Wow, this list was a tough one! When I set out to create it I already had four or five definite individual seasons in mind, and I figured filling out the remaining positions in my top 10 wouldn’t be much of a chore. Boy, was I wrong. Not only did I have difficulty narrowing down which players would make the list, but in some cases even once I chose the player I continued to agonize over which of their seasons was their best.
That particular conundrum illustrates one of my stipulations when creating this list: No player appears more than once on the list. Sure, I could easily justify having Gretzky’s name show up five or six times, but that wouldn’t be very interesting. For the sake of variety I chose (in my opinion) the best or most incredible season of each player that made the cut.
I also decided against including players/seasons from the “old school” NHL. Seasons that included such antiquated rules as “no forward passing” were disregarded. Sorry to fans of George Hainsworth or Joe Malone.
Also, this list only includes regular season accomplishments for the years in question. Ironically, not a single player on the list went on to win the Stanley Cup the same year they enjoyed their respective remarkable seasons. Weird.
With all that said let’s get on to the list. Read on to see who made the cut:
Top 10 Greatest Individual Seasons in NHL Hockey History
10 – Bernie Nicholls – 1988-89
As is usually the case with these lists the #10 spot is the hardest to decide upon. It is always the bubble pick, and it is ultimately the one that eliminates many other worthy candidates from contention. In this case Steve Yzerman, Mike Bossy, Brett Hull, Paul Coffey, Jaromir Jagr, Pat LaFontaine and others all get snubbed in favor of this “one hit wonder”.
Only four players in NHL history have scored 70 goals and 150 points in a single season. Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Phil Esposito, and, you guessed it, Bernie Nicholls. In 1988-89 the spotlight in Los Angeles was all on Wayne Gretzky, and with good reason. “The Great One” had been acquired in the off-season from the Edmonton Oilers in the biggest trade in NHL history. Gretzky didn’t disappoint in his inaugural year with the Kings, putting up 54 goals and 168 points and winning yet another Hart Trophy. Nicholls thrived in Gretzky’s enormous shadow, putting up staggering totals previously only reserved for the game’s biggest superstars. Now, some might complain at my “one hit wonder” moniker, and to be fair, Nicholls put up more than respectable numbers throughout his career, but that 150 point season was a full 50% higher than his next highest single season total (100 in 1984-85).
9 – Tony Esposito – 1969-70
I wanted to make sure to get representation for every position when creating this list, and Tony Esposito’s remarkable rookie season in 1969-70 made it easy to squeeze at least one goalie onto the list.
Esposito had actually seen NHL action the previously season with the Montreal Canadiens, appearing in 13 games with the club and even posting a pair of shutouts. However, the next year the Chicago Blackhawks nabbed the star keeper off waivers (intra-league draft) and they would be richly rewarded for their decision.
Esposito was lights out that season, posting an NHL record 15 shutouts in his first full season. The mark for shutouts was not only a rookie record, but the single season record period, and is one that still stands to this day, more than forty years later. He also had 38 wins and a stingy 2.17 GAA that same year.
Unlike Nicholls, Esposito had a couple of seasons worthy of consideration for the list. His 1971-72 season where he had a 31-10-6 record, 9 shutouts and set the modern day NHL record for lowest goals against average with a 1.77 mark wasn’t too shabby either, but in my opinion didn’t quite trump the accomplishments of his rookie year.
8 – Gordie Howe – 1968-69
Though the man known as “Mr. Hockey” is best known for his incredible consistency throughout his remarkable career, he did have some “peak years” that saw him win six Art Ross Trophies as the NHL’s leading scorer throughout the first half of his career. However, his most amazing season came in 1968-69, when at the ripe old age of 40 Howe defied Father Time, and eclipsed the 100 point plateau for the first time in his career. His 44 goals and 103 points were good enough for third in the NHL in scoring, behind only Phil Esposito and Bobby Hull.
Howe was not only the first player to put up 100 points in a season at the age of 40, but also the last. With the way the game has shifted to a young man’s sport it is likely that Howe’s record may stand as long as the game itself does.
7 – Dominik Hasek – 1997-98
It only seems fitting that a player with the nickname “The Dominator” should make the list. Dominik Hasek was mind-blowingly good throughout the latter half of the 90s while playing for the Buffalo Sabres. With an unorthodox style and an athleticism that made him look like an Olympic gymnast crossed with Gumby, Hasek confounded shooters, and for years he was arguably the most dominant player in the game at any position.
Once again I had multiple seasons to choose from as Hasek had multiple stellar years during a span that saw him win six Vezina Trophies as the NHL’s best goalie. Ultimately I settled on 1997-98. That year Hasek won yet another Vezina, his second of two consecutive Hart Trophy’s (making him the only goalie to ever win the prestigious award twice), had 13 shutouts, a 2.09 GAA, and a .932 save percentage. Oh, and just for good measure he threw in an Olympic Gold Medal in Nagano, Japan in the middle of the regular season. What can you say but wow.
6 – Phil Esposito – 1970-71
As great as Tony Esposito was he’ll always be remembered as the second best player in the Esposito family. Big brother Phil was a larger than life NHL superstar in the 1960s and 1970s while playing for the Boston Bruins, leading the league in scoring five times during his time with the club. Though he had many great statistical years his biggest offensive explosion occurred in 1970-71. That year, follow the Bruins’ Stanley Cup victory in 1970, Esposito absolutely demolished the NHL record book. Up until that point only a handful of players had ever scored 50 goals. Even Esposito himself wasn’t a member of that elite club, having missed the mark by a single tally in the 1968-69 season. However, that year Espo breezed right through 50 and established himself as the sole member of the 70 goal club, finishing with a jaw-dropping 76 on the season.
The 76 goal mark would have been impressive by itself, but Esposito matched it with the same number of assists, giving him an incredible 152 points for the season, obliterating the NHL record, and setting a standard that wouldn’t fall until the arrival of one Wayne Gretzky.
5 – Teemu Selanne – 1992-93
By 1992 the fifty goal club’s membership had grown significantly larger, and it wasn’t such a big deal to hit the half century mark anymore… at least not for veteran NHLers. For rookies, however, it was a different story. Coming into that year only two men (Mike Bossy and Joe Nieuwendyk) had cracked the 50 goal mark as rookies. Bossy’s mark of 53 seemed relatively safe until one “Finnish Flash” took aim at it.
Selanne scored at a prolific rate in his first year in the league, lighting the lamp over and over again while playing for the Winnipeg Jets. In the end he finished with 76 goals, wiping out the old record, much like Esposito had done with his 76 goal campaign more than two decades early.
In addition to the goal record, Selanne also crushed the point record for rookies, finishing with 132, 23 more than the 109 previously established by Peter Stastny of the Quebec Nordiques. Both the goal and point records still stand, and, having survived the rookie years of phenoms Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, it is quite likely both records will stand for decades to come.
4 – Mario Lemieux – 1992-93
Some might wonder why I’ve chosen this particular season, rather than Lemieux’s incredible 1988-89 campaign where he scored 85 goals, had 199 points and finally wrested the Art Ross Trophy away from Wayne Gretzky. Well, it was a tough decision, but ultimately I felt with how the 1992-93 played out for Mario that this one deserved the nod.
That season, Lemieux, fresh off the second of back to back Stanley Cup victories, started the season on a tear, and for a time he looked poised to do the unthinkable: break Wayne Gretzky’s single season record of 215 points. However, it was not to be. The hockey world was shocked when it was discovered that Lemieux had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He stepped away from the game to begin radiation treatment for the potentially deadly disease. At the time, no one thought he would return that season, and there was fear that his career, or even his life would be in jeopardy.
After missing two months Lemieux again surprised the hockey world, making a miraculous return to play. In his absence Buffalo’s Pat LaFontaine, having a career year of his own, had reeled in Lemieux and led the scoring race by 12 points, with only a month left in the season. Without missing a beat, despite the two month absence and the grueling treatments, Lemieux returned and continued to score at a torrid pace. By the time the dust settled on the season he’d not only caught LaFontaine, but eclipsed him by 12 points to win the Art Ross.
3 – Maurice Richard – 1944-45
Habs fans will no doubt grumble that The Rocket begins at the top of this list. They have a strong argument. Prior to 1944-45 few hockey fans would have thought that 50 goals in a single season was possible, particularly considering teams only played 50 regular season games at that time. Richard’s achievement is even more impressive considering he did it in only his second full season in the league.
Despite setting an NHL record for the ages Richard somehow did not win the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP. That honor went to linemate Elmer Lach, who finished with 7 more points than Richard to lead the league in scoring.
Richard’s historic record stood for more than three decades. Though more and more players had 50 goal seasons as the years went by, they all accomplished the feat in more than 50 games, benefiting from the longer NHL seasons than in Richard’s day. It wasn’t until 1980-81 that Richard’s mark for 50 in 50 was equaled, when Mike Bossy of the New York Islanders finally accomplished the feat.
2 – Wayne Gretzky – 1981-82
Wayne Gretzky stood the NHL record book on its ear over his remarkable Hall of Fame career. He not only eclipsed records, he obliterated them. Barring a significant overhaul to the way the game is played, many of the marks he set will live on as long as the NHL does. With so many incredible moments on his resume it was tough to pick a single season that could be described as his best. Certainly 1985-86 when he set the NHL record for points (again) with 215 and averaged more than two assists a game, finishing with 163, is certainly a strong candidate. Yet, for my money, his 1981-82 season was the peak of his regular season achievements.
In 1980-81 when Gretzky eclipsed Phil Esposito’s record for points, scoring 164 that season, fans and media mused that the young phenom might one day have a shot at 200 points in a single season. Well, they certainly didn’t have to wait long.
In 1981-82 Gretzky reinvented his game. Though he’d scored over 50 goals in each of his first two NHL seasons he was predominantly known as a playmaker. That year he resolved to shoot more, and it paid off. Gretzky scored goals in bushels, and as time went on it became apparent that he might have a shot at the same 50 in 50 mark that Mike Bossy had finally equaled the previous season. After 37 games he had 41 goals and, barring injury, it looked certain he would hit the mark.
Though it seemed a foregone conclusion that he would break the record, no one expected how fast he did it. Not only did he make it in under 50 games, but he got there in under 40. Gretzky scored four goals in game 38 and another five in game 39 to reach the mark 11 games faster than either Richard or Bossy.
After taking care of that particular piece of business Gretzky went on to finish the season with 92 goals, 120 assists and 212 points, all NHL records. Of all of his numerous records, Gretzky cites the 50 in 39 as his favorite as he deems it will be the one hardest to break.
1 – Bobby Orr – 1970-71
Yes, I know Oilers’ fans will be crying foul that Gretzky isn’t at the top of this list of the best individual seasons in NHL history. Unfortunately I think this gentleman managed to eke him out in this particular debate.
Hockey fans were gobsmacked in 1969-70 when Bobby Orr, a defenseman, racked up an incredible 120 points in a single season, winning the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s leading scorer. Surely he couldn’t improve on such a lofty total? Orr, fresh off scoring the Stanley Cup winning goal against the Blues went right back to work at the start of the 1970-71 season. He scored 37 goals, four better than the previous year. He set an NHL record with 102 assists, a record at the time not just for defensemen but for players at any position. All totaled he finished with 139 points, a mark unmatched to this day by another NHL rearguard. Only teammate Phil Esposito’s NHL record setting 152 points prevented Orr from winning his second straight scoring title.
As impressive as Orr’s offensive stats were that season his plus/minus total was even more mind-boggling. Orr finished the campaign with a rating of +124, another mark that still stands today – an average of better than +1.5 a game!
His accomplishments didn’t go ignored. He won his fourth straight Norris Trophy and his second straight Hart Trophy, and etched his name forever in hockey history as perhaps the greatest player of all time.