The Biggest Snubs from the NHL's 100 Greatest Players List
First off, how about that photo above? Not only is it a great fight picture, showing Cam Neely throwing punches with Philadelphia's Rick Tocchet, but you have to love the pose struck by the referee in the background. He's just standing there with his arms crossed, probably thinking something like, "Take your time boys, let me know when you're done."
Such a picture that makes me remember the former Boston Bruin Neely as one of the greatest players ever. Pound for pound, he was arguably the toughest player who ever played—not to mention one of the most talented. One time I asked legendary Hall of Famer, four-time Stanley Cup and three-time Conn Smythe winner Patrick Roy who was the toughest shooter he ever faced.
"Neely," he said without a moment's hesitation.
Yet Neely did not join Roy, named as one of the NHL's 100 greatest players Friday night by a panel of experts, on the stage in Los Angeles, and that was an injustice. Hey, it's only a sports list, and so who cares, right? Neely was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2005, and people in the game know he was a great player. But still, how could they forget Neely?
The following is my own list of the top five most egregious oversights from the official list of the 100 greatest players. It won't be just a numbers thing here; it's not about who had more points than another guy or who won one more trophy than someone else.
This is an attempt to recognize guys who had a real impact on the game and whose value wasn't just about numbers on a spreadsheet. Neely is, obviously, one of my five guys. He and the four others get their due, for whatever it's worth, here. They are presented in no particular order.
Career statistics: 726 GP, 395 G, 299 A, 694 PTS, 1,241 PIM
It's hard to believe this even has to be argued. Cam Neely was one of the few players in league history who could score on the prettiest, most skillful of shots one minute and punch an opponent's lights out the next.
His career was partially derailed by a cheap-shot knee-on-thigh hit from Pittsburgh's Ulf Samuelsson in Game 3 of the 1991 Prince of Wales Conference Final, which resulted in a calcification of the muscles in his right thigh and kept him out most of the rest of the next two seasons.
He was a two-time 50-goal scorer to that point and easily the best power forward in the game. The thigh injury, which probably led to subsequent hip problems, limited him to just 22 games over the next two seasons. Though he could barely skate on most nights, essentially playing on one leg, Neely had one of the all-time great comeback seasons with Boston in 1993-94.
Neely scored 50 goals again in just 49 total games. Neely actually scored his 50th, against Washington on March 7, 1994, in his 44th game played, but failed to score in the final five. He hobbled around for two more injury-shortened seasons, still scoring 53 goals in 91 games, before retiring after the 1995-96 campaign.
Neely's average of 0.544 goals per game still ranks among the top 15 of all time. He also had 89 points in 93 career playoff games. He often fought guys above his weight class, battling true heavyweights in one of the most brutal eras of the sport in terms of pugilism. In that sense, he was an electrifying presence and didn't deserve to be short-changed on the official list just because his career was shortened.
Career statistics (entering Tuesday): 691 GP, 317 G, 497 A, 814 PTS, 705 PIM
I said in the opening monologue that this list wouldn't be based purely on numbers, but come on: just look at Malkin's point-per-game average to this point, not to mention two Stanley Cup victories and a Hart Trophy. Then try to say with a straight face Malkin didn't deserve to be on that stage in L.A.
What has made Malkin great and unique is his elegant skill for such a big man. Few players his size (6'3", 195 pounds) have been able to play with such grace, especially in the small spaces in front of the net and in the corners. He is always relentlessly charging toward the net with the puck in a power-forward sense while moving like Baryshnikov.
Was he overlooked because of his association with Sidney Crosby? If so, really? Malkin has not ridden on anyone's coattails in achieving what he has so far. He'll go down as one of the great players of this generation. But, apparently, not one of the official 100 greatest.
Career statistics: 963 GP, 484-320-111 T, 14 OT, 2.50 GAA, .906 SP
How does a guy manage to win almost 500 NHL regular-season games, a Stanley Cup, four Jennings Trophies and two Vezinas and not make the official list? Beats me.
Don't be fooled by that .906 career save percentage. Eddie the Eagle played much of his career in the era when five-man team defense was stressed far less strenuously than today. The fact is, he was a great goalie who would no doubt have save percentages in the .930s or better if he played today.
He wasn't the easiest guy to get along with and had some off-ice troubles. But so what? On the ice, few have ever played the position better. He was a pressure goalie too. People forget, but he beat Patrick Roy and the Avalanche in back-to-back Game 7s of the Western Conference Final in 1999 and 2000, and he bested Dominik Hasek in the 1999 Cup Final with Dallas.
Roy and Hasek both made the official list, though. Belfour should have too.
Career statistics: 890 GP, 80 G, 418 A, 498 PTS, 1,251 PIM
I asked none other than the NHL's all-time wins leader—the 14-time Stanley Cup champion and Hall of Fame former coach Scotty Bowman—who he thought was the most overlooked player on the list of 100 greatest players. Pierre Pilote was the answer.
A defenseman who played from 1955 to 1969, all but one season with Chicago, Pilote was one of the best two-way players of his era. He won the Norris Trophy three straight years from 1963 to 1965 and finished second three other times. Before Bobby Orr came along and made offense sexy for defensemen, Pilote regularly put up close to one-point-per-game numbers for many excellent Chicago teams.
He also played with a snarl, racking up impressive penalty minute numbers while still maintaining a strong offensive output.
"He was the guts of those Chicago teams," Bowman said. "Their forwards didn't backcheck a whole lot in those days. So he was the guy who held everything together."
If Bowman thinks Pilote deserved to be on the list, then he should have been on the list. Chicago already had 10 of the 100 players, however. The official list probably overlooked Pilote because of that.
Career statistics (entering Tuesday): 1,417 GP, 380 G, 992 A, 1,372 PTS, 1,150 PIM
Yeah, yeah, Joe Thornton has never won a Stanley Cup. He didn't always show up in the playoffs earlier in his career. He was probably a bit of a floater defensively for a while.
Other than still not having won a Cup, those other things can't be said of Thornton, and they haven't been true for a good while now. The fact is he is one of the greatest playmakers of all time, closing in on 1,000 assists for a team that is defending a Western Conference title.
Thornton, 37, is just full out on every shift and works as hard defensively as he does when he has the puck. Teammates love him, and he shows up night after night after night ready to work. He wants to play beyond 40, and with the way he keeps himself in shape now, there's no reason why he can't.
He keeps getting a little bit closer to that elusive Stanley Cup. Could this be the year? Certainly.
If it never happens, though, Thornton will go down as one of the best who ever played, official list or not.