Perry Lefko

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.

May 27, 2021 — marko vuruna


Gord Teslic said:

I gave up on the notion of who is the greatest. To me right now there is an elite group of 4. I see it as Orr-Most Exciting,
Gretzky-Smartest player of all-time and Lemieux-Most talented. I would now add Sidney Crosby to make it a foursome.
The accomplishments amongst the 4 of them is utterly amazing and their contributions to the game. Their conduct and elegance speaks volumes to the character of all these players.
Down the road McDavid certainly has the tools to make it a group of 5, he is Dynamic and his skill set if off the charts. The game has evolved which has produced a different breed of players.

Rabi Guha said:

Dear Perry,
I am an amateur hockey historian and an avid Montreal Canadiens fan. These are always interesting bar conversations about who may be the greatest of all time. Certainly there is a good argument for Bobby Orr just as there would be for some other players like Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe and Mario Lemieux. I recognize that you have considered a lot of valid metrics for your argument but I wonder if you would consider – off your map perhaps – Henri Richard whose impactful career spanned 3 decades (much longer than Orr), who played in the shadow of his brother and yet who was a better all-round player, and won 11 Stanley Cups – the most of any player. Or Patrick Roy who won 3 Vezina trophies, 4 Stanley Cups and 3 Conn Smythe trophies – the only player to do so – and as the dominant goalie of his generation prompted other goalies to imitate his style much like Orr; everyone loves a great goalie but they never seem to be considered in the GOAT conversation. I understand your choice, but then again I am a Montrealer and Orr’s best years were spent with our fiercest rival in Boston so I thought I would throw this out there.

Pat said:

Wayne Grezky is the greatest of all time, Bobby Orr is 2nd of all time, regardless the 2 best players of alllllll time, ty

Brian Roberts said:

I watched him play Junior hockey in Oshawa, and you just knew he was going to be a star in the NHL. Orr gets my vote !!

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