January 12, 2013

100 Greatest Players from New England: 10-1

By Jesse Connolly

Our special cover was drawn exclusively for New England Hockey Journal by renowned sports artist Neal Portnoy. It depicts (clockwise from the top right) Tom Barrasso, Jeremy Roenick, Bobby Carpenter, Bill Cleary, Brian Leetch, Jim Craig and Mike Eruzione.

The countdown concludes as we unveil the top ten on our list of the 100 greatest players from New England.

In case you missed it: 50 runners-up 100-76 | 75-51 | 50-26 | 25-11

10. Mike Eruzione
Captain America

Left Wing | Winthrop, Mass. | Oct. 25, 1954

A star at Boston University who led the Terriers to four ECAC titles and was referred to by coach Jack Parker as “Pete Rose on skates,” Eruzione famously captained the 1980 U.S. team to a gold medal at the Olympics, scoring the game-winning goal against the Soviet Union in the “Miracle on Ice” game.

The hard-working forward’s tally, which put the U.S. up 4-3 in the third period, is arguably the most important goal in hockey history. It inspired countless impressionable youngsters throughout New England to play the game and ultimately led to the region producing a wave of superstars that dominated at the NHL level throughout the ’90s and into the 2000s.

College career: 1973-77
College totals: 127 games, 208 points

9. Bobby Carpenter
Can’t-Miss Kid
Center | Peabody, Mass. | July 13, 1963

After being dubbed the “Can’t-Miss Kid” by Sports Illustrated, Carpenter was the first U.S.-born player to jump directly from high school (St. John’s Prep) to the National Hockey League and first American to score 50 goals in a single season, burying 53 in 1984-85 to bring his career total to 125 tallies through his first four seasons in Washington.

After a brief stint with the Kings, he came home to Boston and spent parts of four seasons with the Bruins, scoring 25 goals on two occasions and helping the club reach the finals in 1990. He later enjoyed success as a role player with the Devils and was a member of their Cup-winning squad in 1995. His 188 goals for Washington rank eighth in franchise history.

NHL career: 1981-99
NHL totals: 1,178 games, 728 points

8. Chris Drury
Playoff monster                                       
Center | Trumbull, Conn. | Aug. 20, 1976

If you’re looking for statistical proof Drury was clutch, look no further than this: Only four players in NHL history have scored more than his 17 game-winners in the playoffs, and one of them is named Wayne Gretzky. From Colorado to Buffalo to Broadway, when Drury’s team needed a big goal, you’d be hard pressed to name a single time he didn’t come through.

Because of his propensity for masterful showings in meaningful games, Drury was a winner at all levels. He was a Little League World Series champ, won a national title and a Hobey Baker Award at BU (where he’s the all-time leading goal scorer with 115 tallies), two silver medals and a Stanley Cup in 2001 with the Avalanche. The nine-time 20-goal scorer, who served as captain with the Sabres and Rangers, reached the conference finals or further six times, notching 89 points in 135 career playoff contests.

NHL career: 1998-2011
NHL totals: 892 games, 615 points

7. Bill Guerin
400-goal scorer
Right Wing | Wilbraham, Mass. | Nov. 9, 1970

One of the most productive power forwards in the league throughout his career, Guerin topped 20 goals 10 times and 100 penalty minutes eight times as an NHL player. Following two seasons at BC, the 6-foot-2 winger made the jump to the NHL during the 1991-92 campaign. After a breakout season in 1993-94, he won it all with the Devils the following season. His success continued in Edmonton, but a trade to Boston led to the best two seasons of his career. In 132 games as a Bruin, the menacing forward racked up 129 points, ranking second in the NHL with 41 goals in 2001-02. A four-time All-Star, Guerin added another Cup to his collection in 2009 with Pittsburgh where his grit, speed, leadership and still more-than-dangerous shot provided a big boost.

NHL career: 1992-2010
NHL totals: 1,263 games, 856 points

6. Tom Barrasso
Decorated puck stopper
Goalie | Stow, Mass. | March 31, 1965

Drafted fifth overall by Buffalo, Barrasso made the jump from Acton-Boxborough High to the NHL and went 26-12-3, winning the Calder and Vezina trophies his first year (1983-84), with the Sabres. He followed that by capturing the Jennings Trophy for the 1984-85 campaign.

A 1988 trade sent him to Pittsburgh, where he cemented his legacy by backstopping the juggernaut squad to consecutive Cups in 1991 and 1992. An exceptional puck handler and the league leader with 43 wins in 1992-93, Barrasso ranks 15th in NHL history with 369 victories, trailing only John Vanbiesbrouck among American goalies. A feisty presence between the pipes, the 6-foot-3 netminder racked up 470 penalty minutes. Barrasso also won more postseason games (61) than any other U.S.-born backstop.

NHL career: 1983-2002
NHL totals: 777 games, 369-277-86 record

5. Tony Amonte
Windy City sniper
Right Wing | Hingham, Mass. | Aug. 2, 1970

With just a few weeks left in the 1993-94 regular season, the Rangers traded the 23-year-old Amonte to Chicago for vets Brian Noonan and Stephane Matteau — two players who played vital roles in their eventual Cup win that spring. While Amonte had the misfortune of narrowly missing out on being a champion, he became known as one of the NHL’s greatest goal scorers as a Blackhawk.

The Thayer Academy product topped the 30-goal mark eight times in his career and had seasons of 41, 43 and 44 goals in Chicago, ranking in the top three in the league in that category. A five-time All-Star, the former BU standout’s 268 goals as a Hawk are sixth best in franchise history.

NHL career: 1991-2007
NHL totals: 1,174 games, 900 points

4. John LeClair
Feared Flyer  
Left Wing | St. Albans, Vt. | July 5, 1969

After completing his fourth and final year at UVM, LeClair joined the Canadiens and scored the first of 406 career NHL goals in his first game. After scoring overtime winners in back-to-back games in the finals and helping the Canadiens win the Cup in 1993, the 6-foot-3 winger got off to a slow start in 1994-95 and was sent to Philly as part of a package that brought Mark Recchi to the Habs. LeClair flourished with the Flyers, teaming up with center Eric Lindros and winger Mikael Renberg to form a physically punishing and supremely skilled line known as the “Legion of Doom.”

LeClair became the first American to score 50-plus goals in three straight seasons from 1995-98, during which he finished with 97 points twice. He followed that run with a pair of 40-goal campaigns. Following the lockout, the big-bodied forward signed on with the Pens and had his ninth season with 50-plus points. LeClair was a five-time All-Star and finished in the top 10 in league scoring four times. His 333 goals as a Flyer rank fifth on the team’s all-time list.

NHL career: 1991-2006
NHL totals: 967 games, 819 points

3. Keith Tkachuk
Mr. Man Advantage
Left Wing | Melrose, Mass. | March 28, 1972

A legendary Lancer, Keith Tkachuk went from Malden Catholic to Boston University to the Winnipeg Jets in the span of just two calendar years. Two years later, he was already an NHL star. He reached 50 goals for the second straight year in 1996-97 — notably in the first year after the Jets moved to Phoenix — becoming the first American to lead the league in goals (52). Tkachuk had 71 points through 64 games in 2000-01 when he was traded to St. Louis for three young players and a first-round pick.

He notched his seventh, eighth and ninth 30-goal seasons with the Blues and represented the team twice at the All-Star Game, making his fifth and final appearance in 2009. A monster on the man advantage, Tkachuk ranks 12th on the all-time list with 212 power-play goals. A four-time Olympian, he was part of the silver medal-winning team at Salt Lake in 2002. Tkachuk is the greatest goal scorer among all players to hail from New England. His 538 career tallies trail only Mike Modano (568) for the all-time lead among American skaters.

NHL career: 1991-2010
NHL totals: 1,201 games, 1,065 points

2. Jeremy Roenick
J.R. Superstar
Center | Marshfield, Mass. | Jan. 17, 1970

Jeremy Roenick’s been a lot of things in the 23 years since he first broke into the National Hockey League. He’s been a Blackhawk, a Coyote, a Flyer, a King and a Shark. He’s been a fan favorite, a despised enemy, an engaging personality and someone who’s never struggled to find his way into the spotlight both on and off the ice. He’s been a 50-goal scorer, a reality show judge, a U.S. Olympian, a guest star on prime-time TV, a playoff hero, a video game legend, a conspiracy theorist and a Cup finalist. It’s been a pretty wild ride over the years for the man known simply as J.R., but at the end of the day he achieved nothing short of greatness and he did it with style the whole way. A dominant player at Thayer Academy alongside future NHL teammate Tony Amonte, Roenick was a nine-time All-Star. He had a superhuman stretch from 1991 to 1994, averaging more than 105 points over three seasons and leading the Blackhawks’ march to the finals in ’92.

He finished with 513 goals, 703 assists and 1,216 points, the latter of which makes him the all-time leading scorer among New England-born players in NHL history and places him third among American-born players on the all-time scoring list, trailing only Mike Modano (1,374) and Phil Housley (1,232). Somehow, he never got his hands on the Stanley Cup or a single NHL award. Roenick was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2010. He became eligible for the Hockey Hall of Fame  in Toronto in 2012. While he didn’t get the nod in his first go-round, don’t be surprised if Roenick’s magnificent career gets the salute it deserves in 2013.

NHL career: 1988-2009
NHL totals: 1,363 games, 1,216 points

1. Brian Leetch
Best on Broadway      
Defense | Cheshire, Conn. | March 3, 1968

If you ever had to compose your own “hockey greatness” checklist, I’d like to imagine it would contain a few of the following questions: Did he ever win a championship? How about major awards? Did he put up great numbers? Did he break any records? Was he among the best players at his position during his playing days?

No matter how many realistic questions you could come up with, you probably wouldn’t have a single box that went unchecked if you were examining Leetch’s legendary career.

Leetch’s family relocated to Connecticut from Corpus Christi, Texas, shortly after he was born. He shined on the prep circuit, averaging nearly three points per game (160 in 54 games) at Avon Old Farms.

Picked ninth overall by the New York Rangers in 1986, the gifted rearguard turned pro after a one-year stint at Boston College and a run with U.S. national and Olympic teams during the 1987-88 season.

It was apparent that Leetch had the stuff right from the get-go. He notched 14 points in 17 games before beginning his true rookie season in 1988-89. The Blueshirts quickly had a star on their hands, as his 71-point campaign — including 23 goals — earned him the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s Rookie of the Year.

A smooth skater with great vision, Leetch didn’t just excel. He made it look easy, and never more so than when he had a career-high 102 points in 1991-92, which earned him his first Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman.

After missing the playoffs in 1993, the Rangers returned with a vengeance in 1994 and looked to put a prolonged championship drought to bed. The Cup hadn’t belonged to Broadway’s hockey club since 1940. During that 54-year span, the Knicks won two NBA titles, the Giants and Jets combined to win three Super Bowls, the Mets won two World Series and the Yankees won a whopping 14 championships.

Leetch put the Blueshirts on his back. In a playoff performance for the ages, Leetch led New York with 34 points in 23 postseason tilts, culminating with a goal in New York’s 3-2 win in Game 7 of the finals over the Canucks at Madison Square Garden. After the final horn sounded, commissioner Gary Bettman handed the Conn Smythe trophy to Leetch, making him the first American MVP of the Stanley Cup playoffs in NHL history. 

Following that unforgettable year, Leetch went on to enjoy seven more 50-plus point seasons, winning his second Norris in 1997. He then took over as the team’s captain from 1997 to 2000. With the Rangers struggling, New York traded Leetch on his 36th birthday to Toronto, where he ultimately made his final trip to the postseason. Leetch had eight points in 13 games, but the Leafs fell two wins short of the conference finals.

Following the lockout, the 6-foot-1 defenseman signed on with Boston. He eclipsed the 1,000-point mark, registered 32 points in 61 games that season before calling it a career.

Oh, what a career it was.

A nine-time All-Star who racked up 97 points in 95 playoff games and was a key member for Team USA countless times, Leetch is truly in special company when you consider all he accomplished. He was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2008 and the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2009.

Bobby Orr will forever be remembered as the best defenseman who ever lived, with Ray Bourque slotting in as his runner-up. Who is No. 3? Many will say Paul Coffey, thanks to his offensive exploits with high-scoring Oilers and Penguins squads. Others might point to Niklas Lidstrom or Larry Robinson. Leetch, however, certainly belongs in the conversation. After all, fellow Hall of Famer and longtime teammate Mark Messier called Leetch the “greatest Ranger of all time” when the defenseman’s No. 2 was lifted to the rafters at MSG.

As you can probably tell, we think pretty highly of him, too.

NHL career: 1988-2006
NHL totals: 1,205 games, 1,028 points

Who do you think we ranked too high or too low? Who should've made the top 100 that didn't? We welcome any and all feedback, which we'll be discussing in a followup piece later this month.

All photos courtesy of Getty Images.

This article originally appeared in the January 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Twitter: @JesseNEHJ
Email: jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com