A look at the Hartford Whalers’ All-Decade team for the 1980s
This is part of a series detailing the all-decade team for every NHL franchise for the 1980s. The all-time teams were compiled using a mix of skill, longevity and statistics; it is not necessarily the best, most memorably or most talented players. Instead, this is the list of players by each position who had the best numbers over a prolonged period (i.e. at least three full seasons between 1980-81 and 1989-90) during the regular season. A complete list is available here.
Team: Hartford Whalers (1980-81 to 1989-90)
312-394-94, .449 PCT, 2,815 GF vs. 3,161 GA, -346 Diff, 5/10 Playoff Appearances, 0 Stanley Cups
Hartford is a team I’ve always had a soft spot for, even though they were never exactly a dominant team. They were below .500 in seven out of 10 seasons during the 1980s, and missed the playoffs five times. They also won just one playoff series, and were knocked out in the first round on four other occasions. Of 21 NHL teams, their 44.9% win percentage ranked 16th. It speaks to just how all-out offensive the decade was when the Whalers’ 3.52 goals scored per game ranked 13th in the league. However, Hartford’s offense was definitely a weak spot; their 3.92 goals allowed per game ranked 19th (third last). This all combined to leave them with a -346 goal differential, 16th in the league over the decade. But they did have a few bright spots; after a truly TERRIBLE start to the decade (winning a combined 61 games in their first three seasons), the Whalers improved their points total five years in a row, topping out at 93 points in ’86-87. And they did make the playoffs the final five years of the decade. And despite their struggles and inconsistencies, they managed to contribute some significant names to hockey lore, and seem to still be a lovable franchise for many hockey fans some 15 years after they moved to Carolina.
Left Wing: Blaine Stoughton (277 GP, 163-114-277, -70, 144 PIM, 20 GWG)
Honourable Mention: Sylvain Turgeon
I considered Turgeon (2x 40-goal/70-point seasons, 178 goals and 328 points), but his play dropped off as the Whalers started to get competitive. Stoughton on the other hand was the driving force offensively on some fairly terrible Whalers teams. The Whalers scored 1,105 goals during Stoughton’s four seasons during the 1980s: Stoughton scored 163, or 15%. Including his assists, he was involved in 25% of the team’s offense. He scored 43, 52 and 45 goals in the first three seasons of the decades before falling to 23 in a partial season. While his +/- was weak, the team was a collective -341 during his time there. He also chipped in 20 game-winning goals for a team that only won 89 games over four seasons: he was responsible for the game-winning goal in 22% of Hartford’s wins during his four years with the Whalers during the 80s. Unquestionably one of Hartford’s early heroes.
Centre: Ron Francis (647 GP, 243-502-745, -44, 487 PIM, 34 GWG)
As if this could be anyone else. Francis WAS the Hartford Whalers. In his rookie season of 1981-82, he scored 25 goals and 68 points in 59 games. In the next eight seasons he never scored fewer than 23 goals, 48 assists or 75 points. He scored 30+ goals three times, had 60+ assists three times, and cleared 90+ points three times (including a high of 101 points in ’89-90). He also improved his game with the team; he was -71 in his first four seasons, but +27 in his next five. And he wasn’t afraid get physical, clearing 60+ PIM four times. Francis also drove the power play, with 73 goals (including three double-digit PPG seasons). He finished the 80s with 745 points in 647 games, very impressive numbers considering the fact that Hartford’s offense ranked third from the bottom in offence during the decade. The loss of Francis in a very one-sided deal with Pittsburgh early in the 1990s began the Whalers’ downward slide, and a trend of ending up on the wrong end of blockbuster deals. But man was Francis fun to watch in his Hartford days.
Right Wing: Kevin Dineen (412 GP, 193-200-393, +4, 902 PIM, 27 GWG)
After Francis, Dineen is probably Mr. Whaler. And where Francis was the face of the franchise, Dineen was arguably its true heart and soul. He began his Whalers career with 25 goals and 41 points in 57 games during the ’84-85 season. Over the following five seasons, he scored 25+ goals every season and 66+ points four times. He was fairly consistent at both ends of the ice, with a +4 rating overall. He had a two 40+ goal seasons and a 33-goal season. In addition to being skilled, he was also quite tough: he logged 110+ PIM in every season, including a high of 217 in ’87-88. He was also fairly clutch, scoring 27 game-winning goals (14% of his total).
Defense: Ulf Samuelsson (401 GP, 28-126-154, +57, 936 PIM, 3 GWG)
FULL disclosure here: if I had used ’79-80 instead of ’80-81 as the starting point, we would be talking about Mark Howe here. However, using the decade outlined Howe only had two seasons (’80-81 and ’81-82) in Hartford, which was below the three-season cut-off. But after Mr. Howe, Ulf Samuelsson was by FAR the best Whalers’ defenseman of the 1980s. First off, he was a rarity in that his +/- was fairly consistently in the positive side of the ledger: he was positive in four of his six seasons, including twice in the +23 to +28 range. He was also very tough, posting 159-181 PIM in five consecutive seasons. He even chipped in offensively, with three seasons of 30+ points (including a high of 41 in ’87-88). He was the very definition of the player you hate unless he plays for your team: edgy to the point of being dirty (just ask Boston Bruins’ fans about Cam Neely’s knees), but a tremendous talent in his own right.
Defense: Dave Babych (341 GP, 44-190-234, -62, 250 PIM, 8 GWG)
Honourable Mention to Risto Siltanen
Picking the best Whalers’ defenseman after Samuelsson is a bit like picking the best slice of pizza from a box that was left out overnight: nothing looks particularly appealing, but you take what you can get. I considered Siltanen due to his strong offensive play (four 30+ point seasons, including a high of 53), but his +/- was TERRIBLE: -82 in four seasons, including -39 in ’82-83. So I went with Dave Babych instead. Now Babych was a quality offensive defenseman with passing skills: he recorded at least 33 assists and 41 points in each of his five seasons in Hartford during the 80s, including two 50+ point seasons. He also scored at least six goals each year, including a high of 14 goals in ’87-88. But his +/- was terrible despite his playing on the stronger Hartford teams of the decade: he was -16 or worse three times, and was only positive once (+2 in ’85-86). He also wasn’t an overly physical player, never exceeding 62 PIM. But he did help run their power play, scoring 32 PPG (including 24 in his first three seasons in Hartford). And 8 of his 44 goals were game-winners (18% of his total). Plus he had an amazing ‘stache, always a consideration for 1980s greatness. But it speaks to how shallow the Whalers’ blueline was in that decade when a defenseman with a -62 rating from their STRONG teams rates #2: Hartford was +45 during Babych’s time on the blueline (’85-86 to ’89-90).
Goalie: Mike Liut (253 GP, 116-111-17, 13 SO, 3.36 GAA, 0.882 PCT)
As with Francis, this was a pick that was NEVER in doubt. When you consider the list of “all-time” Whalers goalies, there are literally just two names that come to mind: Mike Liut and Sean Burke. It is absolutely no coincidence that Hartford’s arrival as a respectable franchise coincided with Liut’s acquisition from St. Louis. Liut was .500 or better in four of his five full seasons in Hartford, posting 25+ wins three times (including 31 wins in ’86-87, when he made the NHL’s Second All-Star Team). He also recorded a respectable 13 shutouts. His goals against average was very respectable for his era, as was his save percentage. He was one of a handful of truly elite goalies during the decade: not just for Hartford, but for the entire NHL (just a step below Patrick Roy and Grant Fuhr).