Monday, April 20, 2020

Which birthday produces the best starting six in NHL history?

Last summer, I wrote a post about which first names could produce the best starting six lineup in NHL history. The response from readers was immediate and overwhelming: OK, great, now do the same thing for birthdays.

Look, I know when I’m being mocked. And yes, rummaging through 366 days’ worth of player data just to build a few imaginary teams full of stars and also-rans who’ve never played together or met or (in some cases) been alive at the same time, all seems like a gigantic waste of several days. But gigantic wastes of days are kind of my beat, so I was tempted.

I initially held off for two reasons. The first is that I figured I wouldn’t have the time to even consider such a weird concept until the offseason. That offseason came early this year, and it might last a while, so every crazy idea is back on the table.

But the second reason felt like the deal-breaker: There wouldn’t be any suspense. We all knew which date was going to win. It wasn’t even worth digging into.

It’s obviously going to be Team Oct. 5.

That’s pretty much the greatest date in NHL superstar birthday history. Specifically, Oct. 5, 1965. That’s the day that two of the very best players in the sport’s history were both born, just a few hours and about 100 miles apart: Mario Lemieux and Patrick Roy.

It’s a great bit of NHL trivia that also kind of ruins this whole “best birthday” concept. You start with two guys who have plausible cases as the best to ever play their positions, and it’s over.

Or is it? When I finally got around to confirming my suspicion, I realized that the rest of Team Oct. 5 isn’t going to be quite as unbeatable as you might think. In fact, it ends up looking something like this …

Oct. 5

Forwards: Mario Lemieux, Roy Conacher, Dean Prentice

Defence: Fredrik Olausson, Bob Whitelaw

Goaltender: Patrick Roy

Conacher won an Art Ross and made the Hall of Fame, while Prentice was a decent winger who played forever. Olausson was fine, but Whitelaw is a name from the 1940s and he barely played.

It’s still a pretty intimidating group, if only because Lemieux and Roy alone would dominate most lineups. But it doesn’t seem invincible. With 365 more days to work with, there could be a challenger lurking out there somewhere.

Screw it, I don’t have anything better to do. Let’s make this happen.

As always, we start with a few quick ground rules:

  • We want three forwards, two defencemen and a goalie. Beyond that, positions or handedness won’t matter.
  • Let’s assume everyone is alive and healthy and you get the player at the peak of their powers.
  • If you can’t fill out a full lineup, you’re out of the running. The goalies will trip a few teams up, but that’s life in the tough world of imaginary roster-building.

We’ve set the bar high with Team Oct. 5. We’ll run through this chronologically, so let’s see who wants to step up and challenge them for the crown.

(Birthday data comes from And special thanks to the NHL front office denizen who helped with the research but wishes to remain anonymous because he doesn’t want people to know he talks to me.)

Jan. 3

Forwards: Bobby Hull, Rick MacLeish, Mike Walton

Defence: Ryan Ellis, Cory Cross

Goaltender: Jacques Cloutier

This date features some big names like Bourque and Lemieux, but unfortunately, that would be Ryan and Real. We do get the real Bobby Hull, and he has some decent support, but this team isn’t giving Mario and Patrick any real worries. It’s a decent proof-of-concept, the equivalent of a light warmup stretch, but that’s about it. We can do better a bit further into the month.

Jan. 18

Forwards: Mark Messier, Syl Apps, Brian Gionta

Defence: Alex Pietrangelo, Dean Kennedy

Goaltender: Jason LaBarbera

Man, this team was feeling at least mildly frisky right up until we got to the goaltender, with two Hall-of-Famers up front and an All-Star on the blueline.

Jan. 21

Forwards: Dany Heatley, Doug Weight, Ulf Dahlen

Defence: Ryan Suter, Moe Mantha

Goaltender: Jonathan Quick

We don’t have any surefire Hall-of-Famers here, but we do get four modern-day All-Stars as part of a solid six-man lineup. Quick has a Conn Smythe, Heatley had multiple 50-goal seasons and Suter is definitely not on a bad contract. That’s not awful, but we can probably do better.

While we’re still in January, let’s check in on an entry some of you are probably wondering about …

Jan. 26

Forwards: Wayne Gretzky, Frank Nighbor, Dale McCourt

Defence: Fred Barrett, Vic Lynn

Goaltender: Daniel Berthiaume

Yeah, that’s what we’d call a top-heavy lineup. The Great One is at least joined by a fellow Hall-of-Famer in Nighbor, and McCourt was a first overall pick, but that’s about all the support this date can offer. Gretzky vs. Lemieux makes for a great debate most of the time, but not when Mario has Roy in net and Wayne has to rely on The Bandit.

Feb. 7

Forwards: Steven Stamkos, Ryan O’Reilly, Peter Bondra

Defence: Aaron Ekblad, Lee Fogolin

Goaltender: David Aebischer

This team starts strong but fades as we go. Still, that’s a hell of a forward line. And our depth includes a WJC hero in John Slaney and a former first overall pick in Alexandre Daigle. It’s not a bad group, but let’s skip ahead a week and see if Valentine’s Day can warm our hearts …

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