Best players with early retirement
Hockey is a hard sport and injuries are very common. Sometimes these injuries cause a player to hang up his skates too early in his career. Other times the player's career is ruined by a serious disease or an accident off the ice. But it is always very difficult to say goodbye to the beloved game earlier than expected. I have endeavoured to list the ten best players in the history of NHL whose career was shorter than everbody expected.
I have tried to pick players that have had an impact on NHL. Some of them have been able to become legendary in the short time that they have been around. For us fans, there is no choice but to imagine what it would have been like, had they been able to play out their careers. I am pretty sure that I have forgotten about many players when doing this list and some of them may deserve the position in the top ten more than the ones listed. If you think I have skipped someone please post your opinions below.
1. Bobby Orr (657 games played-270 goals-645 assists-915 total points-31 years old at the end of his career)
Robert Gordon Orr is certainly the best defenseman of all time. Some even say that he is the best player ever, even better than Gretzky. This blueliner changed the way defensemen played until his time. He was the first defenseman to support the offence and he became legendary with the way he managed to carry the puck through the neutral zone. The legendary Bruin has led his team to two Stanley Cups. You can see his most famous moment on the picture shortly after he scored the deciding goal in the 1970 Stanley Cup final. It was the first cup for Boston after 29 years. They won another championship in 1972. If I was to list all of his accomplishments two full articles would not be enough. At least I will mention that he won the Norris Trophy for the best defenseman 8 times in a row, he won the Hart Trophy as the league's MVP 3 times and twice he even won the Art Ross Trophy as the top pointscorer. No other defenseman has ever done that. In 1970–71 he had a plus/minus rating of plus 124 (that is no typo). He won the Canada Cup in 1976. The last 3 seasons he spent in Chicago (one of those seasons he missed entirely) but his injuries were taking their toll. He only managed to start in 36 regular season games in the last 4 seasons of his career. His career was cut short by the chronic knee injuries. Who knows what numbers he could have achieved if he had been able to play on.
2. Mike Bossy (752–573–553–1,126–30 years old)
Michael Bossy was one of the main pieces of the puzzle of the New York Islanders dynasty in the first half of the 1980s. Bossy was a natural goalscorer. It is very likely that if he didn't have to end his career due to his sore back, he would have become the best goalscorer of all time. He was on track for at least 800 career goals. He was only the second player ever to score 50 goals in 50 games. Apart from 4 Stanley Cups he also won the Canada Cup in 1984. He was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs MVP. Scoring goals was second nature to him and he was also one of the least penalized players in the league. He didn't like physical play very much but he was able to beat any defense nonetheless. He only played for 10 seasons and he scored 50+ goals in 9 consecutive seasons. This is a record that hasn't been broken yet, not even by Gretzky himself. However, he was the league's top goalscorer only twice. He scored 100+ points on seven occasions but he never won the Art Ross Trophy. He got stuck between the era of Guy Lafleur and Wayne Gretzky. Even so, he is surely one of the greatest players ever to play in the NHL.
3. Pavel Bure (702–437–342–779–32 years old)
The Russian Rocket has taken North America by storm. His great speed, acceleration and killer instincts have caught the eye of all the fans. Bure has become the pin-up boy of the league in the nineties. He started his career in Vancouver Canucks where he managed to beat the 60-goal and 100-point plateaus in his second and third season. In 1994 he was the part of the surprising Canucks run into the Stanley Cup final where they were defeated by the New York Rangers. Pavel Bure scored 16 goals in 24 playoff games and accumulated a total of 31 points during that run. But then the problems began. In 1995–96 season he was joined in the team by his old linemate from the national team Alexander Mogilny. The fans were whetting their appetite in anticipation. But Bure only appeared in 15 games. In the following season he was unable to find his scoring touch and so Vancouver has managed to get very little out of their combined potential. After 1997–98 Bure asked for a trade and so he ended up in Florida. Not that he had a desire for Miami Beach but he just refused to play for the Canucks any more. He found his old form in the Panthers uniform but he only managed to dress for 11 games in the first season in which he scored 13 goals. Then there were 2 seasons in a row when he managed to win the Maurice Richard Trophy as the best goalscorer. In both of these seasons he has won with a comfortable advantage over his rivals. But these were the last two seasons where he played like a star. He was traded to New York Rangers and his knee problems were beginning to get very serious. After several futile attempts he decided to call it a day. Despite his short career the fans will long remember him.
4. Eric Lindros (760–372–493–865–34 years old)
Even before playing his first professional game Eric Lindros has become a celebrity. Because he was dubbed "The Next One" he could afford more than other drafted players. Scouts have seen a new superstar of the Wayne Gretzky magnitude in Lindros. The first pick in the draft belonged to Quebec but Lindros announced beforehand that he didn't want to play for the Nordiques. After Queec picked him the "fun part" began. There were sweepstakes to get Lindros in a trade from Quebec. His price was incredible high and Philadelphia had to sacrifice 4 players, 2 first round draft picks and 15 million in cash just to get him. And these were no second rate players. One of them was a certain Peter Forsberg, who was drafted just a few places behind Lindros. But it took a whole year for Quebec to realize that Lindros really meant it. Thus he lost one season during which he played for his junior team Oshawa Generals. He got to play at the Canada Cup in 1991, which Canada has won, and at the olympics in Albertville. When Lindros finally stepped on NHL ice he began to fulfill his potential. He was a feared player and his hits were devastating. His offensive potential was no worse and he teamed up with John LeClair and Mikael Renberg to create the legendary line called "Legion of Doom". But only once he managed to lead Philly to the Stanley Cup finals where they couldn't stop the Red Wings (1997). The hard hitting began to take its toll on his health. In total he suffered at least 9 concussions during his career and that is too much for anyone. The worst one was caused by a hit from another legendary tough guy Scott Stevens. After this concussion he had to skip the whole 2000–01 season. Then he was traded in another blockbuster trade to Rangers where he never found his best form. He was part of the team that has won gold at the olympics in Salt Lake City but he was not a key player in that team. Almost at the end of his career he finally got to Toronto which was always his dream but he didn't find better luck there. Lindros will continue to live in the memory of the fans due to his first trade and because he epitomized the term power forward.
5. Cam Neely (726–395–299–694–31 years old)
Cam Neely is another Bruin in the list. Similar to Lindros, Neely was a prototype of a power forward during his time. He was also one of the best goalscorers of his era. He became legendary by scoring 50 goals in 49 games in 1993–94. Only Wayne Gretzky has scored 50 goals in a season faster than Neely. It is ironic that Neely only started in 49 games in that season. As with Orr and Bure, he too had problematic knees for most of his career. Twice he managed to lead the Bruins into the final where they always met with the unbeatable Oilers. He never played in more than 76 games in regular season but despite that he managed to reach the 50 goal mark on 3 occassions. He was awarded the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for perseverance and dedication to hockey in 1994. After 13 seasons he too was forced to retire. Otherwise the 500 goal milestone would have been surely beaten and maybe even 600 goals would have been possible. His number 8 has been retired by the Bruins in 2004 and is hanging in the rafters of their arena. His jersey is accompanied by the jerseys of the man at the top of this list and Ray Bourque, Phil Esposito and others.
6. Pat LaFontaine (865–468–545–1,013–33 years old)
Pat LaFontaine is one of the best US born players ever to play in the NHL. He was drafted third overall by the Islanders in 1983 Entry Draft. That was right after they won their 4th and last Stanley Cup to date. Pat was unlucky that he came at the end of a great dynasty and not sooner. In his first season he had the chance to play in the final with the Islanders but it was in that season when the Isles dynasty was giving way to new Oilers dynasty. It was the first and also the last time Pat played in the cup final. As a 19 year old rookie he was unable to rival with the talent-stacked Oilers. Pat managed to reach the 50-goal and 100-point plateaus twice. In 1992–93 he totalled amazing 148 points in the Sabres uniform. Then the injuries caught up with him. From the next 4 seasons he managed to appear in more than 22 games only once. In 1995 he was awarded the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy just like Cam Neely before him. Before his career was over he was able to celebrate a team success at last. He was part of the US team that won the inaugural World Cup – trophy that replaced the Canada Cup. Then he played his last season as a Ranger at the end of which he suffered a concussion that put an end to his career.
7. Pelle Lindbergh (157 games played-87 wins-49 losses-15 ties-26 years old)
Per-Eric Lindbergh is the only goalie in my selection. His promising career was cut short not by an injury but by a car accident which eventually took his life. This Swedish talent first shined in the national team colors. He started his NHL career when he was 22 as a Philadelphia Flyer. Before that he played one season in the AHL. In his first season he appeared in 8 games and most of the time he spent in the farm team. But in his second season, in which he was still considered a rookie, he appeared in 40 games and was selected into the All-Rookie Team. His best season came in 1984–85. He led his team to 40 wins and had a save percentage of .899. It doesn't sound like much these days but half way through the 80s hockey was played differently and goal average was much higher. The goalies also had smaller padding than today. He was awarded Vezina Trophy as the first European ever. He signed a new lucrative contract for 6 more years with the Flyers and he used the money to get his dream Porsche. This car proved to be his undoing. He had an accident on November 10, 1985 after which he fell into a coma from which he had never woken up.
8. Zigmund Palffy (684–329–384–713–33 years old)
Ziggy – as he is better known – has come back to professional hockey but his NHL career is most likely history. Currently he plays in the Slovak Extraliga for his hometown Skalica. Ziggy was a great goalscorer at the beginning of his career and he was always able to do something unexpected. He was never a big guy, nor the fastest skater, and his shots did not tear the nets but with his hockey sense and intelligence he was able to make the defense look silly. He spent his best years in NHL in LA Kings with his pal Jozef Stumpel and Luc Robitaille. In 2000–01 he was in the running for the Art Ross Trophy but the injury for which he missed 9 games has taken him out of the race. In the end he was only able to gather 89 points. He was also in the running in 2003–04 but once again he was stopped by an injury. Palffy has managed to stay above point per game in most of his seasons. In his final year he played on the wing of Sidney Crosby. Pittsburgh was then a very young team and they were last in the league. That may have been one of the reasons why he decided to retire. Soon after the season reached the halfway stage Ziggy announced his retirement due to his chronic shoulder problems. He will always be remembered in his home country as the player who assisted on the golden goal of Peter Bondra in the world championship final against Russia on May 11, 2002.
9. Vladimir Konstantinov (446–47–128–175–30 years old)
Vlad, Vlady or Vladdie he was called by his teammates. I took the liberty to give myself the nickname after him. This tough defenseman had no mercy with his opponents. Forwards hated him because they knew that playing against him was painful. Sometimes he resorted to some mischief against the rules to provoke the opponent to do something that would lead to a penalty. He was a member of the famous Russian five in Detroit (Larionov, Fedorov, Slava Kozlov, Fetisov). In 1995–96 he recorded plus 60 points in the plus/minus rating (best in the league) which was enough for a nomination for the Norris Trophy. He only played 6 seasons in the NHL but it was enough to win the Stanley Cup. Indeed it was the triumph in 1997 that had indirectly led to the premature end to his career. Only 6 days after the final game Konstantinov, Fetisov and a physio Sergei Mnatsakanov were travelling in a limousine from a golf tournament and dinner for Detroit players. The limousine driver fell asleep and caused an accident in which Konstantinov narrowly escaped death. He lay 5 weeks in a coma. The accident left permanent damage and Vlady is now hardly able to walk or talk.
10. Bill Barilko (252–26–36–62–24 years old)
Bill Barilko - the player delivering a hit on the picture - died tragically in a plane crash. He spent all of his 5 seasons in his short career as a Toronto Maple Leaf. During such a short time he managed to win the Stanley Cup 4 times. He had his most famous moments during the 1951 final. The series against the great rivals from Montreal was incredibely close. The first four games ended in overtime. Three of them were won by the Leafs. In the fifth game there was another overtime. It was none other than Barilko who decided that game with his memorable goal. 4 months later he went fishing with a friend and on the way back their small plane got lost. Nobody knew what had happened but it was obvious that the aircraft has crashed and that the crew did not survive. The plane and Barilko's remains were found only in 1962 only a few days after the Leafs have won the Stanley Cup again. It was the first Leafs cup since his death. The number which he wore in his final season (5) cannot be worn by anybody in Toronto.