A Chart Story: The Best & Worst of 80's Hockey
What do the dynasty teams look like through more modern stats?
For how highly regarded 80’s hockey is, it’s very difficult to write about. Most of the highlights have already been covered. Everyone knows that the decade belonged to the Oilers & Islanders (with Montreal & Calgary making brief cameos) and those dynasties have been well covered. I was looking forward to tracking these games for Jack Han’s upcoming Hockey Tactics book because it was my first time watching most of these players in their primes. Some consider it the “golden era” of hockey because you had the dynasty teams and Wayne Gretzky becoming the answer to every single hockey trivia question.
I can see why there’s a lot of nostalgia for this era because there was an influx of quicker, more skilled players coming into the league. The game started to speed up and passing your way through the neutral zone became more common instead of having to regroup & skate your way up the ice. Combine that with some early goaltending tactics, you get hundreds of players with gaudy statlines and no shortage of high-scoring games. I touched on this briefly with the 80’s Islanders in my post from a couple of weeks ago, because they were the first team I noticed try to stretch out defenses & test the limits of the two-line pass rule.
The further I got into the 80’s games, the more similar the games looked to the type of hockey we see now. The skill wasn’t at the level it was now. There were only a few guys on every team who could shoot, or carry the puck with any degree of speed & most of those guys were either young or on top lines. The Sabres French Connection line had this element in the 70’s, but the pace that the Islanders played at was just a little higher because of how well they skated & how often scorers like Mike Bossy would fly the zone. The Gretzky Oilers took that pace and mixed in a 12 oz. can of Reign Energy, mixed it in a pot of coffee and added on six espresso shots for good measure. Most of that had to do with having Gretzky, although having running mates like Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson and Paul Coffey (no pun intended) helped those matters.
A Chart Story
I didn’t /want/ to illustrate it this way, but I think this shows what set the Oilers apart from the rest of the NHL, even if it did take a few tries for them to finally win their Cup.
A few notes: This is a really small sample. I tracked every game from 1975-86 listed here plus the entire Stanley Cup Final games from 1981-83 to get a bigger sample of games from the Islanders dynasty. I also tracked two Penguins games from the 80’s to get a sense of what “bad” hockey looked like back then, as most of the games Jack sent me were best vs. best & I wanted to see what your average Tuesday night game looked like back then.
The Oilers had the puck. A lot. They were similar to the 70’s Montreal teams with how often they shot the puck, but it was a completely different playing style. Those Habs teams could meticulously move their way up the ice, wait for an opening and strike in transitions. Edmonton followed that template, but just increased the speed and volume. The brand of hockey they played was more of a read/react type of game as opposed to hanging onto the puck forever & waiting for a teammate to get open. They had a skating advantage over almost every team, so they relied on transition to create most of their chances & getting behind the defense. Gretzky obviously led the way there, but having Jari Kurri on his wing to hit him in stride in the neutral zone helped the cause. There was also Paul Coffey, who was like Larry Robinson if he always had the green light to do whatever he wanted.
As impressive as these stats are, it took the Oilers a few years to get over the hump. They had years of playoff losses including a first round loss to the Los Angeles Kings in 1982 (who had 63 points and a goal differential of -55 that year). They were also swept by Islanders, whose dynasty years don’t look terribly impressive from a statistical standpoint. Part of that is because four of the games tracked here were against the Oilers, but it’s also a case of different playing styles and the game slowly changing.
Once the Habs started to get older, most teams played a similar style and the Islanders were just better than everyone else at the fundamentals & had most of the boxes. Think of who their best players were. Mike Bossy was a generational goal-scorer when he came onto the scene and Bryan Trottier was your typical top line center who did all the little things. He took virtually every faceoff, produced points and while he didn’t have a lot of highlight reel plays, led the team in most statistical categories. Sure, he had the numbers to back up his Hall of Fame spot, but most of Trottier’s best moments would get lost in the general chaos of a 60-minute game. If a puck needed to get out of the zone, he would be the one to do it. He kind of embodied those Islanders teams because he wasn’t flashy but was just constantly better than the guy he was going up against.
Shots vs. Chances
This paints a different picture because while the Oilers dominated the shot counter, they were only around 50% in scoring chances. This actually happened to them in their 1983 series against New York, as they only out-chanced NYI 53-53 despite being +66 in shot attempt differential. Perhaps this suggests some of the growing pains the Oilers had with their style of hockey? They got past the Islanders in 84, but they were swept in this series and the games weren’t even close on the scoresheet (although not as lopsided as those 6-3 & 5-1 games indicate). Some of it relates to how the two teams created offense & the Islanders sort of beating Edmonton at their own game.
Living & Dying by Shot Volume
This is the recap of the series and at a glance, it looks like the Oilers blew away New York at 5v5 except for goaltending & special teams (seriously, talk about an awful power play showing). That’s true to an extent, again, they didn’t dominate the scoring chances and the most interesting stat here is that the Islanders actually created more shots after a pass than Edmonton. The Oilers were the team that had the speed & skill advantage, yet the Islanders were the better team when it came to creating passing plays. That’s even with the Oilers creating a play in transition on over-25% of their controlled entries, which would be one of the highest rates in the league in today’s game.
What happened exactly? Part of it is the sheer number of shots the Oilers were taking and how many of them missed the target, 101 of them to exact. In the entire sample of classic games that I tracked, they hit the net on only 42% of their shots, which puts them near the bottom of the group. Kind of hard to believe, but when you take that many shots, many of them off the rush, you’re going to miss the target some. I can imagine that it would be a decent strategy in the 80’s. With the state of goaltending at the time, taking any shot you could and relying on your skill from there honestly might have worked more often than it did for the Oilers in this series. Billy Smith was just in a zone and wasn’t allowing many cheap goals. That and the Islanders had a pretty deep team. They had no shortage of forwards who specialized in getting the puck out of the zone & weren’t completely banking on one or two lines to carry their offense.
You’ll notice one thing flashing in neon when looking at how the Islanders got most of their goals in this (small) sample.
Yes, I know you can’t make any conclusions with the low number of games tracked. At the same time, it is hilarious to see how many more rebounds they created and how many goals they scored off them compared to everyone else. I’m sure the gap will shrink a little once more games are tracked, but this does go back to what I said about the Islanders rarely losing the scoring chance battle. They played a similar, low-event style to what most of the league was doing outside of Montreal & just executed it better than anyone else. Buffalo was similar & gave them a good run in 1980, but they were a little late in their window. This also likely explains why Duane Sutter ranked high on my Historic Game Score charts you’ve seen me post on Twitter frequently.
I actually thought the 1982 series against Vancouver was a little more interesting to follow than the Edmonton series because while that Canucks team wasn’t great, they were the quickest team I watched until I got to see the Oilers. They could get out of the zone & past the Islanders forecheck a little easier than Buffalo did, the problem was they didn’t create anything once the puck got past the red line. Stan Smyl was their best player and had to play Superman for them to have a prayer in any of these games. Just look at where they were on the second chart I posted earlier. They got the absolute crap beaten out of them.
There is more I want to know about this team & this season, though. The Oilers getting knocked off by the Kings opened the door for them to pull off the upset of a lifetime. It was my first time watching or hearing about most of the players on the roster & the only one who made a real lasting impression was Smyl. He had to carry that team as far as he could and led the team in basically every statistical category. Then you had guys with good numbers like Thomas Gradin & Lars Molin, who are probably what Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson were to Kings fans back when they won their second Cup. Your underrated players who don’t have a huge legacy, but the fanbase & huge hockey nerds will always take the time to appreciate players like this.
Elephant in the Room
We’ve got to talk about Montreal because this era captures two very different teams. The 80’s were a rough time for the Habs with the old guard of Guy LaFleur & Steve Shutt getting older and the newer corps of Chelios, Carbonneau, Naslund and Roy coming to replace them. Their dismantling of the Red Army team in 1980 was a bit of a swansong for the old group (except for Larry Robinson, who was a hockey cyborg). Despite these problems, they’re still rated as one of the best teams of the decade, although I’m sure that wouldn’t be the case if more games were tracked. I want to talk more about transition period though, because the atmosphere for the Good Friday Massacre game against Quebec was every ridiculous hockey stereotype you can imagine thrown into one nicely condensed Youtube clip.
You had the ridiculous brawl, a rivalry game and Montreal fans loudly voicing their displeasure with what they were seeing on the ice. Even before Michel Goulet scored off a brutal Larry Robinson turnover to make it 2-0 in the third period, fans were booing him and Guy LaFleur whenever they touched the puck. It was after Montreal’s worst regular season in basically forever and the Habs had also just come out of a run of early playoff exits, so I guess this was the final straw. Sports fans are quick to turn on those who won if the success doesn’t continue, but I figured four Cup wins would earn you some leeway. Evidently not. Things were so bad that apparently they made their players take boxing lessons, which, well, doesn’t sound that weird when it comes to struggling 80’s hockey teams.
Montreal come back to win this game and it reminded me a lot of the Leafs Game 6 comeback against the Jackets, except the fans ready pitchfork the team if they lost were all on Twitter instead of in the building. Their timelines & situations were completely different. Toronto is still young & the Habs were having a hangover after dominating the 70’s. Still, I can see the similarities with a frustrated fanbase tired of coming up short in a city where hockey is life. Even watching this game on my laptop 36 after it happened, I could sense the tension in the building.
Lucky for Montreal fans, reinforcements were on the way and they found their way back on top of the hockey world just a few years later. While we’re here can we talk about how good Larry Robinson was and how the Habs had a Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers-like transition with Chris Chelios?
I feel like some coaches when the lottery when stuff like this happens
What about the bad games?
Ah yes, Pittsburgh. I watched two of their games, one of which was from 1982 against the Winnipeg Jets & another from 1984 against the Hartford Whalers. Pittsburgh was dead last in the league in points both years and were going up against two average-to-moderately good teams those years, so I figured it would be good barometer for what your average hockey game looked like in the 80’s. Sure, we can fawn over the dynasties all we want, but most of my job consists of charting regular season games, so this kind of stuff is right up my alley.
The final product was a mixed bag. The 82 Penguins were a bad team, but the game against the Jets was entertaining. They still had Randy Carlyle and a couple of guys other teams wanted like Pat Boutette. They held their own against the Jets, who were riding Dale Hawerchuk’s rookie season as much as they could. Speaking of which, how fun must this kid have been to watch when he came into the league?
I always thought highly of guys who played through different eras of hockey and I’d really like to see how Hawerchuk did through the 90’s after watching him be automatic almost every time he touched the puck. He looked like the one really good overager on a CHL team, except he was playing against professionals (albeit against a team that wasn’t very good). Still, his rookie season looked like a blast to watch and I respect him a lot for carrying over his strong play into the dead puck era.
As for the Whalers game, it was tougher to watch even if there were 12 goals. Hartford put a 9-spot on Pittsburgh and most of the goals were due to some dreadful defense and goaltending by the Penguins. The Whalers played a simple dump-and-chase type of game (which I’m learning is an Adams Division thing) and quite frankly, Pittsburgh just kept getting lost. Their two best defensemen were a 19-year-old rookie and an attack-minded defenseman in Moe Mantha. Hartford wasn’t a great team either and they still crushed them. The one cool thing about this game was getting to watch young Ron Francis.
Like Hawerchuk, it was obvious to see why his talent translated through three different eras of hockey. It didn’t always work for him, though. In fact, in the three Whalers games I tracked he had more passes that didn’t connect or were fanned on by his linemates. Still, you could see what made him such a productive player through the Dead Puck era.
He would almost fit in the 70’s more with how he would just hang onto the puck & wait for a teammate to get open, but he could play with pace too. He came into the league when the game was starting to get faster & while the Adams Division didn’t have any teams that played like the Oilers, you still had to keep up with some of the players coming over from Europe like the Stastny Brothers & Mats Naslund. Francis just seemed to have the skill level to play at that pace but also the ability to slow the game down when he needed to, especially on the power play or when leading breakouts (which he had to do often in the 1986 series).
The Last Word
What always gets me with tracking these older games is that you didn’t have to be a good team to make the playoffs or go on a run. You would likely run into the Oilers or Islanders at some point, but 16 teams still made the playoffs. The league was smaller then, so all you had to do was not finish last in your division to have a chance. Combine this with no shootout wins & you saw a lot of teams with losing records in the playoffs, most of them were out West in the Campbell Division with Edmonton & Calgary. We could be in for a similar setup this year with the entire schedule being intra-divisional this year, although the three point games will likely prop up some teams records. I’m not sure if we will ever seen an upset like the Kings/Oilers series ever again, though. It just goes to show that even when parity was at its lowest, hockey was still random, unpredictable & chaotic in nature.
Thanks for reading!