May 18, 2011

The Hockey History Round Table: Greatest Stanley Cup Performer?

Welcome to the inaugural Hockey History Round Table here on GreatestHockeyLegends.com. I will convene a panelist of hockey history experts from a variety of backgrounds and pose a question for debate. This will become a regular feature next season.

This week I am asking the question "Who is the greatest player in Stanley Cup playoffs history?" It is not the same as the greatest player of all time. I wanted panelists to forget all about regular season and international accomplishments. Strictly judge players by their performance in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and pick one as the greatest Stanley Cup player of all time.

With that, there are all sorts of intangibles to consider here. Not the least of which include positional concerns. You can't win a Stanley Cup without great goaltending, so they say. Does that mean the best goalie should also be the best player. Or do you choose one of the top goal scoring heroes in post-season play? Or if defense really does win championships, shouldn't you select the top defender?

Let's introduce the inaugural panel.

Lance Hornby has been covering the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs for the Toronto Sun newspaper since 1986. He has also contributed to 5 book projects, including his own masterpiece Hockey's Greatest Moments: Celebrating the Best in Hockey.

Kevin Shea is a self described "hockey archeologist." He is the Editor of Publications and Online Features for the Hockey Hall of Fame, teaches hockey history courses at a Toronto college, and has penned 8 books including the critically acclaimed Barilko: Without a Trace.

Chris Mizzoni blogs at Nitzy's Hockey Den and has authored and illustrated two wonderful hockey history books for children - The Sterling Seven and Clancy with the Puck.

Jennifer Conway is a true hockey historian. This professional researcher has interned with the Philadelphia Flyers. A librarian by trade, she is continuing her education - her master's thesis is about the 1972 Summit Series.

Without further ado, each panelist weighs in on just who is the greatest player in Stanley Cup playoff history.

Kevin Shea believes two time Conn Smythe Trophy winner Bobby Orr is the greatest Stanley Cup player of all time

"The easy answer would likely be Wayne Gretzky. Tough to argue with being the pivotal performer on four Stanley Cup championships,as well as several 'near-misses.' But I'm going to go marginally off the board and select Bobby Orr as the all-time best playoff performer.

Bobby Orr’s exploits during the 1969-70 season were extraordinary. As he continued to revolutionize how defencemen could play the game, he set NHL records that will be marvelled at for years to come. Scoring 33 goals from his blueline position (seventh highest total in the NHL that season) was only part of the story. His 87 assists were 31 more than second-place Phil Esposito, and for the first time in NHL history, a defenceman won the scoring race. Orr’s 120 points were 21 more than teammate Esposito, and earned Orr the Art Ross Trophy. His dominant play also earned Bobby the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player through the regular season, and he also laid claim to the Norris Trophy for the third consecutive season. But the show wasn’t over for Bobby Orr or his Boston Bruins.

In the Cup Final, Boston feasted on the St. Louis Blues, scoring twenty goals in the four-game final. Bobby Orr scored but one in the Final, but it was the pivotal tally. After sixty minutes of play, the Bruins and the Blues were deadlocked at three goals apiece. But forty-seconds into overtime on that Mother’s Day in Boston, Bobby Orr scored one of the most famous goals in NHL history, putting the puck past Glenn Hall as Blues’ blueliner Noel Picard sent him hurtling through the air.

In 1971-72, Boston returned to the Stanley Cup Final, this time challenged by the New York Rangers. Through the 1950s and 1960s, these two franchises had been the picture of futility but the two teams now were as powerful as any in the NHL. They finished one-two in league standings -- Boston with 119 points and the Rangers with 109.

The Stanley Cup Final of 1972 was the first Bruins-Rangers final since 1929. Boston took an immediate lead, winning the first two games of the series, but the Rangers battled back with a 5-2 win in Game Three. The teams traded wins in Games Four and Five before Boston wrapped up the series with a 3-0 victory in Game Six to win the Stanley Cup.

After the game, Vic Hadfield of the New York Rangers simply shook his head. “The two clubs were even in faceoffs, even in powerplays, even in penalty kills, even in everything…except they had Bobby Orr.”


Lance Hornby also picks a defenseman, and goes off the board a bit in doing so.

"’I'll go with the man who set the record for consecutive years in the playoffs - Larry Robinson.

"Everyone knows what goes into winning a Cup, defence, toughness and stamina, and Robinson supplied all, three as well as getting his name on six Stanley Cups.

"Not to underestimate the role of Guy Lafleur or Ken Dryden on the great Canadiens’ teams of the 1970s, but they were able to thrive at opposite ends of the ice in large part because Robinson was keeping things clean from hash marks to hash marks.

"He had the size (Big Bird played at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds) and in an era when fighting and initimidation were a key part of strategy, Robinson was a great nuclear deterrent. In 1976, with the Broad St. Bullies having won two Cups and aiming for three straight, Robinson put his stamp on the final by plastering Gary Dornhoefer of the Flyers in a 2-1 win in Game 2.

“"They had to bring in hammers and crowbars to fix the dent in the (Montreal Forum) boards,” Dryden said. “It was a symbolic moment.”

"Beginning in 1972, Robinson played 227 playoff games with 144 points. That doesn’t include all the overtime games he racked up in 17 years with the Canadiens and three more as a Los Angeles King, the shots he blocked and the penalties he played a big role in killing off. Most good teams change mode to defence come playoff time, but Robinson practiced the creed 24/7 to become a very effective player every spring."


Jennifer Conway picks the greatest goalie for the greatest time of year - Patrick Roy.

"When it comes to the playoffs, the player with the most pressure to perform is always the goalie. Right or wrong, his play is the easiest scapegoat when things go wrong and often the easiest to praise when the game is won. Not only does a goalie need incredible athletic skill, he also needs the mental toughness to withstand bad plays and soft goals, as well as a unique ability to read the play.

"Thus, I would argue that the greatest player in a playoff situation was Patrick Roy. Highly skilled, able to bounce back from almost any situation, and a dressing room leader, he set playoff records for shutouts (23), wins (151), and most playoff games for a goalie (247).

"The youngest Conn Smythe winner ever, he proved time and time again it was no fluke. He won the Conn Smythe twice more, and helped his teams to multiple division and conference titles, as well as four Stanley Cups. Three of those Cup wins came with teams who weren’t even considered serious threats for the Cup.

"In 1993, when the Canadiens had lost the first two games to the Nordiques in the first round, Nordiques coach Dan Bouchard publicly proclaimed that his team had solved Roy. Roy responded by helping the team sweep the next four games, then complete a sweep of the Sabres, and winning the first three against the Islanders for an eleven game post-season winning streak.

"Although his team was knocked out in the first round the year after, Roy showed a dedication to his team and hockey by trying to play through appendicitis. Forced to miss Game 3, he convinced doctors to let him play the rest of the series, postponing surgery until the off-season.

"Cocky, competitive, and able to shut out distractions, there was no one else most GMs and coaches would pick to have in net in a high pressure situation.

"Patrick's among the best at waiting you out, then reacting. That patience, plus his size, makes for a pretty formidable challenge. A lot of goalies over-commit. Not him. He's so technical. If you've got a chance against Patrick, you'd better make up your mind and stay hard with whatever decision you come to. If you doubt, you play right into his hands and you are dead." - Joe Nieuwendyk, April 1998

"When he's on, he is about as good as it gets." - Detroit head coach Scotty Bowman, May 1999

"Playoffs is not a matter of money. It's a matter of pride. I'm a person with a lot of pride. I love to do well. We play for money during the season but during the playoffs, we don't make a quarter of what me make during the season. Winning the Stanley Cup is something you never forget in your life. It is something you go to the Hall of Fame one day with your little boy and say 'Hey, look, this is what happened in my career.' It's more a matter of pride than being a money guy." – Patrick Roy, 1997


Chris Mizzoni takes a much more analytical look for an answer, and comes up with Rocket Richard:

"One large factor I like to look at is if the player produces at a higher rate during the post-season than they do during the regular season, and if so by how much. The number of Stanley Cups a player has won should also go a long way in determining a great playoff performer. As well, leading the playoffs in a major statistical category will aid in determining playoff greatness. These three elements encompass team success as well as individual success in the post-season. I believe I've devised a simple system that is able to quantify these factors.

"Firstly, comparing playoff production to regular season is a good way to eliminate discrepancies in scoring rates throughout the eras. A player's playoff scoring is easily compared to his regular season scoring. I decided to use a player’s goal scoring rates to figure out a Playoff Performance Number. I use goals instead of points because in my opinion, the importance of scoring goals is magnified in the playoffs and is a fine
measuring stick of playoff greatness.

"The next step is accounting for how many Cups a player won and how many times he led the playoffs in goals and/or points (for defensemen I used assists here as well as goals and points.) I assign 4 points to each of these that occur after 1967 expansion, 3 points for each Cup and league lead of goals and points pre-expansion. I do this simply because winning a Cup or leading the league with 12, 21 or 30 teams in the NHL should be worth more than when there was only 6 teams.

"I set a minimum of 100 career playoff games (50 for pre-expansion) as well as having won at the very least one Stanley Cup. In my opinion there’s no way you could be considered the greatest playoff performer ever if you haven't won a Cup. The rankings are as follows, listed by Playoff Performance Number.

Maurice Richard 159
Jean Beliveau 147
Jari Kurri 146
Mark Messier 145
Wayne Gretzky 142
Nicklas Lidstrom 140
Ted Kennedy 136
Gordie Howe 136
Peter Forsberg 136
Yvan Cournoyer 136
Henrik Zetterberg 133
Joe Sakic 132
Bernie Geoffiron 132
Guy Lafleur 131
Claude Lemieux 130
Henri Richard 129
Denis Potvin 126
Dave Keon 124
Larry Robinson 123
Paul Coffey 123
Dickie Moore 122
Ted Lindsay 120
Mike Bossy 118
Phil Esposito 116
Mario Lemieux 114
Bryan Trottier 114
Bobby Hull 109
Bobby Orr 105
Steve Yzerman 94

"Well, there you have it. Maurice Richard is far and away the Greatest Playoff Performer in NHL history on the strength of raising his goal production by 11%, 9 Cup wins and 7 times leading the playoffs in goals or points."

Mizzoni has more, including breakdowns of defensemen and goalies at his own blog.


There you have it - four hockey experts with four very different answers. The amazing thing to me - no mention of Mark Messier - the only man to captain two franchises to Stanley Cup glory - or especially Wayne Gretzky, the greatest scorer in Stanley Cup history owning pretty much every offensive record. Four Stanley Cups. Two Conn Smythe trophies. If you combined his international resume one could definitely argue that Gretzky is the best clutch player in hockey history.

If you could pick one player in hockey history to add to your team to play in game 7 of the Stanley Cup final, how could you pass on the game's greatest scorer?

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