The title of the best player in a sport is fascinating. Sometimes #1 is crystal clear, quickly pivoting to a best-ever debate. Sometimes #1 is murky, with several candidates vying for the splashy (and extremely unofficial) title. In golf or tennis, the official world rankings govern the sport’s hierarchy. In your head-to-head sports like boxing, UFC, or even WWE wrestling for any Hulkamaniacs out there, someone quite literally wears the belt.
But what about hockey? A sport with distinct positions and roles, its talent now dispersed across 32 franchises, with players famously towing the team-first culture. Boring! Let’s label the absolute best in the game across the NHL’s evolution.
At the turn of the millennium, Steve Dryden and The Hockey News team first gave this a go in the book “Century of Hockey: A Season-by-Season Celebration.” THN’s approach was more symbolic, identifying the 13 “faces” of hockey’s timeline, the sport’s torchbearers spanning the 20th century. Our approach will meaningfully differ in a few ways:
- We’re splitting it by position (forwards, defencemen, goaltenders). It’s difficult to compare positions, with forwards always getting the most love from fans and media. Plus, getting to do this three times is much more fun.
- There will be no gaps or crossover with this torch. Each season will have a single forward assigned as Numero Uno.
- We’ll be using a data-driven approach. The High Noon methodology will pilot our results. With adjusted point shares as the primary input, our list should reasonably align to popular sentiment at the time given the use of box score stats.
- Reminder that the High Noon system is a three-year rolling average. A player can’t be #1 until participating in three NHL seasons. For example, if a player is #1 in 1995, the ranking covers the 1992-93 through 1994-95 seasons. This provides a sufficient sample size before bestowing such an honour.
- High Noon doesn’t punish for missed time. Unlike scoring races or award voting, the approach uses per-game results, ensuring injuries don’t squash a player’s standing.
With full respect to the NHL’s first quarter century or so, we’ll start with a more familiar face as the Original Six was finding its footing. For the true historians, the title holders from WWII and earlier will be listed at the end of today’s article.
And here… we… go.
🔥 1945-49: Maurice Richard
Intense, relentless, and a natural sniper, Richard was the best player in the league statistically for a half-decade. Famously, The Rocket’s 1944-45 season sees him found the 50-goals-in-50-games club, launching his run atop the NHL. Richard’s timing was right, as NHL offence had temporarily exploded following the introduction of the red line. Adjusting for the fact teams carried just 14 skaters and the offensive climate, the feat equates to “only” 51 goals in 82 games in a neutral environment.
How consistently dominant of a force was Richard?
- In High Noon, he was a top-3 NHL forward for 13 consecutive years!
- He was a first or second-team all-star at right wing for 14 consecutive years.
- He scored at an adjusted pace of at least 40 goals in 11 seasons.
A cultural icon then and now, the legend of Rocket Richard stands the test of time.
🔥 1950: Ted Lindsay
Lindsay, fresh off the 1949-50 Art Ross Trophy (109 adjusted points in 81 adjusted games) slips in as #1 for a season. Capitalizing on a couple of vanilla seasons from Richard, the feisty Red Wing legend grabs the torch. The current namesake of the award for the most outstanding player as voted on by the NHLPA, Terrible Ted was an 8-time, first-team all star at left wing.
🔥 1951-56, 1958: Gordie Howe
Remarkably, Mr. Hockey lives up to his famous moniker. Check out Howe’s age-22 to age-29 seasons:
- 1950-51: Leads NHL in GP, G, A, PTS. Sets single-season PTS record.
- 1951-52: Leads NHL in GP, G, PTS. Wins MVP. Ties owns single-season PTS record. Wins Stanley Cup.
- 1952-53: Leads NHL in GP, G, A, PTS. Wins MVP. Sets single-season PTS record.
- 1953-54: Leads NHL in A, PTS. Wins Stanley Cup.
- 1954-55: Wins Stanley Cup. Sets single-playoffs PTS record.
- 1955-56: Second-team all-star.
- 1956-57: Leads NHL in GP, G, PTS. Wins MVP.
- 1957-58: Wins MVP.
By 1971, a veteran of a quarter-century of NHL action, having broken every record there was to break, Howe was STILL the #5 forward in the NHL. He was 42 years old.
🔥 1957, 1959-61: Jean Beliveau
Well, there are no slouches on this list.
A picture of consistency and elegance, Le Gros Bill occupied the #1 or #2 spots among NHL forwards for seven consecutive seasons. Under PPS, Beliveau grades out as the 16th-most HHOF-worthy forward in history. The beloved face of the Habs for six decades won an absolutely bonkers 10 Stanley Cups in a 16-season span. An incredible life and career.
🔥 1962: Bernie Geoffrion
🔥 1963: Frank Mahovlich
🔥 1965: Stan Mikita
To take nothing away from these three all-time greats, a deep dive on every forward listed could fill a book. Each had their day in the sun, reaching the summit of the #1 in the NHL.
Geoffrion notched only the second 50-goal season in league history in 1960-61, earning both the Hart and Ross Trophies. The Big M quietly scored at an Adjusted Pace of 43/41/83 for three seasons, inclusive of two of his six career Cup wins. Mikita, a top-2 forward in the NHL for six straight years, reached #1 after his second of an impressive four scoring titles. Stan the Man is the first European-born forward to hit #1, a distinction not matched for another 33 years.
🔥 1964, 1966-69: Bobby Hull
Hull, the hockey player, was irrefutably a sublime talent with a skill set ahead of his time. Off the ice, he’s a well-documented racist and abuser of women, and quite frankly, doesn’t deserve to be celebrated further in his lifetime. For our purposes, statistically, Hull was #1 for five years, never exiting the top two in a nine-year span straddling the 1967 expansion line. His famous departure to the WHA in 1972 ended this run.
🔥 1970-76: Phil Esposito
Whether due to his lumbering skating style, perceived dependence on Bobby Orr, or his larger-than-life persona, Esposito seldom gets the credit his achievements warrant. Offensively, if the 1950s belonged to Gordie, the 1970s belonged to Phil. His seven consecutive years at #1 are matched by only one future forward, who needs no introduction later.
If the Rocket Richard Trophy existed back then, Esposito would have won six in a row! No other player has topped four consecutive goal-scoring crowns in history. While “The Torch” series considers only NHL regular season play, Esposito led the the playoffs in both goals and points on three occasions, and was the unyielding face of Canada’s victory in the 1972 Summit Series (a series-best 13 points in 8 games).
🔥 1977-80: Guy Lafleur
Few players blossom as exquisitely as The Flower. After some early career frustration entering the NHL’s most iconic team, city, and locker room, Lafleur EXPLODED. Seasons of 119, 125, 136, 132, 129, and 125 points launched the Habs’ icon to superstardom and a four-year stretch as the NHL’s top statistical forward. Lafleur’s dominance survives adjustment, his aforementioned point totals neutralizing between 103 and 122 points.
Hockey lost one of its true legends this year with Lafleur’s passing at age 70. R.I.P. 🌸
🔥 1981: Marcel Dionne
Often lost in the shuffle of the talent before, during, and after his wonderful career, Dionne gets his curtain call as #1. Winner of the Pearson (now Lindsay) award as voted by his peers in consecutive seasons (1978-79, 1979-80), Dionne is 15th in career adjusted points. By the end of ’81, a new kid on the block had already captured the world’s attention. A storm was coming, oddly in the form of a skinny magician from Brantford…
We’ll pause here, listing the torchbearers from the NHL’s earliest days. Pre-Rocket Richard, if you will.
- 1918-19, 1922: Joe Malone
- 1920-21: Newsy Lalonde
- 1923, 1925, 1927: Babe Dye
- 1924, 1926: Cy Denneny
- 1928-1932: Howie Morenz
- 1933: Bill Cook
- 1934-38: Charlie Conacher
- 1939-40: Gordie Drillon
- 1941: Roy Conacher
- 1942-43: Syl Apps
- 1944: Bill Cowley
Check back in tomorrow for Part 2 of The Torch: Forwards, as we’ll be working our way from Wayne Gretzky to the present day!
All statistics and PPS scores are through the 2021-22 season.
Eras, Adjusted Pace data, High Noon, PPS System, High Noon & PPS Player Cards from Adjusted Hockey;
All other data from Hockey-Reference.com