It’s easy to look at Bill Cowley’s numbers and think he might be one of the greatest offensive NHL players ever, and certainly one of the league’s greatest passers.
But his best years came during World War II when a number of NHL players were in the military and so competition wasn’t as good. Also, Cowley sometimes wasn’t even the first line centre on his own team.
The question isn’t just, does Bill Cowley belong in the Hockey Hall of Fame? It’s how do we evaluate his gaudy numbers given when he played and his role when Milt Schmidt was on the team? And why did it take the Hall 20+ years to induct him?
Prior to Bobby Orr‘s arrival, there was a consensus hockey GOAT (Greatest of All Time), Gordie Howe. That was due both to Howe’s dominance but, more importantly, his unprecedented longevity. Howe may have only been the best player in the NHL for six or so seasons, but he was one of the 10 best players in the NHL for over two decades.
Since then, there are a few other contenders for the throne. And the biggest knock against Howe is his Stanley Cups. Gordie Howe made the playoffs in 20 of his 26 NHL seasons. And he made the Stanley Cup Finals a remarkable 11 times. But he only won four Stanley Cups. One can make the LeBron James argument here: If Gordie Howe really is the GOAT, how come his finals record is 4-7?
Listen to us talk about Gordie Howe here:
Gordie Howe’s Career:
1946-71; 1979-80; 26 seasons, 25 quality
801G (3rd All Time – Gretzky, Ovechkin – 1st All Time at his initial retirement by 232; Howe was the career leader in goals from 1963-64 through 1993-94),
1049A (10th All Time – 1st All Time at his initial retirement by 300; Howe was the career leader in assists from 1957-58 through 1987-88) for
1850P (4th – Gretzky, Jagr, Messier – 1st All Time at his initial retirement by nearly 600; Howe was the career leader in points from 1959-60 through 1989-90);
+160* (14th All Time at his initial retirement) in
1767 Games (2nd All Time – Marleau – 1st All Time at his retirement by 300; Howe was the career leader in Games Played from 1961-62 through 2019-20)
217.1 PS (4th All Time – Gretzky, Bourque, Luongo – 1st All Time at his retirement by nearly 69; Howe was the career leader from 1960-61 to 1994-95);
Howe is 2nd All Time in Offensive Point Shares (Gretzky) – he was 1st All Time at his initial retirement by nearly 69 and was the career leader from 1958-59 until 1993-94
Howe is the 15th/13th Forward All Time in Defensive Point Shares – at his initial retirement he was 3rd/1st All Time
Per Game: At his initial retirement in 1971, Howe was
11th All Time in GPG
t-5th in APG (Mikita, Esposito, Cowley, Beliveau)
5th in PPG (Esposito, Hull, Mikita, Beliveau; Howe was the career leader in PPG from 1953-54 through 1958-59)
Era: Of the 13 skaters to play in at least 1148 games (14 modern seasons) between 1946 and 1971, Howe is
1st in Goals (by 369)
1st in GPG (by 0.17)
1st in Assists (by 300)
1st in APG
1st in Points (669)
1st in PPG (by 0.25)
2nd in Plus/Minus
1st in Offensive Point Shares (by more than double his teammate)
8th (2nd/1st Forward) in Defensive Point Shares
1st in Point Shares (by 68.7)
82-game average: 37G, 48A for 86P, +7*; 8.7 PS
3-year peak (1950-53): 70-game average of 46G, 43A for 89P
68G (20th All Time, 3rd at his first retirement – Richard, Beliveau),
92A (2nd All Time at his first retirement – Beliveau – Howe was the career leader from 1961 through 1970) for
160P (t-22nd All Time, 2nd at his first retirement – Beliveau – Howe was the career leader 1964 through 1970),
157 games (3rd All Time at his first retirement – Kelly, Beliveau)
Per Game: At his first retirement, Howe was
T-5th All Time in playoff GPG (Richard, Hull, Drillon, Beliveau)
T-6th All Time in playoff APG
T-4th All Time in playoff PPG (Hull, Beliveau, Blake)
Era: Of the 42 skaters to play in at least 82 playoff games between 1946 and 1971, Howe is
2nd in playoff Goals (behind by 12)
T-4th in playoff GPG
2nd in playoff Assists
4th in playoff APG
2nd in playoff Points (behind by 18)
3rd in playoff PPG
T-18th in playoff Plus/Minus
3rd in playoff Games
Adjustment for Era:
925G (1st All Time),
1265A (2nd – Gretzky) for
2190P (2nd – Gretzky)
Adjusted 82-game average: 43G, 59A for 102P (+16P per 82 games)
T-23rd All Time in Adjusted GPG
T-15th All Time in Adjusted APG
T-13th All Time in Adjusted PPG
1181 Goals (1st All Time by over 300)
1711 Assists (2nd All Time – Gretzky)
2444 Points (1st All Time)
T-19th All Time in VsX GPG
22nd All Time in VsX APG
22nd All Time in VsX PPG
If the qualifier is raised to 820 games played, Howe is
5th All time in VsX GPG (Richard, Hull, Geoffrion, Lemieux)
3rd All Time in VsX APG (Gretzky, Lemieux)
4th All Time in VsX PPG (Gretzky, Lemieux, Richard)
If the qualifier is set to 1230 games, Howe is
1st All Time in VsX GPG
2nd All Time in VsX APG (Gretzky)
2nd All Time in VsX PPG (Gretzky)
WHA: 1973-79; 6 seasons, all quality174G (16th),
334A (7th) for
+136 (7th) in
6th All Time in APG
8th All Time in PPG
82-game average: 34G, 66A for 99P, +27
3-year peak (1973-76): 78-game average of 34G, 72A for 106P, +30
Jean Beliveau is one of the rare NHL stars to combine regular season dominance with playoff dominance. Many of the centres who have scored more regular season points than Beliveau both haven’t done so relative to the league – Beliveau would have been the best offensive player of his era had it not been for Gordie Howe – and very few of them have Beliveau’s long history of success in the playoffs.
So where does he rank all time? Is he a Top 5 Centre? Is he a top 5 Player?
There is a never-ending debate among hockey fans as to which player of Gretzky, Lemieux and Orr was the greatest. There are certain areas where each stands supreme.
Our vote is for Orr because we think he played the more difficult and more important position and because he revolutionized the position as well. (Also, the skating.) But at least one of us thinks there’s room for debate.
Why is it that we (our generation anyway) have trouble thinking of Esposito as one of the greatest hockey players of all time? Is it because he was on the same team as Bobby Orr, whose legend has endured far better? Is it because of Esposito’s extraordinarily unathletic physique? Is it because everything he did has since been done multiple times by multiple players so those records feel less important?
Sure, Espo benefited from playing more games per season in the newly expanded league (someone was going to set records) and, yes, he benefited from playing with the Greatest of All Time, but lesser players wouldn’t have excelled the way he did, over such a long period of time.
Clint Smith set the single-season record for assists in the ’40s. So of course he should be in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Right?
Well, he did it during World War II, when talent in the league was quiet watered down. He doesn’t have a lot of other accomplishments. And he doesn’t have the Cups that many other “veterans committee” inductees of the ’90s have.
So, does Clint Smith belong in the Hockey Hall of Fame? Listen to us try to sort it out here:
Through a career riddled by injuries – including one induced retirement – Lemieux was one of the most dominant forwards the game has ever seen. He temporarily led the NHL in both career Goals Per Game and Points Per Game, despite debuting after Gretzky and despite playing more of his career in the Dead Puck Era.
But Lemieux never reached Gretzky’s accomplishments either in terms of his peak or his longevity. He has fewer scoring titles and Cups than Gretzky, and Gretzky achieved Lemieux’s offensive feats many times over.
Listen to us discuss whether or not Lemieux is the Greatest Hockey Player of All Time, the Greatest Centre of All Time, or something else, here: