When you think of great goal scorers, one often forgets the name Mike Gartner. But year after year after year Gartner has racked up an overwhelming amount of goals that places him near the top.
Very quietly, Mike Gartner scored 708 career goals. Only Phil Esposito (717), Marcel Dionne (731), Brett Hull (741), Gordie Howe (801) and Wayne Gretzky (894) have scored more often. Mike Gartner scored more career goals than the much flashier and much more celebrated Mario Lemieux, Mark Messier, Steve Yzerman, Bobby Hull, Guy Lafleur and Mike Bossy.
Yet somehow Mike Gartner doesn't usually get the same accolades as all the pre-mentioned superstars. In 1997, when The Hockey News assembled a panel to determine the top 100 hockey players in NHL history, Gartner ranked 89th.
How is this so? Unlike his statistical peers Gartner never has had an explosive season of 60 or 70 goals that ranks among the great seasons in NHL history. In fact, Gartner only reached the 50 goal plateau on one occasion (1984-85).
So how did he become the leagues 5th highest goal scorer ever?
Over 19 seasons Gartner showed great consistency while playing for the Washington Capitals, Minnesota North Stars, New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs, and lastly the Phoenix Coyotes. Gartner has scored at least 30 goals in 17 of his 19 seasons. He scored at least 30 in his first 15 consecutive years in the league, only to miss in the 48-game schedule lockout shortened season in 1995. He followed that up with 2 more 30 goal seasons before an injury riddled campaign finished off his career in 1998.
All that consistency might rank him high on the all time goal scoring list after a 19 year career, but not on the all time greatest players list. He played in relative obscurity with the Washington Capitals for the first decade of his career. He would later play in the shadows of Mark Messier and Brian Leetch in New York, and Doug Gilmour and Mats Sundin in Toronto. He also spent short stints in Minnesota and Phoenix. Though he played an important role with Team Canada in two Canada Cup victories and four world championships, he still never really got the recognition he deserved.
In addition, he played in the right wing shadows of the likes of Guy Lafleur, Mike Bossy, Jari Kurri, Brett Hull and Jaromir Jagr. Gartner never made a NHL all star team, and never was in contention for any NHL post season award. Unlike his great peers, he never won a Stanley Cup.
Mike Gartner will always be remembered for his exceptional speed. His technical form was flawless and powerful. He had a great stride with really deep knee bends. His legs pumped like pistons, making him one of the fastest skaters of his time. A concerted defensive player, Gartner teamed really well with Mark Messier and Glenn Anderson in the Canada Cup, and because he had the speed to keep up with Soviet superstars Sergei Makarov and Vladimir Krutov.
More often than not Gartner used his speed to create offense. There have been a lot of incredibly fast skaters in the NHL, but very few who could handle the puck and make plays in top gear like Gartner could. He had a nice play where he'd bounce the puck off the nearby boards and then speed around a flatfooted defenseman, as if he was passing to himself. But more often than not he would try driving to the net to unleash a deadly accurate wrist shot or an absolute cannon of a slap shot. If he couldn't get around the defenseman, Gartner would typically zip around the net and try a wrap around attempt.
Gartner wasn't much of a playmaker, though he did score 627 career assists. He wasn't an overly physical player, but he was definitely not afraid to play in traffic and drive to the net. He was exceptional at protecting the puck from the opposition even at such high speeds. Not a body cruncher, Gartner would finish his checks usually by rubbing players out along the wall.
Mike Gartner was a really good player on some pretty average teams. Because of his ageless legs and a cannon of a shot, he was always looked to as a go to guy on these teams. He was as consistent as consistent could be, but he was never dominant for any length of time. Largely because of his career totals a high scoring era where players played longer than ever before, Gartner was included in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
It will be interesting to see how well history remembers this 700 goal scorer.