You're never too old for a big season
Friday, 08.13.2010 / 5:36 PM / Features
By John Kreiser - NHL.com Columnist
Though hockey is increasingly a young man's game, there always has been a place for the older player who can contribute.
Landmark achievements like seasons with 50 goals and 100 points, or winning the Norris or Vezina Trophy, usually belong to younger players. But players who have reached their 35th birthday have made some history of their own.
Here's a look at some of the best seasons by the NHL's 35-and-over crowd:
Gordie Howe, 1968-69 (age 41)
Johnny Bucyk, 1970-71 (age 35)
Wayne Gretzky, 1995-96 (age 35)
Joe Sakic, 2006-07 (age 37)
No athlete in the history of North American professional sports is comparable to Gordie Howe. "Mr. Hockey" was a great player when he was young and when he was old enough (almost) to be the father of some of his teammates. But his best NHL season, in terms of points, was in 1968-69. One day before his 41st birthday, Howe scored a goal in Detroit's 9-5 loss to Chicago (the Red Wings' 76th of 78 games) to reach the 100-point mark for the first (and only) time in his NHL career.
Howe finished that season with 103 points (44 goals, 59 assists). After two more seasons with the Wings, he went on to play six more in the World Hockey Association before returning to the NHL with Hartford in 1979-80 -- scoring 15 goals as a 51-year-old.
Bucyk had enjoyed a long and productive career before becoming a key part of the "Big Bad Bruins," who rewrote the record books for offense while winning a pair of Stanley Cups in the early 1970s. Bucyk had just turned 35 when he became only the fifth player in League history to reach the 100-point mark by scoring a goal in Boston's 6-3 win against Vancouver.
No player in his age-35 season reached the 100-point mark again for a quarter of a century -- until Wayne Gretzky did it for the 15th and final time in his career, in 1995-96. Gretzky only recently had been traded from Los Angeles to St. Louis when he earned an assist during the Blues' 4-4 tie with New Jersey for his 100th point. He finished with 102, including 79 assists. Gretzky barely missed another 100-point season with the Rangers in 1996-97 (97 points) and had 90 in 1997-98.
Perhaps the most surprising 100-point season by anyone 35 and over belongs to Joe Sakic, whose 36th goal and 100th point in 2006-07 came in Colorado's season finale against Calgary, on April 8, 2007. It was the sixth 100-point season of his career -- but the first since 2000-01. Sakic had scored just 87 points in each of his two previous seasons. Injuries limited Sakic to just 59 games in the next two seasons, and he announced his retirement last summer.
Johnny Bucyk, 1970-71 (age 35)
It's rare enough to find a 50-goal scorer who's over 30, let alone 35. In fact, it's been done only once.
Three days after reaching the 100-point mark, Bucyk became only the fifth player in NHL history at that time to score 50 goals in a season, beating Roy Edwards in the Bruins' 11-4 victory against Detroit on March 16, 1971. It was the only 50-goal season of Bucyk's Hall-of-Fame career.
Since then, the oldest 50-goal scorer has been Jaromir Jagr, who scored 54 times in 2005-06, his age-34 season. It was the third 50-goal season of his career. After Bucyk, the oldest first-time 50-goal man was Joe Mullen, who turned 32 during the 1988-89 season -- when he scored 51 goals for Calgary. The oldest player to get as many as 30 goals in 2009-10 was Vancouver's Mikael Samuelsson. The 33-year-old (34 in December) had exactly 30.
Doug Harvey, 1960-61 (age 36); 1961-62 (age 37)
Harvey's offensive numbers don't begin to tell the tale of his greatness. He could control the tempo of a game like few players before or since, and he was a key to the Canadiens' dynasty of the 1950s, which saw them win a record five consecutive Stanley Cups.
But after the Canadiens had their streak ended by Chicago in 1961, the Habs were content to let Harvey move along, even though he was coming off his fifth Norris Trophy-winning season in six years. He went to the New York Rangers, who hadn't made the playoffs since 1958 -- and showed that he was anything but washed up.
With Harvey solidifying the blue line, the Rangers outfought Detroit and made the playoffs -- their only trip to the postseason between 1959 and 1967. Harvey's numbers (6-24-30) weren't spectacular, but his performance was enough to earn him his sixth Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman.
Harvey played one more full season with the Rangers, then spent several seasons in the minors before playing 70 games with the St. Louis Blues in 1968-69 -- and helping the second-year franchise to the Stanley Cup Final.
Nicklas Lidstrom, 2005-06 (age 35); 2006-07 (age 36); 2007-08 (age 37)
Who was the best position player in the first decade of the 21st century? It's hard to argue with Lidstrom, who won the Norris Trophy in 2001, 2002 and 2003, missed in 2004, then came back and won three more in a row after turning 35 before finishing third in 2009. He didn't make the final three in 2010, but that may have been a reflection of the injuries that decimated Detroit more than any slippage in his play.
Lidstrom is the prototypical 21st-century defenseman -- a smooth puck-mover who's solid in his own zone, makes a good first pass, can carry the puck, runs the power play and devours minutes. Though he's not a big hitter, he's so positionally solid that his man rarely gets free, and although he's on the ice for nearly half the game, he's very hard to hit cleanly.
At age 40, Lidstrom remains one of the NHL's elite players. He shows few signs of slowing down and looks like he could play at a high level for a few more years.
Hall of Famer Ray Bourque also was an elite player after 35, but won the last of his five Norris Trophies when he was 33.
Dominik Hasek, 2000-01 (age 36)
Hasek's NHL career got a late start -- he didn't come to North America from Czechoslovakia until he was in his mid-20s and didn't become a full-time starter until he was nearly 30. But Hasek quickly made up for lost time; he became the dominant goaltender of the late 1990s and the first goalie in more than 40 years to take home the Hart Trophy as League MVP.
Hasek still was at the top of his game for Buffalo in 2000-01, during which he turned 36 -- winning 37 games with a 2.11 goals-against average and a League-high 11 shutouts. That was enough to win the Vezina Trophy for the sixth time in eight years. He was traded to Detroit that summer and led the Red Wings to the Stanley Cup in 2002. At age 43, he combined with Chris Osgood to win the Jennings Trophy and was part of a second Cup-winner with the Wings before retiring.
Martin Brodeur, 2007-08 (age 35)
Brodeur probably will own all the major goaltending records when he finally puts away his pads -- he already has the marks for wins and shutouts. Brodeur was as good as ever in 2007-08, when he edged San Jose's Evgeni Nabokov to win the Vezina Trophy for the second year in a row and fourth in five years (he was second to Miikka Kiprusoff in 2005-06) by going 44-27-6 with a 2.17 GAA and .920 save percentage in a season that concluded just before he turned 36.
Though Brodeur sustained the first major injury of his career (a torn biceps tendon) in 2008-09, it's not unthinkable that he could win another Vezina -- after all, he led all goaltenders in wins (45) and shutouts (9) in 2009-10 and was a finalist for the award.
FIRST-TEAM ALL STARS (prior to 1981-82, the Vezina Trophy was awarded to the goaltender[s] on the team that allowed the fewest goals)
Tony Esposito, 1979-80 (age 36)
Like Hasek, Esposito's career got off to a late start -- he didn't play his first NHL game until he was 25 and had to go from Montreal to Chicago to become a starter. But 10 years after posting 15 shutouts and winning First-Team honors as a rookie, Esposito again was the best goaltender in the new 21-team NHL, going 31-22-16 with a 2.97 GAA and six shutouts for Chicago.
Glenn Hall, 1968-69 (age 37)
The Blackhawks let Hall, then age 36, go to St. Louis in the 1967 expansion draft, thinking he was too old to carry the load in an era that still saw many teams give the vast majority of work to one goaltender. But the combination of Hall and another old-timer, Jacques Plante, worked perfectly for the Blues, who made it to three consecutive Stanley Cup Finals.
Hall became the first member of an expansion team to be named a First-Team All-Star in 1968-69, when he went 19-12-8 with a 2.17 GAA and eight shutouts for the Blues.
Gump Worsley, 1967-68 (age 38)
The Montreal native was coming off a poor season in 1966-67 (3.18 GAA in only 18 games), but was almost flawless in '67-68. With "the Gumper" going 19-9-8 with a 1.98 GAA and six shutouts, the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup for the third time in four years (Worsley went 11-0 in the playoffs with a 1.88 GAA).
Author: John Kreiser | NHL.com Columnist