Thursday, March 10, 2011

Fifty-Goal Scorers You've Never Heard Of

Ever since the great Maurice Richard first accomplished the feat way back in 1945, scoring fifty goals in an NHL season has been a benchmark for offensive greatness. It was sixteen years before another player, Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion (also a Hab) would do it. Besides being the first player to ever hit the mark, The Rocket also managed it in just fifty games, setting another even more difficult measurement of scoring ability. The list of players to hit fifty in fifty (or less) is short indeed.

But still, reaching fifty goals in a single season remains a remarkable achievement in hockey and many of the game's brightest offensive stars never did it. Ron Francis never did it (never even came close). Neither did Adam Oates or Peter Stastny (although he'd have forty or more five times). Gilbert Perreault was a wonderful scorer and while he would help linemate Rick Martin do it twice (and 49 once), he never actually reached the mark himself. (note: I just read today, March 13, that Rick Martin passed away at the age of fifty-nine. My condolences go out to his family and friends. He was a great hockey player and, I'm sure, person.) Mark Messier, who has 694 career goals, only ever scored fifty once, way back in his third season. Gordie Howe, Mister Hockey himself, never potted fifty in a season although he would come very close a couple times.

However, to date there are 87 different NHL players with at least one fifty goal season to their name and some of them are hardly household names. With expansion came an increase in scoring as the early to mid seventies featured some truly terrible teams with terrible goaltending. This was the decade where Phil Esposito would smash the scoring record with a 76 goal season and he would top sixty three more times. The eighties would see a crop of offensive stars led by Wayne Gretzky that gave their teams the ability to play a wide open, offensive style that led to many goals. So the players I've chosen for this list come from that era. Mike Bossy scored at least fifty every full season he played.

Obviously, if you're at all into hockey and its history, I'm sure you will have at least heard of these players but to casual fans these are names they probably don't know. If I were to write this list again in ten years or so, I'm fairly certain Jonathan Cheechoo would be on it. But as his miraculous 56 goals came somewhat recently in the 05/06 season, I figure he still has some recognition attached to his name.

5. Gary Leeman - 51 goals for the Toronto Maple Leafs, 89/90
The most recent fifty-goal man on this list, it's wholly possible that once again my Leafs bias has come into play as there are several other guys I could've put in this spot who are definitely more unknown. But whatever, I wanted to include him.

In their long and storied (and painful) history, the Toronto Maple Leafs have had a lot of great players. But only three have actually scored fifty in a season while with the team. Darryl Sittler had four seasons with more than forty goals but never managed fifty. Frank Mahovolich had 48 way back in 60/61. Rick Vaive became the first with a team record 54 in the 81/82 season. He would follow that up with 51 goals the next year and 52 the year after that. He's the only Leaf to post multiple fifty-goal seasons.

But out of the jumbled mess that was the Leafs of the late eighties - an always entertaining bunch that scored lots of goals, gave up even more and racked up tons of penalty minutes - came a bright light named Gary Leeman. During his first three NHL seasons he was an ineffectual scorer, not even posting double digits in goals. But in 86/87 his ascent began with a modest 21 goal effort. The next two years he posted over thirty goals as a member of the semi-famous "Hound Line" with Wendel Clark and Russ Courtnall and in 89/90 made the jump to 51, mostly benefiting from the sublime playmaking skills of young centre, Vincent Damphousse.

Leeman himself was still only twenty-five years old at the time and his future as an elite scorer looked bright. But it wasn't to be. That season was his last where he played at least seventy games. He only managed 17 goals in 52 games in 90/91 and the next year, despite only posting  7 goals in 34 games, was still coveted enough by the Calgary Flames to be a key part in the blockbuster trade that involved ten players and brought Doug Gilmour to Toronto. Gilmour would of course go on to achieve folk hero status as a Leaf, bringing the team back to respectability (although of course not on his own) while Leeman battled injuries and inconsistency wherever he went. He was able to win a Cup playing a limited role with the Montreal Canadiens in 92/93 but he bounced to two more teams (Vancouver and St. Louis), barely playing any games before leaving the NHL for good in 1996.

4. Danny Grant - 50 goals for the Detriot Red Wings, 74/75
For six seasons from the late sixties through early seventies, Danny Grant was a reliable scorer for the Minnesota North Stars, averaging about 30 goals a year. He actually won the 1969 Calder Trophy as top NHL rookie for his 34 goal,  65 point season.

After being such a consistent offensive presence for the North Stars it was fairly surprising that they saw fit to trade him to Detroit for defensive forward Henry Boucha. Boucha was a Minnesota native so it's possible North Stars management thought the appeal of having a hometown player would boost attendance. Whatever the case,  Boucha would only play one season with Minnesota before jumping to the WHA. That same year, Grant scored 50 goals for the Red Wings, playing with superstar-to-be Marcel Dionne. Even though the Wings were crap in the seventies (kinda like how they were in the eighties), Grant wasn't actually the first one to hit the fifty mark. Mickey Redmond actually pulled it off in the two seasons before Grant's arrival, scoring 52 and 51 goals respectively. Just like Grant, he benefited from the massive talents of Dionne.

Grant's 74/75 season was of course the high point of his career but it was also the beginning of the end. For the next four seasons he was plagued by injuries and would never even reach 20 goals again before retiring in 1979.

So why include Grant instead of Redmond? Well, Redmond not only scored fifty twice, he also holds the distinction of being the first Detroit Red Wing to accomplish the feat. This is pretty impressive considering that's Gordie Howe's team. But Howe put up 49 goals in the 52/53 season and while he of course continued to put up points at a torrid pace, that was as close as he ever got to hitting fifty goals.

Also Grant is from Fredricton, New Brunswick and I think it's pretty cool that a Maritimer is a member of the 50 goal club. Sidney Crosby is of course the other one.

3. Jacques Richard - 52 goals for the Quebec Nordiques, 80/81
The second Richard (no relation) to score fifty goals in an NHL season is infinitely less famous. However, Jacques was projected to be a star, drafted second overall in the 1972 draft by the expansion Atlanta Flames after an insane 71 goal, 160 point season with the Quebec Remparts. Comparisons were made to Guy Lafleur.  He would play for the Flames as a nineteen year old in the 72/73 season (this team was actually coached by Boom Boom Geofrrion by the way) posting modest totals of 13 goals and 31 points. His second year he'd display some of his vast potential potting 27 goals (but few assists led to only 43 total points). But he would fall back to 17 goals the following year and I guess the Flames lost patience with him, trading him to Buffalo for the 75/76 season.

Richard's years in Buffalo were tumultuous. He developed a drinking problem and began having off-ice issues, gambling, abusing cocaine and once getting injured in a bar fight. He managed just 12 goals in 73 games the year he arrived. The next two seasons he would spend a significant amount of time with the Sabres's minor league affiliate, where he actually scored at a fairly decent pace. But he just couldn't do it in the NHL. Coach Punch Imlach would later say that Richard was "wasting his talent". He was traded once more.

Now Richard was in Quebec  - the city of his glory days as a junior. In the 80/81 season, his first full one with the club (and eighth as a pro), he would finally showcase his abilities, playing on a line with Peter and Anton Stastny. He exploded for 52 goals and 103 points.

But that was to be his only shining moment in the NHL as his mediocre play returned and his numbers dropped. Future Hall of Famer Michel Goulet stepped in as the Nordiques's premiere goal scorer (he would have four fifty-goal seasons of his own) and Richard retired in 1983 as a symbol of great potential unrealized.

2. Guy Chouinard - 50 goals for the Atlanta Flames, 78/79
When Jacques Richard was lighting it up for the Quebec Remparts in 71/72 and being touted as the NHL's next big offensive star, there was a supremely gifted fourteen year old on his team. Even though this kid was four years younger than the vast majority of his teammates and opponents, he still put up an extremely impressive 70 points in 58 games. His next two years of junior would see him surpass the one hundred point mark, first with 129 then 160 - the same amazing total as Richard in his final year but at the age of only sixteen. That kid was Guy Chouinard.

Despite his crazy numbers as a sixteen year old, Chouinard was once again overshadowed by a teammate, this time seventeen year old Real Cloutier - an absolute scoring machine who had 93 goals and 213 points in 69 games. But Cloutier would opt to play in the WHA rather than the NHL and became one of that league's most dazzling and prolific goal scorers. Chouinard was still a first round pick in the 1974 draft but a late one at twenty-eighth overall. He was picked up by the same team who had selected Richard two years earlier, the Atlanta Flames.

Since he was still seventeen when he was drafted, Chouinard was too young to play in the NHL (the WHA had no such rule, by the way - Wayne Gretzky, among others would play there as a seventeen year old) so he played a year in the now defunct CHL with the Omaha Knights, finishing third in team scoring. The next year he may not have been ready to jump to the NHL and spent the 75/76 season with the AHL's Nova Scotia Voyageurs, scoring 40 goals and 80 points. His first two years with the Flames, where he put up 50 and 58 points respectively, suggested he was more of a playmaker than goalscorer, and if you look at his career NHL stats, they certainly support that claim. But in the 78/79 season, Chouinard scored 50 goals and 107 points, becoming the first Flame to ever hit the 50 goal mark and the only player to do it while the team was in Atlanta.

Actually, I would make the claim that Guy Chouinard is the best Atlanta Flame of all time. He was with the team when it moved to Calgary and continued to play well for them although his goal totals dropped from 31 to 23 to 13. His last year in the NHL, 83/84, he played 64 games for the St. Louis Blues. He had a very good career overall, if cut a little short. He had 575 points in 578 games, 205 of them goals. But if you look at it within the context of his pro career, his fifty-goal season definitely appears to be an anomaly. But not a fluke.

1. Pierre Larouche - 53 goals for the Pittsburgh Penguins, 75/76; 50 goals for the Montreal Canadiens, 79/80
The only player on this list to post multiple fifty goal seasons, even more impressive is the fact that he did it with two different teams. Larouche was the first NHL player to ever accomplish this and remains on a pretty short list. No player has yet recorded fifty goals in a season with three different teams but Larouche actually very nearly did this, scoring 48 as a New York Ranger in 83/84. He still holds a record as the only player to have scored at least 45 goals for three separate teams.

And yet he remains relatively unknown. But he was hardly a flash in the pan, scoring at a very consistent level throughout his career and finishing with more points than games played. He also won two Stanley Cups with the Canadiens in 1978 and 1979. But even though he scored fifty goals for the second time in 79/80, he was second in team scoring to superstar Guy Lafleur who was recording his sixth (in a row, I might add). In fact, whenever those incredible Montreal teams that won four straight Cups from 1976 thru 1979 are spoken of, Larouche's name rarely even comes up. Even with his fifty goal season, he's still mostly remembered as a bit player on that team of stars.

Larouche's first fifty (53, remember) goal season, coming in just his second year at the age of nineteen was definitely seen as impressive. He added 58 assists for 111 total points. He set the record as the youngest player to have a 50 goal, 100 point season (Lafleur was 22 for his first). But perhaps the fact that this record would only stand for four years before a certain teenager named Gretzky would enter the league and break it (and so, so many others) contributed to his lack of general NHL fame.

And for those wondering if Larouche was the only Penguin to score fifty before Mario Lemieux, not only was he not because Rick Kehoe would put up 55 in 80/81, he actually watched teammate Jean Pronovost (who would later play with Guy Chouinard in Atlanta) rack up 52 of his own that same season (75/76). Speaking of Lemieux, just like Gretzky, he would take one of Larouche's records away from him. In junior, Larouche scored an astounding 94 goals and 157 assists in 73/74 for what must have looked like an unassailable record 251 points. But ten years later The Magnificent One would RAPE the Quebec league for 282 points (including 133 goals).

Larouche retired a Ranger in 1988 with 395 career goals in 812 games. But the fact that he so evenly spread his scoring among those teams makes him a very interesting player indeed.


Shane said...

Quite the fascinating list. I had no idea 50 goals in a season was such a difficult mark that few player can hit.

Pierre at number one seems like a fine choice. I definitely get the idea that he was a hell of player, but it seems he was always in the shadow of hockey titans. It's too bad he doesn't get more recognition.

When I first looked at the list, I though the title meant you were listing 50 scorers you've never heard of, rather than 5 players who scored 50 points or more. But that would have been ambitious, and breaking the five-o-rama bylaws. Also, I'm an idiot.

Also, whether you had to research some or not, you've got an insane encyclopedic knowledge of hockey facts that continues to boggle me.

Cole D'Arc said...

shane> yeah, as is the usual case with my lists, my number one was my main motivation for writing it. Larouche definitely was a special player and his unique record is pretty good proof of that.

as i mentioned, scoring really did jump in the 70's and 80's which produced quite a few fifty-goal scorers who were never considered stars but since about the mid nineties, with goalies getting so much better and teams playing a much more defensive style (usually), a fifty goal season is a rare thing indeed.

in fact, the first year that the Rocket Richard Trophy (given to the league's top goal scorer) was awarded - 1998/99 - the winner, Teemu Selanne, actually led the league with only 47 goals. in the 03/04 season, three players shared the trophy by scoring just 41 goals.

but just before all this defensive stuff really started, the 92/93 season was like the last hurrah for high scoring (as ive said, someday i'll dedicate a list or two to just how insane that season was) - it featured FOURTEEN players with fifty goals or more, led by Selanne and Alex Mogilny who both had 76) Twenty-one players hit one hundred points. a huge amount of players who played that season had career years, some that they'd never even come close to again.

but anyway, i like giving recognition to players who've been mostly overlooked by history - your assessment of Larouche is pretty much dead-on.