The Best Players Ever - Round of 32 - Fourth Heat

Greg Fiume

Who among this group doesn't belong in the discussion about the best hockey players to ever play the game?

The third heat went down largely as I expected (though not as I'd hoped) with Helmuts Balderis and Martin Brodeur joining Newsy Lalonde, Stan Mikita, Bryan Trottier, and Sergei Makarov on the list of first-round eliminations. Today, we've got eight more contenders, and there are no really obvious candidates for elimination. As such, I expect recency bias to reign supreme, which is likely bad news for Joe Malone and Nels Stewart. A brief review of those two and each of the other six contenders is below. The poll at the end will ask you which of these eight should be eliminated from contention, and the two players with the most votes are out. The voting will be open until Wednesday afternoon, and we'll start the next round on Thursday.

Jean Beliveau (1950-1971) - Beliveau is one of just three players to have won at least ten Stanley Cups. All three of Beliveau, Henri Richard, and Yvon Cournoyer did it with the same Montreal dynasty, but Beliveau's contributions far exceeded those of the other two players. Beliveau won the Hart Trophy twice during his career, and was named a First or Second Team All-Star in ten of his eighteen NHL seasons. He was among the top ten in points twelve times, leading the league in points once, in goals twice, and in assists twice.

Phil Esposito (1963-1981) - Esposito is, without question, one of the best offensive players ever. He is ninth on the all-time list with 1.24 points per game, ninth with 0.56 goals per game, tenth with 1,590 points, and fifth with 717 goals. His career shots per game rate of 4.39 is fifth all-time behind Alex Ovechkin, Bobby Orr, Bobby Hull, and Pavel Bure, three of whom played less than 100 games past their 30th birthday. He won the Art Ross Trophy four times, was the league's leading goalscorer six times, won the Hart Trophy twice, and was named a First or Second Team All-Star for eight consecutive seasons from 1967-68 to 1974-75.

Joe Malone (1908-1924) - Malone led the NHL in points twice and in goals twice before the Hart Trophy came into existence, and is one of two players in NHL history to have played at least 100 games and scored more than a goal per game (the other, Newsy Lalonde, was eliminated in an earlier heat). Malone was actually 27 before the NHL came into existence, and so much of his prime was spent with the Quebec Bulldogs of the NHA, a league for which he is the all-time leader in goals (179) and points (205).

Mark Messier (1978-2004) - Messier is best remembered in places other than Vancouver for his longevity, his leadership, his mix of toughness and skill, and of course, for winning. He won six Stanley Cups over his twenty-five season NHL career, picking up two Hart Trophies in 1989-90 and 1991-92. He scored at least half a point per game in every one of those twenty-five seasons except his rookie year, and he's second all-time with 1,887 points and seventh all-time with 694 goals. Messier is also one of just nine players in NHL history to register a point per game and a penalty minute per game over the course of his career (the others being Bobby Orr, Evgeni Malkin, Eric Lindors, Denis Savard, Paul Coffey, Bernie Nicholls, Bobby Clarke, and Theoren Fleury).

Bobby Orr (1967-1979) - Orr played more than 20 games in just nine NHL seasons, and yet he's often considered a lock as one of the best players ever. They were pretty good seasons. Orr won the Norris Trophy and was named a First Team All-Star in eight of them; he won the Calder and was named a Second Team All-Star in the other. He is the only defenseman to have won the Art Ross trophy (he did it twice), and one of just two defensemen to have won the Hart Trophy (he did it three times) since the Norris came into existence. He has five of the eight best point-scoring seasons ever from a defenseman, leads all defensemen with a points per game rate of 1.39 (second place is 1.09), and is second in NHL history among all players with a +/- rating of +597 in just 657 games.

Alex Ovechkin (2005-2014) - I was pretty surprised to see Ovechkin qualify for this tournament automatically, but the amount of hardware he's picked up in his first eight seasons is really impressive when set in historical context. Ovechkin has won three Richard Trophies, one Art Ross, and three Harts so far, and may well be on his way to more this year (he currently leads the league in goals with 10 and in shots with 72). He is currently the all-time leader in shots per game with 5.10 and is fifth in goals per game with 0.62.

Jacques Plante (1952-1975) - It's tough to measure Plante's performance given that he played in an era where the Vezina trophy was given to the goaltender with the best GAA and save percentage wasn't measured. Nevertheless, the man who changed the face of hockey was a First or Second Team All-Star seven times during his career, and is one of just two goaltenders to have won the Hart Trophy. He also outperformed his backups in most seasons, with the key exception of the 1960-61 season where the games were nearly split, and Plante posted a 2.80 GAA, which didn't compare well to Charlie Hodge's 2.47 (Plante still started all of the team's playoff games that year, which suggests that, even at the time, it just looked like a statistical blip). Still, it's hard to get past his biggest contribution to the game: introducing the goalie mask.

Nels Stewart (1925-1940) - Stewart won the Hart Trophy in both 1925-26 and 1929-30, and was one of the top ten goalscorers in the NHL for 13 of 14 seasons from 1925-26 to 1938-39. He received his first Hart Trophy as a 23-year-old rookie, suggesting that he may have been ready for the big league a wee bit sooner! When Stewart retired in 1940, he was the NHL's all-time leader in both goals (324) and points (515). His nickname, "Old Poison", is one of the best ever and was earned in part because of his scoring prowess, and in part because of his on-ice stickswinging and other violence (he was also fifth all-time in penalty minutes at the time of his retirement).

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