Wednesday, April 29, 2020

What’s the best roster you could make from modern NHL history, while only using players who never played together?

For today’s post, we’re going to work through a simple question suggested by a reader.

I know what you’re thinking. The last time we tried the whole “simple question from a reader” thing, it didn’t go especially well for my psychological health. I’m pleased to report that won’t be the case this time; this question was actually a lot of fun to work through. Thank you, Kris B. from the comments section. This didn’t ruin my whole week.

That’s partly because unlike last time, we’re not looking for one right answer. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that you might be able to come up with a better answer than I can. But that doesn’t mean the question is easy, because it’s not – it’s deceptively tricky and gets harder as you go.

Here it is: What’s the best roster you could make from modern NHL history, while only using players who never played together?

That’s it. Nice and easy. You’re probably already filling in spots in your head, right?

Before we dive in, let’s nail down a few quick ground rules:

  • “Playing together” means they were on the same roster at the same time during a season or playoffs. This is NHL only – we don’t care about the minor leagues or the WHA or international play or All-Star games or old-timer rosters.
  • Positions matter. We need four centers, four guys at each wing, six defensemen and two goalies. No forwards playing out of position. (We’ll use hockey-reference as the arbiter of who plays where.)
  • Because the records of who played on which team can get a little dicey in the league’s early days, I’m only going to go back to the start of the Original Six era. Apologies to “Phantom” Joe Malone.

Makes sense? Then let’s get started. And we’ll start in the obvious place: With the best player the sport has ever had.

Our first pick can be literally anyone from NHL history, so let’s start with Wayne Gretzky.

Gretzky is the perfect starting point for this game, for two reasons. For one, every fan would agree that he’s either the best player ever or at least very close. If you get a blank canvas to build any roster you want, of course you’re going to start with Gretzky.

The second reason is that he illustrates the dilemma we’re dealing with here. Gretzky played with a ton of elite players, meaning we can start scratching a whole lot of big names of our list right away.

His Oilers days cost us Mark Messier, Jari Kurri and Paul Coffey, not to mention Grant Fuhr and Glenn Anderson. The trade to the Kings wipes out Luc Robitaille and Rob Blake, among others. The Rangers years mean we lose Brian Leetch and Pat LaFontaine. And his stint with the Blues, even though it only lasted a few weeks, ends up wiping out a surprising number of big names, including Brett Hull, Al MacInnis, Chris Pronger and even (by just a few days) Dale Hawerchuk.

Yikes. It’s enough to have us already doubting ourselves. Do we … do we leave Wayne Gretzky off our roster?

There’s a case that we should, since it’s not like we’re going to be hurting for offensive center options. The counterargument is that this is Wayne Freaking Gretzky. He’s the NHL’s all-time scoring leader by nearly 1,000 points. Of course he’s on the team. Don’t galaxy-brain this. Write him in as the No. 1 center and don’t look back.

That’s the camp I’m in, so Gretzky’s on the team. Still, we’re one name in and you can already see how this is going to get tricky.

We’ve still got lots of room to work with for our next few picks. We said Gretzky was probably the greatest player ever, but some fans would argue that. Luckily, we don’t have to pick and choose among the top candidates – none of them ever played together, meaning we can fit them all onto the roster. So welcome aboard Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe and Mario Lemieux.

Those are all easy calls, right? They do come at a cost – Howe means we can’t use an entire generation of Red Wings, including Terry Sawchuk, Ted Lindsay, Johnny Bucyk or Red Kelly. And his brief stint with the Whalers ends up being surprisingly costly, as we lose access to Bobby Hull and Dave Keon. Orr means we can’t use fellow Bruins stars like Phil Esposito or Brad Park, and his stint in Chicago costs us Phil’s brother Tony, as well as Stan Mikita, who was still a Hawk well into the late-70s. Still, I can’t imagine anyone objecting to paying the price to have Orr and Howe on the team.

And then there’s Mario. He ends up being the first addition from what will turn out to be an important subset of players for this game: Guys who only ever played for one team. As we’ll see, guys who move around a lot end up being harder to fit in. Lemieux still costs us, though, because those early-90s Penguins teams were stacked with Hall of Famers, so we’re going to lose access to Ron Francis, Larry Murphy and even Bryan Trottier. Not bad names, but we’re not losing sleep over them.

And yeah, we also lose out on Jaromir Jagr, and that hurts, especially since winger figures to be a tough spot to fill. But come on, this is Mario Lemieux. There’s no way we don’t have him on the team.

Or is there …

Problem #1: The Mario Conundrum

Here’s the thing about picking between Lemieux and Jagr: It’s an easy call. Jagr was great, but Lemieux was legendary. There might be five players in NHL history that you take over Jagr without even thinking about it, but Mario’s one of them.

But then you remember Lemieux’s comeback, and that it stretched all the way into playing a few games in the post-lockout season in 2005-06. And that means he was briefly teammates with Sidney Crosby.

Mario Lemieux … or Jaromir Jagr and Sidney Crosby?

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