Friday, December 4, 2020

Who wins an all-time battle between Team Byng and Team PIM?

Picture a hockey player. Not a specific one, but your version of the archetypal player, the generic one that comes to mind when you think about the sport.

Chances are, you’re picturing some growling menace with a black eye, missing teeth, and an angry expression. Maybe a scar or two, or cartoon-style bandage. That’s hockey, right? It’s a sport that’s all about toughness, where a punch in the face is just part of the deal. Not everyone plays like that, of course, but the real ones do. Gordie Howe for the win, am I right?

Except… lots of the NHL’s best ever players don’t really fit that mold, right? In fact, plenty of history’s top legends stayed out of rough stuff. We even have an award just for players like that: the Lady Byng, which recognizes sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct. And while Gordie wouldn’t have been caught anywhere near that thing, plenty of big stars have won it.

So today, let’s pick a side. The gentlemen vs. the cavemen. Pacifists vs. lotsa fists. Who you got?

Here’s how this will work.

– For Team PIM, we’re picking from all the forwards and defensemen who, at some point in their NHL career, led their own team in regular season penalty minutes. That’s a high bar, especially once we get into the enforcer era, but we can find some good players who managed to do it. (Beyond “leading your own team”, we won’t be using any limits on how many minutes a player needs. I was initially going to, but the problem you run into is that PIM totals fluctuate so much based on era that if you set the bar at, say, 200 minutes, you just wind up with all guys from the mid-70s to late-90s and not much else.)

– For Team Byng, it gets a little trickier. Forwards are easy; we just want guy who won the Lady Byng. But only three defensemen have ever won the award, so we’ll expand the criteria to any blueliner who ever finished in the top five in voting.

– It doesn’t really make sense to use goaltenders for this, but that’s never stopped us before. Team PIM will be looking for goalies who racked up at least 250 PIM in their career, while Team Byng will need guys who played at least five full seasons of 40 or more games without recording a single penalty minute (and only since 1970, since I don’t trust goalie penalty records before then).

We’ll do full 20-man rosters for each team, and see which one looks like the best squad at the end. Let’s get ready to drop the gloves and/or awkwardly mill around afterwards picking them up.

(Thanks to reader Sean D. for sending in this idea.)

First line

Well, I guess we have to start Team Byng with Wayne Gretzky.

The greatest player in NHL history was also the league’s most gentlemanly in five seasons, the most in the modern era. (Frank Boucher won seven times in the 20s and 30s.) And we can give him two familiar linemates: One that he actually played with in Jari Kurri, and one who was his early rival for best player in hockey honors in Marcel Dionne.

Yeah, Team Byng is going to be pretty good up front.

But that’s OK, because true to character, Team PIM isn’t going to be a pushover. Somebody had to do the dirty work for Gretzky and Kurri in Edmonton, which means we can start our tough guy roster with Mark Messier, whose career-high 165 PIMs led the 1983-84 Oilers. And he’ll have two of history’s greatest wingers on his side, as Rocket Richard and Ted Lindsay both qualify. That gives us a solid top line that can…


Something’s wrong. Where’s Gordie Howe?

I mean, that was half the point of this whole thing, right? When you think of a grizzled player who can be the toughest guy on his own team and the best player in the league, Howe’s the standard by whom all others are judged. By the time he retired for the first time in 1971, he’d been the NHL’s active leader in penalty minutes for five years.

Except… in 25 seasons in Detroit, he never led the Wings in PIMs. Not once. I swear, I checked this like five times. Despite being widely recognized as the NHL’s undisputed heavyweight champ for most of the Original Six era – and rightly so – Howe never ranked higher than second on his own team.

How is that possible? Well, we’ve already mentioned the answer. It’s Terrible Ted Lindsay, Howe’s teammate for 14 seasons. Lindsay led to the Red Wings in penalty minutes most years, often racking up well over 100 in a season during an era where that was rare. Howe nearly caught him in 1953-54, when Lindsay took a photo finish with 110 minutes to Howe’s 109, but that’s as close as Mr. Hockey got.

So we can’t use Gordie. I won’t lie, this is crushing for Team PIM. But if anyone can tough it out, it’s these guys, so let’s keep going.

Second line

Team Byng keeps piling up the talent, as they can start their second line with two guys who know each other fairly well: Bobby Hull and Brett Hull. They each won the Lady Byng once, with Bobby taking it in 1965 and Brett earning the nod in 1990, on the way to racking up a combined 1,300+ goals. Not bad for a second line.

So who gets to center these two snipers? My first thought was Stan Mikita, Bobby’s longtime center in Chicago. He won the Lady Byng twice, so he’d be a fine pick. But there’s a problem: before famously transforming his playing style, Mikita was one of the league’s toughest players, and he led the Hawks in PIMs on multiple occasions. That means he could technically be the second-line center on both of our teams, which would be neat but also might feel kind of silly. I think the only reasonable thing we can do here is disqualify Mikita altogether, and find another playmaker to center the Hull. I’d say Ron Francis would fit the bill, so he’s in.

We’ll load up Team PIM’s second line with a few more big names, including two you probably weren’t expecting to see on this roster. We’ll start with our center, Jean Beliveau, a true gentleman off the ice who was a lot more willing to mix it up on the ice than most remember; when he retired in 1971, he was the league’s all-time leader in career PIMs among centers. He managed to rack up over 1,000 minutes, including 143 in 1955-56 to not only lead the Canadiens but place him third in the entire league. It wasn’t the only time Beliveau led his team, and he went his entire 20-year career without ever receiving so much as a Lady Byng vote, so despite a well-earned reputation for pure class when out of uniform, he certainly qualifies for our squad.

So does Alexander Ovechkin, whose career-high 89 PIM in 2009-10 was more than enough to top a Washington Capitals team where nobody else even had 70. (Should he actually be on the first line? Probably. But I’m not putting a guy who’s never cracked 100 minutes on the first-line of Team PIM. Yell at me all you want, it’s about principle, dammit.)

After throwing two minor curveballs, we’ll round off our second line with a name you definitely did expect: Brendan Shanahan, who led the 1994-95 Blues and the 2003-04 Red Wings. Team Byng is still tough to beat, but Team PIM comes close on the second line. Let’s see what happens as we move down the lineup.

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