Aaron S. Bayley
The recent death of Winnipeg Jets legend Dale Hawerchuk from stomach cancer got me thinking about the firewagon hockey of the 1980s, the hockey of my youth. Hawerchuk was an all-time great and certainly the greatest Jet of the '80s, a decade that was packed with superstars. In many ways the '80s was a Golden Age of hockey, with even players lacking superstar status scoring over 100 points in a season, an achievement unheard of today. Goaltenders didn't have flashy save percentages or shutouts that could be counted on two hands, but the good ones got the wins and made spectacular saves.
But who were the best players for each team between 1980 and 1989? Some of the choices, like Hawerchuk, were embarrassingly obvious, while others were a toss-up. To be considered, a player has to have played at least five seasons with their team. Read on to see the five defencemen and 16 forwards who made the cut.
Ray Bourque - Boston Bruins
Is there a more obvious choice for the greatest Bruin of the 1980s than Ray Bourque? The Quebec native holds records for career goals, assists, and points for a defenceman and is recognized as one of the greatest players in NHL history. Bourque played 20 consecutive seasons for the Bruins, starting with the 1979-80 season, where he totalled 65 points in 80 games. He finished the 1989-90 season with 84 points in 76 games and led the Bruins to the Stanley Cup Final, where they lost to the Gretzky-less Oilers in six games. Bourque played another decade for the Bruins before being traded to the Colorado Avalanche in 2000 and finally winning the Cup in 2001.
Gilbert Perreault - Buffalo Sabres
Despite being perennial playoff contenders and coached by Scotty Bowman for most of the 1980s, the Buffalo Sabres were never good enough to advance past the semi-finals. As good as defenceman Phil Housley was, the team's lone superstar was centre Gilbert Perreault, whose 10th season with the team in 1979-80 was also his second most productive: In 80 games he scored 40 goals and added 66 assists for 106 points. A first overall draft pick and one-third of the 1970s "French Connection" (with linemates and fellow Quebeckers Rene Robert and Rick Martin), Perreault retired in 1987 without ever having tasted glory, but he is recognized as one of the greatest players in NHL history.
Al MacInnis - Calgary Flames
Although he bounced between the Calgary Flames, Kitchener Rangers, and Colorado Flames in the first half of the decade, by 1985 Al MacInnis was a mainstay on a team which, by 1990, had boasted Lanny McDonald, Kent Nilsson, Hakan Loob, Mike Vernon, Joe Nieuwendyk, Doug Gilmour, Joe Mullen, Joel Otto, and Theoren Fleury. With his booming slapshot on the powerplay, MacInnis struck fear in the hearts of goaltenders and consistently put points on the board. Capping off the decade, the Nova Scotia native scored 36 points in 22 playoff games, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy and helping the Flames douse the Montreal Canadiens for their first Cup in franchise history.
Denis Savard - Chicago Blackhawks
Denis Savard gets the nod over iron man Steve Larmer, who in 11 seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks never missed a game, but really, either player could be considered the best Blackhawk of the '80s without much of an argument. (Savard was no slouch in the iron man department either, having missed only 12 games between 1980 and 1988.) The Quebec native topped the 100-point mark five times in the '80s and put in a 29-point effort in only 15 games in the 1984-85 playoffs, where the Blackhawks lost in the Western Conference Finals to the surging Oilers. From his patented spin-o-rama to sleight of hand trickery with the puck, Savard was one of the craftiest skaters and playmakers ever to play the game.
Steve Yzerman - Detroit Red Wings
The Detroit Red Wings missed the playoffs for five consecutive seasons before drafting Steve Yzerman fourth overall. With the arrival of "Stevie Wonder" for the 1983-84 season, the "Dead Things" came to life, but never advanced past the semi-finals. Although the Red Wings wouldn't become a dynasty until the mid-90s, Yzerman put up monster numbers in the last three seasons of the decade, finishing the '87, '88, and '89 seasons with 102, 155, and 127 points, respectively. A quiet leader with superb defensive abilities—how many NHL superstars blocked shots face-first?—Yzerman should be considered the greatest Red Wing of all time, ahead of Niklas Lidstrom and, yes, even Gordie Howe.
Wayne Gretzky - Edmonton Oilers
In 1979, Wayne Gretzky signed a 20-year contract with the Edmonton Oilers. In 1988, he was "traded" to the Los Angeles Kings, but not before he rewrote the NHL history books, smashing virtually every offensive record in existence. In his rookie season he scored 51 goals and totalled 137 points; two years later he scored 92 goals and 212 points. In the 1985-86 season he scored 215 points and won the scoring title on his assists (163) alone. With a supporting cast that included Paul Coffey, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, and Grant Fuhr, Number 99 helped the Oilers to four Cups. Gretzky ranks first on the all-time scoring leaders list with 2,857 points, and if you took away his goals he'd still be first overall.
Ron Francis - Hartford Whalers
The Hartford Whalers didn't have much to cheer about in the 1980s. With the exception of the 1986-87 season, where they miraculously finished atop the Adams Division, the Whalers were bottom-feeders, finishing either fourth or dead last behind the Canadiens, Bruins, Sabres, and Nordiques. A rookie in 1982, Ron Francis quickly became the best player on the Whalers, scoring no less than 75 points in the following nine seasons, and ending the decade with 101 points. Despite Kevin Dineen, Ray Ferraro, and Sylvain Turgeon, the Whalers lacked firepower, but Francis would score 821 points in in 714 career games with Hartford before joining Mario Lemieux on the Penguins in the 1990s.
Marcel Dionne - Los Angeles Kings
Infamously known as the greatest player in NHL history never to have won the Stanley Cup, Marcel Dionne was drafted second overall by the Detroit Red Wings in 1971. He finished the 1979-80 season, his fifth with the Los Angeles Kings, with a career-best 137 points. Playing on the dangerous "Triple Crown Line" with wingers Charlie Simmer and Dave Taylor, Dionne scored more than 100 points in four of the next six seasons, yet was never able to achieve success in the playoffs and was traded to the New York Rangers during the 1986-87 season. Dionne finished his career with 1,771 points in 1,348 games and ranks sixth—between Ron Francis and Steve Yzerman—on the NHL's all-time scoring list.
Dino Ciccarelli - Minnesota North Stars
In his first season in the NHL, Dino Ciccarelli played in the Stanley Cup Final. Although the Minnesota North Stars lost to the New York Islanders, the 20-year-old Ciccarelli set a rookie record with 14 goals and 21 points. The Sarnia, Ontario native followed the 1980-81 season with a 56 goal, 106-point effort, both career highs. Small in stature yet fearless in front of the net, the gritty Ciccarelli netted many of his goals on rebounds and tip-ins, citing a talent for anticipation for his success. Playing alongside Neal Broten and Scott Bjugstad, Ciccarelli scored 103 points in the 1986-87 season and boasted a shooting percentage of 20.4%. In 2010, Ciccarelli was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Larry Robinson - Montreal Canadiens
When the Montreal Canadiens won six Stanley Cups in the 1970s, a young, six-foot-four Larry Robinson was there for all but one of them. "Big Bird"continued to dominate on the blue line throughout the '80s, until the Canadiens traded him to the Los Angeles Kings in the 1989-90 season. Robinson was a leader in the dressing room and a punishing physical presence on the ice. He finished the 1979-80 season as the Norris Trophy winner for the NHL's best defenceman and never owned a plus-minus rating below 4 in the 1980s. The Canadiens had many great players in the '80s, from Mats Naslund to Guy Carbonneau (a declining Guy Lafleur's last season with the Habs was in 1985), but Robinson was the cornerstone of the franchise.
Kirk Muller - New Jersey Devils
The New Jersey Devils entered the 1980s as the Colorado Rockies and moved to New Jersey in 1982, where they failed to make the playoff for five consecutive seasons. In 1984, the Devils drafted Muller second overall and began improving their record in the ensuing years. The team entered the 1987-88 playoff for the first time in franchise history and made it all the way to the Wales Conference Final against the Boston Bruins, where they lost in Game 7. While Muller underperformed in the playoffs (as a Hab he would score the Stanley Cup game-winning goal against the Kings in 1993), he put up solid numbers in the regular season, scoring 520 points in 556 games with the Devils.
Mike Bossy - New York Islanders
The New York Islanders steamrolled into the 1980s, winning four consecutive Stanley Cups before the upstart Oilers spoiled the party in '84. While captain and defenceman Denis Potvin, centre Brian Trottier, and winger Bossy—all Calder Trophy winners—were central to those victories, it was Bossy whose accomplishments in the '80s gives him a slight edge over his teammates. A native of Montreal, Quebec, Bossy was a pure goal-scorer, netting 60 or more goals five times in his career. Always a post-season threat, he led scoring with 17 goals in each of the '81, '82, and '83 playoffs. Bossy scored more than 50 goals in every season but his last, where chronic back pain forced a premature retirement in 1987 at age 30.
Ron Greschner - New York Rangers
When the 39-year-old Phil Esposito retired in 1981, the New York Rangers were left without a bonafide superstar, and remained that way for most of the decade. Goalie John Vanbiesbrouck was solid but no superstar, and Brian Leetch's first full season wasn't until 1988-89. Greschner joined the Rangers in the 1974-75 season and remained with them until he retired in 1990. During that time the scrappy Saskatchewan native was the heart and soul of a team that made the playoffs in every year of the decade but 1988. A solid defencemen who started out as a forward, Greschner put up respectable numbers and finished his career with 610 points in 981 games. He is universally recognized as one of the greatest New York Rangers in franchise history.
Brian Propp - Philadelphia Flyers
How do you decide between Tim Kerr and Brian Propp? Kerr was a goal-scorer, Propp a playmaker; their numbers are almost identical, their value to the Flyers equally indispensable. Still, props go to Propp for a slightly better career with Philadelphia. In the 1982-83 season Propp led the league with 12 game-winning goals; the following three seasons he scored better than 90 points. In the 1987 Canada Cup, Propp played on a line with Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux and was instrumental to the team's success. In the 1987 playoffs, where the Flyers advanced to the Stanley Cup Final and lost to the Oilers in Game 7, Propp scored 12 goals and 16 assists for 28 points, second to Gretzky's 34 points.
Mario Lemieux - Pittsburgh Penguins
Mario Lemieux was drafted first overall in 1984, scored 100 points in his rookie year, then scored better than 100 points in eight of the next ten years. In the 1988-89 he scored 85 goals in 76 games, coming within a breath of breaking Gretzky's record of 92 goals in 80 games. A strong argument could be made that Super Mario's value to the Penguins was greater than that of any other player in NHL history: even the Edmonton Oilers won the Cup in their first year without Gretzky (and Paul Coffey). Lemieux carried an abysmal team on his back into the second decade of the 80s, turning mediocre players into superstars along the way and guiding them to back-to-back Stanley Cup victories in 1991 and 1992.
Peter Stastny - Quebec Nordiques
Peter Stastny joined the NHL and Nordiques in 1980 with his brother Anton as a defector from communist Czechoslovakia. He quickly established his presence by scoring 109 points and earning the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie (and the first to score 100 points). Stastny's sophomore season saw him playing on a line with brothers Anton and Marian and his point total jump to a career-high 139. Stastny's 18-point playoff performance in 1982 led the Nordiques all the way to the Wales Conference Final, where they were promptly swept by the Islanders. Stastny achieved more than 100 points in eight of his first nine seasons in Quebec and is credited with bringing the European style to the North American game.
Bernie Federko - St. Louis Blues
The St. Louis Blues drafted Bernie Federko seventh overall in 1976. The Saskatchewan native remained with the team until the final season of his career in 1989-90, when he was traded to Detroit. As a Blue, Federko scored better than a point per game in every season, and scored 90 points or more seven times. Federko was a brilliant playmaker who was seen by his peers as an underrated talent; he was the first player in NHL history to play 10 consecutive seasons with 50 or more assists. The Blues made the playoffs in every season with Federko; in 1985-86 he scored a career-high 21 points in 19 playoff games and led the Blues to the Conference Finals, where they lost to the Calgary Flames in Game 7. He retired in 1990 having played exactly 1,000 games.
Borje Salming - Toronto Maple Leafs
The Toronto Maple Leafs didn't deserve Borje Salming. The franchise took a chance on the six-foot-one Swede in 1973 and showed promise toward the end of the decade. Yet promise turned to complacency as the Leafs entered the 1980s and the most pitiful period of their existence. As owner Harold Ballard drove the team into the ground and made no commitment to improve, Salming was one of the Leafs' few bright spots: a smooth-skating defenceman who could carry the puck end to end, block shots, and dish out bruising hits. Although his point totals declined from 71 in 1980 to 20 in 1989, Salming remained the heart of the team. He retired after one season with Detroit and was the first Swede inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Stan Smyl - Vancouver Canucks
Stan Smyl might be the sentimental choice on a team that also featured Thomas Gradin, Kevin McCarthy, and Tony Tanti, but he's the correct one. Selected 40th overall in the third round, Smyl finished the 1979-80 season with 78 points in 77 games. After 63- and 78-point seasons (and an 18-point effort in the '82 playoffs, where the Canucks lost in the Stanley Cup Final to the Islanders), Smyl was awarded the captaincy in 1983 and kept it until 1990. During that time, the diminutive Alberta native won the hearts of Vancouver fans with his gritty, determined play and huge heart. After a career-high 88-point season in 1983, Smyl's numbers declined, but he would retire in 1991 as one of the most beloved Canucks in franchise history.
Mike Gartner - Washington Capitals
In 1979, the Washington Capitals drafted Mike Gartner fourth overall. Over the next 10 years, Gartner scored 40 goals or more five times and finished the 1984-85 season with a career-high 50 goals, 52 assists, and 102 points. As the fastest skater in the NHL, Gartner was known to breeze down the wing and blow the puck past unsuspecting goaltenders. His blazing speed and stick-handling skills allowed him to score a league-leading seven shorthanded goals in 1986-87. The Capitals didn't have much playoff luck against the tough Islanders and Flyers teams of the '80s, and Gartner retired in 1998, after stints in Minnesota, New York (Rangers), Toronto, and Phoenix, with 789 goals in 759 games.
Dale Hawerchuk - Winnipeg Jets
Dale Hawerchuk was selected first overall in 1981 by the Winnipeg Jets. To say he lived up to expectations would be an understatement. After missing the playoffs in '80 and '81, Toronto native Hawerchuk helped the Jets make the post season in '82 and scored eight points in four games. He won the Calder Trophy with 106 points and scored over 100 points in five of the next six seasons. Known affectionately as "Ducky" by Winnipeg fans, Hawerchuk set an NHL record picking up five assists in one period versus the Kings in 1984. Although the post-season Jets never made it past their division rival Oilers, Hawerchuk gave Winnipeg a lifetime of highlights and thrills. No Jet ever flew higher. R.I.P.