One for the Ages: Tom Barrasso’s 1983-84 NHL Season

The 1983-84 Buffalo Sabres belonged to Scotty Bowman. The winningest coach in NHL history – and arguably the all-time greatest hockey coach at any level – was also the team’s GM and had his fingerprints all over that team. From pulling off some of the bigger trades in Buffalo history, to maintaining longtime veterans, to drafting a core of young guns, the 1980s in retrospect were more of a tumultuous time in Sabres history. Bowman’s era of the team possessed a tremendous amount of talent and compiled regular season wins – the highest franchise win rate by a coach in Sabres history until Lindy Ruff came along. But while their regular season successes always seemed to end in playoff shortcomings during that decade, Bowman’s goaltending in Buffalo was always steady – that was because he drafted Tom Barrasso.

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A Massachusetts native, the Buffalo Sabres drafted Barrasso with the fifth overall pick in the 1983 NHL Draft. He was so highly touted as the next star goaltender that he skipped the traditional college career that most American-born players followed during that time period. Barrasso made the immediate jump from high school hockey with the Acton-Boxborough Colonials to the NHL. It was difficult to scoff at the young goalie’s decision or Buffalo’s willingness to draft him. After all, during Barrasso’s senior high school season he assembled an eye-popping record of 22-0-1 while picking up 10 shutouts and a 0.99 goals-against average in 23 games.

Goalie Tom Barrasso
UNIONDALE, NY – OCTOBER, 1984: Goalie Tom Barrasso #30 of the Buffalo Sabres makes the glove save during an NHL preseason game against the New York Islanders in October, 1984 at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by B Bennett/Getty Images)

The true test though would be how he would perform in the NHL. Those who witnessed it recall that Barrasso did the furthest thing from disappoint. Seemingly turning the league on its ear during his rookie campaign, he stymied enough shooters to win both the Calder Trophy and the Vezina Trophy as a teenager. This is what makes Tom Barrasso’s 1983-84 NHL season one for the ages.

We look back now on his achievements that year and take a close look at some of his individual game successes.

Getting Barrasso to Buffalo

After having won five Stanley Cups with the Montreal Canadiens, Bowman certainly had earned the right to become a risk taker – even be a bit brazen – if he wished. Upcoming arriving in Buffalo he acquired a slew of high draft picks by trading away household names such as Rick Martin, Don Luce, Richie Dunn, and Jerry Korab. For the seven NHL Drafts that the Sabres partook under Bowman’s watch, the team had a total of 12 first-round draft selections.

Some of those first-rounders were hits for the Sabres – Mike Ramsey, Phil Housley, and Dave Andreychuk. Some were so-so – Paul Cyr, Normand Lacombe, and Steve Patrick. A few found success elsewhere – Calle Johansson, Mikael Andersson, and Adam Creighton. And some were just downright misses like the talented Czechoslovakian forward Jiri Dudacek who could not escape from behind the “Iron Curtain” and never played a game in the NHL.

Barrasso ended up being one of the finest successes of the Sabres’ draft selections during those years. What ultimately brought Buffalo the opportunity to draft him was parting ways with a true great in team history and the leftwing for “The French Connection”, Rick Martin. Bowman sent Martin to the Los Angeles Kings on Mar. 10, 1981 in order to receive the Kings’ third-round choice in the 1981 draft, which ended up being Colin Chisholm who played one NHL game in his career for the Minnesota North Stars. The other more valuable part of the deal was that Buffalo received the Kings’ first-round selection in 1983 which they would use to select Barrasso.

Sadly for both Martin and the Kings, the once electrifying goal-scorer only played five total games (regular season and playoffs) for Los Angeles in two seasons. He would be forced to retire due to a chronic knee ailment. Barrasso on the other hand would end up playing a 19-year NHL career, with more than five of those years as a Sabre.

Barrasso’s Rookie 1983-84 Season

Barrasso split the goaltending duties almost evenly during his rookie year with veteran Sabres goalie and former Vezina Trophy winner Bob Sauve. A capable starting netminder in his own right, Sauve was actually in his second stint with the Sabres having signed with them as a free agent in June of 1982 after being traded to Detroit in December of 1981. After the Sabres drafted Barrasso, it was natural to assume that the older Sauve would provide necessary tutelage to the rookie goalie while still shouldering the bulk of the work. While it is certain that some guidance was indeed imparted, Barrasso would need no hand holding.

On the contrary, the cocksure 18-year-old exploded onto the NHL scene. Known additionally for his feistiness and even a mean streak, the sizable Barrasso would end up posting 182 penalty minutes in 266 games with the Sabres. 20 of them came in his first season. Playing in 42 games as opposed to Sauve’s 40 in 1983-84, Barrasso assembled a solid record of 26-12-3 to go along with a .893 save percentage and a 2.85 GAA. He also posted two shutouts that first season too.

Brian Lawton of the Minnesota North Stars, Tom Barrasso of the Buffalo Sabres and third pick overall Pat LaFontaine
MONTREAL, QC – JUNE 8: Brian Lawton of the Minnesota North Stars and first overall pick of the 1983 NHL Draft poses for a portrait with the fifth pick overall Tom Barrasso of the Buffalo Sabres and third pick overall Pat LaFontaine of the New York Islanders on June 8, 1983 at the Montreal Forum in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)

In addition to winning the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie and the Vezina Trophy for being the best goaltender, Barrasso was also named a First Team All-Star. When it came to deciding the Calder, it is important to remember that he beat out Detroit’s legendary Steve Yzerman for the honor that year. Furthermore, while Barrasso would not win the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s Most Valuable Player for the 1983-84 season, he still managed to finish ninth in the voting. Though the award ultimately went to Wayne Gretzky, Barrasso received more votes for the Hart than Hockey Hall of Famers Paul Coffey, Brad Park, Peter Stastny, and Denis Savard did that year.

Barrasso’s Finer Moments During the 1983-84 Season

We would like to take a look at some of the finer moments of Barrasso’s first season. There were plenty of noteworthy games to choose from. To put it into perspective, through the first 15 games of Barrasso’s career he only lost twice. Taking the entire 1983-84 season as a whole into consideration , we have pinpointed his finer moments:

Oct. 5, 1983: The Sabres opening game of the season would also be Barrasso first NHL game. Playing against the Hartford Whalers at home in Buffalo’s venerable, old Memorial Auditorium the rookie goalie backstopped the Sabres to a 5-3 win. Barrasso stopped 21 of the 24 shots he faced, while five different Sabres scored goals that night – Gilbert Perreault, Cyr, Real Cloutier, Andreychuk, and Finnish defenseman Hannu Virta.

Oct. 28, 1983: In a goaltending battle at home against the Los Angeles Kings, Barrasso faced 35 shots as opposed to the King’s Mike Blake who had 43 come his way. Perhaps being meant to be, the game ended in a 3-3 draw to give the Sabres goalie the first tie of his career. Sabres Housley, Ric Seiling and Jim Wiemer each tallied goals. What is most noteworthy about this game is that Barrasso stopped shots from Marcel Dionne eight times – not once did the Hockey Hall of Fame centerman get one by him.

Nov. 19, 1983: On the road against the Calgary Flames, Barrasso put forth one of his finest performances of the season. Keep in mind that the Flames were becoming an NHL powerhouse at the time with scorers like Lanny McDonald, Kent Nilsson and Hakan Loob up front. Despite any onslaught Calgary sent his way, Barrasso stopped 31 of 33 shots for a .939 SV% as the Sabres won the game 5-2. Barrasso needed to be strong too because despite of the goal differential Buffalo only mustered 20 shots against Calgary’s Rejean Lemelin.

Dec. 17, 1983: Barrasso turned out another win against the Whalers, this time in Hartford. The Whalers outshot Buffalo 32 to 28, but Barrasso stopped all but one that was sent his way. This performance gave Barrasso one of his best save percentages of the season with a .969%. The Sabres received goals from Seiling, Sean McKenna, and a pair from defenseman Wiemer.

Jan. 14, 1984: January would be Barrasso’s finest month of the season. In the six games that he played none of his save percentage numbers fell below .900%, and with that number only happening once. The other five games during the month never went below a .929 SV%. One of Barrasso’s best games of January and for the season was this date’s game on the road against the Detroit Red Wings. He would make his most saves in one game for the entire 1983-84 regular season by stopping 36 of 37 shots for a .973 SV%. Yzerman got the only shot by Barrasso and it was on the power play in the third period. Craig Ramsay and Lindy Ruff scored for the Sabres to get a 2-1 victory.

Jan. 18, 1984: Barrasso’s very next game after his success against Detroit would see him earn his first career shutout – he would have 38 shutouts total in his career during the regular season. Playing in Los Angeles against the Kings he turned aside all 30 shots that he faced. Five of the shots he stopped came from the Kings’ Bernie Nichols and four came from one-third of the “Triple Crown Line’s” Charlie Simmer. As Andreychuk, Ramsay, Mike Foligno and Korab all scored, Barrasso shut the door entirely and got the Sabres a 4-0 win.

Feb. 9, 1984: Barrasso and the Sabres won a wild one at home against the New Jersey Devils. Winning the game 8-5, both team’s goalies ended up making 30 saves each despite the inflated score. Barrasso stopped 30 of 35, while the Devils combination of Glenn “Chico” Resch and Ron Low stopped 16 and 14 shots respectively. The Sabres netminder made the saves that he needed to make, as Buffalo got a pair of goals from Foligno, and one each from Perreault, McKenna, Andreychuk, Housley, Mal Davis, and Gilles Hamel.

Mar. 14, 1984: On the road in Calgary once more, Barrasso made 30 saves on the 32 shots that the Flames sent his way. He would finish the game with a .938 SV%. Though Loob and Nilsson would each get one by him, Barrasso stopped all four shots from Al MacInnis and six shots from Ed Beers. Foligno, John Tucker, Korab and Hamel provided the goals for the Sabres, with all but Hamel’s goal coming in the second frame.

Mar. 24, 1984: In the Meadowlands at the Brendan Byrne Arena to face the Devils, Barrasso earned his second career shutout. The Sabres crushed the Devils by a score of 6-0. With Tucker scoring two goals, and one each from Foligno, Andreychuk, Housley, and McKenna, the Sabres goalie stopped all 24 shots that came his way. Surprisingly, the despite lopsided score New Jersey outshot Buffalo 24 to 23.

Apr. 1, 1984: In Barrasso’s final game of the 1983-84 regular season, he would take the victory at home against the Toronto Maple Leafs. This would be his 26th win on the year. Fueled by Tucker’s hat-trick in the opening period, Buffalo would win the game 4-2. Barrasso stopped 22 of the 24 shots that he faced.

Barrasso Had a Strong Support Network

Granted, Barrasso did not do all of that alone. His Sabres teammates provided a tremendous support network for the rookie goalie. The way that the 1983-84 team was comprised naturally took a lot of pressure off of him. For starters, Barrasso had Sauve sharing the netminding duties with him. While having a .869 SV% and 3.49 GAA were certainly not ideal numbers – though common enough in the 1980s – Sauve’s 22-13-4 record was nearly equal to Barrasso’s. Not all of goaltending pressure was on the teenager.

Additionally, Barrasso was not the only teenager under the Buffalo microscope. Housley, Andreychuk, Creighton, Cyr, and Tucker were all either teenagers too or had just turned 20 years old. Any stress over whether the kids were worth their draft stock was pretty much shared equally between them. If anything, Housley had more pressure on him than Barrasso due to the defenseman’s size.

Phil Housley #6 of the Buffalo Sabres
Having Phil Housley – another teenage, American-born first-rounder drafted by the Sabres – helped keep some of the pressure off of Tom Barrasso (Photo by Denis Brodeur/NHLI via Getty Images).

Lastly, the Sabres had a multitude of savvy veterans on the team who could bear the brunt of the expectations – both Bowman’s expectations and those of the city of Buffalo. The greatest Sabre of them all – Gilbert Perreault – led the team in scoring that year with 31 goals, 59 assists and 90 points in 73 games. Defensemen Jerry Korab (who was in his second stint with the team) and Bill Hajt, and Selke Trophy winner Craig Ramsay were all holdovers from the 1974-75 Stanley Cup runner-up Sabres team. Meanwhile, players like Mike Foligno, Ric Seiling, Real Cloutier, Larry Playfair, and Brent Peterson were right in the primes of their careers.

So while Barrasso’s first-year achievements are certainly worthy of being heralded, the point is that the Sabres had plenty of pieces in place that automatically eased his transition from high school to the NHL. We can respect and remember what he did but he had plenty of help along the way too.

To give a dose of reality though, the 1983-84 Sabres were quickly dispelled in the opening round of the playoffs. After finishing in second place in the Adams Division with a record of 48-25-7, the Sabres faced the Quebec Nordiques in a best-of-five playoff series. Fueled by the Stastny brothers – Peter, Marian and Anton – the Nordiques swept the Sabres in three straight games. Quebec outscored Buffalo 13-5 in the three games. Barrasso made appearances in each game by starting Games One and Three and relieving Sauve in Game Two after the veteran goalie was beat for five goals in just two periods. To Buffalo’s credit, they were without the services of superstar Perreault for the entire playoffs, and Andreychuk and Cloutier only played in two of the three games. In addition, when considering that the Stastnys, Michel Goulet, Tony McKegney, Wilf Paiement, and Dale Hunter were all providing top end scoring for the Nordiques, Buffalo was a bit outmatched.

Wrapping up Barrasso’s Career in Buffalo

With the completion of his rookie campaign, Barrasso became Buffalo’s cornerstone in net. His sophomore season was just as good, as he and Sauve shared the William M. Jennings Trophy for allowing the least amount of goals. Barrasso would also finish second in voting for the Vezina Trophy behind the late Pelle Lindbergh and he would be named a Second Team All-Star. Many felt that the Sabres were golden and were situated in their goal crease for many years to come.

Mere games into the 1986-87 season, Scotty Bowman was relieved of his duties with the Buffalo Sabres. Assuming the role as the team’s new GM was Sabres alum and former captain Gerry Meehan. Coinciding with these managerial changes, Buffalo also had up-and-coming goaltender Daren Puppa waiting in the wings playing a tertiary role to Barrasso and Jacques Cloutier. As time went along under Meehan’s watch, the Sabres ended up compiling a long list of goalies throughout the entire 1988-89 season – a year in which Barrasso, Puppa, Cloutier, Clint Malarchuk, Darcy Wakaluk, and Darren Eliot all saw time in net.

To make way for Puppa and feeling that they could part ways with Barrasso, the Sabres traded their Calder and Vezina winner and a 3rd-round draft pick in 1990 to the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for defenseman Doug Bodger and winger Darrin Shannon. Barrasso would immediately become Pittsburgh’s top goaltender and would end up backstopping them to two consecutive Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992. The Sabres would not get the same sort of return on the deal, but they also did not have the additional talent that the Penguins had to surround Barrasso.

Once he landed in Pittsburgh, Barrasso remained with the team for parts of 12 seasons. In March of 2000 the Penguins finally traded him to the Ottawa Senators. The remaining years of Barrasso’s career saw him become more of a journeyman goaltender. He would also see stops with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Carolina Hurricanes, and the St. Louis Blues.

Though it has not happened yet, there are many who advocate for Barrasso’s induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame. The fact that he won a pair of Stanley Cups bolsters the argument for induction. Barrasso having a stellar career record of 369-277-86 in 777 regular season games certainly helps matters too. Throw in the added items of having the NHL records for most career assists and points by a goalie (48), most consecutive NHL playoff wins (14), and second most wins for an American goalie (369), and more legitimacy is added.

Could it happen? Sure. Will it happen? That remains to be seen. For now, we can look back on Barrasso’s various moments of glory during his lengthy career. The Stanley Cup wins, the All-Star nominations, the Vezina Trophy, and certainly his Calder-winning 1983-84 rookie season – Barrasso’s one for the ages.

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