Saturday, April 25, 2009

Non-Superstar Playoff Heroes (forwards)

We're well into the NHL playoffs once again and once again I find those teams I'm most interested in on the outside looking in. And despite my almost yearly vow to not go out of my way to watch games this spring, I find myself pulled in and watching a ton anyway. Once again.

So in the spirit of the season, I've cooked up a list of those less obvious playoff performers because less obvious is always more interesting. I mean, did you know that Wayne Gretzky, the greatest scorer of all time, was also the greatest playoff scorer of all time? Well, it's true. Oh and Joe Sakic and Rocket Richard are a couple of the best clutch playoff scorers in history. Fascinating, huh? Yeah...not really. I've limited myself to just including forwards because if you factor in defencemen and goalies, this becomes one hell of a difficult list. So maybe each position will get a list as the playoffs go on.

Without further ado, here are the top five playoff forwards who aren't household names in the world of hockey.

5. Bob Nystrom

The Islanders' dynasty is one of the greatest in all of hockey - some people say it eclipses even those of the Canadiens of the late fifties and late seventies or the Oilers of the eighties. However you slice it, the fact is they won an astonishing four straight Cups from 1980 to 1983. Because, obviously, they were amazing teams. They had Potvin, they had Bossy, they had Trottier and they had Billy Smith. But they also had Bob Nystrom.

Every year a mid-range scorer in the regular season, Nystrom always scored some goals but fairly low assist totals kept his point totals under the sixty mark. And that's all they needed from him, really. On a team rich in frontline talent, you still need your secondary scorers. But in the playoffs, Nystrom's scoring became anything but secondary. It was essential. He started slowly, scoring at a fairly mediocre clip in his first five visits to the playoffs. But in the spring of 1980, when the Isles were about to embark on their incredible run, Nystrom heated up. His 9 goals and 9 assists in 20 games was only good enough to be fifth on the team in scoring (if you can believe it) but it was still a huge offensive surge for him.

Not only were these totals well above the frequency in which he scored in the regular season, Nystrom made his goals count. He scored the last goal of that playoffs - the overtime winner in game six against the Flyers to win them their first of four straight Cups.

While Nystrom's 7 career game winning goals in the playoffs is bested by lots of players who also weren't really superstars, I still give him the nod here because 4 of them came in overtime. Only the aforementioned Sakic and Richard have more. And that's pretty awesome.

best playoff performance: 1980, New York Islanders

4. Dave Keon

Keon arguably was a superstar but here I am arguing it, I suppose. Actually, there's plenty of people out there who consider him to be the greatest Toronto Maple Leaf of all time but the fact is while he was a good scorer and got a lot of points, he still wasn't flashy and his numbers aren't mindblowing. No, Keon was more of a two-way player, just as talented at the defensive side of the game as he was at creating goals. While I am really emphasizing goals, particularly game winners on this list, I simply cannot overlook Keon's achievements.

His 68 points in 92 career playoff games (note that it took less games to win the Cup back when he played) is certainly more than respectable but it's this combined with his effectiveness and tenacity as a checker that gets him on this list. His virtuoso performance came in 1967 and it helped the Leafs win their last Stanley Cup to date as well as earning him the first Conn Smythe Trophy ever awarded. He scored a modest 3 goals in 12 games that spring and while he'd actually had more points in two previous playoff runs, here everything just came together for him as he was that year's most valuable player in the playoffs.

best playoff performance: 1967, Toronto Maple Leafs (won Conn Smythe Trophy)

3. Esa Tikkanen
Here's a guy who was born for the playoffs. Much like Nystrom, Tikkanen mostly played the role of supporting player on a team brimming with offensive talent. Throughout the eighties and the Oilers' five Stanley Cups (the last coming in 1990), Tikkanen played in the shadow of such huge names as Messier, Coffey, Kurri, Anderson, Fuhr and, of course, Gretzky. But that was fine with him. And come playoff time, the fesity Finn (no, I'm not sorry for using that term) shone. Three times in his career, Tikkanen scored 20 or more points in the playoffs, also putting up at least 10 goals each time.

By the 90/91 season, the Oilers were significantly depowered. They'd managed another Cup, sans Gretzky, the year before but with injuries limiting Messier to 53 games and Anderson performing a disappearing act, Tikkanen lead the team in scoring with just 69 points. But even though Messier was healthy for the playoffs, Tikkanen continued to be their leader, scoring 12 goals and 20 points, proving his previous high numbers in the post season hadn't simply come from playing with superstars.

He was part of the Cup winning 94 Rangers (along with a few other ex-Oilers) but surprisingly only scored 4 goals. I don't know if any were game winners. Still, after stops in St. Louis and Vancouver, Tikkanen returned to the Rangers during the 96/97 season and exploded for 9 goals in 15 games in the playoffs, playing with Gretzky once again.

His last hurrah came in 98 Washington Capitals' Cindarella run to the final where he contributed 3 goals and 6 points over the 21 games.

When all was said and done, 11 of Tikkanen's 72 career playoff goals were game winners. One of the few players to have more goals than assists in the playoffs (72 to 60 in 186 games), the guy was clutch.

best playoff performance: 1990, Edmonton Oilers

2. Claude Lemieux
I will just come out and say that I cannot stand this guy. However, I cannot argue with facts. And the facts state that the "other" Lemieux (I just call him the dirty Lemieux) is one of the greatest playoff performers of all time, even if you do include superstars. To me, this basically proves that he sometimes dogged it during the regular season, really. He only had one season where he produced at a point-a-game clip and yet he always tore it up in the playoffs.

Late in the 85/86 season, a twenty year old Lemieux was called up to play ten games with the Habs, where he produced an unremarkable 3 points. When the playoffs started, what with the decline of the team since the seventies and the meteoric rise of the Islanders and Oilers, I doubt much was expected of the team. Less was expected of Lemieux. Now anyone who knows hockey knows it was another mostly unknown twenty year old that was mainly responsible for the Canadiens' surprising Cup win that spring, goaltender Patrick Roy. Roy would capture the Conn Smythe Trophy to begin what would be an incredible career. As careers go, Lemieux certainly can't match that. But his 10 goals and 16 points that year would be a sign of things to come for him as the playoffs would seem to ignite him almost every year.

Actually his playoff totals with the Canadiens after that would be fairly modest but he found the magic again in New Jersey, scoring 18 points in 20 games in 94 then firing 13 goals the next spring as the Devils won their first ever Cup. He won the Conn Smythe that year.

Lemieux was thirty when he was traded to the Colorado Avalanche but he still contributed as they won the Cup that year although he was surpassed by Joe Sakic in playoff scoring. The folllowing year, the Avs would lose to Detroit in the playoffs but Lemieux still scored 13 goals and 23 points in 17 games giving him huge playoff performances with three separate teams over his career - few players have that on their resume. His 19 game winners in the playoffs ties him for SECOND on the all-time list. Only Wayne Gretzky and Brett Hull, each with 24, have more. The guy's a prick but he could score when it mattered most.

best playoff performance: 1995, New Jersey Devils (won Conn Smythe Trophy)

1. Chris Drury

Before he played professional hockey and even before playing US college hockey (where he would be named winner of the coveted Hobey Baker Trophy), Chris Drury knew something about coming through in the clutch. In 1989 he pitched his hometown team of Trumbull Connecticut to a Little League World Series championship, defeating Taiwan in the final.

The Hobey Baker win pretty much sums up his college career and then he joined the Colorado Avalanche for the 98/99 season. Twenty goals in the regular season was fairly impressive for a rookie (he actually did win the Calder Trophy as top rookie but that's irrelevant here) but then he added 6 goals in 19 games in the playoffs, where the Avs made it to the Western Conference finals before bowing out.

In the 2001 playoffs, Colorado went all the way and captured the Stanley Cup, bolstered by 11 goals by Drury. He left the Avalanche for the 02/03 season having scored 11 game winners over his four playoff appearances with them. That year was sort of a forgotten year for him, playing with the Calgary Flames who did not make the playoffs. The next year he joined the Buffalo Sabres and became a leader there but the team missed the big dance. The next season was wiped out entirely by the NHL lockout so there were no playoffs for anyone. However, the following year Drury made it back to the playoffs and pretty much picked up where he'd left off, scoring 18 points in 18 games, including 9 goals. He added another eight the spring after that.

As of this writing, Drury has played in 128 career playoff games and from his 47 goals he's amassed an amazing 17 game winners, four coming in overtime. This has him tied for third on the all-time list. It's crazy enough when you consider all the stars he's got more playoff game winners than - names that include Yzerman, Messier, Jagr, Mario Lemieux, Fedorov and Francis - but then one must also factor in that Drury has played in less games than most of these guys as well (ok, not Mario). Claude Lemieux has played in over ONE HUNDRED more playoff games than Drury so far. And overtime heroics always count for more with me and Drury is tied for third all time in playoff OT goals while any players with as many or more game winners than him actually have NONE, the lone exception being Captain Clutch himself, Joe Sakic (19 game winners; 8 in overtime - most all time). I know that's a lot of numbers to sort through but what you should be able to come away with is the fact that there's just something about Drury that makes him score big goals when they matter the most.

Now Drury is captain of the Rangers and is yet to deliver another great playoff performance but he scored a goal just the other day and, yup, it was a game winner.

best playoff performance: 2001, Colorado Avalanche

No comments: