NHL History: Top 5 Best Single Season Performances of the Last 5 Decades
In the last five decades of hockey (1960s-2000s), there have been a lot of changes to the game and the way it is played. Fortunately, there has been no lack of flair for the dramatic and no shortage of dazzling performances.
As we look through the history of the game's offensive output, it has been inconsistent, yet cherished as the sport's major thrill. Whether setting records or leading the charge with relatively modest numbers, the NHL’s most prolific players have engineered dominating performances in any given season.
When comparing an individual’s season, everything is debatable and to some extent circumstantial. There is no true way to determine who has had a better year than another.
In this Top Five, let’s break down what separates certain achievements from the pack. This is a look at the most memorable performances by an individual during a given year of hockey in the '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s and 2000s. Enjoy.
1960s: Bobby Hull 1965-66
Phil Esposito did register the first 100-point season with 126 points in 1968-69, but Bobby Hull was the central figure in the pre-expansion season of 1965-66.
During this period offense was not at a premium and the NHL was still a six-team league where players competed against each other night in and night out. In 1967 things would change forever when the league doubled in size. Clearly this is significant as the talent pool would dramatically change and more players, perhaps of a lower caliber, would enter the league. Teams such as the California Seals, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, LA Kings, Minnesota North Stars and St. Louis Blues would be rather rudely initiated into the NHL with mediocre clubs.
In 65 games in '65-'66 Hull would crank out a then-record 54 goals on his way to a 97-point season. This was something the original six had never seen before and Hull cemented his legacy by taking over the hockey world.
Hull’s impact on the game of hockey goes without saying, but in this single season he captivated the NHL and catapulted into a new level of superstardom.
Honorable Mention: Phil Esposito 1968-69 (49 G, 77 A, 126 PTS), Stan Mikita 1966-67 (35 G, 62 A, 97 PTS)
1970s: Bobby Orr 1969-70
This was not the best season statistically for Bobby Orr as the following season (1970-71) he would score 139 points en route to his second consecutive Art Ross Trophy.
What Orr accomplished in 1969-70 may never again be achieved by an NHL defenseman.
At the age of 21, Orr led the league in scoring with 33 goals, 87 assists and 120 points. He would go on to win the Norris Trophy, the Art Ross Trophy, the Hart Trophy and in the playoffs would fly through the air while collecting a Conn Smythe Trophy and winning the Stanley Cup.
All points aside, there may not be another year in the NHL where one player excels at this level at both ends of the ice. He did it all with four major trophies and eventually the ultimate prize.
Orr was completely in control of the game of hockey and this is easily one of the most overwhelming single-season performances in all of sports.
Honorable Mention: Phil Esposito, 1970-71 (76 G, 76 A, 152 PTS), Guy Lafleur 1977-78 (60 G, 72 A, 132 PTS)
1980s: Wayne Gretzky 1981-82
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In theory, you can take four seasons in which Wayne Gretzky scored over 200 points in the 1980’s, put them in a hat, pick one and write about it. In 1985-86 he had his highest overall scoring output of 215 points, but by that point (oddly enough) we had come to expect that out of the Great One and the Oilers.
1981-82 was an absolute shock to the hockey world. Gretzky started the season at a torrent pace, scoring at will. By the holidays he had posted an unfathomable 50 goals in 39 games. He did it with style as well, scoring five goals in the 39th game in Edmonton against the Flyers.
If this was not enough, by February he smashed Phil Esposito’s record of 76 goals by scoring his 77th against the Sabres in Buffalo.
Gretzky would go on to score 92 goals (still a record) and finish the season with 120 assists and 212 points.
The greatest player in the game had his greatest season in 1981-82.
Honorable Mention: Mario Lemieux 1988-89 (85 G, 114 A, 199 PTS), Steve Yzerman 1988-89 (65 G, 90 A 155 PTS)
1990s: Mario Lemieux 1992-93
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Of all of his scoring accolades and terrific seasons, 1992-93 was a year of character and courage for Mario Lemieux.
The Pittsburgh Penguins were coming off back-to-back Stanley Cup wins and were rolling through the first part of the NHL season. Halfway though the year, the game’s leading scorer left hockey fans with their hearts in their stomachs.
Lemieux was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease and the hockey community was devastated. For two months in the middle of the season Lemieux stepped away from the game to receive radiation treatment.
Equally as shocking was when Lemieux announced he was returning that season. Lemieux came back in a game against the Islanders and did not miss a beat for the remainder of the season.
He would get treatment in the morning, skip practice, and in the game that same night, be the best player in the world.
Lemieux would finish the season with 69 goals, 91 assists and 160 points. He did it all in 60 games and posted and unthinkable 2.6 points per game.
What hockey fans witnessed that season will be with them for a lifetime. Never before or since has there been a comparable example of human heroism in the sport.
Honorable Mention: Brett Hull 1990-91 (86 G, 45 A, 131 PTS), Dominik Hasek 1997-98 (2.09 GAA, 33 W, 0.932 SV%)
2000s: Alex Ovechkin 2007-08
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Start the arguments over who is the better player, Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin.
A strange decade for sure as the NHL was recovering from a season-ending strike and needed to recover their fan base and identity.
Ovechkin tallied 65 goals, 47 assists and 112 points for an absolutely outstanding campaign in 2007-08. Nobody had scored 60 goals in over a decade.
Fans and reporters can easily argue that the season before in ’06-07 Crosby had a better performance with 36 goals, 84 assists and 120 points. No doubt Crosby made his mark that season and when/if healthy is a better overall player than Ovechkin.
Ovechkin in 07-08 buried 65 goals, accounting for 58 percent of his points, where Crosby's 36 goals only accounted for 30 percent of his 120 points in 06-07. Yes, Crosby ending up having eight more points than Ovi when comparing seasons, but in hockey there is a second assist. It would be interesting to see how many of those Crosby had in 06-07.
Scoring goals in abundance is what magnified Ovechkin in 2007-08. He was the best player in the league that year and incredibly difficult to stop. His performance that year separated him from the pack in that decade.
Honorable Mention: Sidney Crosby 2006-07 (36 G, 84 A, 120 PTS), Jose Theodore 2001-02 (2.11 GAA, 30 W, 0.931 SV%)
Thanks for reading.