Friday, February 10, 2023

Ranking the 50 greatest players from before 1967

After three months of counting down, this week marked the finale of our NHL99 project, which ranked the best players of hockey's modern era (1967 to today). It was a lot of fun, with some great pieces leading to plenty of reminiscing, recollection and debate.

OK, but what about the era that came before?

After all, there’s 50 years of NHL history that didn’t get included in the modern list. While it made sense not to include those decades in our NHL99 list – the difference between eras is just impossible to parse in any meaningful way – we should still recognize it, if only briefly.

So that’s what we’ll do today, as I count down my list of the Top 50 players of pre-1967 era, factoring in both peak performance and longevity. I’ll be considering anyone who wasn’t on our modern list based on everything they did up until 1967. I also reserve the right to nudge a handful of guys up if their career timeline means they ended up “stranded” between the two lists, since this is my ranking and I can cheat if I want to.

One other important note on the process: For the modern era NHL99, we had a panel of voters, each carefully curating their own ballots which were then combined to create a final list based on the wisdom of the crowd. This is not that. This is one writer’s opinion, based on research and analysis but pretty much entirely subjective. If you don’t agree with any of these rankings, you have one and only one person to yell at. (That person, for the record, is Gentille.)

The original premise behind the modern NHL99 was that we all knew who’d end up in top spot. I think that’s the case here too, although you never know. Let’s count it down and see where we end up.

(*Denotes a player whose career continued past the 1966-67 season that we're using as our "modern" cutoff.)

50. Lionel “Big Train” Conacher, D, 1925-37

Voted Canada’s greatest athlete in 1950, Conacher dominated in multiple sports, including football, boxing and rugby. We can only give him credit for hockey here, in which he was a three-time all-star, a two-time Hart Trophy runner-up from the blueline, and a Hall-of-Famer.

49. Frank Boucher, C, 1921-44

The four-time all-star was a setup man who led the league in assists three times. He was also awarded the Lady Byng seven times, more than any other player in history.

(By the way, you'll see frequent references to being an all-star in this piece. All of those are referring to the league's postseason all-star honors, which include a first and a second team. The midseason all-star game isn't a factor here, in part because it didn't even exist when many of these guys played and mostly because even when it did, it doesn't tell us much about how good a player was.)

48. Bill Cook, W, 1926-37

The best of the three Cook brothers (with Bud and Bun), Bill led the league in goals twice and was Hart runner-up both times.

47. Dickie Moore, W, 1952-67*

The fiesty winger led the league in goals in 1957-58, then assists the following year. He took home the Art Ross in both campaigns, and remains an underrated star of the Original Six era.

46. Harry Howell, D, 1952-67*

Howell’s lone Norris trophy just slips under our cutoff, as he won it in 1967. It was partly a lifetime achievement award, as he’d been the rock of the Rangers’ blueline for 15 seasons, missing just 20 games over that span.

45. Bill Gadsby, D, 1946-66

One of the best defensemen to never win a Norris, Gadsby finished second three times and was named an all-star on seven occasions.

44. Johnny Bower, G, 1953-67*

The beloved Bower was a two-time Vezina winner and nearly won the Hart Trophy in 1961; he had more first-place votes than anyone, but finished just behind Bernie Geoffrion based on total votes. Not bad for a guy who had nearly washed out of the league after one strong season with the Rangers. And of course, he’d go on to give the world the gift of Honky The Christmas Goose.

43. Johnny Bucyk, W, 1955-67*

He's losing almost half of his longevity to our 1967 cutoff, but still deserve a spot on our list. All told, Bucyk spent 21 of his 23 seasons in Boston, and despite playing in the era of shorter season, still ranks in the top 20 for games played to this day. Bucyk rarely posted eye-popping single-season numbers, but was among the most consistent stars the league has ever seen.

42. Auriel Joliat, W, 1922-38

The winger played 16 seasons, all with the Canadiens, and won the Hart Trophy in 1934. This despite apparently playing at just north of 130 pounds, which was tiny even for those days.

41. Ted Kennedy, C, 1942-57

The long-time Leaf was the key to five Stanley Cups, and won a Hart Trophy in 1955. He retired after that season, then returned for one more before leaving the sport for good at the age of 31.

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