Thursday, January 26, 2023

NHL99: Ray Bourque had to be in our top 10 — here are 77 reasons why

Is it possible to be recognized as one of the ten best players of the modern era and still be underrated?

I think it is. And I think you could argue that the concept applies to Ray Bourque, a player who dominated the NHL for two decades and is my pick as the second-best defenseman of all-time, and yet still doesn’t seem to get enough respect among this generation of fans.

How do I help fix that, now that our countdown has reached Bourque? I suppose I could wax eloquently, or track down some former teammates who witnessed his greatness up close, or find a few signature plays to break down. But you know what? We’re 90 picks into this project, and I don’t feel like doing subtle. Instead, I’m breaking out the firehose.

With apologies to Paul Coffey and Victor Hedman, Ray Bourque was the most famous #77 in NHL history. So today, you’re getting 77 facts about him. If you kids out there aren’t on board by the end, then I’ve done all I can. And for the rest of us, it’s a chance to remember some of the greatest stats, moments and oddities from one of the most dominant careers we’ve ever seen.

1. Ray Bourque was born December 28, 1960, which means he shares a birthday with fellow Hall-of-Famers Harry Howell and Terry Sawchuk. That’s really neither here not there, but I think it’s neat. Keep your head up, Mario and St. Patrick.

2. Bourque was good in junior. That’s weird to write, because it was probably the last time for about 20 years that you could stop at “good” with this guy.

3. He had 93 points for the QMJHL’s Verdun Black Hawks in 1978-79, in a season in which he was just 17 on opening night. Those were big numbers, but in that era of the Q, they weren’t jaw-dropping. He was 56 points back of forward Normand Aubin for the team lead, and trailed Michel Leblanc among league defensemen. He was only a few points ahead of Kevin Lowe.

4. All of which is to say: He was a very good prospect, but hardly a can’t-miss. And when the NHL draft rolled around, Bourque watched fellow defensemen Rob Ramage, Craig Hartsburg and Keith Brown go ahead of him.

5. Yes, Keith Brown. Look, scouting is harder than it looks.

6. By the way, this was the infamous “double cohort” draft which saw the NHL lower the age threshold by a year, resulting in what’s often considered the best class ever. Bourque would go on to rank second in the draft in games played and points, trailing third-rounder Mark Messier in both categories.

7. If you’re a Bruins fan who got to enjoy the Ray Bourque era, you can thank a man named Ron Grahame.

8. Well, you should actually thank Harry Sinden, who was the guy who traded Grahame to the Los Angeles Kings on the eve of the 1978-79 season. The Kings had been a decent team for years, but weren’t breaking through in the playoffs, and Grahame was a young goalie who’d just posted very solid numbers in his first year in Boston. The Kings needed a replacement for Rogie Vachon, so they made the deal.

9. In hindsight, it was a bad move for L.A., but this was no Sam Pollock situation where a dumb team traded away a pick that was obviously going to be high. The Kings put up 80 points with Grahame, comfortably making the playoffs. In a 16-team league, that translated to the 8th overall pick, and in 1979 that meant a chance to draft Bourque.

10. Grahame won 23 games in three seasons with the Kings, so… let’s call the trade even.

11. Wait, hold on. All this early-career stuff is nice and all, but did Sean just casually slip in a “second-best defenseman ever?” reference up above in that intro? Yes, I did, and now that you’ve settled into this piece, there’s something we need to talk about.

12. OK, look – I love Nicklas Lidstrom. He was an absolute stud. If you’re a fan of his, you may have noticed that he hasn’t appeared yet in this Top 100, so you’ve got a sense of how highly regarded he was by our voters. There isn’t a reasonable hockey fan alive who wouldn’t trade just about any player their favorite team has ever had for a career of Nicklas Lidstrom locking down the blueline. An undisputed legend.

13. BUT! At some point in the last decade or so, it feels like hockey fans decided that “Nicklas Lidstrom is the second-best defenseman ever” was settled science. If anything, the controversial part of that statement might be “second”, because there are fans out there who’d put him ahead of Bobby Orr, too. (Those fans are wrong, but let’s roll with it.)

14. Is Lidstrom number two? Maybe! You could absolutely make that argument. But it is an argument, and anyone who claims otherwise is doing it because they don’t understand just how good Ray Bourque really was. He was right there with Lidstrom, and yes, he might have been even better.

15. The purpose of this piece is not to diminish Lidstrom in any way, or any other great defenseman that may be in that Orr conversation. But I still can’t help but feel like there’s a generation out there that doesn’t appreciate what Ray Bourque did for over two decades. So to borrow a turn of phrase from another legendary Bruin, we’re going to use this as an opportunity to pump his tires.

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