Many critics feel that, with the formation the rebel World Hockey Association and the continuing establishment of western expansion, the creation of more roster spots diluted the overall talent pool of the league. I say BS, simply because the abundance of superstars who clashed in the Stanley Cup playoffs and the blood oath rivalries that were formed in this decade was amazing. The colorfully enigmatic dynamics of this era were outstanding and this period of the NHL was as entertaining as ever.
In the first part of the decade, you had the phenomenal play of Bobby Orr and the Boston Bruins, a tough bunch who put up astronomical offensive numbers and could play the game tough. The middle part of the decade was dominated by the Philadelphia Flyers and their vulgar display of power. Finally, you had Le-Bleu-Blanc-et-Rouge persisting with their dazzling, high-flying speed hockey to overcome their intimidating counterparts en route to capturing six league titles. For the third consecutive decade, Montreal prevailed as the undisputed dynasty of the era.
Sure, there were a lot of tough individuals who were more likely to pop you one in the dome than perform a spin-a-rama around you and curtsy in front of your goalie, but you must remember — the game was a physical ordeal then, it was a physical ordeal in the 50s, the 60s and even today. So let’s get off of the goon hockey reputation of this era and appreciate it for what it was, old-time hockey!
Left Wing – Rick Martin (Buffalo Sabres)
Martin was the most prolific scoring left wing of the decade and, had it not been for the emergence of all-time legend Ken Dryden making his “official” NHL debut in the 1971-72 season, Martin would have surely won the Calder Trophy as he tallied 44 goals, an NHL rookie record at the time. He assumed the sniper role on the famed French Connection line alongside Gilbert Perreualt and Rene Robert and played the part superbly as he averaged 46 goals a season in the decade and exceeded the magical 50-goal mark twice.
Center – Phil Esposito (Boston Bruins, New York Rangers)
From 1970 to 1975, the NHL would witness one of the great goal-scoring displays in league history as Esposito topped the 60-goal mark three times and averaged 50 goals a season. Espo started the decade out with a bang as he obliterated Bobby Hull’s single-season goal-scoring record of 58, topping out at 76 and winning his second of four consecutive Art Ross trophies. The following season he would score 66 goals and assist the Bruins to their second Stanley Cup triumph in three years. He would be traded to the New York Rangers in 1975 and, though his scoring prowess took a noticeable dip, he still averaged 35 goals for the second part of the decade. When the decade was over, Espo’s resume appeared as such: five All-NHL First Team honors, four scoring titles, two Stanley Cups and 1087 total points, the most points up to that point by any player in any decade.
Right Wing – Guy LaFleur (Montreal Candiens)
The #1 pick of the 1971 draft was supposed to provide instant offense. But though he averaged better then 20 goals and 50 points, his first three seasons with Montreal were considered letdowns. His next six seasons, though, would become a period of brilliance as the sweet-skating winger would average 50 goals and 100 points a season, a feat never witnessed in the NHL, earning him a place in Habs mythology near the status of the Rocket and Beliveau. LaFleur would win two Hart trophies in the decade, three Ross trophies and the Conn Smythe at the conclusion of the 1977 Stanley Cup Finals. The highest scoring player at his position, LaFleur was the most dominant right wing of the era.
Defenseman – Bobby Orr (Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks)
Orr changed the game in this decade. Never had a defenseman had such great impact on both ends of the ice as Orr. He was a dominating defensive hockey player who blocked shots, kept the corners clean, cleared the crease and played the body with furious brutality. This aspect of his game alone would have justified his eight consecutive Norris Trophies, but it was his ability to dictate a game with his scoring touch that made him such a phenomenon.
In 1970, he would score 120 points and become the first defenseman to win the scoring title. That same year he would win the Hart Trophy, the Norris Trophy and guide the Bruins to their first Stanley Cup victory in 29 years. He would score 100 points or better over the next four seasons and actually win another Ross Trophy in 1975, becoming the last blue liner to accomplish the feat.
That 1975 season would be his last as the true Bobby Orr. Knee injuries had plagued his career since the mid 1960s and it is astonishing that he was able to dominate in the manner he did for so long with those wrecked knees. After playing only 36 scattered games from 1976 to 1980, Orr officially retired. It makes you wonder how outstanding he could have been had he been able to avoid the injury bug. Even still, there are few athletes in history who can match the dominance that Orr displayed in the first part of the decade as the greatest hockey player ever to play the game.
Defenseman- Larry Robinson (Montreal Canadiens)
In the Age of the Big Bad Bruins and the Broad Street Bullies, it makes you wonder how the tiny, fleet-footed Montreal Canadiens, with guys nicknamed the Flower and the Roadrunner, were able to pull off six Stanley Cups in the decade…
Enter 6’4”, 225-pound Larry Robinson. A terrific hitter and a strong fighter, Robinson was a brutal physical presence who laid down the law when he thought one too many offenses occurred towards his smaller teammates. His ability to take care of his goalie and the rest of the backend was just one facet of his game, though. You must remember that he played for the Flying Frenchmen of Montreal, and his ability to skate with the puck and compliment the rush was almost as important as his defensive play. He could play that game as well and on many nights he left his opponents in awe at how mobile he was for his size. His playmaking ability reached its apex in the 1978 Stanley Cup playoffs as he tied Guy LaFleur for most points on the team and was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
Left Wing – Steve Shutt (Montreal Canadiens)
This high-scoring winger was the perfect compliment on the left side for superstar LaFleur. He exceeded the 45-goal plateau three times in the decade and hit the 60-goal mark in 1977 (a record for players at the left wing position until 1993, when Luc Robitaille would notch 63).
Center – Bobby Clarke (Philadelphia Flyers)
Clarke was the prince of Broad Street and the vaptain of the first expansion team to win the Stanley Cup. Though the rough style of play usually gets first mention when the Flyers mini-dynasty enters the conversation, it was the supremely talented center for Philadelphia who led the charge on the ice and in the locker room in those Flyers glory days. Twice named league MVP in the decade, his playmaking abilities and nose for the net made him the first expansion player to eclipse the 100-point plateau. Clarke was also a vaunted defensive player and was a key on the penalty kill, both attributes that made him one of the best all-around players of the 70s.
Right Wing – Yvon Cournoyer (Montreal Candiens)
At 5’7”, 172 pounds, the “Roadrunner” used dazzling speed to negate the brutality and overtly physical play of the NHL in the 70s. Cournoyer would be instrumental in the last of the great Montreal dynasties, as he was awarded the Conn Smythe as MVP of the 1973 playoffs and, upon the retirement of Henri Richard, he was named the Montreal captain. A serious back injury kept him out of both the 1977 and the 1979 playoffs, but his name was still engraved on the Cup in both instances as the team captain. He was also a heavy goal scorer as he averaged 30 goals a season for the decade.
Defenseman – Brad Park (New York Rangers, Boston Bruins)
Park is a Garden legend, whether it was of the Madison Square or the Boston variety. His gritty, cerebral style of play made him a fan favorite of the 70s. You needed a guy to lay a bruising hip check or make a last-second poke check in front of your netminder’s crease? Park would do it. You needed someone to take on Dave “The Hammer” Schultz or one of the other Bullies because they were running wild on your star players? While he wasn’t the best fighter in the world and usually took more then he gave, Park did it. In fact, in his stay with the Rangers from the early- to mid-70s, the team naively lacked an imposing tough guy to play policeman and Park averaged nearly 100 penalty minutes a season employing the rough stuff. Don’t forget, though, that the man was a brilliant playmaker, and when he was traded to the hated Boston Bruins he left the Rangers as their all-time leading scorer from the defenseman position. With the Bruins, he adapted quickly and continued his stellar play in Don Cherry’s rough lunch-pail-style hockey and actually assisted them to two Stanley Cup Finals to finish out the decade.
Defenseman – Denis Potvin (New York Islanders)
Though the New York Islander dynasty took place in the 80s, Potvin had established himself as one of the best defensemen of the game the decade before. In his first season on the Island he collected 17 goals and 54 points and was awarded the Calder Trophy as the top rookie of the 1974 season. He would average 81 points per season the rest of the decade, collect two Norris Trophies and in 1979 he would become the second defenseman after Orr to score 100 points or better. Though his ability to quarterback the power play and produce on the offensive end were above average, it was his ability to exterminate an oncoming rush, make a big hit, or give the opposition a taste of his mean streak that made him such a valuable commodity on the blue line.
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