Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Which jersey number could produce the best starting lineup in NHL history?

What’s the greatest number in NHL history?

Most fans would call that an easy one. It has to be the No. 9 – that gets you Gordie Howe, Rocket Richard, Bobby Hull, Ted Kennedy and Johnny Bucyk, and we’re not even out of the Original Six era. Mix in modern names like Mike Modano and Paul Kariya, and it’s no contest. Sure, maybe you give some love to No. 4 (Bobby Orr, Jean Beliveau and Red Kelly), perhaps No. 7 (Phil Esposito, Howie Morenz, Ted Lindsay and a bit of Ray Bourque) or more recently No. 91 (Sergei Fedorov, John Tavares, Steven Stamkos). But in hockey, the No. 9 is iconic. It stands alone.

So since the basic version of the question is too easy, let’s up the difficulty level: Which single number in hockey history would give you the best possible starting lineup? In other words, which number would yield the best group of a goaltender, two defencemen and three forwards?

Now things get a little more complicated, because hockey numbers aren’t distributed evenly. For years, goalies wore No. 1, defencemen took most of the rest of the single digits, and everything starting around seven or eight went to the forwards. As time went on, other numbers – 30 and 31 especially – were carved out for goalies, meaning few position players wore them. These days, goalies are getting more creative and there’s more overlap between the positions than there used to be, but still not all that much. And that makes finding the best single lineup a challenge.

For example, now No. 9 doesn’t even get out of the gate – the league has never had a goaltender who wore the number. Teams No. 4, No. 7 and No. 91 are similarly out of luck when it comes to icing a full team. And Team No. 1 has the opposite problem: A ton of legendary goalies, but pretty much nothing else.

A few more ground rules before we get started:

• We’ll be looking for a line of three forwards, but we won’t worry too much about whether they played wing or centre.

• We’ll only be able to go as far back as 1950, since that’s where the jersey database that we’ll be relying on cuts off. That actually works out well, since information from before then gets spotty and players (especially goalies) often swapped numbers, so we’ll stick with modern times.

• This one’s important: A player needs to have worn the number in more than one season, and you only get credit for what a player did when he was wearing it. You can’t try to sneak Gordie Howe onto Team No. 17 or Rocket Richard onto Team No. 15 and expect to claim their whole careers.

With that settled, let the debate begin. Here are the best combinations I could come up with, beginning with the honourable mentions.

Team No. 72

Forwards: Patric Hornqvist, Erik Cole, Luke Adam

Defence:Mathieu Schneider, Alex Petrovic

Goalie: Sergei Bobrovsky

This one certainly isn’t a great team, but it’s a decent proof of concept for what we’re going for here. These guys just barely scrape together a roster than can make our multi-season rule — even though Petrovic bailed on No. 72 once he became a regular a few seasons ago. As it is, we’re left with a Vezina-winning goaltender and one all-star defenceman, but not much else.

That’s not the worst way to start a team – build from the back end, and all that – but it would have been nice if Alexei Kovalev had stuck with the number for more than that one season in Pittsburgh. Ah well… here’s hoping Thomas Chabot shows some loyalty once he’s a full-time NHLer this year.

Team No. 41

Forwards: Jason Allison, Brent Gilchrist, Nikolai Kulemin

Defence: Andrej Meszaros, Martin Skoula

Goalie: Craig Anderson

This is one of those numbers that’s morphed over the years from being exclusively for depth skaters to an acceptable goalie’s choice. We went with Anderson in net, but you also could have had Jaroslav Halak or Jocelyn Thibault. And while the five skaters in front of him don’t seem like much to get excited about, they’re probably at least a little bit better than you think – Kulemin had a 30-goal season, and Allison had some legitimately big years in the late ’90s.

Team No. 34

Forwards: Fernando Pisani, Daniel Winnik, Darrin Shannon

Defence: Bryan Berard, Jamie Macoun

Goalie: Miikka Kiprusoff

That’s not a bad back end. Kiprusoff was one of the league’s best goalies for years (and could be backed up by John Vanbiesbrouck), while Berard and Macoun form a nice offence-first/stay-at-home pairing. There are plenty of other workmanlike blueliners to choose from, too, as No. 34 turns out to be a reasonably popular number for defencemen in the Gord Donnelly/Kurt Sauer mold.

Unfortunately, that plugger mentality extends to the forwards, so this group is downright weak up front. If they somehow made it to the playoff round, Pisani might light it up, but that seems like a longshot. So for now, the lack of talent at forward means this group aren’t really contenders. Give it another season, though, and we’ll see.

Team No. 32

Forwards: Dale Hunter, Claude Lemieux, Steve Thomas

Defence: Don Sweeney, Mark Streit

Goalie: Jonathan Quick

Well that certainly ends up being an interesting forward group – watch your back in the playoffs against those first two guys. (And we didn’t even give them Rob Ray or Stu Grimson.)

As for the rest, the blue-line isn’t great, especially since we miss out on Streit’s Islander years. Quick will have his work cut out for him in goal, so here’s hoping he’s as good as Kings fans are always saying he is.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

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