Friday, 11 July 2014

Puckerings archive: Player Comparisons (21 Mar 2001)

What follows is a post from my old hockey analysis site (later It is reproduced here for posterity; bear in mind this writing is over a decade old and I may not even agree with it myself anymore. This post was originally published on March 21, 2001 and was updated on November 12, 2002.

Player Comparisons
Copyright Iain Fyffe, 2002

Note: This essay is based on my April 28, 2000 posting on the "hockhist" mailing list on Yahoogroups.

The fact is, it’s difficult to look at a pre-modern player’s numbers, even when adjusted, and tell what kind of a player he was. Most of us have never seen many of these players play. Translating numbers into a vivid image of the player’s style in your mind is a difficult task. On the other hand, we have seen most modern players actually play, either live, or on television. We have an idea about players’ styles, beyond their simple numbers.

This leads to a possibility: perhaps we can better understand an old-time player if we can compare him to some modern player. This can help us form an image of the player’s style in our minds, by associating it with the style of a player we know. While there can never be a perfect comparison, of course, this can be a useful exercise when examining the record of older players.

Just this exercise has been done in two recent publications: the first edition of Total Hockey (TH) in 1998, and 1999’s Ultimate Hockey. The purpose of this essay is to examine the player comparisons done in these two books and comment on their validity, and then present some comparisons of my own that I feel are valid.

First, I will go over the comparisons (called “Statistical Twins”) made in Total Hockey. All references to statistics are Adjusted Scoring statistics, from the second edition of Total Hockey. Here are the comparisons:

Mario Lemieux - Jean Beliveau
Physically very similar, both were imposing and capable of dominant play. Beliveau is certainly the better leader. Their career numbers are fairly similar, 544-654-1198 for Lemieux and 615-722-1337 for Beliveau. However, Beliveau played nearly twice as many games as Lemieux. Lemieux’s best seasons are 73, 68 and 60 goals, and 154, 144 and 131 points. Beliveau’s best are 66 and 55 goals (no other season over 50), and 115, 102 and 100 points. Clearly, Lemieux’s numbers are far superior. Physically, this is a good match, but statistically, it is marginal at best.

Bobby Orr - Fred Taylor - Paul Coffey
First of all, Taylor does not belong in this group. True, he was a defenceman at the beginning of his career. However, he was a forward (rover) for the majority of his career, including his best years. He tends to be lumped in with defencemen, but how many blueliners lead their league in goals three times and points five times? So he’s out. Orr and Coffey are often compared, simply because Orr is the best offensive defenceman of all time, and Coffey is probably second. But Orr has a significant edge in the numbers. Orr’s best years are 40, 37, 37 and 36 goals, and 123, 119, 107 and 107 points. Coffey’s best are 38, 32, 30 and 25 goals, and 99, 91, 90 and 87 points. And to say Coffey is anywhere near Orr defensively is ridiculous. Bobby Orr is probably the greatest hockey player (let alone defenceman) of all time. To compare anyone to him is just silly.

Steve Yzerman - Max Bentley
Yzerman’s numbers are significantly better than Bentley’s, and is really a different kind of player. This match is no good. A much better comparison for Max Bentley is Denis Savard, as will be discussed later.

Paul Kariya - Doug Bentley
Kariya is really too early in his career to make a good comparison, and his numbers are quite a bit better than Bentley’s. True, their styles are fairly similar, but Kariya is clearly superior offensively. This is not a good match.

Raymond Bourque - Dit Clapper
When Clapper started playing defence half way through his long career (one good reason to dismiss this comparison), his numbers began looking distinctly like a defenceman’s. Bourque is far better offensively, so much so that they are not really comparable as players.

Brad Park - Earl Seibert
This is not a completely terrible match, though Park is so far ahead offensively that it makes the comparison a little shaky.

Chris Chelios - Art Coulter
See the comments for Park - Seibert. Though their styles are similar, statistically there is no comparison.

Al MacInnis/Doug Wilson - Flash Hollett
First of all, other than one huge season, Wilson didn’t score enough to be grouped with these other two. MacInnis - Hollett, though, is a decent match. MacInnis is a better playmaker, and a better player overall. But their both being from Nova Scotia makes it a likable comparison. This is not a great match, but it’s better than most in TH.

Brett Hull - Bill Cook
Though Cook was a more physical player, this is a fairly good match overall. Hull has the edge on raw scoring, recording seasons of 80, 64, 62 and 53 goals, while Cook had 62, 60, 58 and 52. But because Hull is not at all a physical player, this is a difficult comparison to endorse.

Brendan Shanahan/Keith Tkachuk - Charlie Conacher
Tkachuk is too rough a player to compare to the Blonde Bomber, as is Shanahan to some extent. But in terms of goal-scoring, they do have some similarity. Conacher had seasons of 64, 60, 58 and 56 goals; Tkachuk had 55, 49, 47 and 42; and Shanahan had 49, 49, 48 and 43. Clearly, Conacher was a more dominant scorer than the other two, and that, coupled with the high penalty totals of the others, make this match a bad one.

Adam Oates - Joe Primeau
These two are playmakers extraordinaire. Both have low penalty totals. And though Primeau had a shorter career and wasn’t the goal-scorer that Oates could be at times, this is a pretty good match. Primeau has the edge in assists, with seasons of 99, 84, 68 and 50, while Oates had 69, 67, 62 and 61.

Doug Gilmour - Syl Apps - Ted Kennedy
These three are all excellent checkers, with at least modest offensive talent and a lot of grit. Apps had very low penalty totals, especially compared to Gilmour, and made 5 All-Star Teams. Kennedy was not as offensively gifted, and made 3 All-Star Teams. Gilmour has the best offense of the three, but never made an All-Star Team. Overall, Kennedy played more like Gilmour, but Apps scored more like Gilmour. These are fair matches. Gilmour had seasons of 93, 90 and 82 points; Apps had 82, 81 and 70 points; Kennedy had 76, 71 and 66 points.

Marcel Dionne - Cy Denneny
Dionne was more of a playmaker than Denneny, and had a longer career. Both were smallish (Dionne more so) and put up some big numbers. Denneny had seasons of 122, 112, 92 and 83 points, while Dionne had 107, 103, 101 and 97. This is a fair comparison, but it’s not great.

Jari Kurri - Frank Nighbor
Though Kurri is definitely underrated defensively, he is not in the same league as Nighbor in this regard. Both won the Lady Byng award, and both put up some big numbers, tailing off later in their careers. But Nighbor won the Hart and was clearly the better player overall. This is only a decent match.

Mark Messier - Maurice Richard - Newsy Lalonde
TH cites “leadership” as the tie binding Messier and Richard. Both are feisty and physical, but there the similarity ends. Messier was foremost a playmaker, while Richard is the ultimate goal-scorer. Comparing them is quite silly. Lalonde is much more like Richard, and both could be very rough players. However, Lalonde scored goals through great skill, and Richard scored through sheer force of will. These are not good comparisons at all.

Phil Esposito - Nels Stewart
Esposito relied more on his teammates to pick up his garbage goals, inflating his totals somewhat. Stewart was a dirtier player, but like Espo, was a dominating scorer. Esposito had seasons of 76, 67 and 66 goals, while Old Poison had 62, 61 and 56. This is a decent match overall.

Bobby Hull - Howie Morenz
Now here is a good match. Morenz was a better playmaker, while Hull was more consistent and had a longer career. But in terms of style, the match is excellent. Both were the most electrifying, exciting things on the ice during their times. Both skated like lighting, and were renowned for their end-to-end rushes. Both had hard, accurate shots, and a talent for scoring. This is a very good comparison indeed.

Wayne Gretzky - Frank Boucher/Bill Cowley/Elmer Lach/Stan Mikita
Cowley and Lach simply don’t put up the numbers like the others do. Mikita is a completely different type of player, not being the playmaker the others are. Boucher actually comes close to Gretzky’s numbers in terms of assists, which is somewhat surprising. Gretzky had seasons of 111, 94, 93 and 89 while Boucher had 110, 87, 83 and 80. However, Boucher was nowhere near the goal-scorer Gretzky was in his prime. Boucher is certainly the closest match, but the comparison is only fair due to the great disparity on goals. It’s not really fair to compare anyone to Lemieux, Orr, Taylor, or Gretzky. It just doesn’t work.

I will make only comments on the Ultimate Hockey comparisons at the end of this essay, because there are so many of them. Of all the comparisons from TH and UH, there are a few I really like. I feel these are matches of players who are truly similar:

Bobby Hull - Howie Morenz (TH)
Sprague Cleghorn - Chris Chelios (UH - see below)
Max Bentley - Denis Savard (UH - see below)
Jacques Plante - Patrick Roy (UH - see below)

Now for the good stuff. Following are some comparisons I have come up with myself, and feel are very good.

Benedict was a dominant goaler. In 18 major-league seasons, he led the league in average nine times and wins eight times. More importantly, he changed the way goal was played. When his career began, goalies were prohibited from falling to the ice to make a save. Benedict broke this rule so often that it was finally revoked. Like Benedict, Hasek is renowned for flopping around on the ice, doing anything to make a save. He too has changed the way goal is played, in that before, when a goalie was completely taken by a deke, he would simply give up. Now, many goalies do as Hasek does, doing anything to get some part of their body in the way, often while lying on the ice, and often making the save.

Burch was a forward renowned for his skating and stickhandling skills. He put up some good numbers, but never quite enough to match his enormous talent. He had seasons of 39, 35, and 34 goals, and 76, 70 and 65 points. Cournoyer is quite similar, though he had an edge in raw speed, and Burch was a better passer. The Roadrunner had seasons of 47, 46 and 39 goals, and 85, 78 and 69 points. All things considered, these two are quite comparable.

Cameron is the best offensive defenceman of his time. Known for putting a curve in his shot, he always racked up piles of goals. He also led the NHL in assists twice, in 1917-18 and 1921-22. And although his skills were immense, he was a troublesome player, leading him to be moved around; he played in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and Saskatoon. He had NHL seasons of 25, 23 and 22 goals, and 81, 65 and 58 points. Al MacInnis is the best offensive defenceman of his time. He is known for his powerful slapshot, a shot which Cameron predates. MacInnis is probably better than Cameron defensively, and hasn’t been nearly as troublesome. His best seasons are 26, 26 and 24 goals, and 83, 69 and 68 points.

Chapman was a centre with good passing skills who, other than two seasons in which he paced the circuit in helpers, was always a second-tier talent, not quite among the league’s elite. His best seasons were of 60, 54 and 44 assists, and 75, 73 and 56 points. He was also a gentlemanly player, with low penalty totals. Janney also has good playmaking skills, but has never led the league in assists. His best seasons are 57, 53 and 50 assists, and 77, 74 and 68 points, and he has always had few penalties.

Conacher was truly “The Big Train”. At 6’2” and 195 pounds, he was very big for his day. He was a physical defenceman with significant offensive skills. He was truly a force on the blue line. Standing 6’6” and weighing in at 220, Pronger is certainly the modern player most deserving of the name “Big Train”. He is a dominant physical force on defence, and has offensive talent to boot.

Cook was a great right wing, one of the best of all time. He was a consistent, prolific scorer, having NHL seasons of 62, 60, 58 and 52 goals, and 114, 98, 98 and 98 points. He led the NHL in goals three times, and the WCHL twice. He was a big, physical player, who was imposing in more ways than one. LeClair, a left wing, is also an imposing scorer. He’s had seasons of 60, 53, 51 and 50 goals, and 96, 95, 95 and 88 points, but has never led the league. LeClair has never been quite as dominating as Cook, but they are still very well-matched.

Crawford had a long pro career, beginning in the Saskatoon Pro League in 1910 and ending in 1930 in the AHA, a period covering 20 seasons. During this time, he was a tough-checking forward with considerable scoring talent who never shied away from the rough stuff. He was never an elite player, but was a character player. All this can also be said about Hunter, who played 19 NHL seasons, and was a hard-playing, moderate-scoring character player.

Keeling was a shooter through-and-through. His goals always exceeded his assists by a good margin. He was a very consistent scorer, having 20 or more goals in 9 of his 12 NHL seasons. His best season saw him count 37 times. Martin was also a very consistent goal-scorer in his 11 NHL seasons, which included a 50-goal effort. He scored 30 or more goals in 7 seasons. Keeling’s numbers are somewhat lower, but he was stuck on the second line for most of his career, behind the powerful force of the Cook-Boucher-Cook line.

Lowrey is not well-known at all, but he was a quick, smallish forward with excellent (and underrated) playmaking ability, who was also able to pop in a few goals. Never among the elite scorers, he was much like Andrew Cassels is now. Cassels’ skills are very underappreciated, much like Lowrey’s. These two are perfect second-line centres.

McVeigh was a smallish (5’6”) forward with great speed, earning him the nickname “Rabbit”. He lived by his skating, putting up seasons of 26, 21 and 20 goals, and 53, 53 and 52 points. His playmaking talent was also considerable. Courtnall was also a consummate speedster. He had seasons of 30, 26 and 25 goals, and 65, 62 and 60 points. Courtnall may have somewhat better numbers, but in terms of style, they are remarkably similar.

Pavelich was a hard-working, second-line-type winger who always chipped in with his share of goals. He was an integral part of the Red Wings machine of the 1950’s. Flatley was never part of any machine, having the misfortune of playing most of his career for the Islanders in the late 1980’s. But he was also a hard-working winger with consistent offensive contributions.

Reise was a well-travelled defenceman with some good offensive skills, and was quite consistent. Between 1920 and 1930, he played in Hamilton, Saskatoon, and New York with both the Americans and Rangers. He had NHL seasons of 67, 58 and 43 points. And though he was a solid defender, he wasn’t a rough customer. Brown played in Quebec, St.Louis, Vancouver, Hartford, Carolina, Toronto and Washington between 1985 and 1998. He was a very consistent offensive performer, and was also a solid defenceman. He had seasons of 58, 54 and 51 points.

Roach was a small, quick forward who had a fairly short career covering 8 NHL seasons. He put up some fairly good numbers, punctuated by one outstanding career year in 1922-23 for Hamilton (29-38-68). He also had low penalty totals. Chouinard also played 8 full NHL seasons in which he put up some good numbers. He too had one outstanding career year, in 1978-79 for Atlanta (43-41-84), and took very few penalties. Though Chouinard had somewhat better numbers, these two are very comparable.

Thompson was a very consistent, high-scoring forward who is terribly underappreciated. In 13 NHL seasons, he had 7 years of between 62 and 77 points, and between 24 and 36 goals. Never among the league’s elite, he did lead his team in scoring a few times. Federko was also a very consistent, high-scoring forward. In his 13 full NHL seasons, he had 9 years of between 62 and 78 points, and 7 years of between 24 and 33 goals. He, too, was never among the league’s elite, though he did lead his team in scoring at times. Paul Thompson for the Hall of Fame, anyone?

Wilson was a brute; a rough, very physical player. He led his league in penalties three times, and was often the perpetrator of come violent acts. He made up for this with some good, consistent offence from his right wing position. He moved around, playing for six major pro clubs. Williams played for five teams in the NHL, leading the league in penalties three times. His offensive skill is underrated, and fairly consistent; it is usually forgotten under a barrage of his fists. This is another good comparison.

For the comparisons in UH, I will only make brief comments on each because there are so many. Here they are:

Sprague Cleghorn - Chris Chelios: Very good match, both rough with good offence.

Tommy Dunderdale - Dale Hawerchuk: Pretty good.

Jack Laviolette - Scott Niedermayer: Despite Laviolette often playing the wing, this is pretty good in terms of style.

Joe Malone - Jaromir Jagr: Not good.

Harry Mummery - Ed Jovanovski: Now that Jovanovski has matured, not bad. But Mummery doesn't really have the offence.

Didier Pitre - Peter Bondra: Not good.

Goldie Prodgers - Trevor Linden: Prodgers was often a defenceman, and was a better scorer, too. Not good.

Gord Roberts - Keith Tkachuk: Pretty good.

Tommy Smith - Teemu Selanne: A decent comparison.

Fred Taylor - Paul Coffey: Bad. See comments above discussing TH comparisons.

Frank Boucher - Wayne Gretzky: Not terrible, see comments discussing TH comparisons.

Punch Broadbent - Brendan Shanahan: Decent, but Broadbent was very inconsistent.

Babe Dye - Brett Hull: Not bad.

Frank Finnigan - Mike Peca: Pretty good.

Jake Forbes - Mike Richter: Richter much more consistent, but a decent match.

Dick Irvin - Joe Nieuwendyk: Pretty good.

Duke Keats - Keith Primeau: While both very physical, Primeau is not nearly the force offensively. Not good.

Mickey MacKay - Alexander Mogilny: Mogilny’s painful inconsistency makes this a poor comparison.

Howie Morenz - Pavel Bure: Bure is another good match for Morenz.

Reg Noble - Rick Tocchet: Noble played defence for a large part of his career, but otherwise a fair match.

Ken Randall - Kevin Stevens: Randall mostly a blueliner, and Stevens had better numbers (due to his linemates, mostly).

John Ross Roach - Mike Vernon: Roach was consistently one of the worst goalies in the NHL, though he was good enough to stay; Vernon is probably better.

Marty Barry - John LeClair: Good match, but Barry’s numbers aren’t up to LeClair’s.

Busher Jackson - Sergei Fedorov: Jackson can’t match Fedorov’s speed or shot.

Mush March - Sami Kapanen: Quite good, but Kapanen is early in his career.

Baldy Northcott - Shayne Corson: Northcott a better scorer, Corson a longer career, but still a good match; very similar styles.

Joe Primeau - Adam Oates: Good, see the comments about the TH comparisons.

Babe Siebert - Bobby Holik: No good; for one thing, Siebert was often a defenceman, and was much rougher.

Hooley Smith - Jeremy Roenick: Smith a better playmaker, Roenick a better goal-getter; not great, but not terrible.

Nels Stewart - Cam Neely: Neely was not nearly the force Stewart was. Not good.

Sid Abel - Saku Koivu: Koivu is early in his career, but will probably never match Abel’s goal-scoring. Only a fair match.

Bobby Bauer - Robert Reichel: Reichel is a pretty good match for the overrated Bauer.

Max Bentley - Denis Savard: Now here is a great match! Savard could easily be called the "Dipsy-Doodle Dandy from Pointe Gatineau”.

Butch Bouchard - Scott Stevens: A good match, even if Stevens has superior numbers.

Frank Brimsek - Grant Fuhr: The overrated Brimsek is not a good match for the much-overrated Fuhr.

Neil Colville - Ron Francis: No good at all.

Roy Conacher - Brian Bellows: Quite good.

Jack Crawford - Larry Murphy: Murphy was much better on offence, and worse on defence. Not good.

Bill Durnan - Ed Belfour: Pretty good, though Durnan would never claim he was screened on a breakaway.

Bryan Hextall - Wendel Clark: Fair, but Clark was a much rougher player.

Nick Metz - Mike Keane: Good, but Metz scored quite a bit more.

Babe Pratt - Kevin Hatcher: Not bad.

Chuck Rayner - Ron Hextall: Not bad, but scoring goals shouldn't be a tie binding goalies.

Milt Schmidt - Mark Messier: Schmidt doesn’t have nearly the numbers of the Moose.

Andy Bathgate - Steve Yzerman: Not bad, though Stevie Y has a big edge on offence.

Jean Beliveau - Mario Lemieux: See comments about TH comparisons.

Leo Boivin - Lyle Odelein: Boivin not the fighter Lyle was at times, but a fairly good comparison.

Bill Gadsby - Chris Pronger: A fairly good match, both are (or will be) frequent all-stars.

Bernie Geoffrion - Al MacInnis: Other than being known for their slapshots, there is absolutely nothing in common here.

Doug Harvey - Ray Bourque: A decent match.

Gordie Howe - Eric Lindros: An insult to Mr. Hockey.

Tom Johnson - Adam Foote: Good; two unassuming, tough, quality defencemen.

Red Kelly - Brian Leetch: Kelly was a center quite a bit, making this comparison mostly invalid.

Ted Kennedy - Doug Gilmour: Pretty good, see comments about TH comparisons.

Edgar Laprade - Craig Janney: Janney’s playmaking is superior; not good.

Tony Leswick - Martin Lapointe: Both are hard-working wingers; a good comparison.

Ted Lindsay - Mark Recchi: Not good, as Recchi is anything but Terrible.

Ed Litzenberger - Dave Andreychuk: Litzenberger’s prime is too short to compare him to the consistent Andreychuk.

Fleming Mackell - Theo Fleury: Mackell’s too tall (a towering 5’7”), and is clearly inferior offensively.

Gus Mortson - Ulf Samuelsson: Good match. Highly penalized, good defence.

Jacques Plante - Patrick Roy: A very good match. Both are the elite goalies of their time. Plante invented wandering from the crease, and Roy tried his hardest to emulate, but often turns it into an adventure/nightmare.

Terry Sawchuk - Dominik Hasek: No good. Sawchuk is very overrated.

Tod Sloan - Owen Nolan: Both inconsistent, with some big years. Not bad.

Sid Smith - Luc Robitaille: Robitaille is one of the greatest left wings of all time. Smith is...not.

Jim Thomson - Craig Ludwig: Thomson’s offence is too good (!).

Ralph Backstrom - Alexei Yashin: No good.

Alex Delvecchio - Mike Modano: It’s unlikely Modano will play 24 years, but they are similar; good defence and very good offence.

John Ferguson - Bob Probert: This is quite a good match, though Ferguson is a “policeman” in the pre-70’s tradition, while Probert is definitely a “goon” in the modern sense.

Glenn Hall - Martin Brodeur: A decent match.

Dave Keon - Guy Carbonneau: Good.

Jacques Laperriere - Eric Desjardins: A decent match, both very good, and very underrated.

Frank Mahovlich - Mats Sundin: Both known as Leafs, both never quite living up to their talent.
Stan Mikita - Peter Forsberg: A good match; both are complete players.

Bob Pulford - Rod Brind’Amour: Two tight-checking forwards with significant skills; a decent comparison.

Henri Richard - Paul Kariya: No good.

Eddie Shack - Claude Lemieux: A decent comparison; though Lemieux is significantly better on offence, both are feisty, entertaining players.

J.C.Tremblay - Phil Housley: A good match, though it took Tremblay several years to blossom offensively.

Making comparisons in this way is not an exact science. And it is not to be taken too literally. It is only an aid, to help in the understanding of players who played long before many of us were alive. At the very least, it’s an interesting exercise; a reason to look at the records of older players.

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