Wayne Gretzky’s No. 99 is retired throughout the NHL not only because he is considered the greatest player in League history, but because the number and his name are synonymous.
Though there is no debate over the best player to wear that number, there are 98 other numbers with more than one worthy candidate. That is where the “NHL’s Who Wore It Best?” comes in.
NHL.com writers and editors have cast their votes, each selecting his or her top three for each number, with the top vote-getter receiving five points, second place getting three points and third place one point. Candidates will be debated, and the winners revealed, in a weekly, five-part series first airing on Sportsnet, NHL.com and League platforms each Friday at 5 p.m. ET, and re-airing each Tuesday on NBCSN (5 p.m. ET) and NHL Network (6:30 p.m. ET). NHL.com will provide the list of winners each Friday at 5:30 p.m. ET.
[RELATED: Who Wore It Best?]
Each Tuesday on NHL.com, selected writers will each make his or her case for which player in League history wore a certain number best. Each Friday, in a companion piece, the debate will center on current players.
Today, the discussion is focused on the best player to wear No. 31.
Brian Compton, deputy managing editor
Billy Smith is regarded by many as the greatest money goalie of all time. It’s hard to argue, considering he was the backbone of the New York Islanders from 1972-1989, including their dynasty years, when they won four consecutive Stanley Cup championships (1980-83) and 19 straight Stanley Cup Playoff series. Allow me to repeat: They won 19 straight playoff series. During those five postseasons, Smith went 69-21 and was voted the Conn Smythe Trophy winner in 1983 as playoff MVP. By no means is this any disrespect to Grant Fuhr or Carey Price, two undisputed world-class goalies, but when you have such involvement with something that hasn’t been done since — and will likely never be done again — how can that be topped?
William Douglas, staff writer
Smith is right up there with four straight Stanley Cup rings. But Fuhr can flash five rings of his own from the Edmonton Oilers’ Cup wins in 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988 and 1990. His came playing behind offensive-minded Oilers teams that sometimes treated defense as an afterthought. Fuhr faced 24,371 shots in his 19-season NHL career, ninth-most among goalies. Still, he was voted winner of the Vezina Trophy as the best goalie in the NHL in 1987-88, when he was runner-up to Mario Lemieux for the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP. Fuhr, who wore No. 1 from 1981-83 before switching to No. 31, was a workhorse. He played in 79 games — 76 consecutively — for the St. Louis Blues in 1995-96, a record that still stands. Fuhr also scored 47 NHL points (all assists) and is tied with Martin Brodeur for second among NHL goalies since 1955-56 (Tom Barrasso, 48). Wayne Gretzky called Fuhr the greatest goalie who ever lived. I’m not going to argue with The Great One.
Rob Reese, fantasy editor
With respect to Smith, Fuhr and Curtis Joseph, I am taking the side that Price is the best player to wear No. 31. His stats and season-to-season consistency speak for themselves. To me, what’s even more impressive is his ability to remain among the best goalies in the NHL despite receiving average goal support. The Canadiens rank 17th in goals per game (2.74) since Price entered the NHL in 2007-08, yet he’s helped them reach the playoffs eight out of 12 seasons.
Sure, Price has had little goal support, but Fuhr rarely had the consistent defensive help that Price does and Smith did. To the Oilers of the 1980s, offense was their defense. They led the NHL is scoring, averaging 4.70 goals per game from 1981-91, Fuhr’s tenure with Edmonton. The Oilers were 12th in the NHL in goals-against during the same period, allowing 3.71 per game. Former Oilers defenseman Paul Coffey perhaps best summed up Edmonton’s reliance on Fuhr in the 2018 documentary “Making Coco: The Grant Fuhr Story.” “I don’t block shots,” Coffey said. “We need a better goalie.”
William makes some great points about the Oilers’ high-risk, high-reward style of play, and I also concede that there could be a recency bias with Price. But Fuhr did have the luxury of playing behind Gretzky, the greatest player of all time, and those teams had some of the greatest offenses of all time. With that said, Fuhr is a solid candidate and did bail out the Oilers on numerous occasions. But when I think of the best to wear a certain number, Price’s individual efforts on an average offensive team seal the deal for me. As for Compton’s mention of Smith’s postseason success, it’s hard to argue. Time will tell with Price.
You’re right, Rob. It’s hard to argue. In fact, it’s close to impossible. And yes, as Mr. Douglas points out, Fuhr does have five rings. One caveat, though: Fuhr did not see any action in the 1990 playoffs; Bill Ranford, after playing 56 regular-season games, was the clear-cut No. 1 goalie and went on to win the Conn Smythe Trophy. Give me the guy who carried the torch throughout the Islanders dynasty and came within three victories of five consecutive Stanley Cup championships. Billy Smith is the true No. 31.