Bill Meltzer: Meltzer’s Musings: Best Playmakers, Voracek, Quick Hits

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Ranking the Top 10 Playmakers in Flyers History

Throughout their 46-year history, the Philadelphia Flyers have boasted some of the best setup men in the game. From early era puck wizard Andre Lacroix to current-day captain Claude Giroux, one thing the Flyers have rarely lacked is top-notch playmakers.

On a cumulative statistical basis, the top 10 assist men in franchise history from first to 10th are Bobby Clarke (852 in 1,144 games), Brian Propp (480 in 790 games), Bill Barber (463 assists in 903 games), Mark Recchi (395 assists in 602 games), Eric Lindros (369 assists in 486 games), Rick MacLeish (369 assists in 741 games), Rod Brind’Amour (366 assists in 633 games), Mark Howe (342 assists in 594 games), Pelle Eklund (334 assists in 589 games) and Gary Dornhoefer (316 assists in 725 games).

On the basis of set-up proclivity alone, Peter Forsberg (85 assists in 100 games) was arguably the best pure playmaker in franchise history. However, Foppa only here for a little more than a season and a half and he was frequently out of the lineup due to injury.

Based upon a combination of longevity, assists-per-game and subjective observational criteria, this is how I would rank the top 10 playmakers in franchise history.

1. Bobby Clarke (852 assists in 1,144 games; 0.74 assists per game): During the 1970s, the Flyers captain was considered one of the game’s premiere playmakers as well as one of its best leaders. Clarke was fortunate to play alongside some excellent finishers, especially LCB linemates Bill Barber and Reggie Leach, but he was a playmaking machine who was directly responsible for a large percentage of the goals his team scored. Apart from a deft passing touch, Clarke had great anticipation and ice vision. He had a pair of 89-assist seasons in 1974-75 and 1975-76 to set and then tie a single-season franchise record.

2. Eric Lindros (369 assists in 486 games; 0.76 assists per game): There was very little that Lindros couldn’t do well on the ice. Although people primarily remember his freight-train hits and his goals, he was also one of the NHL’s high-end playmakers. Lindros could create a scoring chance either through brute force — such as holding off two defenders and muscling the puck across the slot with only one hand on his stick — or through finessing a pass to an open linemate. Lindros had four seasons in Philly with 50-plus assists and the totals would have been much higher — probably on nearly an every-year basis — were it not for all of his injuries and the first half of the 1994-95 season being wiped out by a lockout.

3. Mark Recchi (395 assists in 602 games; 0.656 assists per game): Although Recchi is often placed into hockey’s “sniper” category, I always thought he was even better in the playmaking department than he was as a goal scorer. For his Hall of Fame caliber career, Recchi had 956 assists to 577 goals in 1,652 regular season games. When Recchi set the Flyers’ single-season point record (123) in 1992-93, he had 70 assists. That was the third-highest one-year total in franchise history.

4. Ken Linseman (184 assists in 269 games; 0.68 assists per game): “The Rat” is rarely mentioned in discussions of the Flyers’ top offensive creators, but there was a lot more to his game than just swinging his stick at opponents. In his four seasons in Philly during his first stint with the club, Linseman had 57-assist and 68-assist seasons. He had tremendous ice vision and could think one step ahead of the defense. Scoring around the NHL was starting to balloon during the period when Linseman racked up most of his assists, but you can’t take away his ability to produce offense at a hefty clip. He was legitimately an excellent playmaker, regardless of era.

5. Peter Forsberg (85 assists in 100 games; 0.85 assists per game): If Foppa’s Philadelphia career had been just two seasons longer, he’d have been at the very top of the Flyers’ best playmaker list, possibly even ahead of Clarke and Lindros in that category. As it was, despite all of his foot and groin issues, Forsberg was probably the Flyers’ best pure playmaker I got to see on an every-game basis for a couple of seasons. From his ice vision to his finesse, physical strength, puckhandling ability and competitive drive, Forsberg was often downright unstoppable. The single greatest one-shift display of individual skill I have ever seen in Flyers history was Forsberg dangling around five Buffalo Sabres as he circled all the way around the offensive zone and then feathering a beautiful pass to a wide-open Eric Desjardins in the 2006 playoffs.

6. Claude Giroux (Still active, 258 assists in 415 games, 0.62 assists per game): Anyone who follows the current-day NHL knows that Giroux is one of the top set up men in the league. In some regards, he reminds me of Forsberg in his ability to flip that “I’m-going-to-create-a-scoring-chance-and-you-can’t-stop-me” switch where he dials up both his skill level and intensity to its highest level. If he stays healthy, I think Giroux will match or eclipse his current career high 65-assist season from 2011-12. As it his, he already has a pair of 50-plus seasons to his credit. By the time Giroux’s career in Philadelphia is done, he should easily rank on the top half of this list.

7. Brian Propp (480 assists in 790 games; 0.61 assists per game): One of three wingers and four non-centers on this list, Propp was every bit as good of a setup man as he was a goal-scorer. Propp, who had a pair of 100-plus assists in his junior career before turning pro. With the Flyers, Propp had three seasons with 50-plus assists and flirted with the 50-assist mark in three other Philadelphia seasons plus one in Minnesota. Hall of Famer Bill Barber was a very complete offensive player in his own right, of course, but Propp’s assist-per-game average of 0.61 outpaced Barber’s 0.51 over the course of 113 fewer regular season games in orange and black.

8. Mark Howe (342 assists in 594 games; 0.57 assists per game): The best offensive and all-around defenseman in franchise history had so many different ways of creating offensive chances. He could consistently fire tape-to-tape breakout passes that sent his team off on odd-man rushes at full speed. He could lead the rush himself and then dish to an open man. He could use his dynamic wrist shot from the point not to try to score but to produce rebound and deflection opportunities. He could pinch intelligently, receive the puck and then pass across the grain to a wide-open teammate. Overall, Howe was easily the best playmaking force from the Flyers’ blueline and deserves a spot on the top 10 overall above some worthy forwards such as Peter Zezel (0.55 assists per game) or Andre Lacroix (98 assists in 248 Flyers games, later the top all-time producer in WHA history).

9. Pelle Eklund (334 assists in 589 games; 0.56 assists per game): On an assists-per-game basis, Eklund probably doesn’t deserve to be this high on the list. However, his per-game totals were knocked down by final few injury-plagued seasons as a Flyer. From the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, Eklund was unquestionably the Flyers best playmaker and one of the most underrated ones on a leaguewide basis. He belongs on any list of the top Swedish playmakers in hockey history when you include his Elitserien and international production in addition to the three 50+ assist seasons he produced as a member of the Flyers.

10. Bill Barber (463 assists in 903 games; 0.51 assists per game): Barber was equally good at shooting or passing the puck. Playing on the same line as Clarke for most of his career, Barber’s role was a little more geared toward being the recipient of setups rather than handling the puck and dishing it off. When he worked a point on the power play, Barber’s playmaking abilities often came to the forefront. Barber is in the Hockey Hall of Fame because he was on the NHL’s most complete players of his era, and those talents included being an above-average playmaking winger. Honorable mentions: Peter Zezel averaged .548 assists per game during his Flyers career. Darryl Sittler, Paul Coffey, Dale Hawerchuk and Adam Oates were all elite offensive players but were late in their Hall of Fame careers by the time they had short stints (exceptionally brief in Oates’ case) in orange and black. All of them showed flashes in Philly of why they were among the greatest offensive players in the history of the game but their stays were too short. I’d also add Alexei Zhamnov (13 assists in 20 Flyers regular season games, 10 assists in 18 playoff matches) in this category.

The same could be said for Forsberg, I suppose, but the difference is that Foppa was leading the NHL in scoring through Thanksgiving weekend of his first Philadelphia season before all the injuries set in and was still the team’s best player in his only playoff series with the club. The others were supporting pieces by the time they got to Philly. FRIDAY QUICK HITS

* Today is Flyers forward Jakub Voracek’s 25th birthday.

* Alumni birthdays: Today is former Flyers goaltender Martin Biron’s 37th birthday, while Edmonton Oilers general manager and former Flyers center Craig MacTavish turns 56 today. The late Jim Cunningham would have turned 58 today.

* Cunningham, a minor league tough guy who became a fan favorite while a member of the AHL’s Maine Mariners, played his lone NHL game for the Flyer on Feb. 28, 1978, when the Flyers visited the Boston Bruins. Looking to make an immediate impression, he made a beeline for Boston’s Terry O’Reilly. The linesmen pulled them apart before a full-fledged fight developed, so the two were sent off on double roughing minors rather than fighting majors. Cunningham finished the game, which ended in a 4-4 tie, as a plus-one. He did not register a point.

On April 29, 2011, Cunningham died near his home in Shoreview, Minnesota, after being struck by an oncoming train. The 54-year-old was walking along the tracks, possibly trying to take a photograph. He had regularly taken walks on the same path since childhood, and did not feel endangered going along the tracks.

After playing hockey at Michigan State University, Cunningham spent four-plus years in the minor leagues, including parts of four seasons over two stints with Maine. As with many players who were once scoring-line players at hockey’s lower levels (he collected 36 points in 34 games for Michigan State in 1976-77), Cunningham had to find a different niche at the pro level. In the AHL, he was mostly an agitator and secondary enforcer. His best season for the Mariners came in 1978-79, when he racked up 223 penalty minutes and 24 points (eight goals, 16 assists) in 78 games.

Cunningham’s pro career came to an end in 1981, although he made a three-game return to pro hockey in 1983-84 for the IHL’s Toledo Gold Diggers. He spent the remainder of his life in his native Minnesota.

* Flyers broadcast analyst and former player Chris Therien participated in the ice bucket challenge for ALS Awareness. Bundy found a unique way to complete it, making it a family project. Post by Chris Therien.

This post originally appeared on www.hockeybuzz.com and we thank them for permission to rebroadcast it here.

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