9 Best Team Leaders in NHL Playoff History
Each spring, legends are born during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, as each NHL team embarks on the physically and mentally taxing quest to capture arguably the most difficult championship trophy in all of professional sports.
On each Stanley Cup-winning team's roster, there are players that have proved their worth by leading their teammates to victory—both by putting on dominating performances and coming up with timely contributions at critical stages of big games.
The plays that superstars are remembered for don't typically occur during the regular season, primarily because it's much harder to stand out when every team is leaving everything they have on the ice.
Take Steve Yzerman, for example. The moments he's most remembered for are his clutch goals and sacrifices made during the postseason, despite the fact that he's got a highlight reel's worth of tallies during the regular season.
With that in mind, here are the nine best leaders in Stanley Cup Playoff history.
9. Wayne Gretzky
The consensus greatest player of all time needs no introduction. As far as leaders go, Wayne Gretzky was also one of the most successful captains the game has ever seen.
During his first four seasons, Gretzky enjoyed moderate levels of success in the postseason. He led Edmonton to the 1983 Stanley Cup Finals, where the Oilers were beaten handily by the New York Islanders.
However, a year later, Gretzky helped the Oilers to their first of four Stanley Cups in five years, collecting a pair of playoff MVP awards along the way.
Though his accomplishments with the Oilers were impressive, when Gretzky took his act to Los Angeles in 1988, he was faced with a much bigger challenge. The Kings had been a perennial basement-dwelling team, and Gretzky managed to lead his new team deep into the 1993 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
With the Kings facing the Toronto Maple Leafs at Maple Leaf Gardens in a Game 7, Gretzky put on a show. In that game (which Gretzky has often referred to as the greatest he ever played in an NHL uniform), the Great One notched a hat trick, leading the Kings to the franchise’s first-ever appearance in the Finals.
Even as a 36-year-old with the New York Rangers, Gretzky led them to the Eastern Conference Finals with 20 points in 15 games, before falling to the Philadelphia Flyers.
His career numbers of 382 points in just 208 games are mind-boggling, which is why Gretzky has to be considered one of the greatest leaders in playoff history.
8. Joe Sakic
One of the quietest superstars in recent memory, Joe Sakic was a prototypical lead-by-example type of captain. As the owner of one of the most lethal wrist shots in the game, Sakic was an offensive force to be reckoned with.
He saved some of his best performances for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In the Avalanche’s first season in Denver, Sakic led the Avalanche with 51 goals and 120 points. As great as he was during the regular season, he was even better during the postseason.
Sakic’s play during the 1996 playoffs was the stuff of legends, as the Burnaby, British Columbia native tallied 18 goals and 34 points, capturing both the Conn Smythe Trophy and Stanley Cup for his efforts.
What’s even more impressive than his offensive totals is the timing of his contributions, as Sakic holds the all-time record for the most overtime goals in the playoffs with eight.
Five years later, Sakic led the Avalanche back to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they faced the reigning champion New Jersey Devils.
After Sakic helped the Avs defeat the Devils in Game 7, he opted to pass the Cup directly to veteran defenseman Ray Bourque, who had waited 22 years for his first sip from the coveted chalice.
7. Scott Stevens
Though the New Jersey Devils of the 1990s and early 2000s are thought of as some of the most boring squads to ever win the Stanley Cup, there was nothing dull about captain Scott Stevens’ game.
Stevens was one of the most devastating hitters the game has ever seen, evidenced by the concussions he dealt to Paul Kariya, Eric Lindros and Slava Kozlov, among others, during his Hall of Fame career.
Despite the fact that Stevens posted just three goals and 11 points during the Devils’ Stanley Cup run in 2000, the longtime captain was given the Conn Smythe Trophy for his stingy defensive play and physicality.
Though Scott Niedermayer and Martin Brodeur were key cogs in the Devils’ defense, Stevens was the heart and soul of the team. Without him, none of New Jersey’s three Cup wins would have been possible.
6. Brian Trottier
The New York Islanders of the late 1970s and early 1980s were a dynastic team that was virtually unstoppable, as the franchise collected four consecutive Stanley Cups.
Though the team had a host of superstar talent, like Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy, Clark Gillies and Billy Smith, arguably the greatest postseason performer of them all was Hall of Fame centerman Brian Trottier.
In each of the Islanders’ four Stanley Cup runs, Trottier notched at least 20 points, including three consecutive 29-point performances. During the team’s first Stanley Cup victory in 1980, Trottier was handed the Conn Smythe Trophy for his play as a part of the Trio Grande line alongside Bossy and Gillies.
Unlike Wayne Gretzky, who was just beginning his assault on the NHL’s scoring records, Trottier was a two-way force who was capable of both scoring goals and putting opponents through the end boards.
5. Jean Beliveau
Not many players were lucky enough to win multiple Stanley Cups, but the great Jean Beliveau won 10 during his 16 seasons in the NHL.
Beliveau entered the league in 1953 as one of the most highly touted prospects in NHL history. It didn’t take long for him to make his presence felt, as he helped lead the Montreal Canadiens to five straight Stanley Cups between 1956 and 1960.
In 1961, Beliveau was named captain of the Canadiens as a 30-year-old, and the skilled pivot continued to bring championship parades to Montreal.
In 1965, Beliveau put on arguably his most dominant postseason performance, leading the Habs to yet another Stanley Cup with 16 points in 13 games, earning himself the only Conn Smythe Trophy of his career in the process.
In the following six seasons, which would be Beliveau’s last in the NHL, he guided the Canadiens to four more Stanley Cups, and he retired as the longest-tenured captain in franchise history.
As a member of 10 Cup-winning teams, Beliveau shared the ice with some of the greatest players of all time. He often took center stage as the unquestioned leader of arguably the greatest dynasty in hockey history.
4. Mario Lemieux
When the Pittsburgh Penguins took Mario Lemieux with the top pick in the 1984 NHL Draft, the 18-year old phenom from Montreal was expected to almost single-handedly reverse the fortunes of a struggling franchise.
It took a couple of years, but the sublimely gifted big man did just that, leading the Penguins to the Stanley Cup Finals in just his seventh season. In the 1991 Stanley Cup Finals, Lemieux scored 12 points in five games to give him 44 on the postseason, and the Penguins captured their first-ever Cup.
A year later, Lemieux helped the Penguins repeat as champions, collecting his second consecutive Conn Smythe Trophy after posting 34 points in just 15 playoff games.
Though Lemieux would come close during the later stages of his career, injuries and a battle with cancer took their toll on the superstar’s body, and he would never again advance to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Lemieux retired as the NHL’s record-holder for goals and points in a game, and scored a truly incredible 172 points in just 107 postseason contests. Even after coming out of retirement in 2000-01, Lemieux led the Penguins to the Eastern Conference Finals at the age of 35, scoring 17 points in 18 games while battling chronic back problems.
His legacy as one of the greatest postseason performers is unquestioned. Lemieux transformed the entire franchise from one of the worst teams in the league to a consistent Stanley Cup contender.
3. Bobby Orr
When the Boston Bruins signed a 14-year-old named Robert Gordon Orr in 1962, the franchise couldn’t possibly have realized how great of a talent they’d locked up for the future.
Eight years later, Orr led the Bruins to their first Stanley Cup in nearly 30 years in dramatic fashion, scoring the Cup-winning goal in overtime against the St. Louis Blues.
At just 22, Orr collected the Conn Smythe Trophy for his efforts, and two years later, he repeated the feat by capturing his second Cup and Conn Smythe.
More importantly, Orr revolutionized the position completely, becoming the first pure offensive defenseman the game had ever seen, as he registered six 100-point seasons during his time in Boston.
Unfortunately, his career would be cut short due to a series of knee injuries. Orr still retired as the greatest defenseman of all time, and the man who returned the Bruins to Stanley Cup glory.
2. Steve Yzerman
The longtime Red Wings captain was probably already a lock for the Hockey Hall of Fame prior to the 1996-97 NHL campaign. He cemented his status as one of the game’s all-time greats when he led Detroit to the franchise’s first Cup in 42 years.
A year later, he captured the Conn Smythe, as the Wings repeated as champions in 1998. In 2002, a battered and bruised Yzerman led his team to their third Stanley Cup in six years.
Yzerman’s penchant for clutch goals, shot-blocks and everything in between was a driving force behind the Wings’ playoff success. More than anything, the Crabrook, British Columbia native was the spiritual heart and soul of the team.
He’s a legend in Motown, and fans will always be appreciative of his postseason contributions. He helped transform the Red Wings from a tortured franchise into a perennial Cup contender.
1. Mark Messier
As the only player in NHL history to captain two different teams to Stanley Cups, Mark Messier is widely regarded as one of the greatest champions ever to lace up the skates.
Though Wayne Gretzky was obviously the brightest star of the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s, Messier was the one who had his name engraved on the Conn Smythe Trophy after the Oilers’ first Cup run in 1984.
After Gretzky left town in 1988, the Edmonton native captained his hometown team to a fifth Stanley Cup in 1990.
While his play with the Oilers made him a star, his legend only grew when he guided the New York Rangers to a Stanley Cup win in 1994.
Fittingly, Messier’s guarantee prior to Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Devils was a turning point for the Blueshirts that spring.
The captain delivered on his promise by notching a hat trick. Eight games later, the Cup came back to Broadway for the first time in 54 years.