On August 31st Chris Chelios announced his retirement, marking the end of an amazing 26-season career dating all the way back to 1983-84. In his illustrious career he has won Stanley Cups with Montreal and Detroit, and patrolled the strong Chicago blue line throughout the 1990s. He has represented Team USA in 10 major international tournaments, which is almost twice as much as anyone else.
He finished 2nd to Mario Lemieux in Calder voting his rookie season, and went on to win three Norris trophies while being named to the 1st or 2nd all-star teams an amazing 7 times. Last year when the Atlanta Thrashers missed the playoffs it was only the 2nd time in Chelios' 26-season career that he was golfing early.
An amazing career, but was it the greatest career in American history? We'll see if the numbers back that up, but first let's get some background.
The Greats - Baker, Brimsek and Fielder
The first American hockey star was Hobey Baker, one of the greatest players of his era, and one of the founding twelve inductees to the Hockey Hall of Fame back in 1945. In the pre-NHL days he was a multiple-sport star at Princeton University, and was sought after by several professional teams, including the Montreal Canadiens. Unfortunately Baker's life and career was not only interrupted, but tragically ended in World War I, at age 26.
“Mr. Zero” Frank Brimsek is certainly the greatest American netminder, having won the Calder, the Vezina trophy twice, and being named 1st or 2nd team all-star in all but two of his 10 NHL seasons. After Baker, Brimsek was the first American inductee to the Hall of Fame.
Though raised in Canada, Guyle Fielder was the greatest American-born non-NHL player. Fielder played 22 seasons in the WHL, mostly for Seattle, was a 6-time league MVP, led the league in scoring 9 times, was named a 1st or 2nd team all-star 12 times, scored 100 points 4 times, 70 assists 10 times, and once held the single-season professional hockey record for points with 122. Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe are the only two professional hockey players to have scored more points than his total of 1929.
Prior to the expansion era hockey was a Canadian game, and legends like Baker, Brimsek and Fielder paved the way for the greats to come.
We can use GVT to determine which players made the biggest contributions over their NHL careers, because it is both era-neutral, and rewards both offensive and defensive play. We'll rank players by their combined regular and postseason values to see who stands out on top.
Player Reg PostS Total Comments
Chris Chelios 290.2 57.1 348.2
Mike Modano 292.2 40.3 347.3 Active
Phil Housley 307.2 14.9 342.5
Brian Leetch 271.9 38.3 322.1 Hall of Fame
Jeremy Roenick 247.5 38.2 310.2
Keith Tkachuk 226.4 17.0 285.7 Active
John Vanbiesbrouck 241.8 31.8 273.6
Gary Suter 209.5 24.3 243.4
Mathieu Schneider 214.2 18.9 233.8 Active
John LeClair 198.5 27.9 233.1
Mark Howe 201.1 22.0 226.4
Joey Mullen 189.6 27.2 216.8 Hall of Fame
Keith Hatcher 189.5 18.6 208.1
Tony Amonte 185.1 16.0 201.1
Brian Rafalski 153.7 45.2 198.9 Active
Bill Guerin 171.7 18.9 190.6 Active
Pat Lafontaine 174.8 15.1 189.9 Hall of Fame
Doug Weight 166.5 21.7 188.2 Active
This impressive list includes three Hall of Famers, three 5-time 1st or 2nd team all-stars, and winners of the Calder, Norris, Conn Smythe, Lady Byng and Masterton trophies, and Chelios tops them all.
Thanks to Mike Modano, Chelios won't enjoy his title for long. Modano, who is playing in his 4th decade, was only the 2nd American-born player to be drafted 1st overall, and back in 2007 broke both Mullen's record for most goals by an American-born player, and Housley's record for most points.
Goals Assists Points Playoff Points
Modano 557 Housley 894 Modano 1359 Modano 145
Tkachuk 538 Modano 802 Housley 1232 Chelios 144
Roenick 513 Leetch 781 Roenick 1216 Roenick 122
Mullen 502 Chelios 763 Tkachuk 1065 Janney 110
Lafontaine 468 Weight 748 Mullen 1063 Stevens 106
There's no question that Modano's offensive contributions dwarf Chelios', and exceed those of America's other great stars, but defense is another story. Modano has always been a strong defensive player, but Chelios stellar play beats him 164.6 to 79.1 in defensive GVT. Chelios has a combined +398 to Modano's +117, not to mention being named a 1st or 2nd team all-star 7 times to Modano's lone recognition.
While Chelios has 3 Stanley Cup rings, these American legends tend to be hard luck cases in the postseason, Modano winning just 1, and 8 of the 17 not having won the Stanley Cup at all. The most unfortunate of them all is Phil Housley, the NHL leader in games played without ever hoisting Lord Stanley's trophy.
While Chelios has enjoyed competing on some truly powerhouse teams in Montreal, Chicago and Detroit, Housley was toiling away on some miserable teams across 8 different organizations, leaving him with only 85 postseason games to Chelios' 266. Housley edges out Chelios in the regular season, but Chelios runs away with it in the postseason.
Housley has also never won the Norris trophy as the league's best defenseman, and was named a 1st or 2nd team all-star only once, but there is another man who measures up far better to Chelios in these deparments – Brian Leetch. Leetch was a 5-time all-star, won two Norris trophies, plus the Calder and was the first non-Canadian to win the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP.
In fact, some might argue that the only reason players like Leetch are behind Chelios is because they played fewer seasons. In fairness to Chelios, he actually had a -0.7 GVT in his final two seasons, and just 30.9 GVT in the five seasons previous – it's not like we'd be making a much different case if he had retired in 2002 instead. Furthermore, if Chelios has the talent and physical conditioning to toil away for 8 more seasons than Leetch, doesn't he deserve that credit?
While not as easy as comparing skaters to skaters, GVT makes it easier for us to compare Chelios to the game's great netminders. John Vanbiesbrouck is the greatest American-born goalie since Frank Brimsek, earning a GVT over 100 points higher than Tom Barrasso (164.7) and Mike Richter (154.4), but was he better than Chelios? Probably not – Beezer never won the Stanley Cup, was named an all-star only twice, isn't in the Hall of Fame, and has a GVT far lower than Chelios.
Some truly talented American-born players have played some fantastic NHL careers, but none of these legends have won more Stanley Cups or been more valuable in the postseason, none have been recognized as the best at their position as often with either trophies or all-star nominations, and none are even close to having represented their country more often in major international tournaments than the great Chris Chelios.
The WHA Factor
If there's a persuasive argument to be made that someone other than Chelios is wearing the crown until Modano chooses to claim it, it's for Mark Howe.
Mark Howe, the son of hockey Legend Gordie Howe (whose greatest distinction is probably having an awesome hockey column named after him), is one of the best two-way defensemen all-time. Four times he's been named to the 1st all-star team, and he was a Norris finalist three times, including in 1985-86 when he posted a ridiculous +85 with 7 short-handers.
While his NHL totals are impressive enough in their own right, 6 of perhaps his best seasons were spent in the rival WHA league. Using Gabe Desjardins' WHA translation factors we can translate those totals to an NHL equivalent and estimate how well he would have compared to Chelios had he played his entire 22 seasons wearing an NHL jersey.
Howe would have scored 355 goals to lead all defensemen, 764 assists – one more than Chelios for 4th overall – and his 1,119 points would also place him 4th. Howe, who is already certainly the best defensive player on this list, would boost his lead in +/- over Chelios +350 from +400 to +554, and his 129 playoff points would narrow the postseason gap sufficiently for him to squeak past Chelios in overall career GVT 348.2 to 347.3.
But of course, Howe didn't play those six seasons in the NHL, and there's no way to really tell if he would have had the ice-time and opportunity to contribute to the same extent as he did in the WHA. Being the son of a Canadian hockey legend, and having played for Team Canada himself, there may even be those that cringe at passing an American crown his way anyhow. It's an interesting topic of discussion, but the bottom line is this: what Chelios actually did is more important than what Howe could have done.
The Brett Hull Factor
The greatest American player of all time was Hall of Famer Brett Hull. Not only is he the only American to win the Hart trophy as the league's MVP, he's also won the Lady Byng, the Pearson, and been named 1st team all-star three times.
When talking about Brett Hull, the phrase “only Wayne Gretzky” comes to mind because only his former linemate has scored more single-season goals than Brett Hull's 86 in 1990-91, has scored 50 goals in 50 games as or more often, has scored 70 goals in a season as or more often, and has scored as many playoff game-winning goals as Hull. Simply put, Hull is probably the most accomplished non-Gretzky goal-scorer of the modern era.
There's actually no comparison between Hull and Chelios – Hull was better. He scored 741 goals and 1391 points, far more than even Mike Modano. He even trumps Chelios in postseason play, with 190 points and a GVT of 65.6 GVT. Overall his combined career GVT of 363.9 might be out of reach for even Mike Modano.
So why isn't this article about the Golden Brett? Hull may have been raised to age 8 in Chicago, and represented Team USA in 5 Canada/World Cups and Olympic tournaments, but fortunately for Chelios, he was also born in Ontario, and raised in Winnipeg the son of Canadian hockey legend Bobby Hull. He may be American, but he's not American-born, so he can't be President, and he can't claim the crown that rightfully belongs to Chelios.
To be honest, I used to dislike the way Chelios played. Back in the 1989 playoffs “Cheap Shot” Chelios opened up Brian Propp's head with a nasty elbow, knocking out the Flyers' star, costing them the series, and costing me $5 bucks. While I never felt that you had to play in that Bobby Clarke/Chris Pronger style to win, I did respect the fact that Chelios was a champion, and a true competitor who would consistently do anything to secure the victory. While you don't have to cheer for him, the occasions where he went a little too far shouldn't diminish his overall contributions to both his teams, and to the sport.
With the possible exceptions of two American sons of Canadian hockey legends, and some names from the past, Chris Chelios is certainly the greatest American player - at least until Mike Modano decides otherwise.
Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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