on the list when Orr & Gretzky could easily do likewise. Therefore, I propose Mario's 2nd spot be taken by Bobby Hull's astounding 77 goals in 78 games for the Winnipeg Jets in the 74-75 WHA season.

Many folks incorrectly diminish the WHA. But doing so ironically diminishes the 80's NHL hockey style, stars & coaches that everyone praises so damn much. Yes, it was more wide open than the 70's NHL, but so was the 80's NHL. Regardless, 77 goals in 78 games (142 points) is DAMN impressive, especially for a 36 year old who also had the responsibility of being head coach of a team struggling to make the playoffs!

Hull was a chronic 50 goal scorer. Even within the WHA, the 74-75 season was his best goal scoring season by a long-shot. The season before and the season after, he "only" scored 53. As season's go, 74-75 was this Hall of Famer's best.