Chris Chelios was drafted 40th overall by the Montreal Canadiens in 1981 and has scored 948 points in 1644 career NHL games. (Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images)
During last season, the Top 10 looked at the best Russians, Czechs, Finns and Swedes. This week, in deference to the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame’s announcement Tuesday that Tony Amonte, Tom Barrasso and John LeClair were being inducted, we look at the Top 10 American-born players.
We began kicking some names around the THN offices as to whom the best American-born players are after the announcement was made. The usual suspects were raised, but then the debate began – who’s the single-greatest U.S.-born player ever? A cursory glance at the Hockey Hall of Fame’s website shows only seven American players have ever been inducted into the ultimate hockey hall, a number set to rise by one this November when Brian Leetch gains entry.
After some research and much hemming and hawing, we managed to form a list of 10 players and ordered them according to our notions of their greatness.
10. Mike Richter, G
Richter makes the grade here less for his NHL resume than for his international one. Richter did win a Stanley Cup with the Rangers in 1994 and has the third-most NHL victories (301) amongst American netminders. But he answered his country’s call on 11 separate occasions, playing in world juniors, world championships, three Olympics, a Canada Cup and a World Cup – in which he led the U.S. to a gold medal and was named tournament MVP. Richter even left the University of Wisconsin after just one season to play for the U.S. national team for a year-and-a-half in preparation for the 1988 Olympics. His NHL career began the next season.
9. Joe Mullen, RW
From the mean streets of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, Mullen was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2000. He is the fourth-highest scoring American-born NHLer (502-561-1,063) and was the first to score 500 goals and register 1,000 points. Mullen blazed a trail for future American snipers – he once scored 20 goals in the minors and the NHL in the same season, the only player to ever do so – and was an international standout, even coming out of retirement in 1999 to play for Team USA during qualifying for the world championships.
8. Jeremy Roenick, C
“J.R.” is one of the all-time great NHL characters off the ice, but also an all-time great on it. The eighth overall pick in 1988, Roenick is the third-highest scoring American-born NHLer (513-703-1,216). The 13-time, 20-goal scorer had his best seasons in the early 1990s as a Chicago Blackhawk wild child – from 1990 to 1994 Roenick scored 190 goals (including 83 on the power play) and 411 points. He played in nine all-star games, with the first and last separated by 13 years.
7. Phil Housley, D
Housley was drafted sixth overall in 1982 and went straight from high school to the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres the next season. One of the smoothest skaters of his generation, Housley’s sublime offensive skills allowed him to retire as the American NHL leader in goals scored by a defenseman, No. 1 in assists by any American skater and No. 2 all-time amongst U.S.-born point-getters. Housley also wore the stars and stripes 11 times on the ice, the first coming at the 1982 world juniors; the last 21 years later at the World Championship.
6. Frank Brimsek, G
If there’s a player on this list you may not have heard of, Brimsek is the one. But don’t underestimate him just because he’s not a household name. In fact, if Brimsek’s career had come a decade or two later than it did, he’d likely be a few spots higher on this list. Known as “Mr. Zero,” Brimsek was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966. He played 10 NHL seasons and had his career interrupted by the Second World War. His best season may have been his first. Brimsek won the Calder Trophy, the Vezina Trophy and the Stanley Cup, led the NHL in wins, shutouts and goals-against average and earned first all-star team honors. Brimsek was named a first or second team all-star in eight of his 10 NHL seasons. He backstopped Boston to another Cup in 1941 and won his second Vezina in 1942. His 40 NHL shutouts tie him with John Vanbiesbrouck for the most ever by an American goalie.
5. Tom Barrasso, G
Last season Barrasso made a THN.com Top 10 list for having one of the best NHL rookie goalie seasons ever and this week he slots in as the fifth-greatest American player ever. As a rookie straight out of high school in 1983-84, Barrasso made the all-rookie team, was a first team all-star and won the Calder and Vezina Trophies, while leading Buffalo to a fourth-overall finish. As a Pittsburgh Penguin six seasons later, he backstopped his team to the Stanley Cup, then did it again the following year for good measure. Barrasso sits second behind Vanbiesbrouck in wins by an American goalie with 369 and is third all-time in shutouts with 38.
4. Mike Modano, C
Modano is the highest-scoring American NHLer ever (543-786-1,329), a testament to both his immense skill and his longevity. The first overall pick in 1988 has spent his entire career with the Minnesota-Dallas franchise and returns for a 20th season this year. Currently 29th all-time in NHL scoring, Modano should work his way into the top 25 by season’s end. A great ambassador for hockey in the U.S., Modano is the face of a successful franchise in a state where few thought the NHL would fly 15 years ago.
3. Pat LaFontaine, C
Inducted into the Hall in 2003, Lafontaine is No. 7 in scoring amongst American-born NHLers (468-545-1,013). But he did it all in just 865 games, making him – by a wide margin – the U.S. leader in points-per-game. The third overall pick in 1983 by the Islanders, LaFontaine registered six straight seasons of 40-plus goals, with his best year being 1992-93 with Buffalo, when he scored 53 goals and 148 points. Injuries cut LaFontaine’s career short, but during his heyday he was one of the most dynamic players in the league, routinely wowing crowds with his speed, vision and deft stickhandling.
2. Brian Leetch, D
Set for induction into the Hall this November, Leetch sits sixth on the list of American NHL scorers (247-781-1,028) and is the seventh-highest scoring defenseman in NHL history. The ninth pick of the 1986 draft still holds the record for goals scored by a rookie defenseman with 23 in 1988-89 (when he won the Calder Trophy) and his 71 points that season are second-most all-time by a freshman blueliner. Leetch played in nine all-star games, was a first team all-star twice, a second team all-star three times, won two Norris Trophies and the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1994 after leading the playoffs in scoring and the Rangers to their first Stanley Cup in 50 years.
1. Chris Chelios, D
Chelios has been playing in the NHL since 1983-84. He is fourth all-time in games played and is the 10th-highest scoring blueliner ever. Chelios has never been the most prolific scoring rearguard – his best season came in 1988-89 when he totaled 15-58-73 in 80 games – but scoring was never the best part of his game. Chelios is one of the NHL’s all-time nastiest players, as his 2,891 penalty minutes – 12th most ever – attest to. But with that nastiness came skill, too. Chelios is a five-time first team all-star and a two-time second-teamer. He’s played in 11 all-star games and, most impressively, won three Norris Trophies. He’s also a three-time Stanley Cup-winner who has played for the U.S. at 12 international events, including three Canada Cups and four Olympics.
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