Saturday, August 11, 2007

36 Best All Time

Joe Pelletier has a request on his legends of hockey blog to come up with a list of the 36 best hockey players ever as part of a book to be written by a sports historian from Ireland.

As I am strongly interested in the history of the game of hockey, this was a question that immediately captured my attention. Ideally, one could make a sabermetric list of the best players to solve that question, except hockey is not a sport that lends itself so easily to statistical interpretation (though we are trying). That makes the answer to this question a bit more open to interpretation. Nevertheless, I sat down and wrote out my list of the 36 best players of all time (listed below in alphabetical order)

Jean Beliveau
Mike Bossy
Ray Bourque
Chris Chelios
Bobby Clarke
Paul Coffey
Marcel Dionne
Phil Esposito
Wayne Gretzky
Glenn Hall
Doug Harvey
Dominik Hasek
Gordie Howe
Brett Hull
Bobby Hull
Jaromir Jagr
Red Kelly
Guy Lafleur
Mario Lemieux
Nicklas Lidstrom
Ted Lindsay
Frank Mahovlich
Mark Messier
Stan Mikita
Howie Morenz
Bobby Orr
Jacques Plante
Denis Potvin
Maurice Richard
Larry Robnison
Patrick Roy
Joe Sakic
Terry Sawchuk
Eddie Shore
Bryan Trottier
Steve Yzerman

I then compared to the list Joe had suggested on his site and found we agree on 31 players and disagree on five. My choices that he omitted are: Paul Coffey, Marcel Dionne, Nicklas Lidstrom, Frank Mahovlich and Joe Sakic. His choices that I omitted are: Syl Apps, Martin Brodeur, Valeri Kharlamov, Henri Richard and Vladislav Tretiak. I will explain why I selected my five and omitted his.

Paul Coffey He is the second highest scoring defenceman of all time (behind Ray Bourque). He was part of four Stanley Cup championships in Edmonton and Pittsburgh. Aside from Bobby Orr, I have never seen any defenceman start an offensive play and consistently and successfully as Coffey. Presumably, he was omitted due to his defensive abilities. Though they were never the best in the league, they were not a liability until late into his career when his offensive abilities had started to fade. He won two Norris Trophies and was runner up to two others which is strong evidence for his ranking in the top 36 players of all time.

Marcel Dionne Dionne is the fifth highest scorer in NHL history. He did this despite never playing on any particularly great teams. As he did this, his best regular linemate was probably Dave Taylor (who will likely never make the Hockey Hall of Fame). Having a great career with weaker Los Angeles teams is what makes Dionne a top 36 player of all time. It is also what makes him overlooked. As a member of the weak Kings, Dionne never won a Stanley Cup. He never really came close. He had no finals appearances. No semi-finals appearances. People unfairly put the blame on Dionne for this. He scored 45 points in 49 career playoff games, so his lack of playoff success was not the problem with his teams; it was that nobody was around to support him.

Nicklas Lidstrom He is the best defenceman of our time. Lidstrom is a five time Norris Trophy winner (only Bobby Orr and Doug Harvey have done it more). He certainly isn't done yet; Lidstrom has a good chance of winning more Norris Trophies before he is done. Often, we tend to overlook the current stars on lists like this because we have not had time to put them into perspective yet.

Frank Mahovlich He is nearly universally considered the second or third best left winger of all time (behind Bobby Hull and in competition with Ted Lindsay). Although left wing is a historically weak position having three of them in a top 36 player list is quite reasonable. Especially when you consider that Mahovlich made the post season all star teams nine times (in the same years Bobby Hull was around so he had competition). When Mahovlich retired he was fifth all time in career goals with 533 and had over 1100 points. These are very respectable marks. He was likely left off Joe's list because despite all his accomplishments, Mahovlich seemed like somebody who could have done even more in his career. When he was on his game his graceful effortless skating and powerful shot were dominating. He played a finesse game despite being big enough that many expected a more physical game and thus he is looked at by some as a "failure". That is remarkable that one can fail and retire the fifth highest goal scorer ever.

Joe Sakic I think this is a case of overlooking today's stars because we have not yet put them in historical perspective in our minds. Along with Jaromir Jagr, Sakic has been the best scorer of the last fifteen years or so. He is the highest scoring active player in his career.

As for players Joe selected and I omitted:

Syl Apps I am conscious of the fact that the 30's and 40's are poorly represented on this list. I think it is due to the ever improving level of hockey played in the world and the ever increasing talent pool from which hockey players are drawn. I never seriously considered Apps and am a bit surprised to see his name on this list. I had Milt Schmidt and Dit Clapper as the most likely choices from this era that were omitted. Why way Apps selected? I am not sure. He never won an Art Ross or Hart Trophy. I suppose the reason is that he played in Toronto and was the best Leaf of this time. Toronto had a good team that won Stanley Cups and they are the hugest hockey media market so they have been able to make the legend of Syl Apps a bigger star than the actual Syl Apps was.

Martin Brodeur I am uncertain of where he should go historically. He will likely retire as the all time wins leader among goalies (though in an era where there are no more ties, this achievement is not as big as it once was) and could also be the all time shutout leader too. It's hard to argue that anyone who did that well in those statistics was not a good goalie (though it is possible to argue the value of those statistics). Martin Brodeur played behind a very good defensive team his whole career. He faced less shots per game and less quality shots then most (if not all) goalies most seasons. How much of his success was from team defence? Despite his win and shutout totals, many years Brodeur did not have a league leading saves percentage (though some years he did). New Jersey has remained a top team with Brodeur in net, despite losing Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer, so this is an argument in Brodeur's favor. Brian Rafalski will be gone next year. How would Brodeur do with a more mediocre defence in front of him? I am uncertain on the answer to this question and thus unwilling to rank Brodeur in the top 36 all time - though I must admit he is close.

Valeri Kharlamov His case is covered well in this piece I wrote when he was inducted to the Hall of Fame. It is clear that Kharlamov was a good player, but because he played so few games against top competition in his career it is very hard to know just how good. It is quite a leap to say he was top 36 good. He might have been, but more likely was not. For example, based on a limited number of international games played (and nothing else) you could make a strong argument that Mats Sundin is one of the 36 best of all time (he isn't). How certain are we that Kharlamov is not a similar case? I think it is most likely he is.

Henri Richard The case for Henri is 11 Stanley Cup wins. That is a record for a player. He was a good player, but never the best on his team. Never even the second best (though his team was stacked). That Richard retires with only 358 goals after 20 years and never won or was runner up to a Hart Trophy is an argument that he was a very good player in the right place at the right time to win all those cups. I would be more likely to choose Bernie Geoffrion is I needed another Hab from that era on this list - though I wound up choosing other players. Wasn't Geoffrion more dominant then Richard?

Vladislav Tretiak Another Russian who never managed to leave Russia to play in the NHL (like Kharlamov). Clearly he was a good player, but how certain are we he belong on this top 36 player list? How certain are we that Tretiak is not roughly equal to Ken Dryden or Tony Esposito - who were both very good goalies but do not find their names on this list? I think that would be a much more reasonable ranking for Tretiak.

Like any top player list, there will be some argument about some of the choices. Is there anyone else that should have been included? Did anyone make these lists that should not be there? Go to the Legends of Hockey site and make your case (or argue with me here).

Good post, but I think you're underrating Syl Apps. I wouldn't say that he's definite top-36 material, but he is a reasonable pick.

You say that Apps never won the Hart trophy. This is true, but he was runner-up three times ('39, '40, '42) and he came in third place twice ('41, '43). So he was consistently regarded as one of the best players in the league during his prime.

It's also true that Apps never won the Art Ross, but he was still a great scorer. He was runner-up for the Art Ross, and he led the league in assists, in both 1937 and 1938. He was runner-up again in 1941. He led the playoffs in goals in 1940, and he led in assists and points in 1942.

By all accounts, Apps was a great leader and a strong two-way forward.

Personally I'd rank Apps just after the 36th spot but I think one could include him based on his consistency and dominance.
Awesome post, and thanks for sending many readers my way.

One constant theme is how undervalued Syl Apps and those powerhouse Leafs teams of the 40s and 50s are. I really do believe Apps is a serious candidate.

My list is not final, I'm waiting to unveil that later in the month. But if Apps is not to be included, then how about playoff superhero Teeder Kennedy?

Also, Henri Richard always ranks higher on my list ever since Jean Beliveau told me in person that Henri was the most complete player he ever saw in his days. Something like that really impresses a guy like me!

One thing is for sure - the top player debate will always be a great conversation starter!

Joe Pelletier
Great post. How people leave off Marcel Dionne from a list like this, I'll never know. He scored 50 goals six times. He's #4 all time in goals scored, and as you said #5 in points. The correlation between goals scored and wins is so strong, how Dionne can be left off a top 36(!) list is a real head scratcher. He's not in my top 5 or top 10, but top 36?? No brainer.
Leaving Martin Brodeur off this list is a crime. Anyone with eyes can see he's easily one of the greatest goalies of all-time and more than deserves to be included in the top 36 players of all time. How else would he be in a conversation with Roy for greatest goalie to ever play if he wasn't in the top 36?

His defense was always good? What about this season where he posted some of his best numbers ever with guys like Johnny Oduya, and Colin White as his defenseman?

Don't forget Brodeur also missed an entire year of his prime due to the lockout! His numbers would be even better had it not been for this.
Brodeur is in the argument with Roy for the greatest goalie ever mostly because of his wins and shutouts totals (they are great - question is how much does that actually mean). He is clearly a top goalie (but how much better is he then say Bernie Parent who is not on this list?). Last year was a bit of a counter-example to what he has often done putting up a moderately above average saves percentage behind a great defence and thus making his other stats look better than they should be. Brodeur is clearly close to a spot on this list, but I am not quite sold yet.

As for Syl Apps, in 1998 the Hockey News picked the top 100 players. Apps was then listed at #33. He has since been passed by Jagr, Sakic, Lidstrom, Hasek, Chelios (if we assume that his ranking was 100% accurate at the time) thus pushing him out of the top 36. However, Milt Schmidt in those same rankings was #27 and would have a better case for being here then Apps in my book (more seasons, more points, MVP win) as well as those rankings. Nevertheless I would omit both of them, but I find the omission of Schmidt a harder one then Apps.
Was a bit of a counter example? He carried his entirely mediocre team into the playoffs, won the vezina trophy and also won a division is that only a bit of a counter example? If that doesn't finally prove that Martin Brodeur deserves a spot in the top 36, then I don't know what does. Just look at his past regular season and playoff play as well. Did you see how many goals the Devils scored last season? What about all the 1 goal games Brodeur won for that team? He played excellent last season, and has been nearly every season of his career. You can also bring up Olympic stats, Brodeur also won a Gold Medal for team Canada(not even Roy did that) and was outstanding at the last winter games.

Brodeur would also have a Conn Smythe if not for the unreal play of Giggy in the 03 playoffs. Martin had a record 7 shutouts, and still didn't win the conn smythe.
New Jersey was not a mediocre team last year. So the claim Brodeur led a mediocre team into the playoffs is false. To be a top 36 player is hard. It takes more than almost winning a Conn Smythe or being an Olympic team starter. Brodeur is close to making my list, but I think his successes are more closely related to his team's defence then those of the goalies I did place on it and thus I do not include Brodeur.
I think you're looking too much at pure offensive statistics and awards, albeit in hockey this is sadly mostly what we have to go with.

Henri Richard for example ended up on a team with 3 superstar centres in himself, Jean Belliveau, and Ralph Backstrom. All were great, all could put up numbers, and all could play in any situation, EV, PK, and PP.

The 'problem' with that is each of those centres now get limited ice time as the coach can roll balanced lines out. How much more would Henri have scored if he had been on a team with lesser talent and that relied on him as the defacto #1 to carry the mail and score? I'm not convinced one way or another that he's top 36 material but the argument can be made.

Of course then you look at a guy like Backstrom, to who H. Richard pales to in comparison as a team matyr. By all accounts he could have easily at least equaled his two contemporaries offensively, but he selflessly accepted the 'checking' centre 3rd line role for the betterment of the team.

This quote from him in an interview said it all:

"A lot of people ask me what I thought about playing most of my career behind Beliveau and Richard. They say that on another team I could have been a first- or second-line center. But you know what? There's a tradeoff here.

I feel personally that maybe I could have been a first- or second-line center on a lot of other teams. But on the other hand, I probably wouldn't have won six Stanley Cups with another team.

So, when I look back on my career, would I have changed things? I ended up scoring 278 goals. I might have ended up scoring another 150 goals with another team. But would you rather have the 150 more goals or the six Stanley Cups? I don't think so. I'll take the six Stanley Cups every time."

A guy like Tretiak one would think could have an argument, he stoned arguably the best that the NHL had to offer a good number of times. It's interesting to say that guys like Kharlamov and Tretiak didn't face the 'best' in the world, but by that same argument one can argue that the NHL wasn't facing the best in the world either until the influx of talent from European sources. Devil's advocate will say that North Americans, particularly Canadians dominated early on, but the Europeans did catch up fairly well for themselves. Guys like Mogilny, Bure, and Selanne did take the NHL by storm remember.

I enjoyed your post and you have interesting things to say, but I think you seriously over inflated the value of counting numbers and grossly overlooked other factors, albeit it's hard not to do this by what we have to go on; i.e. no ATOI, EV, PK, PP time, quality of opposition numbers etc.
Paul Coffey was an overated player playing on a stacked team in an otherwise lousy division; the entire Oilers team of that era was overated, and none more so than Coffey; who was a defenseman in name only.....and the reason why we have the trap today, as kids coming up in hockey at that time wanted to score rather than learn the basics of playing defense properly. (Which lead to the "team defense" that we know today as the trap) There's no WAY i'd put him in the same class as a Doug Harvey or Larry Robinson or Ray Bourque any of which had more TRUE talent as defensemen in their little fingers than Coffey had in his entire body! Mikado
>>and the reason why we have the trap today, as kids coming up in hockey at that time wanted to score rather than learn the basics of playing defense properly.<<

I meant to say "kids coming up in hockey as DEFENSMEN" (at that time)
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