Where Does Joe Pavelski Rank Among Greatest American Skaters?
Every Sunday at Peng to the Point, we talk about the world away from the San Jose Sharks.
It’s impossible to compare eras.
But yesterday, my colleague Jimmy Murphy from Boston Hockey Now threw this out there:
Joe Pavelski the third-best American player ever?@BOSHockeyNow @sjhockeynow
— MurphysLaw74 (@MurphysLaw74) September 27, 2020
My initial reaction was there were at least 10 Americans that I could think of who I’d start a franchise with over prime Joe Pavelski.
However, Pavelski’s case to be a top-15 all-time American player might be stronger than you think.
After some spirited online debate, I identified three standards to compare between eras: Prime, Career, and Playoff.
And with the help of Hockey Reference’s Stathead, I actually had some measures to try to compare eras.
So who are the greatest American skaters? And where does Pavelski stack up?
But before we get going: To Brett or not to Brett?
Every significant American goal-scoring record is owned by Canadian-born Brett Hull, who represented the United States in international competition. You name it — Hull has the most single-season, career, and playoff goals of any American.
It’s because of Hull that every American NHL record has to be categorized as American-born, to simply give everybody else a chance.
Case in point:
The Big Pavelski pic.twitter.com/SV9nH8BSVz
— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) September 27, 2020
Pretty good, right? Well, Pavelski is still 42 playoff goals away from catching Hull.
For the purpose of this debate and to include the best of the best, I’m making the executive decision to include Hull.
Including Hull, there have been 20 American 50-goal seasons:
Hull owns five of the top-seven spots. For what it’s worth, every one of these 20 campaigns occurred from 1984-1997, a mostly high-scoring period of time in the league. Pavelski’s career-high 41-goal 2013-14 campaign is tied for just 41st among top American goal-scoring campaigns.
That 41st, however, becomes far more impressive when we use Hockey Reference’s Adjusted Goals metric:
Pavelski’s 2013-14 rises to tied for 21st on the list.
These adjustments for era matter.
Patrick Kane, for example, shows up just twice in the top-10 list for single-season assists by an American forward. His career-high 66 assists in 2018-19 is fourth all-time.
But using adjusted assists, Kane suddenly dominates, taking five of the top-10 spots. His 2018-19 also shoots up to second behind Pat Lafontaine.
Here’s a comparison, by the way, of top-10 points by an American skater, raw and adjusted:
|1||Pat LaFontaine||1992-93||BUF||148||Pat LaFontaine||1992-93||BUF||119|
|2||Kevin Stevens||1991-92||PIT||123||Patrick Kane||2015-16||CHI||119|
|3||Kevin Stevens||1992-93||PIT||111||Patrick Kane||2018-19||CHI||111|
|4||Patrick Kane||2018-19||CHI||110||Kevin Stevens||1991-92||PIT||109|
|5||Joe Mullen||1988-89||CGY||110||John LeClair||1998-99||PHI||102|
|6||Jeremy Roenick||1993-94||CHI||107||John LeClair||1996-97||PHI||101|
|7||Jeremy Roenick||1992-93||CHI||107||John LeClair||1997-98||PHI||100|
|8||Jimmy Carson||1987-88||LAK||107||Doug Weight||1995-96||EDM||100|
|9||Patrick Kane||2015-16||CHI||106||Johnny Gaudreau||2018-19||CGY||99|
|10||Craig Janney||1992-93||STL||106||Patrick Kane||2019-20||CHI||99|
All these adjusted stats suggest that Hull is the dominant American scorer, Pat Lafontaine and Kane are the dominant playmakers up front. We also get a good sense of how unstoppable John LeClair was in the “dead puck” era.
So that was the statistical portion of the argument. Subjectively, which American skaters, in their primes, are clearly ahead of Pavelski?
From these lists, Hull, Lafontaine, Kane, and LeClair jump out. For his strong two-way play and leadership, both Pavelski strong suits, coupled with otherworldly skills, Mike Modano can’t be denied. Among defensemen, it’s hard to dispute American Norris Trophy winners Chris Chelios, Brian Leetch, and Rod Langway. Three-time Norris Trophy runner-up Mark Howe deserves mention. Auston Matthews is simply too special a player right now, even at just 23 years old.
After this elite top-10 though, perhaps we can start to debate Pavelski. But it would be a fierce debate: Up front, prime Keith Tkachuk, Tony Amonte, Bill Guerin, Kevin Stevens, Joe Mullen, Bill Guerin, Phil Kessel, Zach Parise, Neal Broten, Jack Eichel, Phil Kessel, and Doug Weight are very much in this tier of the conversation. In the back-end, Phil Housley, Ryan Suter, Dustin Byfuglien, and John Carlson, among others, are in the discussion too.
We’ll focus on regular season careers here.
The 36-year-old Pavelski actually shows well here.
Pavelski’s 792 points is 20th among all Americans. But let’s look at adjusted all-time points:
|Player||Career Points||Player||Career Adjusted Points|
|Brett Hull||1391||Mike Modano||1408|
|Mike Modano||1374||Brett Hull||1390|
|Phil Housley||1232||Jeremy Roenick||1228|
|Jeremy Roenick||1216||Patrick Kane||1154|
|Keith Tkachuk||1065||Keith Tkachuk||1150|
|Joe Mullen||1063||Phil Housley||1148|
|Doug Weight||1033||Doug Weight||1099|
|Brian Leetch||1028||Brian Leetch||1039|
|Patrick Kane||1022||Phil Kessel||968|
|Pat LaFontaine||1013||Tony Amonte||953|
|Chris Chelios||948||Bill Guerin||921|
|Neal Broten||923||Joe Mullen||918|
|Tony Amonte||900||Chris Chelios||908|
|Phil Kessel||861||Pat LaFontaine||902|
|Bill Guerin||856||John LeClair||893|
|Gary Suter||844||Joe Pavelski||882|
|John LeClair||819||Zach Parise||881|
|Ed Olczyk||794||Blake Wheeler||857|
|Zach Parise||792||Brian Rolston||828|
|Joe Pavelski||792||Scott Gomez||820|
Pavelski finds himself just outside the top-15 now and a lot closer to Hall of Famers Lafontaine and Mullen. Tkachuk, Weight, Amonte, Guerin, and Kessel’s careers suddenly start to look more impressive.
Meanwhile, Pavelski’s 369 goals is 13th among all American skaters. Once again, however, his adjusted figures are more impressive:
|Player||Career Goals||Player||Career Adjusted Goals|
|1||Brett Hull||741||Brett Hull||738|
|2||Mike Modano||561||Keith Tkachuk||584|
|3||Keith Tkachuk||538||Mike Modano||578|
|4||Jeremy Roenick||513||Jeremy Roenick||514|
|5||Joe Mullen||502||Bill Guerin||467|
|6||Pat LaFontaine||468||Patrick Kane||449|
|7||Bill Guerin||429||John LeClair||447|
|8||Tony Amonte||416||Tony Amonte||443|
|9||John LeClair||406||Zach Parise||435|
|10||Patrick Kane||389||Joe Mullen||432|
|11||Zach Parise||386||Phil Kessel||422|
|12||Phil Kessel||371||Joe Pavelski||418|
|13||Joe Pavelski||369||Pat LaFontaine||414|
Pavelski has suddenly joined the 400-goal club, moving ahead of Lafontaine.
Do we start to have the argument that Pavelski can be a top-15 all-time American skater?
If we don’t yet, this is where Pavelski absolutely shines.
Unfortunately, Hockey Reference doesn’t have adjusted post-season stats. But we can do some quick-and-dirty math to approximate adjusted playoff figures — basically, I extrapolated regular-season adjustments and applied them to playoff goals.
Here’s your new top-six among Americans in post-season goals:
|Adjusted Playoff Goals||Playoff Goals|
Obviously, Pavelski is still sitting pretty.
And here’s something truly striking. Among the top-13 all-time American regular season goal scorers, Pavelski is the only one whose goal-scoring pace increased in the playoffs, albeit marginally:
|Player||Regular Season Goals Per Game||Playoff Goals Per Game||Difference|
Now that’s impressive.
Top-30, Top-20, Top-10?
Prime Pavelski is a clear top-30 American skater. Factoring in his longevity, top-20 seems reasonable. Do his post-season exploits get him into the top-10 debate?
I’m not sure — but if you had to win a Game Seven with all U.S. skaters, Pavelski would be a sure-fire pick. Besides production, you’ll also get inspiring leadership and reliable two-way play.
We’ll see if Pavelski can keep adding to his illustrious playoff legacy tonight.
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