Don't You Forget About Me: 30 Years of Every NHL Team's Forgotten Soldiers
This is by no means an attempt to identify the "most underrated" players on every team over the last 30 years. Nor is it an attempt to elevate role players to an otherwise undeserved level of regard—rather, this list is a compilation of players who might otherwise be passed over when discussing players who made a meaningful contribution to their team’s success on some level.
We tend to remember the victorious, the notorious and the vainglorious—what I offer is simply a tribute to the overlooked, the underrated. After so many years, meaningful contributions can become footnotes, and great performances forgotten. Here's to the one-time heroes, the foot soldiers, the quiet contributors, the locker-room leaders—the forgotten. Almost.
Steve Rucchin, Anaheim (Mighty) Ducks
Honourable Mention: Oleg Tverdovsky
Steve Rucchin’s career is a testament to how far good instincts, smarts and hard work can take a player in the absence of divine talent.
First taking to the ice halfway through the ’94-95 season, Rucchin would play 10 productive years with the Ducks, having the good fortune to centre a line with Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne along the way. When healthy, Rucchin was a lock for 20 goals and 55-60 points. Along with his solid passing skills, faceoff prowess and dynamism on the PK, Rucchin also brought a considerable presence to the locker room, articulated by his three years with an "A" and two with the "C."
Rucchin’s solid all-around play helped the Mighty Ducks to their first Stanley Cup appearance—a hard-fought seven-game defeat at the hands of the New Jersey Devils in ’02-03. At the time of writing, Rucchin continues to occupy a place in the top five of all Ducks' career offensive categories.
Garnet Exelby, Atlanta Thrashers
Honourable Mention: Ray Ferraro
Drafted 217th overall the during Thrashers inaugural draft in 1999, it would not be difficult to argue that Exelby had more of an impact than his future teammate chosen 216 spots before him. And "impact" is perhaps the word most appropriate when describing the extremely physical Exelby’s game.
Not huge by defensive standards at 6’1”, it did not take long after his ’02-03 debut with the club for opposing players to begin taking notice of who was patrolling the blue line for the Thrashers. Never an offensive option, nor a Norris Trophy hopeful, Exelby nonetheless brought stability and a fearsome physical presence over his six seasons in Hotlanta.
The quintessential lunch-pail guy who was quick to stand up for his teammates, Exelby embodied the identity many coaches seek to imbue in their players. He won the inaugural Dan Snyder Award for his efforts.
Ken Linseman, Boston Bruins
Honourable Mention: Barry Pederson
Before there were pests like Sean Avery, Dan Carcillo or Maxim Lapierre, there was Ken Linseman—the original super pest. And he would make the rest of this lot look like choir boys.
Legendary for his mouth, his stick work and for his knack of avoiding physical retribution, "The Rat" arrived in Beantown in his seventh season in ’84-85 after winning the Cup the previous year in Edmonton. It would be easy to overlook the other aspects of Linseman’s game after he already solidified his reputation as a world-class chirper and perhaps the dirtiest player in the NHL at the time, but there was more to Ken’s game than skulduggery.
In his 389 games over five-and-a-half seasons with the Bruins, Linseman—a gifted skater and faceoff specialist—would accumulate 372 points, and in testament to his strong defensive game, record a plus-115 mark as well. Toss in 38 points in 35 playoff games and you have yourself an oft-overlooked contributor—though perhaps his nearly 900 penalty minutes in a Bruins uniform and league-wide disdain account for that.
Christian Ruuttu, Buffalo Sabres
Along with Esa Tikkanen and Tomas Sandstrom, Christian Ruuttu helped forge a new identity for Finnish players. Much of the physical tenacity and determination we see from players like Ville Leino, Tuomo and Jarrko Ruutu (no relation), and emerging players like Jesse Joensuu and Sean Bergenheim can be attributed to the example set by the likes of this quiet centre.
A well-respected defensive centre, agile, with a great motor in the mould of a Tomas Plekanec, Ruuttu was never really recognized for his contributions on a team where he was fighting for minutes behind Pierre Turgeon, Benoit Hogue and later Dale Hawerchuk. Over the first five of the six seasons he spent in Buffalo, he averaged 20 goals and 60 points before injuries hurt his numbers, and coaching decisions meant he would be used primarily in a defensive role going forward.
Regarded as one of the finest players to ever represent his country, the bucket-helmeted Fin would suit up for the 1988 All-Star game and generate 331points in 438 games as a Sabre.
Joel Otto, Calgary Flames
Honourable Mention: Hakan Loob
There are few undrafted career third-liners who brought more to the table than Joel Otto. In a time when the dynastic Oilers were running roughshod over the league, their division rivals in Calgary—themselves a strong team—found themselves in need of an answer to the question every team in the league was asking: How do you stop Mark Messier? Joel Otto was as close to an answer as any team could provide.
The massive 6’4” American centre would play 11 great years for the Flames, punctuated by epic battles with Messier, a Game 7 overtime-winner against the Canucks in ’89 and 19 points in 22 playoff games that same year on the Flames' way to their first and only Cup.
A gifted faceoff man, a punishing physical presence and a quiet, determined leader, Otto personified everything a team wanted in a checking centre. His 1,642 penalty minutes with the Flames spoke less to goonery and more to physical play, and to a guy willing to stick up for his teammates at any time—attributes that earned him the assistant captain’s nod. Not only did the bruiser give the Flames six seasons of 50-plus points, he was twice a Selke finalist for best defensive forward.
Arturs Irbe, Carolina Hurricanes
“Archie” was a fan favourite wherever he played, and his years in Carolina were the pinnacle of the Latvian’s career. His combination of great reflexes, superb athleticism and abysmal puck-handling made sure that whenever he was in net (which was a lot, starting 87 percent of his team's games between ’98 and ’01), it was sure to be entertaining.
Of the diminutive Irbe’s six seasons in Raleigh, the first four were his best, posting 114 wins and 20 shutouts. In his fourth season, he started out platooning with veteran Tom Barrasso before eventually taking the reins in the stretch run. Posting a Tim Thomas-esque 1.67 GAA and a .938 save percentage, he would backstop this upstart squad to its surprising (and first) Stanley Cup berth in ’01-02 before bowing out to a powerful Detroit Red Wings team.
An interesting character, from his unique gear which earned him the nickname "the Michelin Man" (and which he repaired himself, often bringing needles and thread with him on team flights), to his pregame rituals (doing jigsaw puzzles, which he said kept his mind sharp), this 1999 All-Star with the Hurricanes was one of a kind.
Doug Wilson, Chicago Blackhawks
When discussing the best offensive defensemen in the last 30 years, Doug Wilson often gets lost in the shuffle. With the likes of Paul Coffey, Ray Bourque, Al MacInnis, Phil Housley and Brian Leetch controlling the majority of the argument, Wilson’s impressive contributions to the Chicago Blackhawks often get overlooked.
During his impressive 14-season tenure with the Hawks, the smooth skater with the booming shot eclipsed the 60-point plateau seven times, and potted 20-plus goals three times—including his Norris Trophy-winning 39-goal explosion in ’81-82. Among defensemen, only Bobby Orr (who he played with in his rookie year) and Paul Coffey have scored more in a season.
Though he contributed 779 points in his 938 games as a Hawk, he was by no means one-dimensional. A rock in his own zone, he was also a strong leader (sporting the "A" for several seasons) and a clutch performer, contributing 80 points in 95 playoff games.
Doug would earn a Norris (’82), First (’82) and Second Team All NHL (’85, ’90) honours and would suit up six times for the Hawks at the midseason All-Star festivities.
Alexei Gusarov, Colorado Avalanche
Fetisov, Konstantinov, Kasatonov, Gusarov. Though not as revered as his contemporaries, Alexei Gusarov was nonetheless considered one of the greatest rearguards to ever lace up under the hammer and sickle.
Already a veteran of several years with the Red Army when he arrived in Quebec at the age of 26, he was soon paired with a young Adam Foote. The two made the move to Colorado together in ’95-96 where “Goose” quickly became the yin to Foote’s yang. Beside the bruising defender, Gusarov provided a steady presence and positional intelligence that allowed his partner to play the high-risk physical game he would become known for.
Over his five-plus seasons in Denver, Gusarov was the quintessential underrated stopgap defenseman who could play in every situation.
Contributing nine playoff assists on a regular shift, Gusarov would help the Avs hoist the Cup in ’95-’96.
Geoff Sanderson, Columbus Blue Jackets
Honourable Mention: Espen Knutsen
After a couple of down years with the Sabres, Sanderson was claimed by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the expansion draft, and would go on to spend four seasons in the Buckeye State.
A blazing skater with a great slap shot, Sanderson was capable of some pretty respectable goal-scoring numbers if paired with a competent playmaker, having notched a pair of 40-goal campaigns with the Whalers a few years prior.
He would in fact post the first 30-goal campaign in Blue Jackets history, and would also lead the team in points in the team’s inaugural year. Unfortunately, injuries and inconsistency would mark his time in Columbus; when he was on (’01 and ’03), he was averaging 32 goals and 0.82 points per game. When he wasn’t (’02 and ’04), he was limited to 12 goals and a 0.41 points per game.
Nonetheless, he was Columbus’ first legitimate scoring threat, and was a good veteran presence, sporting the "A" for the fledgling franchise. By this time in his career, he’d added back checking to his toolbox as well, which was critical on a team that would struggle to score goals. He would leave Columbus having potted 88 goals and 168 points in 261 games.
Richard Matvichuk, Dallas Stars
He was never going to blow up the box score, nor was he a perennial All-Star or Norris Trophy candidate; Richard Matvichuk was the personification of the “solid defenseman.”
Arriving in Dallas along with other North Star stalwarts Mike Modano and Derian Hatcher when the franchise relocated in ’93-94, he would play a total of 12 years with the club, contributing 169 points. Overlooked while playing with his compatriots Hatcher, Sergei Zubov and Daryl Sydor, he was nonetheless a valuable steady presence night in, night out.
Despite the fact he was a very physical defenseman, Matvichuk was unique in his ability to stay out of the box, which interestingly was in stark contrast to his junior career (2.15 PIM per game vs. 0.78 PIM per game). This meant a lot of ice time, which only benefited his team as he was a consistent positive in the plus/minus column, and could play in all situations.
He would earn a ring while helping Dallas to their first Stanley Cup in 1999.
Joey Kocur, Detroit Red Wings
Honourable Mention: John Ogrodnick
A 6’0" 223-lb human jackhammer named Joey Kocur joined the Red Wings on a full-time basis in 1985. In his first year, he would drop the gloves 34 times, spending a league-leading 377 minutes in the sin bin, despite only playing 59 games. A terrifyingly potent combatant, he would go on to team up with Bob Probert to form the aptly named “Bruise Brothers” of the late '80s Red Wings squad.
With a right hand cast in iron, he worked hard to keep NHL medical staffs busy for years, leaving a trail of bloodied and broken would-be challengers in his wake over his two stints in Detroit. He was widely regarded as the hardest puncher in the league and has at least a couple broken helmets, noses, a jaw and an orbital bone to his credit.
He was a good checker, and a solid defensive player as well, and even chipped in with 16 goals in ’89-90.
Bill Ranford, Edmonton Oilers
Honourable Mention: Kelly Buchberger
Ranford could put on a show. Perhaps one of the only goaltenders who played the game with the same kind of flash and acrobatic enthusiasm as Ranford was the man he would replace in Edmonton—Grant Fuhr.
Arriving in a switch with soon-to-be-Bruin-favourite Andy Moog, Bill backed up Fuhr during the Oilers 1988 Cup run. Often compared to the Oilers great, he would nonetheless replace Fuhr and put forth a Conn Smythe effort for the Oil on their way to their fifth and final Stanley Cup in ’89-90.
A stand-up goalie during the time, butterfly was fast becoming the dominant style; no one could flash the glove hand or stack the pads quite like the acrobatic Ranford. However, all the flash in the world couldn’t help the failing Oilers as they completely dismantled their team during the early 90s.
Returning to Oil Country in ’99-00 for his final season, Ranford would compile a 167-193-54 record with the team. He would win two Cups, a Conn Smythe, attend the ’91 All-Star game and finish eighth in Vezina voting the same year.
Robert Svehla, Florida Panthers
Honourable Mention: Brian Skrudland
Arriving in Florida in 1995 as a 25-year-old “rookie," Svehla immediately took the reins as the Panthers' best defenseman, not relinquishing the role until being traded seven seasons later.
The 6’1” 210-lb Slovak averaged 41 points over his seven years under the sun, to go along with a healthy serving of hurt. An avid hitter, he led the league in hits on more than one occasion. His enthusiastic, physical play did not stop him from being a rock on the back end though, piling up tons of minutes and missing only six games while in a Panthers uniform.
Along with toughness in spades, Svehla was an intelligent defender with a great first pass and a fine point shot. During the Panthers' shocking run to the Cup Final in ’96, he and Terry Carkner teamed up during the Eastern Conference finals to stymie Mario and the Mullet, who combined for a feeble two goals in the seven-game series.
Svehla played in the 1997 All-Star game, and remains near the top of several statistical categories in Panthers history.
Mike Liut, Hartford Whalers
HHonourable Mention: Dave Babych
Frequently the best player on a bad team, Mike Liut was, more often than not, the reason the Whalers were in games during his time in Connecticut. He was also one of the few guys playing for Harford in the '80s without a moustache. Seriously, it’s uncanny.
The rangy Liut was already well established when he arrived in 1985 to relieve the Whalers of the questionable services of Greg Millen, for whom he was traded. In his second year with the team he would lead the league in shutouts (four), and set a new mark for wins in a season by a Whalers netminder (31). Helping propel the Whale to their first playoff series win in ’85-86 and their only division championship the next year, Liut seemed well entrenched in net, averaging 28 wins per season between ’85-87.
However, in the first of several trades that ultimately proved to be the death knell of the Hartford franchise, GM Eddie Johnston shipped Liut—in the midst of a career year—to Washington for Randy “bag o’ pucks” Ladoceur. Liut would go on to lead the league in goals against average.
Mike would be named a Second Team All-Star, and finish runner-up for the Vezina in 1987.
Bernie Nicholls, Los Angeles Kings
With 75 points, Cam Neely had a good season in 1988-89. That same year, Bernie Nicholls lost his mind and doubled Neely’s production.
The remarkably durable Nicholls arrived in LA near the end of the “Triple Crown” era, and would go on to play 602 regular-season games with the Purple and Gold prior to being shipped to New York in ’89-90. In that time the gifted centre compiled 758 points, culminating in a year for the ages in 1988-89 when he scored 70 goals and totalled 150 points—one of only five players to ever do so.
Many point to the fact that it was Wayne Gretzky’s first year in LA, and he was largely responsible for Nicholls' feat; however, Nicholls also played extensively with Luc Robitaille and Dave Taylor. Undoubtedly Wayne had a large influence on Bernie’s production, but no one who’d ever played with Wayne had put up numbers like that before.
He played in the All-Star game for the Kings three times—’84, ’89 and ’90. Off to a blazing start with 75 points in 47 games, it was during the 1990 All-Star game when Nicholls learned he’d been dealt to the Rangers for forwards Tomas Sandstrom and Tony Granato.
Basil McRae, Minnesota North Stars
Honourable Mention: Mark Tinordi
Regarded as a fringe player, McRae had only managed spot duty in parts of six seasons leading up to his arrival in Minnesota in ’87-88. He soon became both a regular in the lineup and a fan favourite, quickly establishing himself as a premier enforcer highlighted by spirited scraps with the likes of Dave Semenko, Al Secord and John Kordic. He would go on to drop the gloves more than 120 times during his five-year tenure in the North Star state.
Though the rough-and-tumble McRae racked up more than 1,700 penalty minutes while in a North Stars jersey, he wasn’t regarded as a dirty player. Right at home playing in the “Chuck” Norris Division, he nonetheless worked hard to make the most out of his limited talent to ensure he wasn’t a liability while he was on the ice.
As a testimony to his work ethic, character and the level of respect he was accorded, he sported the "C" in Minnesota. Between ’87 and ’89, he would twice be runner-up for the PIM crown, before leading the league with 351 in ’89-90.
Wes Walz, Minnesota Wild
Honourable Mention: Manny Fernandez
No. 37 in the program, No. 1 in their hearts. Drafted in 1989 by the Bruins, the scrappy centre bounced around the NHL and overseas for several years, never really finding a home. He arrived at training camp with Minnesota in 2000, where his career would be reborn.
He immediately impressed defensive guru Jacques Lemaire with his energy, grit and defensive awareness. He was soon entrenched on the checking line, and was widely regarded as one of the finest defensive forwards in the league during his six-plus years with the Wild.
A high-effort guy with a great engine, Walz had a nose for the puck and was huge on the penalty kill. He racked up 14 career goals on the PK, including seven in 2000-2001, good for second in the league.
He served twice as captain of the Wild, and was a finalist for the Selke in ’02-03.
Brian Bellows, Montreal Canadiens
While undoubtedly better known as a force with the Minnesota North Stars, he is an oft-overlooked contributor to the last hoisting of the Cup in Montreal.
Switching lockers with Russ Courtnall in ’92-93, Bellows was brought in to provide a bit of jam, a physical presence in the slot and to solidify the left wing position. He was initially upset about being traded after 10 good years in Minnesota, and was motivated to prove he could still put up good numbers. In his first year with Le Bleu-Blanc-et-Rouge he would pot 40 goals and 88 points.
Known for his charity work, leadership and his ability to put pucks in the net, he would score 81 times in 200 games with the Habs. He was also a valuable contributor during the Canadiens' last Cup celebration, picking up 15 points in 18 games.
As a Canadien, Brian was also invited to the ’92 All-Star game festivities.
Cliff Ronning, Nashville Predators
What can you say about a 5’8” guy who leads his team in scoring during his 18th professional season? Motivated throughout his career by his doubters, the durable Ronning’s dogged determination and fierce competitiveness contributed to a very lengthy and successful career.
Arriving in Nashville during their inaugural campaign, Ronning immediately provided the Predators with a legitimate offensive threat and a proven high-pressure performer. An extremely evasive and skilled centre, Ronning’s playmaking ability and power-play acumen would help prevent the fledgling Nashville franchise from being a perennial doormat. He would rack up 226 points over four years, while leading the team in scoring each season.
Though he was undoubtedly a threat in the offensive zone, he was no liability in his own end, having developed strong defensive awareness over the years. Ronning also brought an unparalleled work ethic and tremendous veteran leadership to the new franchise, and took time to mentor many of the younger Preds players.
Chris Terreri, New Jersey Devils
Honourable Mention: Pat Verbeek
The diminutive and immediately recognizable Terreri joined the Devils on a full-time basis in ’89-90. An adept stick-handler, he was also an extremely steady goalie, who excelled along the ice. While platooning with Sean Burke, he would average 20 wins over a five-year span leading up to the arrival of Martin Brodeur.
Terreri would evolve into the quintessential backup over the second half of his career. After a three-year hiatus, Terreri would return to the Devils in ’98-99 for three years of spot duty behind future Hall of Famer Brodeur. In 2000 he would collect his second Cup with the Devils (the first coming in 1995).
A great competitor, he was capable of coming into a game at any time and providing solid play right up to the end of his career. Even with his diminished ice time, Terreri never complained about his role, and was the ideal teammate.
He finished ninth in Vezina voting in ’90-91, and eighth the following year. Interestingly, he is the current goaltending coach for the New Jersey Devils and is also credited with being the first goaltender to play with a water bottle on top of his net.
Pat Flatley, New York Islanders
Pat Flatley put the "grind" in "grinder." “The Chairman of the Boards” carved out a nice niche for himself with tenacious, physical play over a very solid if unspectacular career. Built in the Bobby Nystrom mould, he was the prototype for the role player—hard-working, defensively responsible, solid on special teams, a good leader, with the ability to contribute offensively when called upon.
Flatley joined the Islanders during their “Drive for Five” dynastic run of ’83-84. He made an immediate impact, scoring nine goals and 15 points on the way to the Finals matchup with the eventual champs, the Edmonton Oilers. He also played a key role on the underdog squad who prevented the heavily favoured Pittsburgh Penguins from a potential three-peat in ’92-93.
Though he played on several bad teams over the years, he still managed to finish his tenure with the Isles with a very solid plus-58, and contributed nearly 500 points—all while battling through constant injuries resulting from his tough playing style. As a testament to his character, he captained the Islanders during his final four seasons prior to departing via free agency in ’96-97.
Jeff Beukeboom, New York Rangers
“Boooook!” Few players’ names fit them as aptly as that of the hulking 6’5” 230-lb Beukeboom. And few players could bring Rangers fans to their feet with their play quite like the massive rearguard, who patrolled the blue line with bad intentions for eight seasons between 1991 and 1999.
A member of the memorable ’93-94 Cup-winning team and a solid defender, he led the blue shirts three times in penalty minutes and was a great team guy who wouldn’t hesitate to stand up for one of his own. His stay-at-home play also allowed Brian Leetch the freedom to play his offensive game with relative impunity, knowing Beukeboom was behind him holding the fort.
One of the genuine "good guys" of the NHL, his career was unfortunately cut short due to multiple concussions. Ultimately, his retirement will be part of his legacy, as he was one of the first players to help bring attention to head injuries and their long-term effects on health.
Ron Tugnutt, Ottawa Senators
“Tugger” was a well-liked teammate who brought a boatload of athleticism to the crease and intangibles to the locker room. Struggling with confidence and consistency prior to coming to the Sens in ’96-97, Tugnutt was brought in to complete for the backup job, but by year’s end would supplant Damien Rhodes as starter.
In the run-up to the ’97 playoffs, Tugnutt would pick up steam, recording more shutouts (three) in 10 days than he had in his previous eight seasons. The Sens faced off in the first round against the heavily favoured Buffalo Sabres, nearly upsetting them before a heartbreaking Game 7 OT loss on a goal by Derek Plante that appeared to go through Tugnutt’s glove.
Over the next two years, Ron’s play would improve culminating in a modern-era record 1.79 GAA (since broken by Marty Turco’s 1.72) and .925 save percentage in ’98-99. The oft-overlooked goaltender would post a respectable 72-51-25 mark before being shipped off to Pittsburgh for Tom Barrasso.
Ron would play in the All-Star game, and finish fifth in Vezina voting in ’98-99.
Tim Kerr, Philadelphia Flyers
Rarely mentioned in the same breath as other great scorers of his era, “the Sultan of Slot” was an immovable force in opposing creases for several years during the '80s. He averaged 56 goals a year between ’83-87, and would likely have tallied six consecutive 50-goal campaigns were it not for injuries resulting from constant warfare in front of the net. Not since Phil Esposito had a player so dominated in the trenches.
With a huge 6’3”, 230-lb frame and hands compared to Mike Bossy, Kerr would rack up 80 percent of his career goals within 10 feet of the net. Despite the relentless pounding he took in his role, he had a long fuse and rarely took retaliatory penalties. And he would make opponents pay if they crossed the line; a terror on the power play, he poured in an NHL-record 34 goals with the man advantage in ’85-86.
It is widely thought that had Tim Kerr not been injured during the 1987 Cup Finals, Philadelphia would have prevailed over the juggernaut Oilers. Huge in the playoffs, Kerr would contribute 32 goals in 43 games during Philly’s three playoff runs in ’85, ’87 and ’89 .
A three-time All-Star participant (’84-86), he was also named to the NHL’s Second Team in ’87, and won the Masterton Trophy in ’89 for his constant battles with shoulder and knee injuries.
Teppo Numminen, Phoenix Coyotes
Honourable Mention: Ladislav Nagy
Savvy, team player, gentleman, ironman—all of these terms could be applied to the square-jawed Finn who plied his trade on the blue line for the Jets/Coyotes franchise for some 1,148 games.
Smooth-skating, with great instincts and virtually unflappable, the reliable Numminen played in 360 consecutive games between ’95 and ‘00, while routinely logging heavy minutes. Providing quiet leadership, he was awarded with the captaincy, and he was consistently the best rearguard on his squad. During his seven seasons in the desert, Teppo was a lock for between 30-50 points, and was routinely a plus player. His 534 points as a defenseman with the Jets/Coyotes franchise will likely not be surpassed for quite a while.
Teppo strung together three All-Star seasons in the desert between ’99-’01.
Ulf Samuelsson, Pittsburgh Penguins
Honourable Mention: Bob Errey
"Tuffe Uffe" arrived in Pittsburgh with his antithesis, Ron Francis, just in time for the first of back-to-back Pens Cup runs in 1991. Though he played several seasons with the Whalers and Rangers, Ulfie was at the height of his powers in Pittsburgh—those powers being agitation, rock-solid defense and devastating physical play.
A fierce competitor, Ulf brought some serious sandpaper to an extremely talented Penguin squad, as 804 of his career 2,453 penalty minutes came in a Pens jersey, though no penalty was awarded for one of hockey’s most infamous infractions—the career-altering knee-job on Cam Neely during the ’91 Wales Conference finals.
In his two finest seasons with the Pens (’92-93, ’93-94), he combined for 58 points and was plus-59. His true value however, lay in getting under his opponent's skin, drawing retaliatory penalties and getting that extremely scary Pens power-play unit on the ice.
Dale Hunter, Quebec Nordiques
Honourable Mention: Anton Stastny
The polarizing Hunter was the heart and soul of a high-scoring Nord’s squad featuring future Hall alums Michel Goulet and Peter Stastny. He was undoubtedly the straw that stirred the drink in Quebec, and was a fiercely tenacious—sometimes dirty—player who never took a shift off. Great on the faceoff and a quality defensive forward, he was a very respectable plus-109 during his tenure with the Nords.
Prior to breaking his leg during the ’86-87 season, he had amazingly only missed three games in the previous six seasons—despite his rugged playing style—during which he averaged 235 penalty minutes per campaign. Far from a goon, however, Hunter had a great knowledge of the game, and was a fine playmaker, which accounted for his average of 70 points over the same six-season period.
Upon leaving the Nordiques in ’87-88, the franchise would suffer a precipitous decline until they were eventually relocated to Denver becoming the Avalanche. Ironically enough, it is with the Avalanche that Hunter played his final game.
Jeff Odgers, San Jose Sharks
A valued teammate, respected leader and a blood-and-guts competitor, Jeff Odgers joined San Jose during their inaugural season as a rookie. He didn’t take long to establish himself as a feared enforcer. He would go on to rack up 1,001 penalty minutes over 338 games, throwing down 97 times with the “who’s who” of bruised-knuckled brawlers.
Teaming up with Lyndon Byers, Shawn Cronin and alpha-enforcer Link Gaetz, Odgers helped provide a bad San Jose team with a strong physical presence. Despite his pugilistic proclivities, he did chip in on the offensive side, with three double-digit goal campaigns during his five seasons patrolling the Shark Tank.
For his team-first attitude and lunch-pail mentality, he was named team captain for the ’95-96 season.
Craig Janney, St. Louis Blues
Honourable Mention: Geoff Courtnall
Craig Janney’s presence here has less to do with his 233 points in 186 games in St. Louis (though that is impressive), and more with his overall legacy. Possibly the third-best playmaker of his era (behind Adam Oates and some guy named Wayne), he never received the respect he deserved because of his label of being a "soft" player.
He was universally regarded as having some of (if not the) softest hands in the game at the time. He played a huge part in Brendan Shanahan’s two best years, just as he had previously with Cam Neely in Beantown. In spite of his skill and stats, he was always quick to deflect attention from himself. He recorded an awesome 185 assists in 186 games with the Blues despite being dinged up.
A point-a-game guy over his career, he also contributed 110 points in 120 career playoff games.
It is perhaps a fitting legacy that the perpetually underrated Janney never received any individual awards or played in an All-Star game—though he turned down the invitation twice to allow other players to go in his stead.
Daren Puppa, Tampa Bay Lightning
Honourable Mention: Brian Bradley
Before the Bulin Wall helped bring the Cup to the Sunshine State, the closest thing the Bolts had to playoff success came on the rickety back of Darren Puppa.
Arriving via the 1993 NHL expansion draft, Puppa brought some legitimate goaltending credentials to Tampa. Among the last of a dying breed, Puppa was a stand-up goalie whose ability to play the angles, combined with his rangy 6’4” frame made him runner-up for the Vezina in ‘89. Despite going 36-52-8 in his first three seasons in Tampa, Puppa was named team MVP the first two years, and had good personal numbers. He also brought stability to the position and was a good veteran presence to a young team.
Puppa backstopped the Bolts to their first playoff appearance in ’95-96. There they would meet up with the Flyers in a series that generated some great battles—particularly Igor Ulanov and Michel Petit against a still-in-his-prime Eric Lindros. Despite the nearly crippling pain of back spasms and a herniated disc, Puppa pushed the Flyers to six games. If he’d been healthy, who knows?
Darren was second runner-up in Vezina voting in ’95-96.
Gary Leeman, Toronto Maple Leafs
Despite scoring an average of 34 goals a year over a four-year period, culminating in him exploding for 51 in ’89-90, it is not Gary’s goal scoring that earned him a place of honour on this list.
A gritty forward gifted with some nice speed and soft hands, he played on two memorable lines with the Leafs—the formidable "Hound Line" with Wendel Clark and Russ Courtnall, and the "GEM Line" with Ed Olcyzk and Mark Osborne. His 51 goals were only the second time (Rick Vaive being the first) that a Leaf had ever reached the vaunted milestone, and as a result, his name is frequently the answer to the classic hockey debate, “Who is the lousiest player to ever score 50 goals?”
His most significant achievement, however, was likely his status as the key figure on the Leafs’ end of the 10-player deal that would bring Doug Gilmour to Toronto.
Gary represented the Leafs at the 1989 All-Star game.
PS: Yes it says “D” on his card…he was drafted as a D-man and is the only converted rearguard in NHL history to score 50 goals.
Tony Tanti, Vancouver Canucks
Honourable Mention: Jyrki Lumme
The first genuine sniper for the Vancouver Canucks. The diminutive Tanti’s 45 goals in ’83-84 broke the record of 42 held by fellow Canuck stalwart Darcy Rota. Over the next five years, the speedy left winger would average 41 goals a year.
A terror with the extra man, he was gifted with amazing hand-eye coordination, and his tip-ins helped produce an average of 17 power-play goals a year over that five-year stretch. He teamed up with fellow Canucks legends Thomas Gradin, Stan Smyl and "King" Richard Brodeur, but is largely overlooked because of the fact he played on some flat-out lousy teams. Tanti’s play meant the Canucks could afford to ship off the talented kid getting limited minutes behind him—Cam Neely.
Tony was a two-time All-Star in 1984 and 1986.
Mike Ridley, Washington Capitals
The extremely durable Ridley missed only 20 games over seven-and-a-half quietly successful seasons in Washington. A strong two-way centre, he was perennially underrated and was dumped by the Rangers halfway through the ‘86-87 season, despite being named to the All-Rookie Team the year before.
Crafty and intelligent rather than sublimely talented, Ridley would notch 547 points in 588 games in his time with the Caps due in large part to hard work and tenacity. While in Washington, he would be overshadowed by the likes of Mike Gartner, Scott Stevens, Dino Ciccarelli, Larry Murphy and an emerging Peter Bondra.
Mike suited up for the Caps at the 1989 All-Star game.
Dave Ellett, Winnipeg Jets
Honourable Mention: Bob Essensa
Before being co-opted by Leafs Nation in 1990, Ellett was an extremely steady and productive rearguard in Winnipeg for six seasons, averaging 15 goals and 48 points a year during that stretch. The resilient Ellett missed only 22 games over those six seasons.
A finesse defenseman, he was an excellent skater and puck-handler who could quickly turn a play at his own blue line before leading the counterattack. He also had a good shot, and was extremely proficient on the power play.
Ellett was often overlooked while playing on a squad with the likes of Dale Hawechuk, Paul MacLean, Thomas Steen, Randy Carlyle and Fredrik Olausson. He didn’t experience a great deal of playoff success with the Jets due to their sharing the Smythe Division with the powerhouse Oilers and Flames, but he was nonetheless a significant contributor on the Jets' abortive playoff runs.
He made the 1989 All-Star game as a member of the Jets.