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Some of the Most Unlikely Seasons in NHL History

by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins
Hockey players, like their counterparts in other sports, have a certain level of performance -- after a while, they usually perform within an expected range. But every now and then, a player will have a "fluke season," one that's so unlike the rest of his career that it sticks out. We're not talking about rookies or young players who flame out after a year or two, but about players with lengthy careers who have one season that's wildly outside their norm.

Here's a look at six of the most unlikely single-season performances in NHL history:

Harry Howell, New York Rangers, 1966-67

Howell was a solid, unspectacular defenseman who had spent 14 seasons with the Rangers and appeared to be on nearing the twilight his career as he prepared for play in 1966-67. He had never made a postseason All-Star team and had been on just four playoff teams in his 14 seasons in New York, which had finished last in the six-team League in 1965-66.

But the Rangers and general manager Emile Francis been amassing some young talent, and things came together in 1966-67. New York was in first place at Christmas, and despite a late-season slump, the Rangers made the playoffs for the first time in five years.

One big reason for the improvement was the performance of Howell. The veteran defenseman, who had never had more than seven goals in a season, scored 12 times and finished with a career-high 40 points. He was a First-Team All-Star and won the Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman, beating out a Boston rookie named Bobby Orr.

Though he played six more seasons in the NHL and earned a berth in the Hall of Fame, Howell never came close to repeating his 1966-67 numbers.

Johnny Bucyk, Boston Bruins -- 1970-71

Like Howell, Bucyk had been a good player for a long time on a bad team. His resume with the Bruins included nine 20-goal seasons and career highs of 31 goals and 69 points in 1969-70, helping the Bruins end a 29-year Stanley Cup drought -- as the oldest alternate captain, he was given the honor of being the first Bruin to hoist the Cup.

At age 35, he entered 1970-71, his 15th NHL season, playing some of the best hockey of his career. But no one could have foreseen the kind of year Bucyk was about to have.

Playing on the Bruins' second line with Fred Stanfield and Johnny McKenzie, Bucyk became the oldest player ever to score 50 goals in a season -- and shattered his career best by 20. He also finished with 116 points, 47 more than he had ever put up in a season. The Bruins finished first and demolished a number of League scoring records, though their expected run to a second Cup was derailed in a first-round upset at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens.

Bucyk never had a season like that again, though he did average 36 goals and 83 points during the next five seasons and finished his career with 556 goals and 1,369 points on the way to the Hall of Fame.

Rob Brown, Pittsburgh Penguins -- 1988-89

Few players in hockey history have had a more bizarre career than Brown, whose one big season with the Penguins represents more than a quarter of his NHL scoring totals.

Brown was a terror in juniors, putting up 173 and 212 points in his last two seasons with Kamloops. He also had a decent rookie season with the Penguins, scoring 24 goals and finishing with 44 points. But in 1988-89, the Penguins put Brown on a line with Mario Lemieux and he responded with 49 goals, 115 points, 24 power-play goals and a plus-27 rating as the Penguins ended a lengthy playoff drought.

Alas for Brown, his magic touch quickly disappeared. He fell to 33 goals and 80 points the following season and was dealt to Hartford early in 1990-91. The Whalers sent him to Chicago in '92-93, and the Hawks demoted him to the minors a year later.

Brown found his scoring touch with Kalamazoo of the IHL (then a top minor league) in 1993-94, scoring 42 times and piling up 155 points -- starting a strong of four seasons that saw him break the 100-point mark in the minors but earn only a couple of brief NHL call-ups. The Penguins finally signed him in 1997 and he had three middling seasons in Pittsburgh before finishing his career with three point-a-game seasons for the Chicago Wolves of the IHL and AHL.

Gary Leeman, Toronto Maple Leafs -- 1989-90

Leeman, a Toronto native taken 24th by his hometown team in the 1982 Entry Draft, needed four seasons with the Leafs to break the 20-goal mark, which he finally did in 1986-87. He improved to 30 and 32 goals the following seasons before finding himself on a line with Ed Olczyk and Mark Osbourne in 1989-90.

That unit, christened the "GEM Line," became one of the NHL's most prolific scoring trios -- largely thanks to Leeman, who became only the second player in Leafs history to reach the 50-goal mark.

Little did anyone know that not only would Leeman not reach 50 goals again, he wouldn't even accumulate that many in the rest of his NHL career. He dropped to 17 the following season while battling a shoulder injury, was sent to Calgary as part of the Leafs-Flames mega-trade in January 1992 and spent time with Montreal, Vancouver and St. Louis before finishing his career with two seasons in the minors and two more in Europe.

Jose Theodore, Montreal Canadiens -- 2001-02

NHL Entry Draft prospects pose for a photo in front of Minnesota'sMall of America

Theodore makes the save. (Click image to enlarge)

The Laval, Que., native, taken by Montreal with the 44th pick of the 1994 Entry Draft, finally became a full-time NHL regular in 1999-2000 and took the starting job a year later, though his 20-29-5 record and 2.57 goals-against average were nothing to get excited about.

But in 2001-02, Theodore emerged as a world-class goaltender, going 30-24-10 with a 2.11 GAA and a .931 save percentage to lead the underpowered Canadiens into the playoffs and help them upset the top-seeded Boston Bruins in the opening round. He was awarded the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's top goaltender and the Hart Trophy as MVP.

Theodore couldn't match those numbers in 2002-03, dropping to 20-31-6 with a 2.90 GAA and .909 save percentage, and though he's had a good career (he's now with Florida after signing as a free agent), he has never come close to equaling his performance during '01-02.

Jonathan Cheechoo, San Jose Sharks -- 2005-06

Cheechoo, a second-round pick (No. 29) by San Jose in 1998, didn't get his first taste of the NHL until 2002-03 and was hardly a sensation, scoring 16 points in 66 games while playing mostly in a bottom-six role. After a summer of conditioning and power skating, he improved to 28 goals and 47 points in 2003-04, helping the Sharks return to the playoffs.

He played in Sweden during the 2004-05 work stoppage, and was off to a 7-8-15 start in 23 games for San Jose in 2005-06 when the Sharks acquired Joe Thornton at the end of November. With Thornton setting him up, Cheechoo pumped home 49 goals in San Jose's last 59 games, giving him a League-leading 56 for the season and earning him the Rocket Richard Trophy. His 93 points were nearly double his previous career best.

Big things were expected of Cheechoo in 2006-07 -- after all, he would have a full season with Thornton, whose plethora of setups had earned him the NHL scoring title and the Hart Trophy as MVP. Instead, Cheechoo fell to 37 goals and 69 points, then dropped off to 23 and 12 goals in the next two seasons before the Sharks sent him to Ottawa. By the end of 2009-10, he was in the minors, was bought out by the Senators last summer and spent 2010-11 with the Sharks' AHL affiliate in Worcester, where he had 18 goals in 55 games.

Author: John Kreiser | Columnist
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