Morenz Numbers

The Howie Morenz statue outside Bell Centre in Montreal. via view2.picapp.com

I love this angle of the Howie Morenz statue, confidently blazing a trail into the future. The Mitchell Meteor was a legendary player who became almost a mythical figure in death, which occurred all too early at age 34. His funeral in March 1937 drew tens of thousands of mourners who filed past his casket at centre-ice of the Montreal Forum.

Since a huge part of this series has been about highlighting the stars of yesteryear who never had the chance to have their names engraved on the Rocket Richard or Art Ross Trophies, I could hardly leave them unrepresented. (Especially given how I dispossessed Ross of his trophy and gave it to Gordie Howe!) Howie Morenz is as good a choice as any; a member of the first Hall of Fame class, Morenz was voted the Hockey Player of the Half Century by the Canadian Press in 1950. Besides, he's got a real cool statue outside the Bell Centre.

The alert reader might be saying, hey wait a minute, Bruce, you've already given the Rocket Richard Trophy retroactively across the decades for the seasonal leaders in goals and the Wayne Gretzky Trophy for assists and the Gordie Howe Trophy for points, what the heck is left?

Enter the Morenz Number. Hokey I know, but so far we have three pretty one-dimensional series of numbers. Pretty fundamental stuff: most goals, most assists, most points? Let's introduce some interaction among them. Who's got the most mosts?

The Morenz Number is not an annual race so isn't a trophy per se, it is simply a career achievement measuring stick. It's crude in one sense, and it measures nothing but offence, but dammit, the list is pretty compelling:

Rockets Gretzkys Howes Morenz #
         
Wayne Gretzky* 5 16 11 32
Gordie Howe* 5 3 6 14
Phil Esposito* 6 3 5 14
Mario Lemieux* 3 3 6 12
Bobby Hull* 7 0 3 10
Jaromir Jagr 0 3 5 8
Charlie Conacher* 5 0 2 7
Stan Mikita* 0 3 4 7
Bobby Orr* 0 5 2 7
Babe Dye* 3 0 2 5
Bill Cook* 3 0 2 5
Doug Bentley* 2 2 1 5
Maurice Richard* 5 0 0 5
Elmer Lach* 0 3 2 5
Jean Beliveau* 2 2 1 5
Guy Lafleur* 1 1 3 5
Joe Malone* 2 0 2 4
Newsy Lalonde* 1 1 2 4
Cy Denneny* 1 2 1 4
Howie Morenz* 1 1 2 4
Bill Cowley* 0 3 1 4
Ted Lindsay* 1 2 1 4
Bernie Geoffrion* 2 0 2 4
Dickie Moore* 1 1 2 4
Joe Thornton 0 3 1 4

(* - Hockey Hall of Fame)


I think this is the point where you just have to say, "Holy crap, this guy Gretzky must've been pretty good." The method discounts era effects and throws out the 200-point seasons and pitches aside the 400-goal teams and simply counts, how many times did the guy lead the league in one of the three major offensive categories? And the answer is, more than the next two guys combined. Holy crap.

Again we see a variation on a theme as the Great One has more crowns in the assist category alone than anybody else has combined titles in the three categories. Or you could discount Gretzky's Gretzkys entirely and he would still be the leader based on his secondary dominance in the goals and points departments. Once again his numbers dwarf even the other superstars.

And to those of us who realized right at the time that we were watching the greatest offensive genius the game has ever seen right here in little old Edmonton, all I can say is this: we were right. Gretzky's 9 NHL years here in River City produced an astonishing Morenz number of 5+9+8 = 22. Out of a possible 27. The game hadn't seen his like before, and it hasn't since. Even the post-Edmonton Gretz was a shadow of his former self, posting "just" 0+7+3 = 10. Still the great playmaker but the devastating finishing touch was in decline. Only in his Edmonton years did Gretzky unleash the full breadth of his offensive weaponry.

The next three guys on the list achieved their lofty standing by having some offensive breadth of their own. Each of Howe, Esposito and Lemieux led the league at least three times in both goals and assists, and it stands to reason that their excellence in both aspects led to a healthy number of scoring titles for each. Lemieux was slightly fortunate in that all three of his assists crowns were actually ties for the league lead; the Magnificent One never did dominate in this category, although when you convert some of those seasons to per-game metrics his quality shines through a little brighter.

A little further down the list you see players whose success was rooted in one or the other of the main two production categories. In fact, all five of the guys with Morenz Numbers between 7 and 10 have a big fat zero in one of the categories: Hull and Conacher never led the league in assists, while Jagr, Mikita and Orr never did so in goals. Each guy was dominant in their primary function and competent enough in the other to win multiple scoring titles.

Let's do a small case study of the five guys who dominated the 1960s and 1970s, winning a combined 17 Ross Trophies. The Morenz Numbers suggest that Hull was a goal-scoring machine; Mikita and especially Orr were playmakers first and foremost; Esposito and Lafleur were more the all-rounders who could beat you either way. A simple calculation of each player's career assists-to-goals ratio confirms this distribution:

Rockets Gretzkys Howes Titles A:G Ratio
Bobby Hull* 7 0 3 10 0.92
Phil Esposito* 6 3 5 14 1.22
Guy Lafleur* 1 1 3 5 1.42
Stan Mikita* 0 3 4 7 1.71
Bobby Orr* 0 5 2 7 2.39

The two guys at the extreme ends of this spectrum, Hull and Orr, each won many more titles in their specialty than they were able to win points titles. Mikita, while primarily a playmaker, was a solid enough goal scorer to keep himself in contention for the overall scoring title. Both Mikita and Lafleur were able to win one scoring title without leading the league in either component, which further suggests balanced scorers. Of course Orr was a defenceman, the only one ever to lead the league in any offensive category, so his Morenz Number of 7 is a truly extraordinary feat. Give that man his own statue!  

The extreme example on the whole list is Maurice Richard, whose reputation as a goal scorer is secure. He's the only man in the list of 25 who achieved his entire Morenz Number in a single category, indeed he's the only one who never won the league points crown, a famous hole on his resume. His assists to goals ratio of just 0.77 was the lowest of all but the very earliest players listed. (Malone, Lalonde, Dye, and Denneny all scored 3 or 4 goals for every assist they were credited with, back in the NHL's infancy.)

Howie Morenz's own Morenz Number is 4. He is one of just 12 men (bolded on the main list) to have won each of our hypthetical trophies, and his 1927-28 season is one of just 12 in the history of the NHL where the same man led the league in both goals and assists (and of course, points). Call it hockey's triple crown. It's a short list, and an extremely impressive one:

Player Season GP G A P   R-up Q of V
Newsy Lalonde 1918-19 17 23 10 33 28 17.9%
Howie Morenz 1927-28 43 33 18 51 39 30.8%
Gordie Howe 1950-51 70 43 43 86 66 30.3%
Gordie Howe 1952-53 70 49 46 95 71 33.8%
Phil Esposito 1972-73 78 55 75 130 104 25.0%
Wayne Gretzky 1981-82 80 92 120 212 147 44.2%
Wayne Gretzky 1982-83 80 71 125 196 124 58.1%
Wayne Gretzky 1983-84 74 87 118 205 126 62.7%
Wayne Gretzky 1984-85 80 73 135 208 135 54.1%
Wayne Gretzky 1986-87 79 62 121 183 108 69.4%
Mario Lemieux 1988-89 76 85 114 199 168 18.5%
Mario Lemieux 1995-96 70 69 92 161 149 8.1%


For fun I have included a couple columns at right showing the points total of the runner-up in the scoring race, and the Quality of Victory (a term introduced by Jeff Z. Klein and Karl-Erik Reif in their Bill James Baseball Abstract-style "Hockey Compendium" a quarter-century ago). The list includes most of the dominant scoring seasons in NHL history with a few omissions - e.g. Gretzky's 52.5% margin in 1985-86, in which he was so focused on setting an unbreakable assists record (163) that he forgot to lead the league in goals. Ergo, that season is ineligible.

One thing that is immediately apparent is not only does Gretzky have by far the most appearances on this list with 5, but they also have by far the largest Q of V, ranging from 44% to nearly 70%. Not only did he generate the maximum 3 Morenz points in each of those seasons, but he did so by unprecedented margins. Objects in the mirror are further than they appear.

Besides Gretzky, two other men have swept the three scoring categories with a Q of V over 30%, including both of Gordie Howe's triple crowns, and the one by Howie Morenz. There's a reason these dudes have their own statues!

Mario Lemieux on the other hand, shows fairly narrow margins in his two appearances. It is important to note that the runners-up those seasons were Gretzky and Jagr respectively who made the races appear closer than they were; Mario's margin over the third-place finisher was over 20% each time. Indeed, the "exceptional opponent" factor has been identified as a weakness in the Q of V method, and I cheerfully acknowledge that same objection applies to Morenz Numbers.

For a relevant example in another sport, see the impact of Nadal on Federer. Indeed, in that sport and others they measure greatness precisely on the small number set called "career majors". The Morenz Number does something similar.

In all, there are exactly 100 NHLers who have a non-zero Morenz Number. I have focused here on the 25 who have a MN of 4 or greater; I'm reluctant to post a full list due to length, but the others have all been named in the earlier parts of the series.

As for that future the statuesque Stratford Streak appears to embrace, while his own was cruelly cut short, the Morenz bloodline remains in the game to this day. Howie's son-in-law Bernie Geoffrion joins him on the list with his own Morenz Number of 4, his grandson Danny Geoffrion was an NHLer in '70s and '80s, and his great grandson Blake Geoffrion is the current holder of the Hobey Baker Award as the top college player in the United States. Blake is a good  representative of the growth of the game from Morenz's time to now; bred from good Canadian stock, he is an American by birth and a prospect of a Nashville Predators team that his great granddad couldn't possibly have imagined. 

Collectively, the four men featured in this series - Howie Morenz, Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe, and Wayne Gretzky - form a sort of All-Time Hockey Puckmore, representing the greatest offensive stars across the grand history of our game. As with any Puckmore, it's hard to limit oneself to just four; an honourable mention must go to virtually every player who was detailed in the series. I'd like to thank my wife Anna for the idea, which is a variation on the Puckmore series currently being run by PuckDaddy. Also a big shout-out to Hockey-Reference.com for the background stats. And thank you for reading.

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