Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Celebrating five of the NHL’s most breakable records (while we still can)

The NHL’s record book is pretty thick, as you might expect from a league with over 100 years of history. Get your hands on a copy, and you can spend hours learning about the players who set all-time marks in scoring, goaltending, and just about anything else you can imagine.

But as most fans know, a lot of those records are unbreakable. Some of them literally so – nobody will ever top Ken Dorarty’s record of three overtime goals in a single game (from back when the extra periods weren’t sudden death). Others are unbreakable from a practical perspective due to changes in how the game is played, like Glenn Hall’s 502 consecutive starts for a goaltender from the bygone era where backups were rarely used. And others, like Wayne Gretzky’s 2,857 career points or Bobby Orr’s +124 or even Dave Schultz’s 472 PIM in a season are all-but unbreakable unless the game reverts to the way it was played in previous eras.

Those unbreakable records are fun. But there’s another category that I like to kick around every now and then: the breakable record. As in, the marks that just don’t seem that impressive, and feel like they should be broken any day now.

Today, let’s celebrate those records while we still can, with five of my favorite breakable NHL records.

Now we could get cute here with overly obscure marks – hey, this guy holds the all-time record for most shot attempts by a left-handed Scorpio on February 29, that sort of thing. We’ll try not to do that here, although we’ll obviously have to dig a little bit beyond that standard records we all know. Let’s see if we can find five reasonably straightforward records that feel like they should be easy enough for somebody to break – then see if anyone in this coming season can prove us right.

Most assists in a season by a left winger

The single-season record for assists by any player is, not surprisingly, held by Wayne Gretzky. He had an unfathomable 163 in 1985-86, plus 10 other years with over 100. Next up for the centers is Mario Lemieux with 114 in 1988-89, and seven other centers have had at least 90 in a season (with Joe Thornton being the most recent). Among defenseman, the assists record is held by Bobby Orr, with 102. For the right-wingers, it’s a tie between Jaromir Jagr and Nikita Kucherov, who both had seasons of 87.

And then, there are the left wingers.

If you’ve followed my various roster-building quests over the years, you know that left wing has historically been the NHL’s weakest position. But it’s not like there haven’t been some legitimate legends who’ve played the position. Bobby Hull was a left winger. So were Frank Mahovlich, Ted Lindsay and Johnny Bucyk. So were members of the 600-goal club like Luc Robitaille, Brendan Shanahan and of course Alexander Ovechkin. And today’s left-wingers include perennial Hart candidates like Artemi Panarin and Bran Marchand.

So it may surprise you to learn that the record for assists in a season by a left-winger isn’t held by any of those guys. The record-holder isn’t a Hall-of-Famer, or even much of a star.

According to most sources, including the NHL itself, the record is held by Joe Juneau, who had 70 assists as a rookie in 1992-93. That was the year he played on a line with Adam Oates and (when healthy) Cam Neely. It was also his only full season in Boston; he’d be traded to the Capitals at the 1994 trade deadline. To give you an idea of how impressed the hockey world was by his record-breaking feat as a rookie, he didn’t receive a single first-place Calder vote that year, and was left off of 11 of the 50 ballots entirely.

You could also make an argument for Bob MacMillan of the Atlanta Flames in 1978-79, as he’s the guy who heads up the hockey-reference list. MacMillan was mostly a right winger in his career, but apparently played the left side for much of that season. He had 71 assists, so whether you give the nod to him or Juneau, the point remains: Left wingers just don’t get many helpers. Despite leading the position, neither Juneau or MacMillan ranks in the overall top-100 for assists in a single season. Connor McDavid had more assists last year, and the season was only 56 games long.

Will the record be broken soon? It’s starting to feel likely. Several active players have come close, including Marchand (64 in 2018-19), Claude Giroux (68 in 2017-18), and a pair of 60+ seasons from Johnny Gaudreau. But the biggest near-miss was Artemi Panarin, who was well on the way to breaking the record in 2019-20 when the season was cut short by the pandemic. He was on pace for 74 assists that year, and last year he was racking up helpers at a record-shattering pace of almost one-per-game. There’s a decent chance he breaks the record this year if he plays close to 82 games.

If so, it would be the first major position-based season scoring record to be broken in decades. But for now, the record remains with a guy you may not even have heard of.

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