The Best Players Ever - Round of 24 - Third Heat

Who among this group isn't one of the ten best players ever?

The second heat in the round of 24 went much like the first in that voters and I were in agreement on which player was most deserving of elimination. Doug Harvey's ouster leaves "just" five more Montreal Canadiens in the tournament, and two of them will be flying the Montreal flag today alongside four others. The group of greats is Mike Bossy, Ray Bourque, Guy Lafleur, Mario Lemieux, Jacques Plante and Eddie Shore. Each of those six has won at least one Stanley Cup, and the group combines for an astounding twenty championships. No one here is bowing out for being a loser. Individual profiles for each player can be found in the links below:

Mike Bossy
Ray Bourque and Eddie Shore
Jacques Plante
Guy Lafleur and Mario Lemieux

Before writing this post, I consulted with the Copper and Blue writers, and six shared their picks, and for the first time we had the vote split three ways, but five votes went to the two Canadiens: three writers suggested eliminating Jacques Plante (Alan, DB, Derek), two suggested eliminating Guy Lafleur (Ben, Scott), and one went with Eddie Shore (OilYYC).

The Eddie Shore vote is an odd one. Shore is one of just three players in the history of the league to have won four or more Hart Trophies as the league's most valuable player, and there was no question about the other two (Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe) making it into the next round. Shore won those Hart Trophies from 1932-33 to 1937-38, a six-year period that saw him lead all defensemen in scoring by a substantial margin. We don't have as much information about that era as I would like in order to make a determination for his top-ten candidacy, but I'm confident that Shore belongs in the top twenty.

That leaves the two Canadiens, and I think the decision is pretty close. Guy Lafleur was truly excellent in his prime. If we look at age 23 to 29 seasons, Lafleur won the Hart Trophy twice and was a First Team All-Star for six consecutive years. He has the third-best points per game rate ever in that age ragne at 1.63, behind only Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux (who are miles ahead). He'd move down the list a touch if we adjusted for era, but that's still an awfully impressive showing.

The problem is, Lafleur faded very quickly. In March of 1981 (his age 29 season), Lafleur was in a car accident after falling asleep at the wheel. Lafleur stayed with the Habs for his age 30 to 33 seasons, but his production over those four seasons wasn't nearly as good either in absolute or historical terms. Lafleur moves down into a tie for 31st all-time in points per game at 1.01, and an era adjustment would send him flying down the list. When the Canadiens refused to honor his trade request, Lafleur retired for several seasons before joining the Rangers and then Nordiques for three seasons from age 37 to 39.

Jacques Plante is a different story. In Plante's era the Vezina trophy was given to the starting goaltender on the team with the best goals against average. That being the case, it probably makes more sense to look at All-Star selections in order to judge the league's best goaltender, and Plante was named a First Team All-Star just three times in his career (1955-56, 1958-59, and 1961-62). Glenn Hall and Terry Sawchuk, both of whom also played in the 50s and 60s, won seven and three respectively. If we add Second Team nods, Plante adds four, but Hall and Sawchuk add four as well, which makes it look like Plante was probably the second or third-best goaltender of his era. All of which makes it sound like Plante should be eliminated.

Except that he shouldn't. Jacques Plante was an excellent goaltender for two decades, recording what may have been his best season in 1970-71 at the age of 42. We don't have official save percentage numbers from that season, but it's quite possible that his age 42 season was the best save percentage season ever. According to The Hockey Compendium, Plante's save percentage that year was .942 that year (the best of his career), which would still be an NHL record today. At first blush, it seems too implausible to be true, but Plante's 1.88 goals against average in 2,329 minutes was far better than the 3.39 of his creasemates in 2,351 minutes (also: the Leafs probably should have played him more). Add that to his NHL-record eight times leading the league in goals against average, and the fact that he changed the position forever when he put on a mask, and I think it's enough to keep Plante in the discussion for at least one more round.

That's my opinion. Voice yours by voting and in the comments below! Voting will be open until Sunday afternoon, with this round's final heat going up on Monday.

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