Era Adjusted: Why Brett Hull’s 1990-91 may never be surpassed

Hockey Hall of Famer and former St. Louis Blues Brett Hull, seen here acknowledging fans during a pregame ceremony in 2009. (Tom Gannam/AP)

Last week I wrote about the best goal-scoring seasons in NHL history, when you adjust for era. A lot of you found it pretty interesting. A bunch of people, notably Gretzky fans, got kinda mad.

One of the words that kept popping up from those defending Gretzky and the other greatest goal-scorers of all-time was “dominance.” It got me thinking. So I went back and looked at the top six era adjusted single-season goal totals of all-time when and I was pretty stunned at what I discovered.

For a quick refresher, here are the top six era-adjusted goal scoring seasons:

1. Brett Hull in 1990-91 with 78 era-adjusted goals | 86 actual goals
2. Alex Ovechkin in 2007-08 with 72 era-adjusted goals | 65 actual goals
3. Mario Lemieux in 1988-89 with 71 era-adjusted goals | 85 actual goals
4. Phil Esposito in 1970-71 with 70 era-adjusted goals | 76 actual goals
5. Wayne Gretzky in 1983-84 with 69 era-adjusted goals | 87 actual goals
6. Wayne Gretzky in 1981-82 with 68 era-adjusted goals | 92 actual goals

*In 1944-45 Maurice Richard scored an amazing 50 goals in 50 games to lead the league. Herb Cain finished second with 32 goals. Unfortunately, does not provide Era Adjusted statistics for this season.

You want to see true dominance? Let’s take a deeper look at those six seasons and rank them in order of how great these numbers were against their peers that season.

6. Alex Ovechkin in 2007-08

What I’ve done here is arrange this sort of like how baseball keeps track of the playoff races. For example, Ovechkin had 72 era-adjusted goals while Kovalchuk had 58, so Kovalchuk was -14 compared to Ovechkin.

Yes, Ovechkin scored the second-most, era-adjusted goals ever in 2007-08, but it wasn’t the second-most dominant relative to his peers, at least not compared to the next few seasons we’re going to look at. While Ovechkin was the only 60-plsu goal-scorercin 2007-08, guys such as Ilya Kovalchuk and Jarome Iginla were only around 15 era-adjusted goals behind. That might sound like a lot, and it is, but wait until you see the rest of these monsters.

5. Mario Lemieux in 1988-89

With his lethal combination of size, speed and skill, Mario Lemieux is easily one of the most dominant players in NHL history. When he scored 85 goals in 1988-89, he was one of a few sniping monsters. Bernie Nichols buried 70 goals that season while Steve Yzerman potted 65. Can you imagine that in today’s NHL? Three players with 65 goals or more? That’s absurd.

I gave Lemieux the edge over Ovechkin here because even though Nichols was closer to Lemieux than Kovalchuck, Lemieux was light years ahead of Gretzky, Joe Mullen and Joe Nieuwendyk, who were third, fourth, and fifth respectively in goal-scoring that season, for crying out loud.

4. Wayne Gretzky in 1981-82

If you’re upset that Gretzky’s record-breaking 92-goal season is ranked fourth, well, last week I ranked it sixth. Consider this an upgrade!

Just like Mario, while Gretzky was a monster, there were two other 60-plus goal-scorers in 1981-82. It’s something I can barely comprehend when in today’s NHL you could win the Rocket Richard trophy with 45 goals.

That being said, the closest player to Gretzky was Mike Bossy, who was 21 era-adjusted goals behind and 28 actual goals behind. Rick Vaive, who was fifth in goal-scoring that season, was 29 era-adjusted goals behind and 38 actual goals behind. Yeah, you could say Gretzky was pretty good.

3. Phil Esposito in 1970-71

This was a close one between Esposito and Gretzky’s ’83-84, but in the end, I gave Phil the bronze medal. Regardless, he had an incredible season in ’70-71.

Esposito’s 76 goals translate to 70 era-adjusted goals. In 1970-71 nobody else even managed 50, with John Bucyk placing second with 46, a full 24 goals behind Esposito.

Even more impressive, the next three names on that list — Bobby Hull, Ken Hodge, and Dennis Hull — were all 30 or more era-adjusted goals behind Esposito. Now that’s a dominant season.

2. Wayne Gretzky in 1983-84

This was a tough call but I gave Gretzky the silver ahead of Esposito. They’re interchangeable, to be honest. Gretzky got the edge because his 69 era-adjusted goals were 25 goals ahead of the second guy, who was Michel Goulet with 44. Goulet was 31 actual goals behind Gretzky. Are you kidding me? If you score 31 goals in this league, even back in the 1980s, you’re a pretty good goal-scorer. Grezky was another good goal-scorer ahead of Michel Goulet.

But that’s nothing compared to the best goal-scoring season of all-time.

  1. Brett Hull in 1990-91

Sorry, not sorry, Brett Hull owns the best single goal-scoring season in NHL history. He just does. Most era-adjusted goals in a single season. Most dominant goal-scoring season relative to his peers. And his numbers may never be topped.

When Brett Hull scored 78 era-adjusted goals, the next highest goal-scorer was Theo Fleury with… 46. It’s hard to believe when you read it. Brett Hull had 32 more era-adjusted goals than the next guy and 35 more actual goals than the next guy. In case you’re wondering, both of those are NHL records. I even confirmed it with Steve Fellin in Sportsnet’s stats department.

Theo Fleury, Cam Neely, and Steve Yzerman were all men possessed in 1990-91 scoring 50 goals apiece, Hull still demolished them all.

It’s funny: when we talk about all-time greats, Brett Hull rarely seems to make it into the conversation. There’s Gretzky, Lemieux, Orr and Howe, of course. A typical bar conversation might go, “If you put Ovechkin, Crosby, Matthews or McDavid in a time machine, they would destroy the 1980s!”

But Brett Hull doesn’t get many mentions. Not at least in the conversations I’ve participated in.

Next time you and your friends start chewing the fat about the all-time greats, don’t just say Brett Hull had the best goal scoring season of all-time; tell them it’s not even close.

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