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Presenting: The Gretzkys

Yesterday we looked at the Retro Rockets. We followed the criteria of the recently-cast Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy, and applied its standards across the decades to determine which players through history had won the equivalent of that trophy the most often. Reader Dawgbone came up with the excellent suggestion:

I think this would be a great idea for the NHL. Have a big ceremony and hand out the Rocket Richard award to those who have won it in the past. It would be a great way to tell the story of some of these players (especially the ones from the first few years).

This is actually do-able, in that the criterion for the award is absolute: there is zero debate about who scored the most goals in any given season. It would be a neat way for the league to recognize many of its past greats, too many of whom are long forgotten.

Today I'm going one step further and looking at the past winners of a trophy that doesn't  yet exist, but I'm pretty sure it will eventually. I'm of course talking about the Wayne Gretzky Trophy as the league's top playmaker.  

Unlike the Retro Rockets which have no fewer than six players bunched between 5-7 goal-scoring titles, there is absolutely zero doubt who is the king of the playmakers. Over the 92 seasons of the NHL's existence, 50 different players have led the league in assists a total of 105 times, including ties. No fewer than 27 players have done this on multiple occasions. However, one name stands alone, far, far above the pack.

Player Gretzkys First Last
Wayne Gretzky* 16 1979-80 1997-98
Bobby Orr* 5 1969-70 1974-75
Frank Boucher* 3 1928-29 1932-33
Joe Primeau* 3 1930-31 1933-34
Bill Cowley* 3 1938-39 1942-43
Elmer Lach* 3 1944-45 1951-52
Gordie Howe* 3 1950-51 1953-54
Stan Mikita* 3 1964-65 1966-67
Phil Esposito* 3 1967-68 1972-73
Mario Lemieux* 3 1988-89 1996-97
Adam Oates 3 1992-93 2001-02
Jaromir Jagr 3 1997-98 2000-01
Joe Thornton 3 2005-06 2007-08
Cy Denneny* 2 1917-18 1924-25
Harry Cameron* 2 1917-18 1921-22
Frank Nighbor* 2 1919-20 1925-26
Art Chapman 2 1934-35 1935-36
Syl Apps* 2 1936-37 1937-38
Doug Bentley* 2 1947-48 1948-49
Ted Lindsay* 2 1949-50 1956-57
Bert Olmstead* 2 1954-55 1955-56
Henri Richard* 2 1957-58 1962-63
Jean Beliveau* 2 1960-61 1965-66
Andy Bathgate* 2 1961-62 1963-64
Bobby Clarke* 2 1974-75 1975-76
Bryan Trottier* 2 1977-78 1978-79
Ron Francis* 2 1994-95 1995-96
* - Hockey Hall of Fame


Wow! 16 times leading the league. It's still hard to believe even though I saw a whole lot of those passes with my own eyes. The Great One led the NHL in assists in his first thirteen seasons running until finally being derailed by a Gary Suter-induced back injury. If you want to see something truly astonishing, check out this list of total assists scored during that 1979-92 period. Click on the header of the "Points" and "GC" (Goals Created) columns while you're at it. At first glance, the Great One is double anybody else. Upon further review, he is very nearly double anybody else. He was the Bambino of Hockey, a colossus astride his sport. He retired with more assists (1963) than any other player has points (2. Mark Messier, 1887), a feat the Great One also accomplished three times in individual seasons, all with the Oilers.

Way, way back in second spot with a "measly" five assists titles stands another giant of the game. Bobby Orr deserves a whole lot of extra love by virtue of being the only defenceman to ever lead the loop in passes even once, let alone five times. His assist titles all occurred during the six-year period 1969-75 when Orr was mostly healthy and entirely dominant. (If you don't believe me, click on the header of the +/- column while you're in the link.) That said, it was no coincidence that the six years in question coincide exactly with the six years that teammate Phil Esposito led the NHL in goals. The two were an awesome tandem that together proved nearly impossible to stop.

Esposito himself ranks among the three-time leaders in assists, including his first two years in Boston while Orr battled injury, and again in the middle of Orr's run when Bobby missed 15 games in 1972-73. Esposito had served as Bobby Hull's centre for three years, two of which saw the Golden Jet lead the NHL in goals, and was an underrated playmaker simply because people saw him firstly as a goal scorer. Esposito had an awful lot of game, though, and proved to be the perfect complement both for Hull, an awesome goal scorer, and for Orr, a consummate playmaker.

The list of three-time winners is studded with pivots from legendary lines: Frank Boucher centred the Bread Line with Bill and Bun Cook, Joe Primeau the Kid Line between Charlie Conacher and Busher Jackson, Elmer Lach the Punch Line between Toe Blake and Rocket Richard, Stan Mikita the Scooter Line with Kenny Wharram and Ab McDonald/Doug Mohns. The great Gordie Howe, meanwhile, did his playmaking from the wing on the fabulous Production Line of Ted Lindsay and Sid Abel/Alex Delvecchio. The first eight of the eleven 3-time winners are all in the Hall of Fame, and the last two seem likely candidates once eligible. Of that group, only Adam Oates is currently in limbo, waiting for the call from the Hall.

The group of two-time winners has even more HHoF presence, with 13 of the 14 players enshrined. Only Art Chapman, who I have to admit was a new name to me, failed to make the grade. Chapman found a home with the New York Americans in the second half of his relatively short career (1930-40), posting Oates-like assists-to-goals ratios while centring a line between future Toronto Maple Leaf stars Sweeney Schriner and Lorne Carr.

To complete the list, below are the 23 players who have won the Gretzky exactly once in their careers.

Player Gretzkys First
Reg Noble* 1 1917-18
Newsy Lalonde* 1 1918-19
Jack Darragh* 1 1920-21
Eddie Gerard* 1 1922-23
Georges Boucher* 1 1923-24
Red Green 1 1924-25
Dick Irvin* 1 1926-27
Howie Morenz* 1 1927-28
Milt Schmidt* 1 1939-40
Phil Watson 1 1941-42
Clint Smith* 1 1943-44
Billy Taylor 1 1946-47
Ted Kennedy* 1 1950-51
Dickie Moore* 1 1958-59
Don McKenney 1 1959-60
Bobby Rousseau 1 1965-66
Guy Lafleur* 1 1976-77
Mark Recchi 1 1999-00
Peter Forsberg 1 2002-03
Martin St. Louis 1 2003-04
Scott Gomez 1 2003-04
Evgeni Malkin 1 2008-09
Henrik Sedin 1 2009-10

There is still a heavy HHoF presence, with 12 of 17 eligible players having been enshrined and Peter Forsberg a sure thing. Jury's still out on the five active players who accomplished this feat, but if nothing else, they are all in very heady company.