With the NHL being born back in 1917-18 this makes the 2014-15 season the 98th in the league’s history. Franchises and players have come and gone over the years, but some of the performers will be remembered forever due to their incredible exploits on the ice. Players who perform at an elite level on a consistent basis are typically honoured by the sport by being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. However, some of the league’s lesser lights will have an occasional career year which makes the fans stand up and take notice.
Instead of simply listing Wayne Gretzky’s top 15 seasons here or combining him with Mario Lemieux to come up with the top 15, we’ve included all eras of NHL hockey and have put a cap on individual players at three appearances on the list. Incidentally, the top-13 scoring seasons in NHL history belong to the Gretzky/Lemieux combination. There are simply hundreds of options to choose from, making a top-15 list quite hard to do. We’ve looked at goaltenders, defencemen and forwards of all nationalities and ages and have tried to narrow it down to the best individual performances in league history.
The playoffs were also taken into consideration since they are an extension of the same season. Most of these players also excelled when the Stanley Cup was on the line with many of them leading their clubs to the ultimate prize in hockey. All of these players enjoyed fantastic NHL careers and while some of their records may eventually be broken, these are the top 15 greatest individual seasons in NHL history from 1917-18 to 2013-14.
15 Ken Dryden, 1976-77
Many critics believed anybody could play net for the Montreal Canadiens in the 1970’s as the team was a dynasty. However, you still need to stop the puck and that’s what Ken Dryden did in 1976-77 as he lost just six games all year long. He won a league-high 41 decisions and tied another eight while posting a league-leading 10 shutouts and a 2.14 goals-against average in 56 games. Dryden was named to the first All-Star team at the end of the campaign and took home the Vezina Trophy. He went 12-2 in the playoffs to lead the Habs to their fourth Stanley Cup in six years and their second straight. His postseason GAA was 1.55 and he added another four shutouts, which were both league highs.
14 Bobby Orr, 1969-70
Bobby Orr basically revolutionized the way defencemen play hockey. He was an above-average defender, but his true talents lied in his offensive abilities. Back in 1969-70, Orr was just 22 years old and in his fourth NHL campaign. He finished it with 33 goals and 87 assists for 120 points in 76 games to become the first and only defenceman to ever lead the league in scoring. He also posted a +59 rating and added nine goals and 11 assists to help the Boston Bruins win the Stanley Cup that year. In addition, Orr was awarded the Art Ross, Norris, Hart, and Conn Smythe trophies for his efforts. Incredibly, he would break the 120-point mark three times after this season with his high mark of 139 coming the next year. However, this was definitely Orr’s breakout year as he changed the way hockey was played during it.
To cap it all off, he scored the Stanley Cup winning goal in overtime. Perfect end to a great year.
13 Maurice 'Rocket' Richard, 1944-45
Some critics have placed an asterisk beside Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard’s 50 goals and 23 assists in the 1944-45 season since some NHL players were off fighting in World War 2 and the league was arguably weakened. But still, Richard of the Montreal Canadiens became the first-ever player to score 50 goals and he managed to do it in 50 games. It’s a feat that has rarely been matched. This was Richard’s third year in the NHL and he was awarded the Hart Trophy at the end of it as well as a spot on the All-Star team. Richard also kept up his goal-per-game pace in the playoffs with six goals and two assists in eight contests.
12 Wayne Gretzky, 1983-84
The Great One could be given all 15 spots on this list if we went by scoring exploits, but let’s start him off in the 1983-84 season. This was the year Wayne Gretzky scored 87 goals and 118 assists for the Edmonton Oilers for 205 points in 74 games. He won the Lady Byng, Pearson, Hart and Art Ross Trophies. Gretzky had 12 game-winning goals and 22 shorthanded points during the regular season and racked up 35 points in 19 playoff games, finishing a great season with the Oilers winning their first Stanley Cup.
11 Mario Lemieux, 1988-89
A 23-year-old Mario Lemieux missed the magical 200-point mark by just a single digit in 76 contests during the 1988-89 campaign and would have reached it if he didn’t miss four games. He finished the term with 199 points scoring 85 goals and 114 assists. The 85 goals are number four on the all-time list for goals in a season and the 114 assists made Lemieux just the third player at the time to hit the 100 mark with the other two being Gretzky and Orr. The big centre won the Art Ross this year as he was 31 points ahead of a second-place Gretzky. Lemieux added 13 shorthanded goals that season as well as the Hart Trophy and 12 goals and 19 points in 11 playoff games.
10 Phil Esposito, 1970-71
Phil Esposito of the Boston Bruins set a new scoring standard back in the 1970-71 with his 76 goals and 76 assists for 152 points in 78 games. He broke Bobby Hull’s old mark of 58 goals and scored over 100 points for the second time in his career. He was the first player to reach the 100-point total two seasons earlier with 126, which beat Stan Mikita’s old record of 97. Esposito scored 50 goals at even strength this season and added 16 game winners. The big centre captured the Hart, Pearson and Art Ross Trophies and added 10 points in seven playoff outings.
9 Tony Esposito, 1969-70
Goaltender Tony Esposito played 13 games in the 1968-69 campaign for Montreal and recorded a pair of shutouts. The Habs won the Stanley Cup that year, but Esposito was glued to the bench. He played his first full season as a rookie in 1969-70 with the Chicago Blackhawks and posted a 38-17-8 record with a 2.17 goals-against average. However, his most impressive accomplishment was the 15 shutouts he posted in his rookie year. This meant approximately 40 per cent of his wins came by way of shutout. Esposito won the Calder, Hart, and Vezina trophy this year as he enjoyed arguably the best rookie season in NHL history.
8 Mario Lemieux, 1992-93
Mario Lemieux may have had better scoring seasons, but he underwent cancer treatment and missed two months of the 1992-93 campaign. He went through intense radiation sessions and then returned to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ lineup with 20 games remaining. When he came back, Pat Lafontaine of the Buffalo Sabres had taken over the scoring lead, but Lemieux managed to put 56 points on the board in those final 20 contests to win the Art Ross by a dozen points over him. Lemieux appeared in 60 games that year and scored 160 points on 69 goals and 91 assists. He also took home the Hart, Lady Byng, Masterton, and Pearson Trophies that season for his tremendous display. Let’s not forget he added eight goals and 10 assists in 11 postseason contests.
7 George Hainsworth, 1928-29
George Hainsworth starred for the Montreal Canadiens in 1928-29 and set a couple of amazing NHL records at the time. The Habs played a 44-game schedule with George Hainsworth recording a shutout in half of them for 22 on the season. In addition, Hainsworth’s goals-against mark was 0.92 for the year. Yes, it was a different era, but these are two NHL records that will probably never be broken. The goaltender was just 5-feet-6-inches tall and weighed 150 pounds. His record stood at 22-7-15 that season with 43 goals against in 43 games.
6 Teemu Selanne, 1992-93
Teemu Selanne broke into the NHL back in 1992-93 season with the Winnipeg Jets and set a new rookie scoring record with a league-leading 76 goals and 56 assists for 132 points in 84 contests. Selanne broke Mike Bossy’s old goalscoring record of 53 and shattered Peter Stastny’s rookie point mark of 109. The right winger from Finland was rewarded for his excellent freshman year with the Lady Byng, Hart, and Calder Trophies and added six points in six playoff games.
5 Steve Yzerman, 1988-89
Steve Yzerman’s 1988-89 season was the 14th best in NHL history, which means it was the best scoring campaign by any player in history who wasn’t named Gretzky or Lemieux. Yzerman of the Detroit Red Wings racked up 155 points on 65 goals and 90 assists in 80 games. It wasn’t enough for him to lead the league, but he was honoured with the Lady Byng, Hart, Pearson, and Selke Trophies for his efforts. The centre also added five goals and five assists in six playoff encounters.
4 Wayne Gretzky, 1984-85
Wayne Gretzky had another incredible season in 1984-85 with 73 goals and 135 assists for 208 points in 80 games, the third most in league history. Eleven of the goals were shorthanded and he took home his biggest trophy haul ever by winning the Lady Byng, Hart, Pearson, Art Ross, Selke, and Conn Smythe. Gretzky led the Edmonton Oilers to the Stanley Cup by adding 17 goals and 30 assists for 47 points in 18 playoff contests. Gretzky also completed it by leading the Oilers to a second straight Stanley Cup.
3 Bernie Parent, 1973-74
Goaltender Bernie Parent had already played with Boston, Philadelphia and Toronto in the NHL by this time as well as a year with Philadelphia in the WHA. He returned to the Flyers in 1973-74 and had his best season ever. He posted a 47-13-12 record along with a goals-against average of 1.89 to lead the league in both GAA and wins. His 12 shutouts also led the NHL and Parent was rewarded with the Hart and Vezina Trophies for his regular-season play. He then added the Conn Smythe Trophy for leading the Flyers to the Stanley Cup by going 12-5 in the postseason with a 2.02 GAA and a pair of shutouts. Parent duplicated all four trophies the next season with a record that was eerily similar.
2 Bobby Orr, 1970-71
Orr, who was with the Boston Bruins still in 1970-71, set the all-time scoring record for a defenceman with 139 points in 78 games. He scored 37 goals and added a league-high 102 assists and was a remarkable league-leading +124 on the season. He scored three shorthanded goals and five game winners. Orr was handed the Norris and Hart Trophies that year and scored five goals and seven assists in seven playoff matches.
1 Wayne Gretzky, 1981-82
Although Gretzky would score three more points four years down the road, his greatest achievement came with the Edmonton Oilers in the 1981-82 campaign when he was just 22 years old. Gretzky more or less rewrote the record book this season by scoring an NHL-record 92 goals and adding 120 assists for 212 points in 80 games with 12 game-winning goals and six shorthanded markers. What made this season even more incredible was the fact he reached the 50-goal mark in his 39th game of the season. The 92 goals are a league record and were 16 more than the old record of 76 which was held by Phil Esposito at this time. The 120 assists were also a new record, beating Gretzky’s old mark of 109. He took home the Lady Byng, Pearson, Hart and Art Ross Trophies home this campaign and added five goals and seven assists in five postseason contests.