Commentary

The best season of all time was a Great One

ESPN reporter David Amber counts down the top 10 individual seasons in NHL history

Updated: January 9, 2008, 4:11 PM ET
By David Amber | Special to ESPN.com

Last year, Sidney Crosby scored the ultimate postseason hardware hat trick. He picked up the Art Ross, the Hart and the Lester B. Pearson trophies honoring him, respectively, as the game's top scorer, MVP and the league's most outstanding player as judged by his peers. By collecting a league-best 120 points, Sid the Kid entered the record books by becoming the first teenager in major pro sports history to win a scoring title. A great achievement, but still not able to crack this list: 10 Degrees counts down the top 10 individual seasons in NHL history.

10. Maurice "Rocket" Richard, Montreal Canadiens, 1944-45

Richard established an NHL benchmark for greatness during the 1944-45 season when he became the league's first 50-goal scorer, accomplishing the feat in a 50-game season. In a season in which Richard didn't win a Stanley Cup ring or even the scoring title, the significance of 50 in 50 cannot be diminished. It would take another 16 years before anyone else would manage to score as many as 50 goals in a season (Bernie Geoffrion, in a 64-game season). Not until Mike Bossy scored twice in the final five minutes of the Islanders' 50th game in 1980-81 did another player match Richard's feat. For the Rocket, the 1944-45 season blasted him into iconic status, making him a superstar in the NHL and a living legend in his home province of Quebec. Considering it was the only season Richard would score 50 goals speaks volumes to how important that number was and still is today in hockey lore.

9. Phil Esposito, Boston Bruins, 1970-71

In the 1970-71 season, the Bruins set league records for goals (399), wins (57) and points (121), and it was Esposito who led the way. In 78 games, Espo shattered the league record for goals with 76, to go along with 76 assists for a league-record 152 points. It would take a decade before Wayne Gretzky would topple those marks. Boston players dominated the scoring race that season, with Bobby Orr, John Bucyk and Ken Hodge following Esposito in the scoring race, giving the B's the top four overall scorers. Despite the Bruins' being upset in the playoffs by a rookie goalie named Ken Dryden, this would be a special season for Esposito, as he captured the first of four straight scoring titles and became the first player ever awarded the newly created Lester B. Pearson award for top player as voted by the players.

8. Gordie Howe, Detroit Red Wings, 1951-52

Howe's longevity in the game is second to none. In six different seasons over a 12-year span, Howe was honored as the NHL's MVP. Choosing between these seasons is difficult, but throw in an Art Ross Trophy and a perfect playoff run to a Stanley Cup title and it makes sense that the 1951-52 season stands out as Mr. Hockey's best and one of the best individual seasons ever. In 1951-52, Howe was the leading producer on the "Production Line," playing alongside Sid Abel and Ted Lindsay. Howe finished the season with a league-best 47 goals and added 39 assists to capture the scoring title by 17 points over Lindsay. In the postseason, Howe and the Wings dominated, winning eight straight games. Howe scored twice in his Stanley Cup finals debut.

[+] EnlargeMario Lemieux
DK Photo/Getty ImagesMario Lemieux's talent at splitting the defense was often evident in 1988-89.

7. Mario Lemieux, Pittsburgh Penguins, 1988-89

In 1989, like most years in that decade, the Stanley Cup was a perennial fixture in the province of Alberta, but the game's best player was residing in the city of Pittsburgh. The 1988-89 season marked the official shift in NHL star power from the Great One to Super Mario. Lemieux led the league in scoring a year earlier, but because Gretzky had played 13 fewer games than Lemieux, it was treated with an asterisk. In 1988-89, a 199-point effort by Lemieux would silence the critics and create a legion of fans dedicated to Lemieux. That season, Mario soared past Gretzky in the points race, as the Great One was just getting acclimated to life as a Los Angeles King. Gretzky finished the year 31 points back. Lemieux's 85 goals in 76 games were eye-popping. His 114 assists made him just the third player, along with Orr and Gretzky, to register 100 assists in a season. Gretzky's seemingly unreachable 200-point barrier almost certainly would have been equaled by Lemieux if he hadn't missed four games with injuries.

6. Guy Lafleur, Montreal Canadiens, 1976-77

In 1976-77, Lafleur was the most dominant player on one of the most dominating teams in NHL history. Lafleur won the scoring title with 56 goals and 80 assists, and his 136 points eclipsed L.A.'s Marcel Dionne's by 14 points. That season, Montreal lost only eight games, and only once at home. Lafleur, a smooth-skating 25-year-old, was a first-team All-Star, earning every meaningful award that season, including the Pearson, the Hart, the Conn Smythe and the Art Ross, to go along with his second straight Stanley Cup ring.

5. Wayne Gretzky, Edmonton Oilers, 1984-85

It was business as usual for Gretzky and the Oilers in 1984-85. The Great One dominated the regular season with 73 goals and 135 assists for 208 points. Gretzky finished 73 points ahead of linemate Jari Kurri for the scoring title. Not surprisingly, Gretzky picked up his sixth straight Hart Trophy and fourth Pearson Award in a row. What made this season most remarkable was the sheer brilliance we saw in the playoffs, when Gretzky elevated his game once more. He scored a remarkable 47 points in 18 postseason games, an NHL record that set a new standard for Conn Smythe winners to be judged against. In the Cup finals against the Flyers, Gretzky scored seven goals in five games, showcasing all of his skills against an overmatched Philadelphia team and reaffirming his place as the game's greatest star.

[+] EnlargeBernie Parent
Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty ImagesBernie Parent had a season for the ages in 1973-74.

4. Bernie Parent, Philadelphia Flyers, 1973-74

The Broad Street Bullies would have been nowhere without Parent during the 1973-74 season. The 28-year-old goalie started an incredible 73 of the Flyers' 78 games that season. Parent won 47 games, the most regulation-time wins in a season in history (Martin Brodeur's 48 wins last season included overtime and shootouts). One year removed from playing for the Philadelphia Blazers of the WHA, Parent had an amazing 1.89 goals-against average, helping the Flyers win their division, while he captured a share of the Vezina Trophy. In the playoffs, Parent was equally impressive, winning 12 of his 17 starts, with a sparkling 2.02 GAA. In the Cup finals, Parent shut out the Bruins 1-0 in the deciding Game 6 to help the Flyers become the first expansion team to win the Stanley Cup. That season, Parent became the fourth goalie to win the Conn Smythe Trophy.

3. Mario Lemieux, Pittsburgh Penguins, 1992-93

It's rare we see that great combination of courage, skill and determination from one athlete. In 1992-93, Lemieux had all three in spades. Super Mario became a hero by fighting, not in the traditional hockey sense, but fighting through the pain of a deadly disease. At 27 and in his prime, Lemieux was on pace to challenge Gretzky's 215-point single-season record. That became an afterthought when in January 1993 Lemieux was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease. While many fans and players believed Lemieux's NHL career was over, after just two months of energy-sapping radiation treatment, Mario made a triumphant return to the ice. Despite missing 20 games, Lemieux still won the scoring title with 160 points, netting 56 points in the 20 games after his return. More incredibly, with Lemieux back on the ice, Pittsburgh won an NHL-record 17 consecutive games to finish first overall for the first time in franchise history. At season's end, an exhausted Lemieux was honored with the Hart, Art Ross, Pearson, plus/minus and most deservedly the Bill Masterton Trophy for perseverance and dedication to hockey.

2. Bobby Orr, Boston Bruins, 1969-70

No player blurred the line between defenseman and prolific scoring force like Orr did in 1969-70. As a 21-year-old, Orr revolutionized his position, doing the unthinkable by winning the scoring title as a defenseman. Before that season, only three defensemen had ever even cracked the top 10 in scoring (Tommy Anderson, Red Kelly, then playing defense for the Red Wings, and Bill Gadsby), but with a silky-smooth skating stride, incredible vision and a hard, quick shot, Orr recorded the best season ever by a blueliner. In 76 games, Orr had 33 goals and a league-leading 87 assists for 120 points, 21 more than teammate and runner-up Phil Esposito. Orr logged huge minutes and led the league in plus/minus at plus-54 (the following season he was a gaudy plus-124). A Stanley Cup title would be the crowning jewel for Orr, who also picked up the Art Ross, Norris, Hart and Conn Smythe trophies that season. It was a season that redefined what a defenseman could do, setting a standard that has yet to be equaled.

1. Wayne Gretzky, Edmonton Oilers, 1981-82
Choosing between Wayne Gretzky's best seasons is like choosing between Jessica Alba and Jessica Biel: There isn't a wrong answer. Still, in a decade in which he dominated, no performance exudes greatness as much as his 1981-82 season. A 20-year-old Gretzky scored 92 goals that season, shattering the previous mark of 76 set by Phil Esposito. He hit the 50-goal mark in just 39 games, capped by a five-goal performance against the Flyers in Game 39. With 120 assists, Gretzky's 212 points set another record (one he would eclipse by three in 1985-86). Gretzky won the scoring title by 65 points, leaving super sniper and runner-up Mike Bossy in his dust.

Gretzky grabbed all sorts of postseason hardware (Hart, Pearson, Art Ross), but it was Gretzky's ability with grace and style to bring the game of hockey to the masses that stands out from the 1981-82 season. In the early 1980s, specifically this season, while the Islanders were winning Stanley Cups, Gretzky started to transcend his icy domain by grabbing international acclaim as the first hockey player and first Canadian to be named The Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year. He was also named Sports Illustrated's 1982 "Sportsman of the Year." Starting in 1981-82, Gretzky truly elevated the sport in a way no one had ever done before.

ESPN reporter David Amber is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.