Martin St-Louis will have his No. 26 retired by the Tampa Bay Lightning in January. It was a number St-Louis wore pretty well during his NHL career.
There is no evidence that Martin St-Louis had an affinity for No. 26 when he joined the Tampa Bay Lightning for the 2000-01 season. After all, it’s not as though many players are clamoring for that particular number. St-Louis had worn No. 8 in four brilliant seasons with the University of Vermont, a number he also wore one season with the Cleveland Lumberjacks in the defunct International League. In his short stints with the Calgary Flames, he wore Nos. 15 and 46.
When St-Louis arrived in Tampa, Todd Warriner was already wearing No. 8 and realizing Warriner was already been an established NHL player, this unproven minor leaguer wasn’t about to ask Warriner for his number. St-Louis was probably to have any number he could get, as long as it meant he was playing in the NHL. So he took No. 26 and made it his own. Now it will hang in the rafters of Amalie Arena after a Jan. 13 ceremony, completing the circle and healing the wounds of what was a rather messy divorce with the Lightning in 2014.
This is as it should be. And it is fitting that St-Louis will have his number hanging in Amalie Arena, likely to be joined by No. 4 (Vincent Lecavalier) and No. 19 (Brad Richards) someday.
St. Louis is undoubtedly the best No. 26 to ever play for the Tampa Bay Lightning. But is he the best ever to wear that number in NHL history? Now that’s a good bar stool debate. (Speaking of debates, shameless plug to follow: The Hockey News currently has a commemorative edition out entitled Great Debates, that talks about just this kind of stuff. It’s really good.) Really, the only two other contenders are Peter Stastny and Patrik Elias. Jere Lehtinen probably comes in next, followed by Mats Naslund and Brian Propp, but the Big Three in this category are clearly a cut above.
So what puts St-Louis ahead of Stastny and Elias? Well, it’s not Stanley Cups, since Elias has one more than St-Louis. Is it in terms of perseverance? Well, that’s a good one. St-Louis and Stastny are on parallel tracks here for different reasons. St-Louis was a small man trying to make it in a big man’s game at a time when offense was being blunted by bigger, stronger players being allowed to circumvent the rulebook by essentially mugging their opponents. He was waived through the league several times, repeatedly told he was too small to make it and excelled offensively in an NHL era where offense was systematically blunted. Stastny, on the other hand, defected from the former Czechoslovakia in the dark of night and, once he got here, had to endure taunts from players who claimed he was out to steal someone’s job. During the early years of his career, Stastny had welts all along his arms from the slashes he endured.
Is it in sustained excellence? Well, no, since Elias has been the most consistent and loyal of the three players. Not only has he produced consistently since he joined the Devils full-time in 1996-97, he has spent his entire career with that team. St-Louis forced his way out of Tampa, essentially over not being initially chosen by Lightning GM Steve Yzerman for Canada’s Olympic team in 2014. Stastny, like St-Louis, played for three NHL teams.
When it comes to production, Stastny has the upper hand in terms of points, with 450 goals and 1,239 in just 977 games. But when it comes to adjusting scoring totals to reflect league-wide scoring trends by season, St-Louis comes out on top. His 391-642-1,033 totals in 1,134 games are adjusted by www.hockeyreference.com to 445-721-1,116, which puts him 40th all-time. Stastny’s are adjusted to 368-637-1,001, which drops him down to 86th all-time. Elias is not far behind St-Louis, with his 408-617-1,025 totals in 1,240 games adjusted to 464-680-1,144 for 56th overall.
Where St-Louis does have an enormous edge over the other two is in individual career accomplishments. Two scoring championships, one Hart Trophy and three Lady Byng Trophies simply put him over the top. Add to that he was a first-team all-star once and a second-teamer four times, including 2012-13 when he was named to the second team just prior to his 38th birthday. Stastny won the Calder Trophy in 1980-81 and had seven 100-point seasons, but was never a post-season all-star. (St-Louis had the advantage of playing right wing, where it is much easier to be an all-star than at center, where Stastny had to compete with the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Bryan Trottier, Dale Hawerchuk and Mark Messier.) Elias, a left winger, has one first-team all-star berth to his credit.
Stastny is in the Hall of Fame, St-Louis will be in 2018 and Elias will be three years after he retires. But St-Louis gets the nod as the greatest No. 26 of all-time simply because he was a top player for longer than Stastny and a more dynamic and decorated player than Elias.