So who is the greatest National Hockey League player of all time? It’s number four Bobby Orr.
Orr revolutionized the game, becoming the first, truly dynamic rushing defenceman, controlling the play with his speed, vision and hockey intelligence.
Let’s put it this way, he was to hockey what Mikhail Baryshnikov was to dance with his elegance and flow. Whomever coined the phrase skate like the wind had Orr in mind.
Orr was a huge part of the Boston Bruins’ success in their two Stanley Cup wins in 1970 and ’72. Remember, it was Bobby Orr and the Big, Bad Bruins. As physical and tough as those Boston teams were, they had the most skilled player of that era. Who will ever forget the timeless photo of Orr flying through air after scoring the winning goal in the ’70 Cup?
Who knows how good Bobby Orr could have been had he not had damaged knees that effectively cut short his career after only 12 seasons, of which the last three were a combined 36 games?
In the 1969-70 National Hockey League season, Orr became the first defenceman to win the scoring title with 120 points. No other player had 100 points. His teammate, Phil Esposito, a centre, finished second-best with 99. Orr had 87 assists, one more point higher than the total points of Stan Mikita, who finished third overall in total points.
And an often-overlooked stat is Orr didn’t shy away from the physical aspect of the game. He had 125 penalty minutes the year he led the league in points. The season before he had 133 penalty minutes.
Another interesting nugget is that Orr broke into the league as an 18-year-old in 1966-67. Remember, that was still in the era of the six-team NHL. I’m guessing there weren’t too many 18-year-olds playing in the NHL then. It’s certainly not like it is now in which it is commonplace. Orr won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie that season with 13 goals and 41 points. He also had 102 penalty minutes.
That season was the harbinger of Orr’s greatness. He finished third in the Norris Trophy voting that season as the top defenceman in the league. He subsequently won it eight consecutive seasons, breaking Doug Harvey’s record of seven in eight seasons. He was a first-team All-Star in all those seasons. Three times he won the Hart Trophy as the Most Valuable Player in the league. Five times he led the league in assists. Seven times he scored 20 or more goals, four times he had 30 or more, and one year he had more than 40. That was the 1974-75 season in which he led the league in games played (80), tied Philadelphia centre Bobby Clarke in assists (89) and led in total points (135).
In terms of other trophies he collected in his career, twice he won the Art Ross Trophy for leading the league in total points, and twice he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Most Valuable Player in the playoffs.
One of his most interesting stats is plus-minus. He had a career total of plus-574. He led the league in plus-minus in six seasons.
You could go through history and find defenceman who were dynamic offensive players, notably Ray Bourque, who is the all-time leader with 1,579 career points. Paul Coffey is next with 1,531. Orr is not even on the top-10. But here’s the key difference: Bourque played 1,612 games, Coffey 1,409. Orr played 657 and totalled 915 points. Bourque averaged 1.02 points per game, Coffey 1.08. Orr is about 1.4.
I understand that picking the best player in NHL history is purely subjective, and I understand different metrics have to be used for different eras. All I’m saying is no one has come close to doing what Orr did as a defenseman.
If you look at centres, I find it hard to pick between Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, both of whom were brilliant, albeit their styles were dramatically different. Gretzky played his best on the perimetre or behind the net, using his sublime distribution skills, while Lemieux used his brute strength and size to be a force in tight.
So to wrap it, number four Bobby Orr is number one in my opinion as the best player in NHL history.