Monday, March 30, 2020

In which I attempt to answer a simple question about jersey numbers that almost breaks me

Every now and then, a reader will reach out to me with a question. Sometimes, I already know the answer. Often, I have no idea where I’d even start. But the best kind of questions are the ones that make me think: “Huh, I’m not sure, but I bet it would be fun to find out.”

I got one of those a little while ago from a reader named Bryce. It was nice and simple. Bryce wanted to know which NHL player had scored the most goals in a single season in which their total matched their jersey number.

That’s kind of a cool question. And it’s one that shouldn’t be all that hard to figure out. I couldn’t come up with an answer off the top of my head, but I knew how to find one: just crack open a list of the highest single-season goal totals and work backward.

So that’s what I did. It will be fun, right?

Let’s begin, the way all great journeys do, at the beginning. In this case, that meant a list of every NHL player to ever score 60 goals or more in a season. It’s not a long list, but it’s probably longer than you might think. There have been 39 seasons of 60+ goals in NHL history. Could we find our answer in that list? I wasn’t sure, but it was the right place to start.

Five of those 39 seasons belong to Wayne Gretzky, and we can obviously eliminate him; he wore No. 99 for his entire NHL career, and he never got that many goals in a season. He came reasonably close, topping out at 92 in 1981-82, which still stands as the all-time record and probably always will. But we’re not looking for close here, so Wayne’s not our man.

He does have an impact, though, because his iconic No. 99 encouraged a generation of stars that followed to wear distinctive high numbers of their own. That was a new thing, and it should make our search easier.

Here’s where we run into our first problem: A lot of history’s greatest offensive talents have worn high numbers, but they were too high. Gretzky’s the only player to ever crack the 90-goal plateau, which wipes out the chances of plenty of today’s 90-wearing stars, like Connor McDavid and Steven Stamkos. Eric Lindros and Patrick Kane have posted big goal-scoring years, but neither got anywhere close to the 88 they wore. Alexander Mogilny’s 76 goals in 1992-93 is tied for the fifth-most ever, but he had a long way to go since he was wearing No. 89. Sidney Crosby’s great, but he hasn’t come anywhere near 87.

Brett Hull did, scoring 86 in 1990-91 and hitting the rarified 70-goal mark on two other occasions. But he did that while wearing No. 16, which leads to our second problem: Star forwards who don’t wear really high numbers usually wear relatively low ones. It’s a tradition thing. So right off the bat, we know we can rule out low-numbered stars like Rocket Richard and Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull (all No. 9), Alexander Ovechkin and Cam Neely (No. 8), Guy Lafleur and Pavel Bure (No. 10). Mike Bossy, Teemu Selanne, Steve Yzerman, Luc Robitaille or Jari Kurri? Sorry. All wore good, solid, traditional numbers that are way too low for what we’re looking for.

There is one player who wore a number in the 70s and had a 70-goal season. But that’s Phil Esposito, and he scored 76 in 1970-71 while wearing No. 7; he didn’t switch to No. 77 until he was traded to the Rangers, so he’s one goal and five years away from being our answer.

After dropping down into the 60s, optimism kicks in because there are two legendary scorers who both wore numbers in this range – Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, with both showing up on the list of 60-goal scorers. But Jagr topped out at 62 goals in 1995-96, missing his iconic No. 68 by a half-dozen. And while Lemieux had two seasons of 69 goals, one of 70, and one of 85, he never landed on exactly 66. He goes down in history as the highest jersey number to be exceeded by his goal total, but our search for an exact match carries on.

The only other candidates left on our initial list are Lanny McDonald, Dennis Maruk, Steve Shutt and Reggie Leach, and they all came along before higher vanity numbers were a thing. So no, we won’t find our answer in the 60+ club after all. No worries, though – we’ll just have to open up the search to the 50-goal club. And as it turns out, that’s a very big club indeed. Dropping our cutoff down to 50 goals opens the floodgates enough to allow 157 new seasons onto our list, so surely we’ll find our answer here.

The good news is that our list now includes dozens of names that we haven’t seen yet. The bad news is that a glance at some of the guys who had seasons in the high 50s tells us that we’re going to immediately run into the same two problems as before. Marcel Dionne, Tim Kerr and Michel Goulet? Traditional numbers that are too low. Pierre Turgeon or Sergei Fedorov? Too high.

And then, the first sense of doubt creeps in: Wait, what kind of star forward wears a number in the 50s?

There sure aren’t many. Typically, if they hand you a number in the 50s in training camp, it’s because they don’t expect you to stick around long. If you do, you get yourself a real number as soon as possible. What kind of self-respecting sniper is going to wear No. 58?

Not many. But that’s OK because we only need one. And the 50-goal tier is where we start to see some names where I wasn’t sure what number they wore. Charlie Simmer? Craig Simpson? Blaine Stoughton? Rick Kehoe? Nope across the board. John Ogrodnick, Wayne Babych or Pierre Larouche? Negative. I held out some hope for No. 55 since the double-digit thing was in vogue after Gretzky, Lemieux and Lindros. But no such luck, as guys like Keith Primeau, Jason Blake and Eric Daze fall well short, and Mark Scheifele has yet to come close. Dave Andreychuk did wear No. 52, but only for one season in 2000-01 when his 50-goal days were well behind him. Same with Dany Heatley wearing No. 51 for the Ducks.

I had a brief flutter of optimism when I remembered Jonathan Cheechoo’s 56-goal season. Did Cheechoo wear No. 56? It seems like the sort of number he might wear, right? He’d never been an elite goal-scorer before that wild 2005-06 season, so maybe he was still wearing a scrub’s number when he broke through. Alas, he was not. He wore No. 14 that year. Not even close.

By the time I got into the low 50s – Rick Martin? Blaine Stoughton? Ray Freaking Sheppard? – desperation was beginning to set in. I felt like I may have made a terrible mistake.

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