Top 11 Underappreciated NHL Seasons

For whatever reason, whether being ahead of one’s time or being overshadowed by more prominent names and accomplishments, greatness often gets overlooked. In the NHL, some truly spectacular seasons have slipped through the cracks, vanishing into obscurity and failing to receive the admiration they so richly deserve. With that in mind, I decided to cobble together my list of the NHL’s Top 11 Underappreciated Seasons.

I only considered stuff since 1979, as those seasons are after the WHA merger and limited the scope to a clean 40-year window. There were a couple other requirements to qualify as “underappreciated”:

1. The player’s season did not receive a major post-season award: Tough to be underappreciated when you’re getting trophies. So, that eliminates contenders like Steve Yzerman’s spectacular 1988-89 season, when he actually won the Pearson over 66 and 99; Wayne Gretzky’s 163-point 1991 campaign, which I contend may actually be the most impressive season of his career considering his team and the league conditions; and Pavel Bure’s individual brilliance with the Panthers in 2000 and 2001.

2. The player was not named a First-Team All-Star: Again, if you’re deemed the best player at your position, you’re not underappreciated.

And remember, this is only an exhibition. This is not a competition. So please, as always, no wagering.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Dirk Graham, Chicago Blackhawks, 1988-89: Graham was a machine in ’88-89, setting career-highs in goals (33), assists (45), points (78), and shorthanded goals (10). The 10 shorties put him in rarified air, as Mario Lemieux (13, 10), Wayne Gretzky (12, 11), and Marcel Dionne (10) are the only other men to score 10 shorthanded goals in a season.

Dale Hawerchuk, Winnipeg Jets, 1984-85: A victim of Wayne Gretzky’s dominance during the early 1980s, Hawerchuk notched six 100-point seasons by the time he was 25, and all it got him was unwinnable comparisons to 99 and five playoff losses to the Oilers. In 1984-85, Hawerchuk posted a career-high 53 goals and 130 points, leading the Jets to a then franchise-best 43 wins and 96 points. Hawerchuk’s efforts earned him Second-Team All-Star honors and second place in the Hart voting behind that dang Gretzky.

Sergei Makarov, Calgary Flames, 1990-91: While Makarov’s best hockey was played in Russia, he still had plenty in the tank when he finally reached the NHL in his 30s. After winning the Calder Trophy and forcing a change to the award’s voting rules, Makarov posted 30 goals and 79 points in year two. The underappreciated aspect is that he only needed 93 shots to score those 30 goals. His 32.26 shooting percentage still stands as the second-highest mark in NHL history, trailing only the great Charlie Simmer (32.75 in 1980-81). Getting 30 goals on less than 100 shots is some lethal marksmanship. Washington’s Craig Laughlin scored 30 on 114 shots in 1985-86, but the closest anyone’s come this century was Petr Prucha, who bagged 30 on 130 shots in 2005-06.     

Kent Nilsson, Calgary Flames, 1980-81: All but forgotten by modern fans, Nilsson was one of the most skilled players in NHL history, earning the nickname The Magic Man for his dirty dangles and silky mitts. He was basically the Alexei Kovalev of his generation, a supremely talented player who could do anything with the puck…but only when he wanted.

Nilsson broke in with the Winnipeg Jets of the WHA, providing second-line scoring behind Bobby Hull, Ulf Nilsson, and Anders Hedberg. After the merger, Nilsson spent one season in Atlanta before the franchise moved to Calgary. He would lead the team in scoring six times in his seven seasons as a Flame, with his best performance coming in 1980-81 when he scored 49 goals and 131 points. He finished third in the scoring race that year, behind only Wayne Gretzky (164) and Marcel Dionne (135).     

Sandis Ozolinsh, San Jose Sharks, 1993-94: Few clubs in NHL history were as fun as the ’93-94 Sharks, a team of scrappy overachievers who not only made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history but stunned the mighty Red Wings in round one and then stretched the Maple Leafs to seven games. In his second pro season, the 21-year-old Ozolinsh went for 26 goals and 64 points, riding shotgun for the top line of Sergei Makarov, Igor Larionov, and Johan Garpenlov. Ozolinsh was a rover on the ice and made Brett Favre seem conservative in his risk-taking.

The underappreciated aspect of Ozolinsh’s season is that 22 of is 26 goals were scored at even-strength. The only defensemen in NHL history to score more even-strength goals are Paul Coffey (30, 25, 23), Bobby Orr (29, 28), Doug Wilson (24), and Phil Housley (23). While fellow Shark Brent Burns has come close, scoring 19 in 2015-16 and 21 in 2016-17, no one has been able to match Ozolinsh’s even-strength prowess. 

TOP 11 

11. Barry Pederson, Boston Bruins, 1982-83: Perhaps most famous for being the guy who got traded to Vancouver for Cam Neely, Pederson was once a 100-point scorer and a playoff ace. My first experience with Pedersen was when he joined the Pittsburgh Penguins as a veteran center, adding depth and little else during the 1990 and 1991 seasons. Anyone who watched that Pederson would find it impossible to envision a time when the former first-rounder put up 129 goals and 315 points over three seasons with the Bruins. Pederson’s high-water mark for points came in 1983-84, when he posted a remarkable 77 assists and 116 points. But a year earlier, Pederson authored a truly historic season that gets absolutely no attention.

In 1982-83, a 21-year-old Pederson posted a career-high with 46 goals and went for 107 points, teaming with Rick Middleton to give Boston a dynamic scoring duo. Pederson and Middleton continued to light it up in the playoffs, with Pederson ringing up 14 goals and 32 points in 17 contests. That performance, paired with a similarly impressive showing in 1981-82 when he scored seven goals and 18 points in 11 playoff games, means Pederson’s career 1.53 points-per-game average in the playoffs ranks third all-time behind only Wayne Gretzky (1.84) and Mario Lemieux (1.61).     

Sadly, Pederson’s superstardom was cut short in 1984-85 when he was diagnosed with a benign tumor in his shoulder that required multiple surgeries. While he remained a consistent 70-point man for a few seasons after his return, he never came close to meeting that early promise. But we’ll always have 1982-83.          

10. Tim Kerr, Philadelphia Flyers, 1985-86: A 6-3, 230-pound monster in front of the net, Kerr terrorized opposing netminders during the 1980s, ringing up four straight 50-goal seasons from 1983-84 to 1986-87. Kerr did his best work on the power play, and in 1985-86, he connected for an NHL record 34 power-play goals. He actually led the league in power-play tallies three straight seasons, with that 34 sandwiched between seasons of 21 and 26.  And this was in a league with Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. After missing all but eight games of the 1987-88 season, Kerr returned in ‘88-89 to score 48 goals, including another 25 on the power play.

But the most interesting detail about Kerr’s power-play proclivity? When he scored 54 goals in 1983-84, only nine of them came with the man-advantage.

Anyway, the closest anyone has come to matching Kerr is Dave Andreychuk, who potted 32 power-play goals in 1992-93. Among his historic 34, Kerr scored five power-play goals each against the Devils, Islanders, and, oddly enough, the Kings. His favorite target was L.A. netminder Bob Janecyk, who he beat four times, including for a rare power-play hat trick in a 7-4 win. And Kerr seemed to have good chemistry with Pelle Eklund, as the slick Swede assisted on 18 of the 34 power-play markers.   

9. Rick Tocchet, Pittsburgh Penguins, 1992-93: The days of true power forwards are solid gone. Today, guys like Tom Wilson go for 20 goals, 40 points, and 100 PIMs and are considered game-changers, but back in the day, power forward meant something a bit different.

In 1992-93, Rick Tocchet was living the life. He was fresh off a Stanley Cup with the two-time defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins, and he had settled in nicely on the right side for Mario Lemieux and Kevin Stevens. The trio was all but unstoppable, and the NHL will never again see a line with that size, skill, and toughness. A year earlier, in 1991-92, Stevens scored 54 goals and 123 points, all while racking up 254 penalty minutes. With Tocchet around full-time in 1992-93, Stevens was slightly less rambunctious and reduced the PIMs to 177. Tocchet handled the rough stuff, dropping the gloves eight times and piling up 252 penalty minutes to go with a career-high 48 goals and 109 points. Think of that: 46 goals, 109 points, and 252 penalty minutes. And keep in mind, those scoring totals would have been even higher had Lemieux not missed 24 games due to cancer treatment. While Stevens’ 53 goals and 254 PIMs earned him First-Team All-Star honors and even some Hart votes in ‘92, Tocchet’s beautiful belligerence in ’93 got mostly ignored due to Lemieux’s godlike performance and the Penguins’ overall dominance.

Keith Tkachuk and Brendan Shanahan were the last true power forwards in the Stevens and Tocchet mold. Tkachuk had 41 goals and 255 PIMs in 1993-94 and a career-high 52 goals and 228 PIMS in 1996-97, although he didn’t come close to 100 points in either year, and those 52 goals in ‘97 led the league and garnered plenty of attention. Shanahan went for 52 goals, 102 points, and 211 PIMs in 1993-94, but his efforts earned First-Team All-Star status. Tocchet’s ‘93 campaign is the one that gets most overlooked, and that’s a shame, because he was a beauty.      

8. Sergei Zubov, New York Rangers, 1993-94: A freshly minted Hall of Famer, Zubov wasn’t always appreciated during his career, frustrating some with his reluctance to shoot and his lack of physicality. But Zubov was creamy smooth, devoured minutes, and was as smart as they come. He’s one of those defenders who isn’t fully appreciated until he’s gone and the transition game stalls and all those pucks that used to get chased down with ease are now lost to opposing forecheckers.  

Zubov’s best season came in 1993-94 when he put up 77 assists and 89 points, including 40 assists on the power play. Zubov’s performance got overshadowed come awards time, as some guys named Ray Bourque, Scott Stevens, and Al MacInnis finished ahead of him in Norris voting, and teammate Brian Leetch bumped him down to fifth in All-Star ranking. Zubov got a pretty good consolation prize, though, scoring five goals and 19 points in 22 postseason games to help the Rangers end their historic Stanley Cup drought. He and teammates Alexander Karpovtsev, Alexei Kovalev, and Sergei Nemchinov were the first Russians to get their names engraved on the Cup.   

Zubov’s 77 assists in ‘94 rank 12th all-time among defensemen, and only Bobby Orr (102, 90, 89, 87, 80), Paul Coffey (90, 86, 84, 83), Leetch (80), and Phil Housley (79) have recorded more assists in a season. Aside from Leetch’s 70-assist effort in 1995-96, the closest a defenseman has come to matching Zubov is Erik Karlsson’s 66 assists in 2015-16.       

7. Joe Sakic, Quebec Nordiques, 1990-91: The Quebec Nordiques during the late 1980s and early 1990s were something special. From 1989-90 through 1991-92, the Nordiques went a combined 48-159-33, being outscored 1,079 to 731 for a sparking minus-348 goal differential. During that three-season span, the Nordiques surrendered at least six goals 65 times. In 1989-90, Ron Tugnutt led all Quebec netminders with five wins. Five.

In the midst of this ongoing disaster, Joe Sakic started his legendary career, somehow managing 23 goals and 62 points in his 1988-89 rookie season. He followed that up with a team-leading 38 goals and 102 points his sophomore year, finishing 40 points ahead of the aging Peter Stastny, who had 62 points in 62 games before getting traded to New Jersey in early March.

When the 1990-91 season started, Sakic no longer had Stastny to help carry the load. Instead, he had two rookies named Mats Sundin and Owen Nolan and the likes of Tony Hrkac, Stephane Morin, Tony McKegny, Mike Hough, Scott Pearson, and a 39-year-old Guy Lafleur filling out the supporting cast. Sakic responded with his best season yet, scoring 48 goals and 109 points, finishing a remarkable 50 points better than Sundin, who was second on the team with 23 goals and 59 points.   

Connor McDavid was considered a one-man show his first few years in Edmonton, but he finished 24 and 38 points ahead of his next closest teammates in 2016-17 and 2017-18, respectively, and Leon Draisaitl was a 70-point guy each season. The only recent comparisons that come to mind are Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, and Pavel Bure. In their rookie seasons of 2005-06, Ovechkin finished 49 points ahead of his next-closest teammate and Crosby lapped his mates by 44 points. In 2000-01, Bure had what I argue is the most spectacular goal-scoring season in NHL history, and he finished 55 points clear of his teammates (although, Ray Whitney and Mike Sillinger getting moved out at the deadline helped extend the lead). Before that, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux had some ridiculously dominant seasons compared to their teammates, but they usually had other 70–100-point guys chipping in, even if those fellas never would have gotten there without 99 and 66 carrying them. Plus, those seasons produced numerous awards and accolades. What Sakic did in 1990-91, considering his lack of supporting cast and the miserable three-year run in Quebec, deserves mentioning in any discussion of the most dominant individual seasons in NHL history.       

6. Denis Savard, Chicago Blackhawks, 1987-88: Being a center in the 1980s pretty much condemned you to anonymity. Oh, you scored 120 points? That’s cute. Gretzky went for 200. Hey, congrats on the two-point night, did you see Lemieux hang eight on the Blues? There was no competing with 99 and 66.

When recalling the overlooked centers of the ‘80s, most cite Peter Stastny, Dale Hawerchuk, and Steve Yzerman, but Denis Savard spun gold in Chicago. In the seven seasons from 1981-82 to 1987-88, Savard racked up five 100-point campaigns, yet he never finished higher than his Second-Team All-Star nod in ‘83. Savard’s crowning achievement came in 1987-88, when he went for 44 goals and a career-high 131 points. Lemieux (168) and Gretzky (142) were the only players to outscore Savard that season, and his 131 points tie him for the 41st best scoring season in NHL history. Take 99 and 66 out of equation, and Savard’s 1987-88 would rank 24th all-time.        

5. Dennis Maruk, Washington Capitals, 1981-82: When Alexander Ovechkin scored 65 goals in 2007-08, he snatched the franchise record from Dennis Maruk. If you’ve never heard of Maruk, don’t feel bad; he’s hardly a Hall of Famer. A diminutive, one-dimensional pivot, Maruk was a pretty steady point-producer throughout his 14-year career, totaling 878 points in 888 games. But in 1980-81 and 1981-82, Maruk caught fire, scoring 110 goals and 233 points over the two seasons. Maruk hit the triple crown in 1981-82, setting the Washington franchise records for goals (60), assists (76), and points (136), and those assist and point marks still stand.

Maruk’s two-year outburst in D.C. usually gets chalked up as a fluke, a byproduct of the same post-expansion, run-and-gun era that inflated stats across the board and made guys like Blaine Staughton, Mike Rogers, Morris Lukowich, and Wayne Babych lethal scorers. But 60 goals and 136 points is still 60 goals and 136 points. And did you ever see Maruk’s mustache? Fear the Fu Manchu.   

4. Bernie Nicholls, Los Angeles Kings, 1988-89: Imagine scoring 70 goals and 150 points and not even leading your team in scoring or getting within 15 goals or 49 points of the scoring lead. Such is the plight of Bernie Nicholls. You know how many men have scored 150 points in the NHL? That would be five: Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Phil Esposito, Steve Yzerman, and…Bernie Nicholls. The number of men who have scored 70 goals? Seven: Gretzky, Lemieux, Brett Hull, Esposito, Teemu Selanne, Alexander Mogilny, Jari Kurri, and…Bernie Nicholls. The only guys to do both? Gretzky, Lemieux, Esposito, and…Bernie Nicholls.

Yes, Nicholls never hits 70 and 150 in 1988-89 without Gretzky, but people act like he was a bum until 99 showed up. Nicholls was already a 40-goal, 100-point scorer before Gretzky ever stepped foot in Tinseltown, and even if you take the ‘88-89 season off the books, Nicholls was a point-per-game guy throughout his 18-year career. He wasn’t a Rob Brown or a Warren Young, two borderline NHLers who Lemieux made big-time scorers, nor was he a Jonathan Cheechoo, who rode Joe Thornton to a goal-scoring crown. Gretzky didn’t create Nicholls, but he took an already excellent scorer and elevated him into an all-time great for one magnificent season.

If you dig into the numbers, Gretzky assisted on only 30 of Nicholls’s 70 goals (42.9%), which is less than Adam Oates contributed to Brett Hull’s 1990-91 season (48.8%) or Pat LaFontaine contributed to Alexander Mogilny’s 1992-93 campaign (55.3%). Yet you never hear Hull and Mogilny getting disparaged like Nicholls does. Hell, since 2012-13, Nicklas Backstrom has assisted on 48.3% of Alexander Ovechkin’s 319 total goals, well above the rate Gretzky contributed to Nicholls, yet no one says Ovechkin is just a product of Backstrom. And if you’re scoring at home, Nicholls played one game without Gretzky in 1988-89, and he lit the lamp once in a 5-4 loss to Pittsburgh.

Overall, while Gretzky assisted on 30 of Nicholls’s goals, Bernie assisted on 15 of 99’s, and the two combined to set up 29 others. That means Nicholls still had 76 points completely unrelated to Gretzky, which is pretty solid work. Nicholls deserves way more credit, and it’s about time he gets it.

3. Adam Oates, Boston Bruins, 1992-93: The single greatest season in NHL history, 1992-93 was the Golden Year, a prefect blend of 1980s’ free-wheeling offense, improved goaltending, and an influx of foreign skill and generational rookies. The league averaged 7.25 goals per game, and it’s been downhill ever since, with inconsistent officiating, suffocating coaching structures, and swelling goalie equipment stifling scoring to the point that 2018-19, which topped out at 5.96 goals per game, seemed like an offensive renaissance. In ’92-93, there were 14 50-goal scorers and 21 100-point men. Ten guys went over 120 points, but they all trailed Mario Lemieux, who had an absurd 69 goals and 160 points in just 60 games. With Lemieux doing the unimaginable and pucks filling nets across the league, it’s only natural some sensational seasons got overlooked. There were plenty of contenders, from Pat LaFontaine’s 148-point partnership with Alexander Mogilny to Steve Yzerman’s 137-point masterpiece and Pierre Turgeon’s 132-point explosion. But when considering the great scoring performances of 1992-93, one question always emerges: How in the blue hell did Adam f’n Oates score 45 goals?!?

A contract squabble in St. Louis got Oates shipped to Boston during the 1991-92 season, and he finished the year with 10 goals and 30 points in 26 games with the Bruins. Decent production, but it was a far cry from the magic he had with Brett Hull. Arguably the third-best passer in NHL history, Oates needed a finisher. Unfortunately, Cam Neely was still on the mend and never skated with Oates that first year and only made 13 appearances in 1992-93. Most probably remember Oates teaming with Neely and Joe Juneau in ’92-93, but that didn’t happen full-time until the following year in 1993-94, when Neely got 50 goals in 49 games played. Yet even without Hull or Neely, Oates somehow managed 45 goals and 142 points in 1992-93. That’s a trick worthy of Houdini.

Oates’s shot was always Charmin soft, even before the finger injury in 1994 that caused him to truncate his stick blade. When the 1992-93 season started, he had 122 goals in 467 career games, good for 0.26 goals per game, or 21 goals over an 82-game slate. After 1992-93, Oates scored 174 goals in his final 786 games, which is 0.22 goals per games, or 18 goals over 82. So, what the hell happened in 1992-93? Two words: Dmitri Kvarltanov.

That’s right. Who needs Hull or Neely when you have Special K? After tearing up the IHL, a 26-year-old Kvarltanov joined the Bruins in 1992-93, and the crafty Russian winger was the perfect complement to Oates and fellow rookie Joe Juneau. Alas, Kvarltanov lasted only 112 games with the Bears before his soft game drew the ire of Brian Sutter and he got banished to the minor leagues. Kvarltanov jumped to Europe and found enormous success, playing another 14 seasons in Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Finland, and Russia.

But in 1992-93, Oates, Kvarltanov, and Juneau clicked in a big way. Kvarltanov finished with 30 goals and 72 points in 73 games, and he assisted on 18 of Oates’s goals, while Oates drew helpers on 20 of Kvarltanov’s red lights. Juneau was also a rookie phenom that year, with his remarkable 32-goal, 102-point season getting lost in the Teemu Selanne frenzy. Juneau and Oates each had 18 assists on the other’s goals. Combined, the trio accounted for 107 of Boston’s 332 total goals (32.3%) and 316 of the team’s 895 points (35.3%).

Oates also made hay with the man-advantage, notching a career-high 24 power-play goals (he had never scored more than six power-play goals to that point in his career) and equaling his career-high with 38 power-play assists. Between the chemistry with Kvarltanov and Juneau and the power-play success, Oates’s career year starts to make a little more sense, but it’s still a staggering achievement. His 97 assists and 11 game-winners both led the league, and Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and Bobby Orr are the only men to record more assists in a single season. Oates set up 15 different Bruins that year: Kvarltanov (20), Juneau (18), Ray Bourque (13), Stephen Leach (13), Cam Neely (7), Ted Donato (5), Vladimir Ruzicka (4), Gord Murphy (3), Don Sweeney (3), Glen Wesley (3), Brent Hughes (2), Grigori Panteleev (2), David Shaw (2), Dave Reid (1), and Jim Wiemer (1). That’s a playmaker.   

2. Roberto Luongo, Florida Panthers, 2003-04: In 2003-04, Roberto Luongo was the best goaltender in the world, yet because he played for the lowly Florida Panthers, his heroics rarely get mentioned. The Cats were 28-35-15-4 that year, finishing fourth in the Southeast and 16 points out of a playoff spot. Up front, Olli Jokinen led the team in scoring with 26 goals and 58 points, and Valeri Bure was second with 20 goals and 45 points; they were the only 20-goal or 40-point scorers on the roster. Mike van Ryan was the team’s top defenseman, and he anchored a blue line that included a 20-year-old Jay Bouwmeester, Lyle Odelein, Pavel Trnka, Mathieu Biron, Andreas Lilja, and Branislav Mezei. That’s a whole lot of nothing.

Despite the team in front of him, Luongo played 72 games, posting 25 wins, a 2.43 goals-against average, a 0.931 save percentage, and seven shutouts. Those numbers would be great under any circumstances, but they were downright miraculous in Florida. The true genius of Luongo’s season comes with realizing he faced a league-high 2,475 shots, which was 34.9 shots per 60 minutes. Gump Worsley is the only man to face more shots in a season, getting peppered by 2,574 in 1955-56 and 2,523 in 1962-63. Of course, the shot quality was a bit different back then, and Worsley’s respective 0.922 and 0.914 save percentages were well off Luongo’s pace. Luongo actually faced 2,488 shots in 2005-06, 13 more than the highlighted season, but he played in three more games and his numbers weren’t as flashy (2.97 GAA, 0.914 SV%).

To put Luongo’s 2003-04 numbers into perspective, Marc Denis of Columbus was second in shots faced at 1,970, nearly 500 fewer than Bobby Lu. Martin Brodeur, the eventual Vezina winner, faced 630 fewer shots than Luongo even though he played 303 more minutes. Brodeur faced 24.3 shots per 60 minutes, 10.6 fewer than Luongo. And I’m going to go out on a limb and say the chances Florida gave up were much better than the ones Scott Stevens and crew surrendered. Yet despite the excessive workload, Luongo still posted a 0.931 save percentage to Brodeur’s 0.917. None of it mattered to Vezina voters. Brodeur got 15 first-place votes to Luongo’s six to claim his second of four career Vezinas. Miikka Kirprusoff actually finished second, as he led the league with a ridiculous 1.69 goals-against and a 0.933 save percentage. But Kipper appeared in only 38 games and faced a paltry 25.1 shots per 60, so it’s lunacy to compare what he did over such a small sample size to what Luongo accomplished in Florida. 

Luongo recently ended his stellar 19-year career without a Vezina Trophy or even a First-Team All-Star nod. He deserved better.           

1. Mario Lemieux, Pittsburgh Penguins, 2000-01: What Mario Lemieux did in 2000-01 is difficult to comprehend. When asked about Lemieux’s 2001 comeback, most would remember it as a feel-good story about an aging superstar returning to the ice for a victory lap, helping the team he owned stay afloat long enough to eventually draft its next savior. And as the years go by, Lemieux’s comeback has become little more than a footnote to his legendary career, rarely getting discussed alongside his storied 1987-88, 1988-89, 1991-92, 1992-93, and 1995-96 seasons or even remembered at all.

When Lemieux returned to the NHL on December 27, 2001, he was 35 years old and hadn’t played a hockey game since the 1996-97 season that saw him score 50 goals and 122 points to earn his sixth Art Ross. Considering his age and the three-and-a-half-year layoff, it was only natural for Lemieux to be a bit rusty, which is why it took him 33 seconds to record his first point. Lemieux would add a goal and another assist in his comeback performance, leading the Penguins to a 5-0 win over the visiting Maple Leafs. It was full speed ahead from there.

Lemieux’s comeback opened with an eight-game scoring streak that included nine goals and 19 points. Through his first 17 games, he had 17 goals and 34 points. Again, this is as a 35-year-old who hadn’t played in over three years and who had a chronic bad back. Lemieux cooled somewhat in February, managing just six goals and 11 points in 11 games, but he finished the year with 13 goals and 33 points in his final 16 contests. All told, he ended with 35 goals and 76 points in 43 games. The Penguins, who had been 16-16-6-1 to start the year, went 26-12-3-2 with Lemieux in the lineup, securing the franchise’s 11th consecutive playoff appearance, a streak that would end the following year.

Lemieux led the league in goals per game (0.81), assists per game (0.95), and points per game (1.77). Over a full 82-game slate, his numbers would have translated to 66 goals and 145 points, which would have placed him 20+ points ahead of Jaromir Jagr and Joe Sakic and 40+ points clear of everyone else in the league. After more than three years away, Lemieux just waltzed back into the NHL and was the best player in the league by a wide margin.

Despite the abbreviated schedule, Lemieux actually finished second in Hart voting, losing out to Sakic. But perhaps Lemieux’s most ridiculous stat was that he averaged 24:20 in ice time. Last season, Leon Draisaitl played the most minutes of any forward in the NHL, and he averaged 22:35 per game.

In the postseason, bolstered by the surprising goaltending of Johan Hedberg and a stunning Darius Kasparaitis OT goal, the Pens made a memorable run to the conference finals before running out of steam against the mighty New Jersey Devils, who were the defending Cup champs. While his pace dipped, Lemieux still led the Penguins in playoff scoring with six goals and 17 points in 18 games. Hey, offense tended to dry up when facing Dominik Hasek in one round and then El Diablo in the next.   

And 2001 truly was the last time Lemieux was Lemieux. The bad back and an ailing hip would limit him to 24 games the following year, and then 91 points in 67 games in 2002-03 would be his last hurrah. He played 36 games over two more seasons before calling it quits and handing the reins to Kid Crosby. But despite the lack of a storybook ending, Lemieux’s 2001 comeback is the stuff of fairy tales. He also mixed in an Olympic gold medal and a World Cup championship to pad the legacy.   

 

[NOTE: All stats in this article were researched on Hockey-Reference.com, the best hockey resource on the web.]