This image from the Nagano Olympics mirrors the author's ranking of the greatest Finnish players ever. In front: Jari Kurri. Just behind: Teemu Selanne. Lurking in the background: Esa Tikkanen.
It went right down to the wire with perhaps his final season soon drawing to a close, but Teemu Selanne hit a series of important career milestones in recent days. First the Finnish Flash joined a select club, becoming the 18th NHLer, and second Finn, to score 600 regular season goals in the NHL. A few games later he notched his 601st to draw even with countryman Jari Kurri. Then last game he scored a pair of powerplay markers against Vancouver to pull ahead of Kurri and establish himself as the leading Finnish goal-scorer in NHL history. Can Selanne now lay claim to being the greatest Finnish hockeyist ever?
Well that's a tough call. As a big fan of both players I was kind of hoping that Selanne would hit 601 just as the season was ending and the two would wind up dead even. That said, regular season goals are just a single measure of their relative merits, and even those were largely scored in different eras.
Surely there is little argument that these two rank head and shoulders above any other Finn to lace up the blades. Born a decade apart, the two Helsinki natives are friends - witness Kurri's recent visit to Anaheim to participate in a ceremony honouring the 600th, and staying in Selanne's home - with a long association. Growing up in the 80s, young Teemu hung Jari's picture over his bed. Growing old gracefully in the 21st Century, General Manager Kurri had the formality of choosing Selanne to play, and medal, on the high-powered Finnish Olympic team. In between times, their careers overlapped on the ice: with Jokerit during the First Bettman Lockout, with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 1996-97, with Finland at the Nagano Olympics. Where lest we forget, Finland won bronze, beating Canada 3-2 in the third place game.
But which one was better? A good case can be made for both Finnish stars. After the jump, we'll examine some of the statistical evidence and blend in healthy doses of observation and opinion.
First, I must admit an observational bias. I watched Jari Kurri play live close to 500 times over the years, as I was full season ticket holder during his entire career in Edmonton. Teemu Selanne's great rookie season was my last one before I had to let my tickets lapse, and of course he was never an Oiler, so I have only seen him play maybe 10 games live over his storied career.
Kurri ******** 1251 GP, 601-797-1398, +298, 545 PiM
Selanne **** 1184 GP, 603-654-1257, +92, 521 PiM
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Kurri's lead as the career scoring leader is safe, even as Selanne has usurped his goal-scoring crown. Jari was the more productive on a per-game basis, scoring 1.12 P/G compared to Teemu's 1.06. That said, Kurri had two distinct, and distinctly related, advantages. His best years were spent during the high-scoring 80s when goal scoring was higher around the league. It was the Gretzky Era, and nowhere was scoring higher than on Wayne Gretzky's team, not to mention Wayne Gretzky's line. Jari Kurri was the right man in the right place and time, one whose game was the perfect foil to Gretzky's. Moreover, he adapted after the trade of the Great One to become his line's primary puck carrier and distributor.
Selanne meanwhile began his career after the 80s were over and goal scoring on the serious decline. A speedster who has been ever-dangerous on the rush, the Finnish Flash was himself the last NHLer to score 70 goals in a season, way back in his rookie season of 1992-93. When one adjusts for era affects, as hockey-reference.com has done, Selanne has 643 "adjusted goals" to Kurri's 503.
Each player was a great passer as well as a finisher. Each wound up among the NHL top ten scorers on six occasions, and each was a runner-up for the Art Ross twice.
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Once when at a game, one of my pals asked what are Kurri's vital statistics? and I just blurted out "two hundred by eighty-five". Both the question and the answer came right out of left field, but it was a perfect description of one of the great two-way players it has ever been my pleasure to watch. A wonderful skater, Kurri's positional play was close to perfect. When Oilers were on the attack he would lurk in the high slot finding open ice to unleash his devastating shot, all the while being the high forward in the best position to hightail it back on those inevitable occasions a high-risk pass went the other way. When the other guys had the puck he was a gap-closer rather than a hitter, with a deadly array of stick checks. (They didn't track takeaways in those days, but if they did Gretzky and Kurri would both have been right up top of the list for sure.) Once he did win possession he had a marvelous first pass, often to Gretzky. The Oilers were famous for their transition game, and Jari Kurri was its embodiment.
Selanne is competent defensively, but is primarily considered an offensive threat.
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Selanne remains a great powerplayer, ranking 9th on the all-time list with 218 career powerplay goals. More than half (78 of 151) of his goals since the lockout have been scored with the man advantage, which has been a key to Teemu's continuing productivity deep into his career. Selanne has been rarely-used as a penalty killer, scoring just 7 shorthanded goals in his career.
Kurri was a fine powerplayer in his own right, scoring 155 career goals with the man advantage. He also shone as a great penalty-killer, scoring 39 shorthanded goals in his career (plus 10 more in the playoffs). His PPG:SHG ratio of ~4:1 is much more balanced than Selanne's >30:1, speaking to Kurri's all-around game. Shorties hardly tell the full story of Kurri's penalty-killing prowess; he was his coach's first choice to play in a 3-on-5 or 3-on-4 situation. Even in his final season in Colorado (NHL.com's first of maintaining TOI stats) Kurri was still playing almost 3 minutes a game on the PK unit; Selanne has never played even 1:00/G during any of the dozen seasons on record.
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This is the area of greatest difference between the two. The boxcars are stark:
Kurri ******** 200 GP, 106-127-233, +73* (* incomplete)
Selanne **** 105 GP, 35-37-72, -12
Kurri scored 1.12 P/G during his regular season career, and upped the ante to 1.17 P/G in the post season. Selanne's scoring levels on the other hand dropped more than a third, from 1.06 P/G to just 0.69 in the playoffs. Selanne has never exceed a point per game in a single playoff season, while Kurri did so 10 seasons in a row! Jari led all playoff goal scorers in four different seasons (1984, 1985, 1987, 1988), and holds NHL records for goals in a playoff season and in a series. His +73 ranks second all-time* in playoffs (*records maintained since 1984), whereas Selanne has been a minus player over the course of his career.
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Selanne has won three individual trophies during his career, the Calder in 1992-93, the Masterton in 2005-06, and the first Rocket Richard trophy in 1998-99. The Richard is one trophy which can be confidently projected into the past, and Teemu would have shared this award on two other occasions earlier in his career had it existed, twice tying for the league lead in goals. Selanne also made the All-Rookie Team as well as four end-of-season All-Star Teams.
Kurri won just one trophy in his career, the Lady Byng in 1984-85. He led the NHL in goals the next season and would have won the Richard had it existed at the time. Many people in these parts felt Kurri should have won one or more Selke Trophies in his career but it never happened. Kurri did make five end-of-season All-Star Teams, and likely would have made the All-Rookie Team had it existed in 1980.
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A member of three President's Trophy winners or equaivalent, Kurri became the first Finn to win the Stanley Cup in 1984. He made 7 trips to the Stanley Cup Finals, winning all but the first and the last. Selanne finally broke through with the Ducks in 2007, joining the select list of Finns who have won the Grail:
It's worth noting that 11 of the 16 Stanley Cup rings acquired by Finnish players over the years were won by members of the Edmonton Oilers.
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Kurri was otherwise occupied most post-seasons, but represented his country as often as he could, playing in the World Championships in both 1982 and 1989 - the only two years his Oilers were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs - as well as '91 and '94. In those four tourneys Jari posted excellent numbers: 32 GP, 19-19-38, finally winning a silver medal in 1994. He also participated in four Canada/World Cups as well as Olympic Games in 1980 and 1998 that bookended his career, winning bronze in 1998. Kurri has also served as GM of the Finnish team, however this comparison is only about on-ice accomplishments so those successes will be discounted.
Selanne played in five World championships of his own, posting 43 GP, 25-23-48, winning a silver medal in 1999 and bronze in 2008. He played in three Canada/World Cups, capturing silver in 2004. Teemu notably participated in 5 Olympic Games, where he is the all-time career scoring leader with 31 GP, 20-17-37. (His last point in Vancouver broke a four-way tie with Valeri Kharlamov (URS), Vlastimil Bubnik (CZE), and Harry Watson (CAN).) Selanne received three Olympic medals, silver in 2006 and bronze in 1998 and 2010. In all he received six medals - 3 silver, 3 bronze - representing Finland.
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The seven chosen categories split out 4-3 in favour of Kurri. Moreover, what I see as the three most lopsided categories, defensive play, playoff performance, and team success, all favour the older man. It is therefore my opinion that Jari Kurri is the greatest player in the history of Finnish hockey.