The Most Dominant NHL Player in Every Decade
Sidney Crosby, Henrik Lundqvist and Alex Ovechkin all broke into the NHL on the heels of a season-long lockout in 2005. As plain as their impact has been since their respective debuts, the fact that their careers began in the latter half of the 2000s means they were too late to make the decade definitively theirs.
With that said, the 2010s are wide open not only to the three members of that distinguished 2005-06 rookie class, but also other elite players who stepped into The Show late in the last decade or even at the start of this one.
The 2010s will be the 10th full-length decade in the history of the NHL, which began in the 1917-18 season. Whoever plays for the majority of this decade and, in so doing, sets himself apart from his peers will thus join these nine other players in a historical pantheon.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics and award information for this slideshow were found via Hockey-Reference.com.
1920s: Howie Morenz
As brief as they were, the 1924 and 1925 playoffs punctuated Howie Morenz’s first two seasons in the NHL and presaged a career that saw the flashy Montreal Canadien pilot the fledgling league to industrial stability.
In 1924, a 21-year-old rookie Morenz led the team with a 3-1-4 scoring log en route to a 5-2 victory in a two-game, total-goal series against Ottawa to claim the Stanley Cup. The next year, he once again scored three of Montreal's goals to effectively spell the difference in a 5-2, two-game triumph over the Toronto St. Patricks.
It was around this time that American businessman Tex Rickard witnessed Morenz’s craft and decided to bring NHL action to New York City. In turn, the New York Americans followed the Boston Bruins as pioneering U.S. franchises in 1925, one year before the New York Rangers joined Chicago and Detroit in what was then the league’s heaviest single-season wave of expansion.
The formative years of all of those franchises featured no shortage of torment at the hands of the “Stratford Streak.” Morenz charged up three straight 20-goal seasons before upgrading to a league-high scoring log of 33-18-51 in 1927-28.
The last season to feature at least a portion of the 1920s, namely the 1929-30 campaign, saw Morenz insert a career-high 40 goals.
1930s: Eddie Shore
Over a 13-year career spanning from 1927 to 1940, Eddie Shore garnered an All-Star accolade eight times, including seven selections to the first team. The first of those selections came in 1930-31, the last in 1938-39, when he helped the Boston Bruins to their second Stanley Cup in franchise history.
In between, Shore won four Hart Trophies as the league MVP in a span of six seasons between 1932-33 and 1937-38. Bobby Orr is the only other defensemen to have won the Hart more than once, and Shore’s four victories constitute 36.3 percent of the 11 times a blueliner has received the honor.
Shore’s dominance reached a point where, during his prime, he was dubbed the “Babe Ruth of Hockey.”
1940s: Maurice Richard
Joe Malone set a remarkable bar without delay when his 44 goals led all participants in the NHL’s inaugural season in 1917-18.
It took 27 years for anybody to surpass that plateau. But when another Canadien, Maurice Richard, finally did it, he proceeded to achieve a nifty new milestone with the first individual 50-goal campaign in 1944-45.
Two years later, the Habs’ hometown hero netted 45 strikes, giving him both the first- and second-highest single-season goal totals in the league’s first 30 seasons of operation.
At that point, Richard’s career was only five years old, and the player himself was 25 going on 26. Yet he was already a four-time first- or second-team All-Star, and he cemented six consecutive spots on the first team from his sophomore surge in 1944-45 to the turn of the decade in 1949-50.
In that final season to touch the 40s, by the way, Richard topped the goal-getting chart again with 43 strikes. It was the most prolific season by any individual player since, well, Richard scored 45 three years prior.
All of this factored into Richard succeeding Shore as the unofficial titleholder of "the Babe Ruth of hockey." His more common nickname, "The Rocket," was equally fitting, if not more so.
1950s: Gordie Howe
Through his uncanny combination of physical prowess and scoring touch, Gordie Howe topped the list of key cogs on a core group that brought four Stanley Cups in six seasons to Detroit.
That slew of titles coincided with four consecutive Art Ross Trophies for Howe, who topped the NHL’s regular-season point-getting leaderboard every season between 1950-51 and 1953-54. In the middle, he also plugged in a set of back-to-back Hart Trophies in 1952 and 1953.
Later, in 1956-57, Howe earned a fifth Art Ross while eclipsing all goal-getters with a total in the 40-range for the fourth time in the decade. That season also saw the beginning of another set of back-to-back Hart Trophies.
1960s: Bobby Hull
Had the Rocket Richard Trophy been introduced in its namesake’s final season of play, Bobby Hull would have won it seven times in the ’60s.
Hull was one of the earliest players to reap rewards by way of the slap shot, which helped him to four 50-goal seasons after only two other men had mustered one apiece in league history. The aforementioned Richard had his in 1943-44, while Bernie Geoffrion tied the record in 1960-61.
Just one year later, Hull tied both of the Montreal legends and reclaimed the goal-scoring title Geoffrion had usurped from him with his own 50-goal finish. The three runners-up, including the aforementioned Howe, scored 33 apiece.
The three-party knot held up for four years before Hull took sole possession of the single-season record, tuning the mesh 54 times in 1965-66. The second-highest scorer, Frank Mahovlich, tallied 32 on the year.
Hull didn’t quite match that mark in 1966-67, but he did defend his unofficial crown with 52 strikes. Chicago Blackhawks teammate Stan Mikita placed second with 35.
After a “downturn” to 44 in the first year of modern expansion in 1967-68, Hull rounded out his decade of dominance by revising the record yet again. His 58 goals in 1968-69 eclipsed the 49 tallies of Mahovlich and Phil Esposito.
Translation: Hull hit the 50-goal mark four times in one calendar decade while all of his peers combined for zero in that stretch.
1970s: Guy Lafleur
Had his knees not started to crumble midway through the decade, this title would have belonged to the aforementioned Orr. In addition, his Bruins might have also been able to do something about their postseason nemesis from Montreal and that team’s nucleus, Guy Lafleur.
Granted, Lafleur’s first three seasons between 1971-72 and 1973-74 were not especially dazzling. He finished each of those campaigns fifth among the Montreal Canadiens point-getters.
Still, those irreproachable years instantly gave way to six straight finishes in the 50-goal and 100-point range. That included three straight Art Ross Trophies, an NHL-best 80 assists in 1976-77 and a league-leading 60 goals in 1978-79.
On four occasions between 1974-75 and 1978-79, Lafleur led the league in game-winning goals, tallying more than 10 in each of those seasons.
Despite Montreal’s failure even to reach the Stanley Cup Final in 1975, Lafleur led all playoff participants with 12 goals that year. The next year, though, saw the start of a four-year championship dynasty for the Habs, in which time Lafleur topped the tournament charts with 26 points in 1977, 21 in 1978 and 23 in 1979.
His playoff totals for the decade: 98 games, 52 goals (including 14 game-winners) and 68 assists for 120 points.
1980s: Wayne Gretzky
Of the 10 Hart Trophies doled out in the 1980s, Wayne Gretzky won nine of them. Mario Lemieux momentarily disrupted that dynasty by claiming the honor in 1988 before Gretzky picked up his ninth in 1989.
Later that year, around the 10-year anniversary of his NHL debut and with precisely 11 weeks left in the decade, Gretzky surpassed the aforementioned Howe as the league’s all-time leading point-getter. Appropriately enough, he reached the milestone during an Oct. 15, 1989, visit to his old home in Edmonton, where he fueled the visiting L.A. Kings to a come-from-behind thriller.
During that night’s seesaw shootout at Northlands Coliseum, Gretzky tied Howe’s mark of 1,850 career points with an early assist. Later, with the host Oilers safeguarding a 4-3 lead, he tied the game and broke the record with an equalizer at, ironically enough, the 18:50 mark of the third period.
That gave him an unsurpassed 1,851 points in his first 780 NHL regular-season games, 745 of which had taken place in the 1980s. Those points were distributed evenly enough for Gretzky to lead the league in assists in each of his first 13 seasons, goals five of his first eight and points in each of his first eight.
In addition, while in Edmonton, Gretzky had each of the only four 200-point seasons by any NHL player.
Naturally, in five runs to the Stanley Cup Final, four of which ended in an Oilers victory, Gretzky also led all playoff participants in the assist and point column.
1990s: Dominik Hasek
Only six goalies have ever won the Hart Trophy, including just two in the last half-century.
Among those exclusive groups, Dominik Hasek is the lone netminder to have won the Hart twice, let alone in back-to-back years. He did that in the 1996-97 and 1997-98 seasons, which culminated in his Buffalo Sabres’ first playoff series victory in five years and a trip to the Eastern Conference Final, respectively.
The following season, Hasek spurred Buffalo on a Cinderella run from seventh place in the conference to the 1999 Stanley Cup Final, where they ran out of gas and submitted to the top-dog Dallas Stars in six games.
Hasek missed the last two months of the calendar decade, sitting out November and December with a groin injury, which had actually nagged him during the preceding playoffs as well. But that was not before his two Harts and five Vezina Trophies in a span of six years and six straight seasons (1993-99) as the league’s leader in save percentage.
In addition, Hasek stole the show during the first Olympic tournament to involve NHL players, bolstering the Czech Republic’s run to the 1998 gold medal in Nagano.
To say the least, the “Dominator” moniker fit. Ditto the “slinky for a spine” description in Hasek’s TV spots at the tail end of the decade.
2000s: Nicklas Lidstrom
From the award’s 1953-54 inception until the early 1990s, repeat Norris Trophy winners were commonplace. Doug Harvey, Pierre Pilote, Orr, Denis Potvin, Rod Langway, Paul Coffey and Ray Bourque all won at least two in a row on at least one occasion in the prime of their respective careers.
After Bourque won it back-to-back in 1989-90 and 1990-91, though, the title of best all-around defenseman started to hop around habitually. That is, until Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom approached his peak period and won three in a row between 2000-01 and 2002-03.
On the other side of the season-long lockout in 2004-05, Lidstrom reran his three-peat feat by nabbing the Norris in 2005-06, 2006-07 and 2007-08. Two of those seasons saw him break the 60-assist and 70-point plateau, including an 80-point rampage in 2005-06, the most prolific campaign by a blueliner since Bourque charged up 91 in 1993-94.
To punctuate his sixth Norris victory, the last installment of his second three-peat, Lidstrom captained the Red Wings to their most recent Stanley Cup victory in 2008. He was wearing the “C” again when they fell one win shy of a repeat in the decade’s last playoff tournament in 2009.