Monday, December 13, 2010

Greatest Hartford Whalers

"Breakfasts come and go, Rene, but Hartford - "The Whale" - they only beat Vancouver, once, maybe twice in a lifetime."   - Brody Bruce, Mallrats

In their nearly eighteen years of existence as an NHL franchise (1979-1997), the Hartford Whalers didn't exactly set the league on fire. If I had to pick one word that best sums up what they'll be most remembered for, that word would be "mediocrity". They failed to reach the playoffs in ten seasons and only made it past the first round once. They were knocked out five times by the Montreal Canadiens, twice by the Boston Bruins and once by fellow WHA imports the Quebec Nordiques, who are also the team their lone playoff round victory came against in 1986. Altogether they had three winning seasons.

The Whalers were one of four teams that merged with the NHL after the WHA went under. In that league, they'd been the New England Whalers, one of the most successful teams. They won the league's first ever championship and actually lasted as a franchise all the way to the WHA's demise in 1979 - something only the other teams moving on to the NHL with it had achieved. Most WHA franchises lasted about three or four years, sometimes moving several times before ultimately folding.

But in the NHL the Whalers were basically punching bags in the early eighties (although they did actually make the playoffs in 1980 - their first season in the league), graduating into also-rans in the latter half of the decade and early nineties before receding into the league's basement in their final years. They'll never be associated with greatness.

But they still had a few pretty great players over the years. This list, which turned out to be way more difficult than I was expecting, honours those players who were the greatest within the context of being Hartford Whalers. That is, they'll be judged on what they brought to the team in their time there and nothing else. I mean obviously, Bobby Hull is one of the all time best left wingers, but his nine games with the Whalers in their first NHL season as a forty year old isn't exactly going to put him in their hall of fame. So here are the greatest to ever wear the Blue, White and Green as I see them.

note: You'll notice that each entry on this list represents one of the five positions in the game. I can assure you this is sheer coincidence and didn't affect my selections.

5. Geoff Sanderson, #8 LW (1991-97)
Selected in the second round of the 1990 draft with their second pick after Mark Greig (who, after three seasons of being unable to crack the Whalers on a consistent basis, was traded), Sanderson was the last high draft pick to ever make a sustained impact in Hartford. He was still on the team for their final season before relocating to Carolina and led them in goals and points that year.

A speedster with a nose for the net, Sanderson scored 189 goals in 439 games as a Whaler. This puts him fifth on the all-time goal-scoring list. Some might wonder why I'd include him over Pat Verbeek, who with 192 goals in 433 games scored slightly more in slightly less time. Verbeek also had more points overall than him (403 to Sanderson's 352) by virtue of getting significantly more assists. But the fact is Sanderson was more of a pure scorer - he had more goals than assists as a Whaler and also finished his career with more g's than a's, a rare trait. Both players had two forty-goal seasons in Hartford but Verbeek had his playing alongside one of the best set-up men of all time, Ron Francis. Sanderson arrived the season after Francis's (in)famous trade to Pittsburgh. While Sanderson got to work with a talented playmaker in Andrew Cassels (my favourite Whaler ever), there's really no comparison.

Sanderson only got to play in two playoff series as a Whaler, three games as a callup when he was eighteen in 1991 then seven games in his rookie season when he was nineteen.  He scored one goal in that series against the Montreal Canadiens. But if the Whalers hadn't been so brutal from 1992 through 1997, he would've gotten more.

4. Ulf Samuelsson, #5 D (1984-91)
One of the toughest Swedes to ever play the game, Samuelsson was another Hartford draft pick, taken 67th overall in 1982. A physical, stay at home defenceman, his main job was making life miserable for his opponents and he was good at it. While Dave Babych provided offence from the blueline, Samuelsson (who actually enjoyed his best offensive totals as a Whaler) provided defensive responsibility and snarl, averaging around 170 penalty minutes a season. In 86/87, he posted an extremely impressive plus/minus of +28 and +23 in 88/89 - not easily done on a team like Hartford.

He was there for five straight playoff seasons; the closest thing to "glory days" that the Whalers can boast as an NHL franchise and he was part of the biggest trade in team history when he, along with Ron Francis was dealt to the Pittsburgh Penguins, where he would win Cups and establish himself as an elite shutdown defender. Samuelsson makes this list because he was unique - there really was no other Hartford Whaler like him.

3. Mike Liut, #1 G (1985-90)
Perhaps the most underrated goalie of his generation, Liut was the man between the pipes for the Whalers when they were at their best. Starting his career as a St. Louis Blue, he was drafted in 1976, three years before the Whalers were in the NHL. But in an interesting twist, the New England Whalers did in fact draft him in the WHA draft (it was common for players to be drafted by teams in both leagues during the WHA's existence) at nearly the same position as the Blues selected him (fiftieth overall rather than fifty-sixth).

When you're talking about the Hartford Whalers, really, there are only two goaltenders who should be in the discussion: Mike Liut and Sean Burke. But Burke never played a single playoff game as a Whaler and I think Liut's numbers are just more impressive. He had three twenty-win seasons to Burke's two, 13 shutouts to Burke's 10 and holds the record for wins in a season with 31. The season he did that (86/87) he also led the entire league in shutouts with 4 (that's eighties hockey for you). Liut is the franchise leader in wins with 115 - all this despite having played fewer games than Burke.

It was largely due to Liut's heroics that in the 1986 playoffs, the Whalers pushed the eventual Cup champion Montreal Canadiens all the way to overtime in Game Seven. This was after Liut was in the net for the team's ONLY playoff series victory, against the Quebec Nordiques in the round before.

I have absolutely no idea why the Whalers traded him in 1990 but I suppose it did work out for the best (sort of) because he would develop back problems that would eventually force him to retire.

2. Kevin Dineen, #11 RW (1984-91, 1995-97)
The Whalers selected Dineen with their third pick in the 1982 draft, just before Samuelsson. Actually, it's become pretty apparent that the '82 draft was definitely the best for the Whalers. Even though their first two picks (Paul Lawless, 14th and Mark Paterson, 35th) were misses, with their next three they snagged Dineen, Samuelsson and Ray Ferraro, who would make this list if it was a top ten.

Dineen, something of an undersized power forward at 5'11, 190 pounds, made an immediate impact as a rookie, scoring 25 goals in only 57 games. The following year he was also limited to 57 games but popped in 33 goals. Over the next four seasons, he would always score at least 25, twice eclipsing 40. He always put up over a hundred penalty minutes each season, including 217 in 87/88. He led the team in goal-scoring three times (sharing the lead with Ron Francis in 87/88) and was always a solid contributor in the playoffs.

He was traded to the Flyers early in the 91/92 season and performed much the same there, although his scoring did come down a bit. The Flyers even made him captain - a post he hadn't held as a Whaler - for the 93/94 season. He was traded back to Hartford during the 95/96 season and was there for the Whalers's last ever season of 96/97 as team captain. At thirty-two, he scored a very respectable 19 goals and was fourth in team scoring, also collecting 141 penalty minutes.

When the Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes the following year, Dineen became that franchise's first ever captain. He finished as Hartford's second all-time points leader.

1. Ron Francis, #10 C (1982-91)
As I've said, this list turned out to be surprisingly difficult to come up with. Players like Pat Verbeek, Blaine Stoughton (four 40 goal seasons as a Whaler including two over 50), Ray Ferraro and my buddy Andrew Cassels (third on the all-time assists list) were all great Whalers who deserved careful consideration. But I'm pretty sure I made the right choices. That said, selecting number one was ridiculously easy and I never had any doubts. The greatest Hartford Whaler of all time is #10, Ron Francis.

Like Dineen, Francis would experience being traded away from the Whalers then years later coming back to the organization that had drafted him (fourth overall in the 1981 draft). But by then they were the Carolina Hurricanes.  Even though he was pretty old for a player by then (thirty-five) he was his amazing, consistent self and cemented himself as the best player ever to play for the franchise in either NHL incarnation. So of course he's the best Whaler. No contest.

In his second NHL season as a nineteen year old (after putting up 68 points in only fifty-nine games as a rookie), Francis led the Whalers in scoring with 90 points. While his 59 assists were wholly indicative of the kind of player he was, the 31 goals may have been a tad misleading. In his twenty-three NHL seasons (over which he missed very few games), he would only hit the thirty goal mark three times, all while with the Whalers.  The 32 he scored in 89/90 was his career high. It was also the year of his career high points total as a Whaler - 101.  He would actually have 119 points (with a ridiculous career high assist mark of 92) in 95/96 but that was with a high-powered Pittsburgh Penguins squad that included Petr Nedved, Jaromir Jagr and of course, Mario Lemieux.

But in Hartford, Francis was the guy. He led them in scoring four times and was leading them when he was traded in 1991. Every other year he was either second or third on the team and he ALWAYS led them in assists. Because helpers were really his game. He piled up 557 of them in 714 games as a Whaler which is more than any other Whaler's career point total (Dineen had 503). While he was never a big goal scorer, Francis still consistently put up over twenty each year, bringing his career points as a Whaler to 821. Do the math on that (or just let me) and you'll see that his points per game average in Hartford was an excellent 1.14. He also holds the team record for most assists in a single season with 69 in 89/90 and averaged close to 60 a year.

A truly classy individual, Francis didn't win any of his three Lady Byng Trophies in his time in Hartford but he still played much the same then - putting up mostly modest to low penalty minute totals while playing at an extremely high level. In his nine plus seasons as a Whaler he was captain for six. His inclusion in a blockbuster trade to Pittsburgh in 1991 (which also sent Samuelsson, remember) really marked the beginning of the end for anything positive for the team while they were still in Hartford. The 1992 playoffs the following year would be the team's last ever trip to the post season before relocating to Carolina. For the Penguins, Francis proved to be the missing piece of the puzzle and they would win the Stanley Cup that very season (90/91) and again the next with him playing a huge role both times.

Like pretty much any Whaler, Francis never got to do much in the playoffs with the team but his numbers there are good, if not great. While he would win his Cups with another team and eventually return to the franchise as a Hurricane (and be captain once again) the NHL's FOURTH LEADING SCORER (and second in assists after a guy named Gretzky) will always be remembered as Mr. Whaler.


Ryan said...

Your hockey lists honestly deserve to be on TSN or something, man. So well written and informative.

I've always had a soft spot for the Whalers since we were kids, even if they were always the brunt of the joke.

It seems to me that one of the worst trades for a franchise in history would be Ron Francis and Samuelsson to Pittsburgh (for Hartford, of course). I'm sure they thought they'd get some cash and some highend talent or something, but looking at their numbers and skill, seems they could've established a better team if given a few more years.

Awesome stuff, man.

orc145626 said...

gosu i still remember on ryho's marathon you named all the stanley cup winners that was teh 1337 pwnage

Cole D'Arc said...

thankyou and thankyou.

ryan> your point about the trade is very insightful and i think you're exactly right. The players they got in return - John Cullen and Zarley Zalapski - were both good players and they produced decently as Whalers.

But Cullen was a scoring winger who had two seasons of over 90 points playing in Pittsburgh - he might have been able to duplicate that if he had Francis to play with as his centre.

Really, the Whalers crippled themselves by depriving themselves of any sort of #1 centre, let alone one of Francis's calibre. It's possible they thought rookie Bobby Holik could become one but although he was good for around 20 goals a year, he was more of a defensive specialist and definitely not the kind of centre who helps his wingers score.

Zalapski's offensive numbers were very good (even a 20 goal season) but trading Samuelsson's defence for Zalapski's offence was a big mistake. he would go on to say some not very nice things about Hartford while he was there too. Traded to Calgary in 93.

Paulie said...

Great post - thanks

-Long Island Whaler Fan for life

Cole D'Arc said...

Paulie> hey, thanks. i'm glad that a Whaler fan liked my choices.