Who doesn’t love rankings? Rankings exist to spark debate. Rankings are subjective, determined by opinions, educated or otherwise. Opinions can’t be wrong, Except, of course, when they are.
Which brings us to the fun exercises in which the good folks at NHL.com have been intermittently engaged throughout this coronavirus-induced stoppage of play. A panel of writers has been polled to create a “Super 16” position-by-position ranking of the top players of the expansion era.
What could go wrong?
Well, Billy Smith ranked ahead of Henrik Lundqvist, for one. And Tony Esposito ranked ahead of Lundqvist, for another. Oh, and Patrik Elias failing to garner a single vote as one of the top 16 left wings from the 13 people who cast ballots, and what in the world is that all about? Then there’s the matter of Scott Niedermayer out-polling Scott Stevens on defense.
Listen, Smitty’s one of the great money goaltenders of all time. There’s no dispute over that. In the ranking of post-Original Six Stanley Cup goalies, you could go: 1) Bernie Parent; 2) Ken Dryden; 3) Smith, and you may not be wrong, though it is still one of the more startling stories in playoff history that Scotty Bowman had decided to bench Dryden in favor of Bunny Larocque for Game 2 of the 1979 Cup finals against the Rangers after the Hall of Famer’s mediocre performance in the Blueshirts’ 4-1 Game 1 victory.
Of course, you know that fate intervened when Doug Risebrough hit Larocque in the head with a shot during warmups that thus necessitated barrister Dryden’s emergency return to nets. No. 29 allowed a goal to Anders Hedberg on the Rangers’ first shot at 1:02 before he was beaten at 6:21 by Ron Duguay on the team’s third shot and it was 2-0 and … and of course the game ended 6-2 and Montreal won in five and you just don’t have guys called “Bunny” in the league anymore.
That reminds me. Dryden retired following that Cup, Bowman left the organization after losing an internal power struggle to Irving Grundman (beats me) to become GM/coach of the Sabres, and Bernie Geoffrion was named to succeed Bowman behind the Habs’ bench. I went up to Montreal to interview the Boomer at training camp and, lo and behold, a goaltender wearing No. 29 was taking shots during a drill.
It was Don Cutts, who’d been an Islanders farmhand the previous couple of years and was now wearing No. 29. No worries, Cutts did not make the team and never did play a game for Les Glorieux, so we can be sure the No. 29 that hangs in the rafters commemorates Dryden.
But anyway, let’s talk about Smith ranked ninth and Lundqvist 10th, with eight of the 14 casting ballots ranking the Islanders’ Hall of Famer ahead of the Rangers’ pending Hall of Famer.
Do you know that Smith started 50 or more games in a season only once in his career, that in 1974-75, and in fact started 40 or more games just four times while sharing nets with Chico Resch, Roland Melanson and Kelly Hrudey? Lundqvist, meanwhile, started 60 or more eight times that included three seasons of at least 70 while carrying the Rangers for almost a decade-and-a-half.
The stats aren’t close, but rather than cite career goals-against averages (2.43 to 3.18) save percentages (.918 to .895) and victories (459 to 305) — yes, Smith played in a higher scoring league but on a much, much, much, much better team — here are the bottom line questions:
Would the Islanders have won their four straight Cup and 19 straight playoff series with Lundqvist rather than Smith?
The answer is, yes.
Would the Rangers have made the playoffs 11 times in 12 years with Smith rather than Lundqvist?
The answer is, no.
Now to Tony O, who was ranked fifth. He was a great one, no doubt, with numbers that are comparable to the King’s when accounting for the difference in eras. He was a tireless workhorse for Chicago with 74 career shutouts to the Swede’s 64. But not only are they tied in Stanley Cup championships at zero, Esposito allowed the worst, most damaging goal in the finals history — that 70-footer to Jacques Lemaire in Game 7 of the 1971 series with the Hawks up 2-0 late in the second period of the match they would lose, 3-2.
The omission of Elias from every single one of the 13 ballots is truly inexplicable. I’d have him in my top 16 ahead of at least John LeClair and Ilya Kovalchuk (and don’t ask me how Keith Tkachuk was ranked eighth), and Bobby Hull’s appearance on this list is suspect given the fact he played just five seasons in the NHL post-expansion, but OK.
What is not remotely OK, however, is that Elias did not get a vote while Brian Bellows, Ray Whitney, Brian Propp, Charlie Simmer and Kirk Muller did. Is there a general manager in the league at any time who would have taken Whitney ahead of Elias? I’m not counting one-time Rockies GM Ray Miron, by the way.
And then the Great Scotts. Listen, I’m not here to denigrate Niedermayer in any way. He was a sheer delight to watch. And maybe Niedermayer’s work with the Ducks after leaving the Devils to join his brother stood out to the voters who had No. 27 ranked higher on nine of 13 ballots, and had him ranked ninth overall to Stevens at 12. Or perhaps it was Nieds’ outstanding international career. I could see that.
But when they were teammates for 12 seasons, it never would have dawned on me or anyone else to suggest Niedermayer was the better/more important player. Never. Because again, the question:
Could the Devils have won three Cups without Niedermayer?
But could they have won even one without Stevens?
Not a chance.
By the way, that’s a fact.
Stay safe, friends.