Which Decade Reigns Supreme in the NHL ? The 80s Or 90s?
The other day, I happened to blurt out a short joke about the 1980s style of hockey. I was quickly shot back at by a friend who said, "No man, the 80s are where it's at."
It got me thinking, what decade reigned supreme?
Was one decade more electrifying than the other?
Or was it just simply a battle between two different styles of hockey?
Many things changed between the 1980s and 1990s in NHL hockey, but can we claim a clear winner?
Goaltending Of The 1980s
Goaltending can win you championships, just look at Cam Ward's Carolina Hurricanes in 2006 or Patrick Roy's Montreal Canadiens in 1993.
Then again, in the 1980s, it seems very rarely would goalies win you games. Not saying it never happened, but the stats from the decade don't shine a great light on the goalie stylings.
Take Grant Fuhr, for example. Fuhr won the 1987-88 Vezina Trophy for top goaltender with a 40-24-9 record combined with a 3.43 GAA and a .881 save percentage. Interesting.
Or take John Vanbiesbrouck, who in 1985-86 won the Vezina Trophy with a 31-21-5 record combined with a 3.32 GAA and a .887 save percentage. Not bad?
The norm for goalies in the 1980s seemed to be how many wins you get, not how low your GAA or high your save percentage was as is the norm today.
In the 80s, scoring was supreme.
Take the 1980-81 season for example. The average goals scored by all 21 teams that season was 307.5. Compare that to the 1990-91 season with 21 teams as well, and the average goal scored by a team was 276.4, a drop of 31.1 goals per team.
Was it all due to goaltending?
I don't want to put the blame solely on goaltending, because it was the entire style of goaltending that led to the higher scoring.
Scoring Prowess Of The 1980s
When you talk about scoring prowess in the 1980s, the first player that comes to mind is Wayne Gretzky.
Of course, Gretzky led the league in scoring from 1980-81 to 1986-87 as well as in 1989-90 and broke many records along the way, including 50 goals in 39 games, a feat that will not be replicated in today's NHL simply because of the change in style.
Or how about Grezky's four 200+ point seasons in 1981-82, and from 1983-84 to 1985-86. Not to mention the not-too-shabby 92 goals in 1981-82 or his 47 playoff points in only 18 games in 1984-85.
Gretzky led the decade with 1,979 points in 847 games from 1979-80 to 1989-90.
Yes, Gretzky set many records, but how about the rest of the gang.
Let's start with his linemate Jari Kurri.
Kurri scored six 100+ point seasons, including five straight from 1982-83 to 1986-87, a career high set in 1984-85 with 135 points (71 goals, 64 assists).
The year Gretzky scored 215 points, there were fourteen players with 100 or more points. In 1984-85 there were sixteen players with 100 or more points, including Jari Kurri (135), Dale Hawerchuk (130), Marcel Dionne (126), Paul Coffey (121), Mike Bossy (117), John Ogrondick and Denis Savard (105), Bernie Federko (103), Mike Gartner and Brent Sutter (102), Paul MacLean (101), and Mario Lemieux, Bernie Nicholls, Peter Stastny, and John Tonelli (100).
Not a bad list. All of these players are either in the Hockey Hall of Fame or on their way there.
Let's not forget about Mario Lemieux, who won the Art Ross in 1987-88 and 1988-89, while almost breaking the 200 point plateau.
Points matter alot, but what about goals?
Again, Gretzky led the decade with 677 goals.
Mike Bossy was close behind with 451 goals, including leading the league in 1980-81.
Another great goal scorers was Mike Gartner who scored 438 goals in the decade, while never scoring less than 35 in a season.
In the matter of goals, the 1984-85 season saw nine players score 50 or more goals. There was never a year in the 1980s where there were fewer than five 50 goals scorers in a season (1985-86).
Scoring Prowess In The 1980s Does Not Transfer To The 1990s?
One 1980s trivia question that stumped me and still irks me to this day is this:
Name the four players who scored 150 points in the 1988-89 season.
The top two are obvious: Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.
The third, not so obvious in Steve Yzerman.
But the fourth? How about Mark Messier? He only had 94 points. Paul Coffey? He only had 113 points. Jari Kurri? He only had 102 points.
Answer: Bernie Nicholls.
Bernie Nicholls, really? Helped by having Gretzky as his linemate in The Great One's first year in LA helped Nicholls jump from 78 points the year prior to a 70 goal, 80 assist season.
Yet again Nicholls would haunt my trivia dreams with the question: Name all the players with 70 or more goals in a season.
The point being - many superstars of the 1980s played with great players and because of the scoring prowess the 1980s is known for, many average players in the 1990s were great in the 80s.
Take Rob Brown for example. Brown played his rookie season with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1987-88, scoring 44 points in 51 games. The next season, he finished in the top 10 in NHL scoring with 115 points (49 goals, 66 assists). He followed that up with an 80 point season (33 goals, 47 assists).
After the 1989-90 season, Brown floundered and never got above 42 points.
Why the collapse? Was it to do with the decade change? Who knows.
There are many other examples of scoring kings of the 80s who floundered once the 90s began - Jimmy Carson (286 points in 240 games from 86-87 to 88-89, rest of career had only 275 points in 386 games), Tim Kerr (four straight 50+ goal seasons from 83-84 to 86-87, 48 in 88-89, never got about 24 after 89-90 season), or Mats Naslund (80+ point seasons from 85-86 to 88-89, 41 points in 89-90, only played 34 games after in 94-95).
Is there a correlation between the change of the decade because of a change in the style of the game?
The Scoring Race Of 1992-93
The 1992-93 season might have been one of the last great seasons in NHL history for scoring sake.
It was the year that set the record for most 100 point scorers (21) and most 50 goal scorers (14).
So why was there so much offense in this one season?
Let's start at goals. Alexander Mogilny and rookie Teemu Selanne led with 76 goals each. That was followed by 69 from Mario Lemieux, 63 from Luc Robitaille, and 60 from Pavel Bure. The other nine players represent the who's-who of scoring in the 1990s, including Brett Hull, Mark Recchi, Jeremy Roenick, and Steve Yzerman, to name a few.
Let's look at the assist leaders. Adam Oates had 97 helpers, followed by Pat LaFontaine and Doug Gilmour's 93, and Lemieux's 91.
Points wise, the stats show the dominant scorers on the 1990s, many who were just starting out, including Mats Sundin, Bure, Joe Sakic, Ron Francis, Gilmour, Mogilny, Brendan Shanahan, and many more.
Here's a possible reason why the scoring was up in 1992-93.
In 1992-93, there were, on average 1702 shots faced by the top 20 goalies, while compared to the 1997-98 season, there were 1641 shot faced by goals that season on average. That is a difference of 61 shots against per goalie.
Looking at the GAA and save percentage stats, maybe goaltending was finally becoming more the way of the butterfly towards the middle half of the decade as the GAA average went from 3.18 in 1992-93 to 2.37 in 1997-98, a drop of 0.81 in five years.
Goals on average per game were up as well in 1992-93 versus the rest of the decade with eight players having 0.7 goals per game or higher, versus only one player in 1997-98.
Be it as it may, the 1992-93 season was an oddity, but brings a clear bargaining chip to the table when siding with the 1990s as the decade of choice.
Goaltending Of The 1990s
To say there is a difference between goaltending styles of the 1980s and 1990s is an understatement.
There is one goalie who changed the face of goaltending and played in both decades and beyond.
Patrick Roy became the goalie that took the position from an awkward stand up style to a take out the bottom of the net and play, butterfly style of goaltending.
It obviously worked for him as Roy won 311 games in the 1990s and 133 in the 1980s, winning both Stanley Cups, Vezina Trophies, and Conn Smythe Trophies along the way.
Other great goalies of the 1990s followed his lead, including Domink Hasek (207 wins), Mike Richter (252 wins), Martin Brodeur (242 wins), Curtis Joseph (284 wins), and Ed Belfour (304 wins), to name a few.
GAA dropped significantly during the decade, as the leader in the 1990-91 season was Ed Belfour with a 2.47 GAA to 1998-99 where Ron Tugnutt led the league with a 1.79 GAA, a drop of 0.68.
Shutouts increased from 3.3 per average in 1990-91 to 6.6 in 1998-99.
Was it scoring decreasing or was it the goaltending getting better?
Who Reigns Supreme? 1980s Or 1990s?
It's hard to come to a reasonable conclusion.
People who grew up in the 1980s will obviously say the 80s were superior.
People who grew up in the 1990s will obviously cheer for the 90s.
But the main argument between the two decades is that hockey changed dramatically as it transitioned from the highest scoring decade in history to a decade of declining scoring.
People arguing for the 80s will point to the Gretzky's and Lemieux's of the decade while fans of the 90s will point to the 1992-93 scoring race.
This matter is best left up the fans.
Given the statistics and the background knowledge, what is better: the 1980s or 1990s?