You may know that Art Duncan is credited as being only one of two defencemen to lead a major professional league in scoring, the other being (of course) Bobby Orr, who did it twice in the 1970s. In 1923/24, skating for the Vancouver Maroons of the PCHA, Duncan played 30 games, scoring 21 goals, 10 assists and 31 points, all of which were tops in the league. So he did something even Orr wasn't able to: as a defenceman, he not only led the league in points but in goals scored.
Or did he?
Are there reasons to be suspicious of this claim? The fact is, although players are generally referred to as having played only their primary position, players from Duncan's era and earlier often moved around a lot through their career. Just because Duncan is listed as "Defence" doesn't mean he only ever played defence. Have a look at career major-league scoring record:
|1917||Toronto Northern Fusiliers||NHA||6||4||1||5||12|
|1928||Toronto Maple Leafs||NHL||43||7||5||12||97|
|1929||Toronto Maple Leafs||NHL||39||4||4||8||53|
|1930||Toronto Maple Leafs||NHL||38||4||5||9||49|
|1931||Toronto Maple Leafs||NHL||2||0||0||0||0|
The 1923 and 1924 seasons certainly seem to stick out. Is it possible that he played forward in those seasons? His teammates might provide a clue. In 1923, for defenders Vancouver had Lloyd Cook (who himself played a bit of forward in his career), and...that's about it. Abbie Newell, another forward/defenceman who played only six games, was on the team as well. Frank Patrick played only two games. Everyone else was a forward throughout their careers, suggesting that Duncan must have been a defenceman in 1923. As for his high scoring total, he was actually outscored by Cook by 30 points to 21. Both of them were basically on the ice 60 minutes per game, while the forwards were subbed out fairly often; Mickey MacKay led the team with 40 points, and Frank Boucher was next among forwards with 20.
But the following season, the Maroons added Joe Matte and Helge Bostrom to the lineup, both of whom played both defence and forward in their careers, and both of whom played regularly in 1924. Along with Duncan and Cook, this gave them four possible defencemen. Duncan scored 31 points, Matte scored 15 and Cook 12. Bostrom was clearly a sub, with only three points in 26 games. But perhaps Matte and Cook were the defencemen, Bostrom a substitute for them, and Duncan was on the forward line.
Of course, we don't really need this kind of analysis, although sometimes it can provide some insight. We can actually just go to the game reports published in the newspapers at the time, and see what position Duncan was listed as playing. So as best as I can figure them, these are the positions for the 1923 Vancouver Maroons, as they were listed in the starting lineups (SD is for subsitute defenceman, and SF substitute forward):
Duncan was the starting right defenceman in 80% of Vancouver's games. But he did start once at left wing; maybe that's an indication that the following season he played more and more forward, allowing him to score at an unprecedented rate.
Well, in 1924 the Vancouver Maroons played thusly, as near as I can figure it:
So no, Art Duncan did not play forward, at least as far we can tell. He started on defence every game that season. Just as Lloyd Cook put up impressive scoring numbers the season before while playing defence, Duncan did the same, but took it to a whole 'nother level. It seems that Duncan simply scored at a torrential pace, and deserves full credit for the accomplishment.
But there's still something else to consider. In 1922/23 and 1923/24, the PCHA played an interlocking schedule with Canada's other western major league, the WCHL. In 1924, for example, Vancouver played 11 games against each of Victoria and Seattle, the other PCHA clubs, and two games against each of Calgary, Edmonton, Regina and Saskatoon of the WCHL. Although Vancouver was technically in the PCHA, they played 27% of their regular-season matches against WCHL clubs. For all intents and purposes, the PCHA and WCHL were two conferences of the same league, a league with an imbalanced schedule. And just as we don't give Henrik Sedin a 2012 scoring championship because he led the Western Conference in scoring, we shouldn't be looking at interlocking leagues as being separate.
This is especially important in this case, because it's clear that the WCHL was the higher-quality league in 1924. In the "inter-league" games, the WCHL teams had a combined 17-5-2 record. This means that Art Duncan had lesser competition to beat for the scoring championship of his league. If we combine the WCHL and PCHA scoring leader lists, we get the following:
|COOK, Bill||Saskatoon Crescents||7||30||26||14||40|
|OLIVER, Harry||Calgary Tigers||5||27||22||12||34|
|HAY, George||Regina Capitals||6||25||20||11||31|
|KEATS, Duke||Edmonton Eskimos||5||29||19||12||31|
|DUNCAN, Art||Vancouver Maroons||3||30||21||10||31|
Bill Cook of the Saskatoon Crescents led the WCHL/PCHA in goals, assists and points. He outscored Art Duncan by five goals and four assists, or nine points, almost 30% more than Duncan. Crediting Art Duncan with a scoring championship is silly; he technically led the PCHA in scoring, but the PCHA was not a self-contained league at the time. Duncan only wins the scoring title if you ignore two-thirds of the teams that he played against in 1924.
So while Art Duncan was certainly a defenceman when he scored 31 points in 1924, he should not be given credit for a scoring title. The PCHA and WCHL were separate leagues in name only; since they played against each other they were simply conferences of the same effective league. Bill Cook led this league in all offensive categories. Duncan's numbers were certainly very impressive, but Bobby Orr is alone in leading a major professional league in scoring from the blueline.