Pierre Turgeon hung up his blades with 19 NHL seasons under his belt. The 1987 1st overall draft choice of the Buffalo Sabres scored 515 goals, 1,327 points in 1,294 games. Although he didn't have the reputation as a great playoff producer, he had a very respectable 97 points in 109 post season contests.
The Sabres made Turgeon the face of their franchise, immediately drawing comparisons to the team's only previous franchise player, Quebecois Gilbert Perreault. The Sabres selected Turgeon over the likes of Brendan Shanahan and Joe Sakic. Based on skill and ability, #77 deserved that lofty status, but I believe his legacy will not match that of those two fine players.
A gifted natural athlete, Turgeon excelled at the finesse game. The strength of his game was his hockey sense and play making ability. Though he had an excellent shot with a quick release, he was always a playmaker first, then a goal scorer. His vision and creativity combined to make him a lethal setup man and tough to defend.
I would go as far as to say Turgeon was beyond amazing when he had the puck. He never looked at the puck, but he always had it in perfect control. Without the puck, in typical quiet Pierre Turgeon form, he was so elusive, appearing out of nowhere and disappearing from checks.
Turgeon was very efficient on the ice, which led to some detractors. He was uncanny with his positioning, which he undoubtedly learned in order to make up for a lack of foot speed. Since he was usually in the right spot at the right time, Turgeon never had to scramble to get into the play. Critics called him lazy, when in fact he was extremely economical.
Many critics also pointed to his lack of a physical game, and with merit. Turgeon was a big pivot at 6'1" and 205 lbs, but he never really imposed himself on the opposition. He was never afraid to go into traffic areas to score goals, and he took checks while making plays with the pucks, but he really needed to initiate more of a physical game for him to have reached his full potential. Had he been able to, he would be remembered as one of the best of his generation.
I think what his critics don't point out enough though is rarely did Turgeon have a strong supporting cast. There's no doubting he had the ability, and make no mistake he had the desire to be a dominating NHL figure. He just didn't have the temperament to be a dominating solitary force. Too often in his career, especially in Buffalo and Long Island, and even to some degree in Montreal, he was asked to turn an average team into a Stanley Cup contender. He just wasn't that lone-warrior type of player.
Unable to win in the post season, the Sabres moved Turgeon in 1991 in a 7 player trade that also headlined Pat Lafontaine. Playing with Derek King and Steve Thomas on his wings, Turgeon erupted for his best season in 1992-93 when he recorded a career-best 58 goals and 132 points in his first full season on Long Island. The NHL awarded him the Lady Byng Trophy as he only picked up 13 minor penalties. More importantly, Turgeon was enjoying his first taste of post season success and leading the Islanders to the Conference Finals. En route, however, Turgeon the recipient of one of the ugliest muggings in hockey history. As Turgeon celebrated a goal in a blowout playoff win against the Washington Capitals, Dale Hunter came up behind him and flung him into the boards. Turgeon injured his shoulder and Hunter received a 21-game suspension. The Islanders, and particularly Turgeon, were never the same.
Hunter's mugging may have altered hockey history, suggested New York Daily News writer Frank Brown. He wrote:
"Pierre Turgeon had been a dynamic, involved personality. He was becoming the emblem of the Islanders and the Club was saying 'This is our symbol of future greatness to come. This is the offensive superstar we haven't had since Mike Bossy and this is the hope for a bring new arena on Long Island and million dollar visibility in the marketplace.
"Everything changed by one mean-spirited little prick. When Pierre Turgeon got up, he left some piece of himself on the Nassau pond. From the minute he returned, he was hesitant; he was a perimeter guy; he was a guy who was not activating the energy level of his team the way he had been. He didn't have that drive to the front of the net."
That year turned out to be more of the exception to the new rule as opposed to his arrival as a superstar. He returned to the 90 point level and below. Much like the Sabres, the Islanders must have felt Turgeon was not going to live up to that franchise player designation and moved him to Montreal for Kirk Muller and Mathieu Schneider.
Montreal was an odd destination for a French Canadian player with a reputation for shunning the spotlight. But Montreal, and more importantly Montreal fans, wanted a French Canadian scoring star to lead them back to glory. To make matters worse, Turgeon was burdened with the team's captaincy.
Though his stay was brief, Turgeon put up some good numbers in Montreal. He only played one full season, leading the team in scoring in 1995-96 with 38 goals and 96 points. He teamed well with fellow Frenchman Vincent Damphousse. But the captain's spotlight, especially in media-crazy Montreal, never sat well with Turgeon's quiet and reserved temperament. He handled it all gracefully, especially during the closing of the Montreal Forum, but there was always a hit of reluctance as well.
As brilliant as he could be, he just never had the personality to take his image and his game to the highest level. Unappreciative and unfair Montreal fans quickly turned on their captain, booing him out of town.
Turgeon went to St. Louis, where he could play in some anonymity. Playoff success was easier to find, three times playing 10 or more games. Injuries capped Turgeon around the 60 game mark in St. Louis, therefore making the likes of Chris Pronger, Al MacInnis, Pavol Dimetra and Brett Hull as the go-to guys. It was quite unfortunate that Turgeon couldn't have enjoyed his previous injury free seasons in St. Louis, though ultimately, for all their money spending ways, the Blues were never a true Stanley Cup contender.
From 2001 through 2007 Turgeon spent his seasons miscast and injury prone in Dallas then Colorado. His career came a quiet end in 2007, having played in just 17 games in what proved to be his final season.
Comfortable out of the limelight, Turgeon was always cast in someone's shadow. In Buffalo it was the franchise's previous French Canadian superstar Gilbert Perreault. In Long Island it was the shadow of the man he was traded for, Pat Lafontaine, who possessed natural flair and speed and erupted in Buffalo. In Montreal he was in the shadow of all the French Canadien greats who came before him.
Without doubt he had the ability and talent to stand side by side with his shadow makers. He just never quite had the desire to make it happen. Perhaps if it wasn't for Dale Hunter, he would have emerged as a true superstar.
Though he was as talented and as brilliant as most any of his peers, I suspect Pierre Turgeon's legacy will not see him land in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Interestingly, in 2007 Turgeon was inducted into another Hall of Fame. He wasthe first Canadian enshrined in the Little League World Series Hall of Fame.