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Every NHL Decade's Greatest Team for a 3-on-3 Tournament

Allan MitchellFeatured Columnist IIIJanuary 4, 2017

Every NHL Decade's Greatest Team for a 3-on-3 Tournament

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    GENE J. PUSKAR/Associated Press

    The NHL's new three-on-three tournament has hockey fans excited to see action-packed games with chances at each end in a matter of seconds.

    One element worth discussing? Who would have dominated a three-on-three tournament in previous decades? Beginning in the 1920s, here is a look—by decade—at the three best options for this kind of tournament over the years.

    Note: Each decade is unique, so if a player dominated in two decades, he is eligible to appear, based on performance, twice on this list. All players selected were among the leaders in points per game in each decade and played at least five seasons in the 10 years in question. The only exceptions to the five-year rule are: Bobby Orr in the 1960s, as his four seasons revolutionized the game; Mario Lemieux, who played in parts of five seasons in the 2000s but only 170 games total in the decade.

1920s: Howie Morenz, Babe Dye and King Clancy

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    Associated Press

    What Did Hockey Look Like Then? The 1920s were a period of rapid changes, from the relaxed usage of the forward pass to increasing the size of the neutral zone. Rauzulu's Street has an excellent overview of the decade and the enormous change in the look of the game at that time.

    This Trio's Impact on the Decade: Among forwards who played five or more seasons in the 1920s, no one scored at a more prolific rate than Babe Dye and Howie Morenz. King Clancy patrolled the blue line but emerged from the decade as the top-scoring defender. All three men would make it into the Hockey Hall of Fame. In a three-on-three tournament, Clancy could easily get the puck to Morenz, who could motor up ice and either shoot or find Dye—whose shot could have found the net in any era.

    What Kinds of Players Were They? The Morenz biography at the Hockey Hall of Fame begins with a reference to his being the first superstar in the league's grand history. The Montreal Canadiens sniper was a brilliant skater and an impact offensive player. Dye's biography reveals he was shy as a skater but possessed great stick-handling ability and a terrific shot, making him the first of many impact players with the skill set over the decades. Clancy was a legend for his skills and his rugged play, despite being 5'8'' and overmatched in most physical confrontations.

1930s: Charlie Conacher, Sweeney Schriner and Eddie Shore

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    Associated Press

    What Did Hockey Look Like Then? The 1930s saw offense increase again, mostly because of the further liberalization of passing—this time in all three zones. Icing rules were also introduced during this decade. 

    This Trio's Impact on the Decade: Charlie Conacher, Sweeney Schriner and Eddie Shore dominated offensively—based on their position—through the 1930s. All three men have plaques in the Hall of Fame, and Shore's fame has sustained more than almost any legendary player from the period before 1942. His rambunctious style and fierce competitiveness gave rise to stories that are told to this day.

    What Kinds of Players Were They? Charlie Conacher gained enormous fame during this decade as part of The Kid Line, with Joe Primeau and Busher Jackson. Sweeney Schriner's story was unusual for the time—he was born in Russia, raised in Canada—but he emerged in the second half of the decade as an elite scorer. Eddie Shore brought nasty play and tremendous skill to every game.

1940s: Doug Bentley, Bill Cowley and Babe Pratt

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    What Did Hockey Look Like Then? The 1940s began the period generally known as "The Original Six" era. It was dominated by three teams—the Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs—but impact players skated in all six cities. 

    This Trio's Impact on the Decade: Bill Cowley was the dominant offensive player of the decade, averaging 1.26 points per game in his seven seasons during the 1940s. Doug Bentley, of the famous Bentley brothers from Delisle, Saskatchewan, wasn't far behind in terms of offense and was a legend for the Chicago Blackhawks. Babe Pratt starred for both the New York Rangers and Toronto during the decade, delivering impressive offense for the era from the blue line. 

    What Kinds of Players Were They? Bill Cowley was a supreme playmaking center and led the NHL in assists three times. He may be one of the more underrated impact players in the history of the game. Doug Bentley was known as a complete player and was generally associated with his brothers during his player career. Babe Pratt was an offensive defenseman in an era of stay-at-home types and would have been brilliant at three-on-three in this decade or any era.

1950s: Gordie Howe, Jean Beliveau and Red Kelly

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    What Did Hockey Look Like Then? The 1950s featured tremendous talents in all cities and two dominant teams—the Detroit Red Wings and the Montreal Canadiens.

    This Trio's Impact on the Decade: Gordie Howe and Jean Beliveau were the finest offensive players in a decade that featured dozens of brilliant performers. Although their styles differed, both were deadly effective with the puck on their sticks. Red Kelly was a highly skilled offensive defenseman who could impact the offense while also taking care of the defensive aspects of the game. 

    What Kinds of Players Were They? Gordie Howe was an imposing physical player with the complete skill set, and he was probably the most consistent player in the game's history. Jean Beliveau was smooth, classy and powerful, very effective on the power play and an esteemed leader even at a young age. Red Kelly was one of the game's truly unique players, as he spent the 1950s as a defenseman and the 1960s as a center—and was outstanding in both roles. Mobile and creative, he and his two forwards would probably have dominated most of the decades in the game's history in three-on-three. 

1960s: Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull and Bobby Orr

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    Paul Cannon/Associated Press

    What Did Hockey Look Like Then? The 1960s saw the beginning of the expansion era, meaning an explosion in points, uniform colors and trades.

    This Trio's Impact on the Decade: Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull were such a dynamic duo, they broke a long string of Stanley Cup wins for the Detroit Red Wings and Montreal Canadiens. The Chicago Blackhawks' Stanley Cup in 1961 was the first in decades. Bobby Orr arrived in the fall of 1966 and changed the game of hockey like no man before or since. 

    What Kinds of Players Were They? Stan Mikita was a slick center who had both a dynamite release and exceptional playmaking ability. Bobby Hull owned the hardest shot in history and used it liberally—finding the net an incredible 440 times during the decade. Bobby Orr changed the game forever, as he was the first impact offensive player from the defensive position—reflected in his finishing the 1960s averaging more than a point per game.

1970s: Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and Guy Lafleur

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    SAL VEDER/Associated Press

    What Did Hockey Look Like Then? The 1970s saw continued expansion and a dramatic increase in scoring. By 1979, the records from the previous five decades had been trashed.

    This Trio's Impact on the Decade: Bobby Orr led the charge in points per game, an unthinkable idea even in the 1960s. Phil Esposito was the king of the long shift and scored goals from the slot, as teams could not move him from the area in front of the net. Guy Lafleur was fast and brilliant, dynamic on every offensive sortie and as good a player as anyone has ever seen from 1974 to 1980.

    What Kinds of Players Were They? Bobby Orr was probably the best player in the game's history. No player changed the game more or had a greater direct impact on the game we see today. Phil Esposito was a unique player, his combination of size and skill not previously seen in the NHL. Guy Lafleur was high-octane offense, wildly creative and almost impossible to defend in his heyday.

1980s: Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Paul Coffey

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    Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

    What Did Hockey Look Like Then? The 1980s featured unbridled offense and wobbly goaltending, as scoring records continued to fall monthly.

    This Trio's Impact on the Decade: Wayne Gretzky arrived in the NHL during 1979-80 and pushed the offense to new heights immediately. Mario Lemieux had enormous offensive seasons, exceeded only by Gretzky, and sometimes derailed by injury. Paul Coffey was another forward on the ice, his combination of speed and vision so strong teams often had no answer for his quick-strike ability.

    What Kinds of Players Were They? Wayne Gretzky is the most famous hockey player in NHL history and is full value for it. His ability to find the open man with a pass or to beat goalies with a deft deke or shot remains unparalleled in the game. Mario Lemieux was a force of nature, combining size—he was 6' 4'', 230 pounds—with terrific hands and great speed. Paul Coffey was one of the finest skaters ever and used a great shot and passing ability to break defensive scoring records set by the great Bobby Orr. In their prime, these three men might not give up the pick in a three-on-three tournament. 

1990s: Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky and Ray Bourque

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    GENE J. PUSKAR/Associated Press

    What Did Hockey Look Like Then? The 1990s featured the introduction of video replays and the two-referee system.

    This Trio's Impact on the Decade: Mario Lemieux led the decade in points per game, followed closely by Wayne Gretzky. At this time, the competition was very strong, as Eric Lindros, Jaromir Jagr, Pat LaFontaine, Teemu Selanne, Joe Sakic and more were worthy of mention. 

    What Kinds of Players Were They? Mario Lemieux was one of the truly unique players in the game's history. He was big, strong and physical, but he was also creative and elusive. There may have been a case for Lemieux being the best player in history, with only health issues and injury keeping him from that plateau.

    Wayne Gretzky in the 1990s was less a scorer and more a playmaker, and of course his trade to Los Angeles made hockey a more prominent game in a major U.S. market.

    Ray Bourque had two main strengths: a complete range of skills and amazing consistency. A fine passer, puck-mover and offensive player, he was equally effective without the puck and battling defensively.

    This trio would have no problem winning more than its share of games three-on-three, and Bourque might give it an edge defensively.

2000s: Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Sergei Gonchar

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    What Did Hockey Look Like Then? The 2000s saw several rule changes, but the game looked much as it does today. In 2005-06, the goal line was moved 11 feet from the end boards, and the blue line moved to 75 feet from the end boards. The result was a shortening of the neutral zone from 54 to 50 feet. The center line was eliminated for two-line passes, and the tag up offside rule was reinstated. Restrictions on the goaltender playing the puck outside a designated area were introduced. The team icing the puck was not allowed substitution for the next faceoff. All information via Rauzulu's Street.

    This Trio's Impact on the Decade: Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin dominated a decade that saw a reduction in scoring. They arrived in the same season—2005-06—and their careers have run parallel to each other since then. Both are destined for the Hall of Fame and are fantastic talents. Sergei Gonchar was one of the few defensemen who could sustain offense through the 2000s, and his power-play brilliance was a big part of his team's success.

    What Kinds of Players Were They? Sidney Crosby has been the best player in the game for much of his career. Injuries have impacted in recent years, but he is outstanding with the puck on his stick and can score or set up plays with equal skill.

    Alex Ovechkin is the personification of a bull in a china shop, with speed and power in equal parts. Ovechkin should be considered one of the most exciting players in the history of the game.

    Sergei Gonchar combined great vision and passing ability with an effective wrist shot to riddle opponents. The modern game produces many offensive defensemen, but few with the sustaining power of Gonchar.

2010s: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Erik Karlsson

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    What Did Hockey Look Like Then? The game you see today hasn't changed much from the beginning of the decade. 

    This Trio's Impact on the Decade: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have been terrors for years together and are a big part of the Pittsburgh Penguins' success. Erik Karlsson is an amazing playmaker and power-play quarterback who is posting eye-popping offensive numbers from the blue line.

    What Kinds of Players Were They? Sidney Crosby has a unique combination of speed, power and creativity, all of which can be effective in any game state. His excellence across all layers of the game may cause some to underestimate him or take him for granted—at their peril.

    Evgeni Malkin combines power and finesse as required and has exceptional stick-handling ability and vision.

    Erik Karlsson is a wizard with the puck, elusive and brilliant. In the game's long history, there may not be a better equipped player for the fast back and forth of the three-on-three game.

    Note: There are several years to go in this decade, it it very likely we see a new trio by 2020.

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