Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Let’s build some all-time rosters in the two-digit jersey number game

It’s September, and you can feel the hockey world slowly springing back to life. The rumor mill is heating up, fans are starting to refocus, and the insiders are getting back from the cottage. Within a few weeks, players will be reporting to training camp in the best shape of their lives, and we’ll be churning out previews, making predictions and dusting off the bizarro-meter. We’re almost there.

That means we’ve got one last chance for a goofy offseason timewaster.

Let’s do that today, with a simple question: Which NHL team can build the best all-time starting lineup of players whose jersey numbers only use two different digits?

Look, I said it was goofy. Get on board or don’t, but we’re doing this.

To be clear: We need six players using only two digits, which means if our numbers are X and Y, we need a roster of X, Y, XX, YY, XY and YX. This looks like algebra and I’m already worried, but I believe in us.

But first, a few ground rules™:

– As always, a starting lineup means six players: One goalie, two defensemen and three forwards. Beyond that, we don’t care about position or handedness or that sort of thing.

– We can’t repeat a number on the same team. You need to use all six of the distinct digit combinations.

– You get credit for whatever a player did while he played for your team. In the case of players who wore more than one number, you only get credit for what he did while wearing the number you choose, meaning you can’t sneak a superstar onto a lineup with a weird number he wore for one game as a rookie callup.

One observation right away is that zero is out of the running, because players can’t wear that as a standalone number anymore. The single numbers should be pretty easy for most teams, while the double-numbers will be key. I don’t think we’re going to be able to make any rosters of six studs, but we should be able to build some good ones.

Let’s start with the first team that came to mind for me, and maybe for you too.

Pittsburgh Penguins

We said that double-numbers would be key, so obviously we start with Mario Lemieux’s 66. In theory, that also gives us access to Jaromir Jagr’s 68, so we’re off to a flying start.

Or are we? We can find some decent 6s and 8s in Penguins’ history, like John Marino or Mark Recchi. But the Penguins have never had an 88, so we’re stuck. That means Jagr is out, and so is Sidney Crosby’s 87.

So we head back to Mario, and try to build something else around him. But that’s tricky too, because we need someone else with a number in the sixties, and other than Jagr the Pittsburgh options are guys like Carl Hagelin and Ron Hainsey. And that’s before we try to find a goalie; I’m not sure there would be one.

In other words, this is going to be yet another one of those puzzles that seems simple but ends up being harder than you’d expect, i.e. the best kind. I don’t think we can build around Mario at all, so in the end I made a hard turn and switched to something using Evgeni Malkin and Paul Coffey.

Forwards: Evgeni Malkin (71), Rich Kehoe (17), Joey Mullen (7)

Defense: Paul Coffey (77), Darius Kasparaitis (11)

Goalie: Dennis Herron (1),

All things considered, that’s a pretty solid lineup. We’ve got three Hall-of-Famers, and Herron’s the only guy that most of you have probably never heard of. It’s disappointing given all the generational talent the Penguins have to work with, but under the circumstances, we’ll take it.

Since we whiffed on Mario, let’s try history’s other most famous double-digit…

Edmonton Oilers

OK, now we’re onto something. We start with Wayne Gretzky’s 99, then jump to Connor McDavid’s 97. With two of the greatest players to ever grace the ice, we just need Paul Coffey’s 7 and Oscar Klefbom’s 77 on the blueline and then two scrubs to fill out the rest of the lineup and we’ve got a contender.

But we can’t. If we use McDavid then we need a 79, and the Oilers do offer Nathan Walker up front. But that would leave us looking for a goaltender who wore the number 9, and we know that’s not happening. As tempting as it would be to strap a pair of pads on Ralph Intranuovo and push him out there, we have to play by the rules.

So McDavid won’t work. Neither will Ryan Smyth or Jesse Puljujarvi. We could use one year of Evander Kane at 91, since we know that 1 is a common goalie number. But I think our best bet is to go to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and hope we can find a goalie who wore 33 or 39. Luckily, we can.

Forwards: Wayne Gretzky (99), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (93), Glenn Anderson (9)

Defense: Marty McSorley (33), Al Hamilton (3)

Goalie: Anders Nilsson (39)

The lack of a 39 option on the blueline means we have to snub solid 33s like Cam Talbot and Pokey Reddick and use a half-season of Nilsson in net instead, which isn’t ideal. And of course, we’re stuck with one year of Hamilton on the blueline because the Oilers had to be weird about retired numbers. Still, this roster has the best player ever and some legitimate supporting talent, so we should be OK.

Let’s try a team I really want to do…

Philadelphia Flyers

Real ones know. Before John LeClair arrived and teamed up with Eric Lindros to give us the immortal Legion of Doom, the Flyers had a line called The Crazy 8s based on their jersey numbers. Surely we can make something happen with that.

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