Thursday, December 9, 2021

Building a roster of players whose goals and assists were perfectly balanced, as all things should be

We’ve arrived at what’s often the first lull of an NHL season, with a long way to go to the playoffs but enough games in the bank that we’re not overreacting to every result. We’re past a wild October and the dreaded U.S. Thanksgiving milestone but have a few weeks to the holiday freeze, and still months to wait for the Olympics (maybe) and trade deadline.

In other words, it’s the perfect opportunity to waste some time with a roster-building challenge.

We haven’t done one of these in a while. If you’re new to this, the whole idea is to take a challenge from a reader and use it to construct the best team we can. It’s a chance to dip into history and Remember Some Guys, with no higher purpose than that. Oh, and then you go into the comments and tell me I got it all wrong, and we argue about whether some dude from the 70s was better than your favorite team’s current third-liner. That part’s fun too.

Today’s question comes from reader Rodney:

That’s a beauty, because it’s amazingly simple but (as we’ll see) secretly complicated. Thankfully, I can tell you that it’s also reasonably straightforward to answer, unlike some questions we could mention, and it is also not staggeringly dumb, which is a nice change.

Let’s do this. A full roster of players who had a season where their goals total exactly matched their assists. One key ground rule here: We want to build the best roster we can, and we’re getting the player from that year. If we take Jean Beliveau based on his one goal and one assist in two games as a teenaged callup, that’s who we get – the wet-behind-the-ears rookie, not the all-time great. For that reason, we won’t be getting cute with partial seasons for guys that were injured or otherwise limited.

Single-season goals and assists, perfectly balanced, as all things should be. I have a concept, roughly seven dozen open hockey-reference tabs, and too much time on my hands. Let’s do this.


The first hurdle we run into is one you’re probably already thinking about: Lots of history’s best players won’t fit well into this concept. That’s especially true for centers, especially playmakers, who almost always have more assists than goals, and usually many more.

For example, Wayne Gretzky doesn’t get anywhere close to our list at any point in his 20-season career; even when he was shattering all the goal-scoring records, his assist totals were way higher. The same is true of other centers you may be hoping to see, like Marcel Dionne, Connor McDavid, Bryan Trottier, Peter Forsberg, Joe Thornton, Mark Messier or Joe Sakic. Great players all, but not ones that will help us here. In fact, as we’ll see in a bit, centers are hard to find for this exercise.

On the other side of the coin, you have the pure snipers who almost always rack up more goals than assists. That problem isn’t quite as pronounced – there can be two assists for every goal, meaning there are more helpers available to be earned. It’s rare to see even a one-dimensional scorer have a very low assist total, although it’s always fun when it happens because we can all make jokes about them winning the Cy Young. (Or as it may be called soon, the Mangiapane.) For our purposes, the best years of guys like Rocket Richard, Steven Stamkos and Pavel Bure are too goals-heavy for this roster.

Then there are the agonizing near-misses, where more-balanced superstars just don’t quite land on the magic number we’re looking for. The worst of those is Mario Lemieux, who had 54 goals and 53 assists in 1986-87. That wasn’t even one of his ten best seasons, but we would have gladly taken it because Mario was awesome. We also just barely miss out on Sidney Crosby (44 goals and 45 assists in 2016-17), Teemu Selanne (48 and 46 in 2006-07), Luc Robitaille (63 and 62 in 1992-93), and Steve Yzerman (50 and 52 in 1987-88, then 62 and 65 in 1989-90). Jaromir Jagr somehow never pulled it off in his three centuries of playing, coming closest with a 47 and 48 in 1996-97. And we need to make a special mention of Mike Bossy, who went 60 and 58 in 1982-83 and then teased us by being one off in each of the last three years of his career.

Still, we have plenty of legendary forwards to choose from, so let’s start building out our roster with guys who did hit the sweet spot. We’ll start with one of the greatest of all-time in Gordie Howe, who had 43 goals and 43 assists in his Art Ross and Hart-winning 1950-51 season. On the other wing, we’ll go with Alexander Ovechkin, who followed up his Calder-winning rookie year with 46 goals and assists in 2006-07.

The center on our top line will be the greatest season we’ll find in our quest for perfect balance: Phil Esposito and his legendary 1970-71 campaign, which saw him shatter the single-season goals record with 76 and then exactly match that total with 76 assists. Espo always had a flare for the dramatic, and his inclusion here is no different – he was at 76/75 until recording a second assist on the Bruins last goal of the season, which came with two minutes left in their final game.

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