50 Most Underrated Players in NHL History
There just aren’t enough accolades or recognition to go around, are there?
That fact is especially unfortunate in hockey, the definitive team sport. A player’s solid transcript can be repeatedly overshadowed by a handful of his colleagues or tainted by a team’s repeat shortcomings in the postseason.
Defensive defensemen and pass-happy forwards are often snubbed in individual trophy races in favor of peers who fill the nets more directly. Goalies who either receive overwhelming offensive support or too little of it to take their team anywhere are overlooked in favor of counterparts to sparkle from side to side of the stat sheet.
Adding to the drawback, with room for only 50 men on this list of the NHL’s most underrated players of all-time, several more will be snubbed yet again.
But let us work with what we have and try to do a little more justice in examining the value of the following past and present greats in alphabetical order.
Clarence 'Taffy' Abel
One of the first American NHLers and one of the league’s first towering stay-at-home defensemen, Abel helped two franchises to their first championship. He was in action when the Rangers nabbed the Stanley Cup in 1928 and when the Blackhawks did the same in 1934.
In all, over an eight-year career, Abel was involved in four Cup Finals, his overwhelming size and strength an easy factor in his team's consistent success.
Plenty is made of the fact that, in his final NHL season, Lanny McDonald brought his career regular season goal total to an even 500 and finally won his first Stanley Cup with the Calgary Flames.
Anderson played only 18 additional games, scored only two goals fewer and won five times as many titles with the Flames’ provincial rival from Edmonton. In two of his 11 seasons as an Oiler, he posted a career-high 54 goals.
Yet (and not to take anything away from McDonald) there sure seems to be a cavernous discrepancy in the two players’ legacies. Heck, Anderson was enshrined in the Hall of Fame a good 16 years after McDonald.
Much like his most recent employer, the Phoenix Coyotes, Aucoin spent the better part of the last decade-and-a-half settling for postseason no-shows or first-round fizzles.
That trend finally changed when Phoenix went to the Western Conference Finals in 2012, after Aucoin led all Coyotes defensemen in plus/minus during the regular season. He did the same among Flames blueliners in 2007-08 and all skaters on his teams in 2001-02, 2003-04 and 2010-11.
Publicity-wise, Barber was often buried by offensive colleagues Reggie Leach, Rick MacLeish and fan favorite Bobby Clarke, particularly during the Flyers’ glory years in the mid to late 1970s. That is to say nothing of the “endearing” pugilistic posse piloted by Dave Schultz and the goaltending of Bernie Parent.
However, Barber made no small contribution to Philadelphia’s rise to relevance and four finals appearances and two titles during his 12-year career. He was the team’s leading point-getter in 1980-81, but that was a year after the Flyers lost the Cup to the Islanders and the core group was dissolving by then.
Come what may, as valuable as Clarke and Leach were, the LCB line simply would not have been complete without Barber.
As a side note, Barber continued to contribute to the city’s hockey history when he became the inaugural coach of the Flyers’ new next-door AHL affiliate, the Phantoms, guiding them to a Calder Cup in their second year of existence.
The Buffalo Sabres nabbed Barnes from Pittsburgh in the homestretch of the 1998-99 season. All he did for them that spring was tie Curtis Brown and Dixon Ward with seven postseason goals amidst a Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup Finals.
It was the second time Barnes copiloted an underdog strike force to the fourth and final round, having similarly scored six goals and 10 assists for the 1996 Florida Panthers.
The Montreal Canadiens began to make their imprint on the NHL when they made three consecutive appearances in the Stanley Cup Finals, winning on their second and third tries in 1924 and 1925.
Boucher was the top scorer on both the runner-up team in 1923 and the first championship in the Habs’ NHL era. Yet history gives the glamor to Howie Morenz and Aurel Joliat, who each pole-vaulted over Boucher to top Montreal’s charts en route to a repeat NHL championship in 1925 and who proceeded to concoct more ornate careers for themselves.
For his part, though, Boucher never finished lower than fourth on the Canadiens leaderboard in five full seasons with the team.
Bullard was a prolific Pittsburgh Penguin even before Mario Lemieux arrived, tallying a team-leading 92 points in the 1983-84 season. The following year, with Lemieux now on board, he was fourth-best with 32 goals and 63 points.
In his final year with the Pens, Bullard was the first runner-up to Lemieux on the scoring chart, trailing by 58 points despite a 41-42-83 scoring log.
Later on, in 1987-88, Bullard was one of the better players on one of the better teams in Calgary Flames history. But because he left too soon to partake in the 1989 championship run, his legacy is all but inevitably lost in the midst of Hakan Loob, Al MacInnis, McDonald, Joe Mullen and Joe Nieuwendyk.
Three-quarters of a century after his last game, Chabot is No. 11 on the NHL’s all-time shutout leaderboard with 72. He is also one of only 71 netminders with at least 200 career wins, having won 201 of his 411 games-played in an 11-year career.
How that has never earned him Hall of Fame membership should not cease to boggle the mind.
Ciccarelli’s prolific production (1,200 career points) is generally clouded by his almost equally proportional chippiness (1,425 penalty minutes).
One of the goal-getting leaders on two Stanley Cup finalist teams―Minnesota in 1981 and Detroit in 1995―Ciccarelli was eventually rewarded with Hall of Fame enshrinement in 2010, 11 years after he retired.
Cowley was the setup man behind all three of Mel Hill’s overtime goals that gave Boston a seven-game triumph over the New York Rangers in the 1939 playoffs. The Bruins eventual title would cap off Cowley’s third straight season as the team’s leading scorer.
However, his importance to the club probably never came into full view until after the team’s second Cup in three years and after the Kitchener Kids―Bobby Bauer, Woody Dumart and Milt Schmidt―took leave to serve in World War II.
Although he required four seasons spent predominantly in the minors before becoming an NHL staple, Demitra was an appreciable contributor to his teams between 1997-98 and 2008-09.
In each of those seasons, with the exception of 2007-08, he finished with no fewer than 20 goals and 25 assists. He surpassed the 35-goal mark three times and the 40-assist plateau on four occasions during his seven-year tenure in St. Louis.
The Slovak center was none too shabby on the other side of the puck, either, as evidenced by the fact that he finished every NHL campaign with a positive or even plus/minus rating.
Elias is in a three-way tie for second among the NHL’s all-time regular-season overtime goal-scorers with 15, immediately ahead of past and present New Jersey teammates Scott Niedermayer and Ilya Kovalchuk. His 78 deciding goals altogether have him tied with three others for No. 24 on the all-time leaderboard.
There are two chief reasons for that. One is that he was on numerous irrelevant teams in Hartford and Carolina. The other is that, in between, he was eclipsed by Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Mark Recchi, Paul Coffey, Kevin Stevens, Joe Mullen and Larry Murphy on a couple of Cup-winning teams in Pittsburgh.
But it demonstrates a lack of justice whenever people forget that the Pens nabbed Francis from the Whalers near the end of the regular season in 1991, weeks before winning their first of two straight titles.
The 1983-84 Edmonton Oilers gave Fuhr, along with colleague Andy Moog, an unprecedented shipment of support with an NHL-record 446 goals during the regular season. They followed that with 94 strikes in 19 postseason contests, 16 of which Fuhr played.
While that certainly made the netminder’s life a little easier, Fuhr did the same in holding up his end of the symbiotic relationship. He even assisted on 14 regular-season and three playoff goals, giving him a hand in 3.1 percent of the total offense.
Fuhr went on to backstop four more runs to the Cup in Edmonton, his last title coming in tandem with the 1988 Vezina Trophy. But he was naturally eclipsed in the spotlight by Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri and Mark Messier every year.
In his post-Oiler years, Fuhr would split the 1994 Jennings Trophy with Dominik Hasek.
The Big Bad Bruins of the early 1970s have produced lasting memories of two otherworldly producers in Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito, a winning leader in Johnny Bucyk and some colorful characters in Gerry Cheevers, Pie McKenzie and Derek Sanderson.
Often obscured in that midst is Hodge, who had three 25-goal seasons, one in the 30-goal range two in the 40-range and a 50-goal campaign during his nine-year stay in Boston.
His most memorable year, individually speaking, was his career high of 50 goals (including 11 game-winners) and 105 points in 1973-74. But by then, the Orr-led glory years were just on the cusp of decline.
First, he was a prolific and sometimes leading producer on a handful on non-playoff teams in Hartford and New Jersey. Then, when the Devils surged to the third round in 1988, he proved he could contribute to a winning cause at the top level by placing second on the team with 18 points in as many playoff games.
The fact that Johnson was not far removed from his 1980 Olympic heroics makes his general NHL obscurity all the more mind-boggling.
The following paragraph from a story in the Philadelphia Inquirer published earlier this year offers a sound summation of Kerr’s career achievements:
He was spectacular at hockey. The Flyers' Hall of Famer scored 50 goals for four consecutive seasons, holds the franchise record with 145 power-play goals, and still is the top-scoring right winger in Flyers history, and third overall with 363 goals. This despite 13 separate operations during 13 NHL seasons.
The trouble is that he did almost all of this in the 1980s, which, to most NHL fans, has him caught between Philadelphia’s Bobby Clarke and Eric Lindros eras.
Larmer was an iron man who never missed a game and never scored any fewer than 70 points during an 11-year ride with the Blackhawks. His durability and aptitude receded a touch when he transferred to the Rangers in 1993, but he did at least pitch in some helpful depth en route to the 1994 championship.
In a 12-year career that began under the tutelage of Toe Blake and ended under the guidance of Scotty Bowman and saw him win six Stanley Cups, Lemaire contributed at least 20 goals and 20 assists in each season. However, he only once led his Montreal Canadiens in scoring, totaling 44 goals and 95 points in 1972-73.
More often than not, he was variously outshone by such peers as Jean Beliveau, Yvan Cournoyer, Guy Lafleur, Frank Mahovlich, Pete Mahovlich and Steve Shutt. Still, Lemaire has a rare distinction of having lived through and contributed to the eras of two of Montreal’s most iconic coaches.
As one of only three players to appear in all 50 games, he led the Red Wings altogether the following year with a swollen career-high log of 36-37-73. He tied for second on the 1944-45 edition with 23 goals.
Despite those performances, Syd Howe and Mud Bruneneteau are generally the franchise’s better remembered players from that era.
Ludwig’s name came up again, 13 years after his retirement, during the most recent Stanley Cup tournament as the likes of the Rangers were winning in part due to their habitual shot-blocking.
Ludwig made that his forte, as he served as an unsung hero on two title-taking teams in 1986 and 1999. All of a sudden, the art of skaters acting as an extra layer of goaltender is being implicitly traced back to Ludwig’s effective style.
It was hardly ever easy to hold Maruk liable for a team’s disappointment, but the fact that he missed the playoffs so often kicks ice chips over his legacy.
Beyond the Barons, Maruk stood out on a perennially struggling Washington Capitals team, leading them in scoring for four out of five years. In 1981-82, he finished 49 points ahead of No. 2 producer Ryan Walter and fourth in the league overall with 136 points amidst a third straight non-playoff run with the Caps.
He only twice finished with a negative rating in 18 seasons. One another nine occasions, his plus/minus for the year was higher than his point total, a telling testament to how little the opposing offense could accomplish while he was on duty.
But McCrimmon’s draft year, which had the Bruins taking him seven picks after Ray Bourque, set the tone for a career in which he did his job with less glamor than at least one of his peers. He teamed with Bourque in Boston, Mark Howe in Philadelphia, Al MacInnis in Calgary, Nicklas Lidstrom in Detroit and Chris Pronger in Hartford.
Four of those five men won at least one Norris Trophy. McCrimmon never did.
Murray's career year in 1985-86 featured 99 points and a Selke Trophy. However, his Blackhawks were upset in the first round of the playoffs through a three-game sweep at the hands of the Maple Leafs.
The rest of the time, he was closer to an average performer at best, but an important glue guy who went to the postseason in all but one of 15 years in The Show.
On three occasions in his career, Nicholls went to a new team in the middle of the season―the Rangers in 1990, the Oilers in 1992 and the Devils in 1993. On all three occasions, his new employer enjoyed just as long or a longer postseason than the previous year.
The 1989-90 Rangers had a losing record at the time of Nicholls’ acquisition, but went 18-10-4 in his presence en route to the second round of the playoffs.
In addition, he charged up 118 points in 114 career playoff games. None of his teams ever reached the Stanley Cup Finals, a likely contributing factor to his middle or backseat position in the memory minivan.
Steve Yzerman is generally considered the face of the Detroit Red Wings’ rise from irrelevance in the 1980s to an enviable championship-caliber team in the 1990s.
Because he was dealt to Quebec in the middle of the 1986-87 season, and because Detroit played only seven playoff games during his era, Ogrodnick does not get nearly the same credit. This despite the fact that he was the Red Wings’ top scorer in 1982-83, 1984-85 and 1985-86.
During his short-lived stint with the Nordiques, Ogrodnick averaged a point per night during a 13-game postseason run and later topped the New York Rangers’ scoring chart in 1990. But that team’s rise to full glory, piloted by Mark Messier, was likewise completed after Ogrodnick had left.
During his nearly five-year hiatus away from Detroit, Osgood’s arrival on Long Island, along with the simultaneous import of rookie coach Peter Laviolette, was a key part of the Islanders ending their playoff drought and pushing Toronto to seven games. In all, Osgood won 74 out of 129 career playoff games.
Furthermore, while this can be partially attributed to the help of his elite skating mates, Osgood ranks immediately ahead of none other than Hasek and Vernon on the NHL’s regular-season career wins leaderboard.
Only Conn Smythe winner Joe Sakic had more assists for the Colorado Avalanche during their run to the Stanley Cup in their inaugural season. Only Sakic and Valeri Kamensky had more assists or points for the Avs the following postseason in 1997.
Ozolinsh was later a midseason acquisition by Anaheim who pitched in on the Mighty Ducks’ unlikely run to Game 7 in the 2003 championship round.
Pederson may go down in infamy as the compensation in a deal that had Cam Neely going from Vancouver to Boston. But Pederson himself could not be faulted for the Canucks’ failure to make the playoffs in his first two seasons with them.
In both years, he led his new team with 52 assists, meaning the team’s state of affairs could have been worse had he not been available to set up all of those scoring plays.
As it happened, his availability did begin to decline, along with his health, after that 1987-88 campaign. He played a steadily declining number of games (62, 54, 46, 37) with each successive season.
The most likely reason why he is not more readily remembered is that he lost all five of his bids for the Cup. He went to the final round with Philadelphia in 1980, 1985 and 1987 and then with the Bruins in 1990 and the North Stars in 1991, but was never rewarded for his input.
Any recollections of the Toronto Maple Leafs' most recent banner years will most likely mention the names Johnny Bower, Tim Horton, Red Kelly, Dave Keon and Frank Mahovlich before anybody gets around to Pulford.
Pulford’s contributions to championship runs in 1962, 1963, 1964 and 1967 should never be forgotten, though. Especially given that he tallied a team-leading 10 assists during the 1967 playoffs, the last tournament to date to be won by Toronto.
Maybe things would have been different and Ratelle would be remembered in a more distinguished manner if his career year in 1971-72 had culminated in a Cup for his Rangers. As it happened, the team that beat his Blueshirts for that year’s championship, the Bruins, later acquired him and repeatedly came up short every spring that he was there.
In all, Ratelle logged 98 playoff points in 123 career games, but no titles in any of three finals. Until his 1985 Hall of Fame induction, the best individual honor he could garner was the second-ever Lester B. Pearson Award, courtesy of his peers.
The brevity of Redmond’s playing career (he retired months before he turned 30) is the most likely reason his legacy is underappreciated.
But he did tally 27 goals and 27 assists in one of his two full seasons in Montreal and hovered around or above the point-per-game mark in five-plus years as a Red Wing. He logged 42, 52 and 51 goals, respectively, in the seasons between 1971-72 and 1973-74, then tallied a cumulative 26-29-55 log in 66 games over two injury-shortened campaigns.
Richer is easily one of the less heralded postseason clutch performers in NHL history. He scored the decider in 13 of the 134 Stanley Cup playoff games he participated in, including four in overtime, as well as four equalizers and 15 power-play strikes.
Upon transferring with his Whalers from the WHA, Rogers promptly produced three consecutive triple-digit point campaigns with Hartford and the New York Rangers. He proceeded to lead the Blueshirts with 76 points in 1982-83 and placed second on the team with 64 points in 1984-85.
It was not the best time, however, for a hockey player to be shining in Manhattan, for the Rangers were being perpetually eclipsed by the Islanders’ dynasty at the time.
He later led the expansion Nashville Predators in scoring for each of that team’s first four years of operation and then took a backseat to Marian Gaborik the same way he had behind Bure during Minnesota’s unlikely run to the third round in 2003.
In the first 12 years of his NHL career, Stevens was a prolific point patroller who was also consistently efficient in his day job on defense for the Capitals, Blues and Devils. For the final decade of his playing days, his production was a fraction of its former self, but his defensive prowess only grew stronger as he captained New Jersey to three Stanley Cup titles.
All that notwithstanding, the Professional Hockey Writers Association inexplicably never saw it fit to bestow Stevens with a Norris Trophy. The only individual accolade on his trophy case is the 2000 Conn Smythe Trophy.
After toiling for six years on a perennial playoff no-show in Calgary, Stillman finally got a few tastes of bonus action in St. Louis and then won two Cups in as many seasons with Tampa Bay and Carolina.
Naturally, on those teams, he was generally shadowed by Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, Eric Staal, Rod Brind’Amour and Cam Ward. But with both teams, he logged 55 regular-season assists, a subtle but important means of ultimately helping the Bolts and the Canes get the high seeds they needed for critical postseason contests.
Along with his teammate, the aforementioned Rogers, Stoughton was part of the Whalers team that transferred from the WHA. In the franchise’s first NHL season, he joined the company of Rogers among the eight players in the league to tally at least 100 points.
In the team’s first year without Rogers, Stoughton took over as the top scorer with 52 goals and 91 points on a team that finished 20 games below .500. The following season, he led the Whalers with 45 goals and finished second in the points category between the aforementioned Francis and Johnson.
Perhaps most famous for being one-third of the L.A. Kings’ Triple Crown Line, opposite Marcel Dionne and Charlie Simmer, Taylor had a pair of 90-point seasons to his credit even before Simmer was a full-time NHL player.
So far, Dionne is the only member of the troika in the Hall of Fame. If one or both of the other two are to join him, Taylor ought to be the first.
Tonelli placed third on the New York Islanders’ point-getting leaderboard when the team won its third and fourth consecutive championship in the early 1980s. But he was constantly statistically eclipsed by fellow forwards Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier and always garnered less of the spotlight than elite blueliner Denis Potvin and netminder Billy Smith.
Even the less productive Bobby Nystrom is more synonymous with the Islanders’ glory days, if only for the fact that his overtime goal sparked the dynasty in 1980.
Through 680 career games, Vokoun is only three games above .500, but only four of the 13 NHL teams he has backstopped in Nashville, Florida and Washington have been playoff teams. In addition, he ranks No. 27 on the all-time career shutout list with 48.
The fact that the Penguins have nabbed Vokoun from the Capitals to make him Marc-Andre Fleury’s presumptive backup is not a knock on Vokoun’s aptitude. Rather, it is a testament to Pittsburgh’s desperate need of strong goaltending insurance.
Upon his return, he had hardly lost his touch on the ice. Watson continued to tally double-digit goals in each of the next 11 years and led the 1948-49 Maple Leafs with 45 points.
The rest of the time, he was eclipsed by at least a handful of his teammates, but nonetheless was a consistent key, as Toronto won four titles in seven years with him.
Blue-line colleague Brian Leetch deservingly won the Conn Smythe in 1994, but Zubov was an indispensable half of the Rangers’ one-two punch of offensive defensemen. His 77 assists and 89 points led the Blueshirts to that year’s regular-season title, without which they may not have had home ice for Game 7 in either the conference or Cup championship rounds.
Zubov similarly pitched in on the next team to win both the President’s Trophy and the Stanley Cup, the 1998-99 Dallas Stars. He tallied 51 points during the regular season and 12 helpers in the playoffs, which featured another Game 7 conference final triumph on home ice.
In between, he set up 14 goals for a Pittsburgh squad that fell one win shy of a berth in the 1996 finals.