Before the COVID-19 pandemic shortened the 2019-20 NHL season, David Pastrnak (48), Alex Ovechkin (48), and Auston Matthews (47) were all comfortably on their way to a 50-goal season. Two others, including eventual Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award winner Leon Draisaitl (49.7 goal pace) and Mika Zibanejad (who was on a 59 goal pace had he played a full and healthy season) stood an outside shot at the milestone. That would have been the first season with more than two 50-goal scorers in a decade, since Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, and Sidney Crosby all did it in 2009-10.
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Scoring 50 goals has long been a gold standard of individual accomplishments for NHL skaters. Difficult for even the truly great, it’s an accomplishment that conjures up images of the game’s most famous – Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Mike Bossy, Guy Lafleur, and, of course, the man who first managed the feat – Maurice “Rocket” Richard.
Only 91 players have scored 50 or more goals in a season since the NHL began play in 1917, and fewer than half of those have done it more than once. Matthews and Pastrnak would have joined the list as numbers 92 and 93.
We’ll have to wait until the next full, 82-game season to see another player chase 50 goals, but in the meantime, here are 10 things you should know about the feat.
10. Maurice Did It First
Richard established that scoring 50 goals in a season was possible in 1945, and he only needed 50 games in which to do it. Only Bossy, Gretzky, Lemieux, and Brett Hull have accomplished the same since. Despite playing in the NHL for another 15 years, Richard never scored 50 goals in a season again.
9. It Took 16 Years For Anyone to Do It Again
After Richard, it wasn’t until Bernie “Boom-Boom” Geoffrion scored 50 goals in 68 games during the 1961-62 season that the magic total was matched.
8. Some Years It’s Easier than Others
Changes in the nature of the game (and the length of its season) have influenced how many 50-goal scorers the NHL has produced over the years. In fact, analysts keep track of era-adjusted goal scoring totals. According to that metric, Brett Hull’s 86 goals in the 1990-91 season, good for 78 era-adjusted goals, is the best-ever goal-scoring season.
The number of 50-goal scorers peaked in the 1992-93 season, partially because the league played a record high 84-game season that year (as they also did in 1993-94). Remarkably, since the lockout, there have been fewer 50-goal scorers, despite the faster and less obstructed gameplay. The increased skill of the goaltenders, and the improvements in their equipment, offset the increased skill and freedom of the players. Though with the likes of Matthews, Draisaitl, Pastrnak, and Ovechkin, that could be changing.
7. The Rocket Truly Matched…Finally
Mike Bossy was the first to duplicate Richard’s extraordinary 50 goals in 50 games. But many have forgotten that Bossy still needed two goals going into that 50th game, and with less than five minutes remaining in the game, he hadn’t scored. In one of the more dramatic sequences of events in NHL history, Bossy scored goal number 49 at 15:50 of the third period. Then, with a mere 1:29 left on the scoreboard, Bossy took a pass from teammate Bran Trottier before firing home number 50. Maurice Richard was in attendance at the game and congratulated Bossy personally.
6. And Then Came Gretzky…
In textbook Gretzky fashion, number 99 not only managed to match his predecessors’ most impressive records, he shattered them. During the 1981-82 season, Gretzky scored 50 goals in 39 games. Not only did he set one of the toughest of his records to break, but he even outdid Bossy’s in-game drama.
Gretzky began that game on December 30, 1981 with 45 goals. On a Toronto sports radio talk show, he recently said he felt scared entering that game, fearful that he might be the guy who scored 45 goals in 38 games but couldn’t live up to the expectations of breaking Richard’s record. Wayne needn’t have worried. He scored five goals that game, setting a milestone that may never be reached.
5. Some Teams Produce More than Others
When comparing NHL teams’ production of 50-goal scorers, longevity and quality of franchise matter – but not as much as having one key player who can replicate the feat over and over again. The Edmonton Oilers can claim the most 50-goal scorers with 17 – but Gretzky provided half of these seasons.
Beyond them are the Pittsburgh Penguins with 16, the Los Angeles Kings with 14, and the Montreal Canadiens, Philadelphia Flyers, and New York Islanders, who are tied at 12.
4. Some Teams Don’t Produce Any
Of the active NHL teams, only four can’t claim a 50-goal scorer – the New Jersey Devils, the Minnesota Wild, the Columbus Blue Jackets, and the Nashville Predators. The Winnipeg Jets and Carolina Hurricanes are still looking for their first players to reach the 50-goal plateau in their current incarnations, but the Jets had Ilya Kovalchuk do it during their time in Atlanta, and Blaine Stoughton is the only Whalers or Hurricanes player to hit the mark.
3. Some Players Do It Often
Gretzky and Bossy lead the NHL as the players who have scored 50 or more goals the most often, each having done it nine times. But Ovechkin is immediately on their heels with eight. He likely would have joined them had the season not been shortened. Lafleur, Marcel Dionne, and Lemieux all did it in six seasons. Hull, Pavel Bure, and Steve Yzerman all reached the five-season mark.
2. You Don’t Need a Strong Team Around You
Many of the NHL’s 50-goal men played for powerful, dominant teams like Richard’s Canadiens, who had a point percentage of .800 in 1944-45, but not all benefited from playing for such strong teams. Mike Bullard did it for the Penguins in 1983-84 with his team collecting just .238 percent of their points!
Behind him, Rick Valve, Danny Grant, and Stoughton all did it for teams that collected fewer than 40 percent of their points. In fact, Valve did it twice with the Maple Leafs, in their 1981-82 season (.350) and in their 1983-84 season (.381).
1. Finally, a Trophy
In 1998-99, the Canadiens donated a trophy to the NHL to be given annually to the league’s top goal-scorer. Its name? The Maurice “Rocket” Richard trophy of course. But like Rick Nash, Kovalchuk, and Jarome Iginla – co-winners of the trophy in 2003-04 – not all of the recipients have needed 50 goals to take home the award.
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Pastrnak and Ovechkin shared the award during the 2019-20 season, just the second time since 2011-12 that Ovechkin wasn’t the sole winner of the award. These days, the goal-scoring historians are watching Ovechkin with bated breath. The 35-year-old scored his 700th goal in the 2019-20 season (pictured above) and is chasing Gretzky’s 894. He’d need just four more 50-goal seasons to do it. It may seem ridiculous, but he’s showed no signs of slowing. And he may be the last player we ever watch with a shot at the Great One’s all-time mark.
Stephen Ground is an author with The Hockey Writers and is co-host of the Two Guys No Cup Podcast. He enjoys studying the numbers and providing fresh looks at various stories.