March 27, 2008

Ovechkin's Great Season
Among The Greatest Of All Time?

Every season the NHL witnesses a few amazing year-long individual performances that resonate hockey greatness. 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.

Perhaps this season we have a candidate. Alexander Ovechkin and his 60+ goals rank at the very top of all performers, bar none. James Mirtle has been championing Overchkin's season as one of the best in history for some time now. He will win the Rocket Richard trophy, and very possibly the Art Ross and Hart. If so, and even if he doesn't, he is on the fast track to becoming the greatest Russian NHLer of all time.

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.

So does Ovechkin's season rank in with these? I say close, but not quite. But I suspect the best is is yet to come from Alexander Ovechkin.

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