The NHL’s all-star weekend has come and gone, and for fans of the game’s history, the highlight came on Friday night. That was when we finally got a look at the league’s heavily hyped list of the top 100 players of all-time. There were plenty of big names, a handful of surprises, and more than a few snubs. The Top 100 was a fun concept that set off plenty of debate; THN’s Ken Campbell released his own list here, and I walked through some of the tougher calls of my own list last week.
This week, let’s keep the history talk going, but from a different angle. Instead of individual players, let’s look at the teams they suited up for.
One thing you notice when you put together a list of the top players ever is that the best of the best aren’t distributed evenly around the league. For whatever reason, certain teams seem to get more than their share of top talent at certain positions. And in some cases, teams have been lucky enough to wind up with four or more all-time legends manning the same spot in the lineup over the course of their history.
Going position-by-position, here are the five best team/position combos in NHL history to feature at least four elite stars.
Center – Pittsburgh Penguins (Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Ron Francis)
Any of the league’s century-old teams would love to be able to boast the amount of talent down the middle that the Penguins have been able to showcase. That they’ve been able to do it in just over three decades is amazing. True, Francis is associated at least as much with the Whalers/Hurricanes franchise, but he had his most productive years in Pittsburgh. Crosby and Malkin have combined to hold down the NHL first-team all-star spot in seven of the last ten years. And Mario was Mario – quite possibly the greatest pure talent to ever step onto the ice.
But as good as that foursome is, they barely hold on to beat out the Oilers. Edmonton holds an edge in terms of their top three of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Connor McDavid. But a big drop to the fourth spot – Doug Weight? Jimmy Carson? Jason Arnott? – keeps the Oilers out of the top spot.
Honorable mentions: Red Wings (Steve Yzerman, Alex Delvecchio, Pavel Datsyuk, Sergei Fedorov); Canadiens (Jean Believeau, Howie Morenz, Henri Richards, Elmer Lach); Blackhawks (Stan Mikita, Denis Savard, Jeremy Roenick, Jonathan Toews); Bruins (Phil Esposito, Milt Schmidt, Adam Oates, Patrice Bergeron); Maple Leafs (Syl Apps, Dave Keon, Mats Sundin, Darryl Sittler, Ted Kennedy); Nordiques/Avalanche (Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Peter Stastny, Matt Duchene); Kings (Gretzky, Marcel Dionne, Anze Kopitar, Bernie Nicholls); New York Islanders (Bryan Trottier, Pat LaFontaine, John Tavares, Pierre Turgeon).
Right wing – Montreal Canadiens (Maurice Richard, Guy Lafleur, Boom Boom Geoffrion, Yvan Cournoyer)
Spoiler alert – this won’t be the only position where the Habs take top honors. But that’s to be expected, since no franchise has amassed more talent over the past century than Montreal. In this case, it’s a murderer’s row of Hall of Fame wingers, each with a fistful of Cup rings.
If there’s a knock on Montreal’s group here, it’s that the drop off after the big four is somewhat steep; their next best is probably Mario Tremblay or maybe Claude Provost. Still, we set the cutoff at four, so Montreal takes this one fairly easily, especially since the greatest RW of all-time, Gordie Howe, doesn’t get much help from the rest of the Red Wings franchise.
Honorable mentions: Rangers (Rod Gilbert, Andy Bathgate, Bill Cook, Mike Gartner); Maple Leafs (George Armstrong, Charlie Conacher, Lanny McDonald, Rick Vaive); Bruins (Rick Middleton, Cam Neely, Ken Hodge, Terry O’Reilly, Dit Clapper); Flames (Jarome Iginla, The Fleury, McDonald, Joey Mullen); Penguins (Jaromir Jagr, Mullen, Alexei Kovalev, Mark Recchi).
Left wing – Detroit Red Wings (Ted Lindsay, Brendan Shanahan, Frank Mahovlich, Henrik Zetterberg)
This ends up being the toughest of the five positions to fill — there just aren’t many teams that can boast four legitimate stars at left wing. Several teams have a big-name pair like Robitaille/Simmer or Sedin/Naslund, but drop off quickly after that. And if we’re being honest, left wing is probably the weakest position in league history.
Still, the Red Wings can boast an impressive group led by Terrible Ted. Shanahan and Mahovlich were both well-established stars by the time they arrived in Detroit, but each had a good Red Wings run, and Zetterberg has been good enough that we’ll ignore the time he spent playing center.
Honorable mentions: Canadiens (Steve Shutt, Bob Gainey, Dickie Moore, Aurele Joliat, John Ferguson); Maple Leafs (Frank Mahovlich, Busher Jackson, Dick Duff, Wendel Clark); Blackhawks (Bobby Hull, Doug Bentley, Michel Goulet, Dennis Hull); Bruins (Johnny Bucyk, Wayne Cashman, Woody Dumart, Milan Lucic); Flyers (Bill Barber, Brian Propp, John LeClair, Rod Brind’Amour).
Defense – Boston Bruins (Bobby Orr, Ray Bourque, Eddie Shore, Brad Park, Zdeno Chara)
The easiest call on the list. Really, you could group Orr in with three also-rans and have a pretty good case, but the fact that the Bruins have had so many other all-time legends is almost embarrassing. And we’re not even counting Dit Clapper, who spent most of his career at wing but was a multi-time all-star on the blueline later in his career.
This is the paragraph where I’m supposed to mention the other teams that came close, but there aren’t any. This is probably the single greatest position group of all-time.
Honorable mentions: Canadiens (Larry Robinson, Doug Harvey, Guy Lapointe, Serge Savard); Rangers (Brian Leetch, Park, Harry Howell, Bill Gadsby); Red Wings (Nicklas Lidstrom, Red Kelly, Chris Chelios, Paul Coffey); Blackhawks (Pierre Pilote, Chelios, Duncan Keith, Doug Wilson).
Goaltender – Montreal Canadiens (Ken Dryden, Patrick Roy, Jacques Plante, Bill Durnan, George Vezina, Carey Price)
Guys, I think I’m starting to figure out why the Canadiens win all those Stanley Cups.
Seriously, that list is ridiculous. And I didn’t even include Hall of Famers like George Hainsworth, Gump Worsley or Rogie Vachon. Heck, even Jose Theodore won a Hart Trophy in Montreal. Over the last century or so, if you were playing the Canadiens there’s a good chance you were facing a superstar in goal.
Luckily for the league, elite Montreal goalies have a tendency to make early exits, either due to retirement (Dryden), health (Durnan) or coach-related meltdown (Roy). All eyes on you, Carey.
Honorable mentions: Blackhawks (Tony Esposito, Glenn Hall, Ed Belfour, Charlie Gardiner, Corey Crawford); Flyers (Bernie Parent, Ron Hextall, Pelle Lindbergh, Bob Froese); Maple Leafs (Johnny Bower, Turk Broda, Terry Sawchuk, Curtis Joseph); Bruins (Gerry Cheevers, Tiny Thompson, Frank Brimsek, Tuukka Rask, Tim Thomas); Rangers (Henrik Lundqvist, Ed Giacomin, Mike Richter, Worsley, John Vanbiesbrouck); Sabres (Dominik Hasek, Tom Barrasso, Ryan Miller, Don Edwards).
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008; you may know him from Twitter as @downgoesbrown. His e-book, The 100 Greatest Players in NHL History, is available now. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.