Before we get started on another edition of NHL Saturday today, we want to take a moment of silence to honor all-time great goaltender Tony Esposito, who died earlier this month. We honored him with our Vezina nods in 1971, 1980, and 1981, even though we also took it away from him in 1972 and 1974. Esposito did get to keep his 1970 Calder hardware, though, in our minds. May he rest in peace.

Now, back to the late 1980s as the Edmonton Oilers won their fourth Stanley Cup in five seasons …

1988 Hart: Mario Lemieux (original, confirmed)

For the first time this decade, the Hart vote went to someone other than Edmonton Oilers center Wayne Gretzky, as Pittsburgh Penguins center Mario Lemieux shot to the top of the charts at age 22, posting 16.17 Point Shares to top the Great One by 3.29 PS. And only Chicago Blackhawks center Denis Savard (11.04) and Detroit Wings center Steve Yzerman (10.37) were within shouting distance of Gretzky.

With Lemieux so far ahead of everyone, we start with him: The Pens finished last in the Patrick Division with 81 points, as all six teams in the grouping finished within 7 points of each other. Pittsburgh might have had the worst record in the Wales Conference if not for Lemieux, but is that really value? Of course, he was really good, but even with him, the Pens missed the playoffs by a point. That is basically one puck bouncing the wrong way.

We can’t hold that against Lemieux, who did everything humanly possible to get his gang to the postseason. The Oilers had a 32-point playoff cushion, for comparison’s sake, while Detroit and Chicago also cruised into the playoffs. Clearly, Lemieux carried a bad team to within one unlucky bounce of the Stanley Cup playoffs. That’s good enough for us to confirm the hardware nod here.

His traditionals were very Gretzky-like, in truth: 70 goals, 98 assists, 92 PIM, and 382 SOG. He topped the NHL in goals, points, even-strength goals (38), short-handed goals (10), and SOG.

1988 Norris: Ray Bourque (original, confirmed)

The top two blueliners were Boston Bruins star Ray Bourque (11.74) and Calgary Flames youngster Gary Suter (11.12). Bourque won this award from us in 1980 and 1984, so it would seem he is due, right? Both teams made the postseason easily, although the Flames did record the highest point total in the league (105). What stands out to us is that Bourque basically topped the league in defensive PS, too, with 6.2 dPS, which was 1.8 higher than Suter.

Here is a direct statistical comparison:

  • Bourque: 17G, 64 A, plus-34, 72 PIM, 344 SOG
  • Suter: 21G, 70A, plus-39, 124 PIM, 204 SOG

Clearly, Suter seems to exceed Bourque here in all ways, especially in that shot percentage, where Bourque was just throwing the puck at the net and praying for something to go to happen. But this is where the sabermetrics take hold: Calgary was better overall, which enabled Suter to pick his spots, where as Bourque had a slight disadvantage in terms of having to do more on his own for an overall lesser team, albeit still a very good one.

Again, too, since this is the defenseman’s MVP trophy, we’re going to stick with Bourque for playing both ways at a higher level of balance than Suter. We wouldn’t argue if anyone wanted to give this nod to Suter, though, because clearly he was a very good player already at age 22. Bourque won the Norris vote last year, before we took the award away—not this time, though.

1988 Vezina: Grant Fuhr (original), John Vanbiesbrouck (revised)

Four goalies stood out among the rest, including Oilers backstop and Vezina vote winner Grant Fuhr (11.32)—followed by Buffalo Sabres rock Tom Barrasso (10.96), Philadelphia Flyers phenom Ron Hextall (10.60), and New York Rangers veteran John Vanbiesbrouck (10.50). Hextall had an amazing rookie season in 1987, of course, and Beezer won this award in 1986. This is looking like a close contest already!

The PS totals are so close, and we can see the Oilers and the Sabres cruised into the postseason with healthy cushions that exceed the respective backstops’ PS marks. The Flyers and the Rangers played in that Patrick Division scrum, with the Flyers making the postseason (85 points) and the Rangers just missing out (82 points) on a tiebreaker to New Jersey. So we need to do a direct comparison here:

  • Hextall: 30-22-7, 3.51 GAA, .886 S%, 0 shutouts
  • Vanbiesbrouck: 27-22-7, 3.38 GAA, .890 S%, 2 shutouts

We are going to go with Beezer here, since he did play “better” than Hextall, and like Lemieux, he carried his team to within one unluncky bounce of a playoff spot. That’s good enough for us.

1988 Calder: Joe Nieuwendyk (original, confirmed)

The top three rooks in the NHL this year were Chicago goalie Darren Pang (9.4 PS), Flames C Joe Nieuwendyk (8.7), and Sabres right wing Ray Sheppard (5.5). None of these players made a huge difference in any postseason margins, so we’re going to focus on the top PS earners, and in doing that, we see how “bad” Pang actually was: He posted a 17-23-1 mark for a team that finished 30-41-9. His timeshare partner went 13-18-8, as well.

There is nothing “worthy” of this award there, while Nieuwendyk—the vote winner at the time—topped the league in power-play goals (31) and generally had a much more positive impact on his team’s success. His overall game—92 points—really was impressive for a rookie. That’s strong enough for us to confirm his vote win.

1988 Conn Smythe: Wayne Gretzky (original, confirmed)

Edmonton topped Boston in the Finals, sweeping them to capture the Cup. Gretzky won the Conn Smythe vote by dropping 43 points in just 19 postseason games. Of course, four other Oilers skaters also posted more than one point per game, as this well-crafted offensive juggernaut plowed its way through the playoff field. Fuhr was just good enough in goal, or as good as he needed to be.

Meanwhile, on the Boston side, center Ken Linseman (25 points in 23 games) and goalie Reggie Lemelin (11-6, 2.64 GAA) stood out—but not like Gretzky did for Edmonton. The Bruins’ other goalie was terrible, and maybe that cost them a better chance at the Cup, but without both Boston backstops were equally bad in the Finals, in truth.

We really don’t see any reason not to give this award to Gretzky, in truth. This is the third Conn Smythe we have given him, in addition to 1984 and 1987. The Great One would never win another Cup, so this was perhaps a symbolic peak for his amazing career.

Check in on Saturdays for our NHL awards historical analysis on The Daily McPlay!