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Appreciating the Grate One's Playoff Scoring: Claude Lemieux Wasn't Clutch, He Was Very Good

Inspired by a recent post about Bill Guerin, I got reminiscent about Claude Lemieux's 1995 playoff run. After digging deeper, it's worth explaining that he didn't get to 80 career playoff goals by being "clutch" - he was just very good in an era suited for his skill.

Bruce Bennett

It takes me some extra time to write about past Devils because I tend to get caught up with other memories and observations of those earlier teams. I got distracted when writing up a summary of Bill Guerin's time in New Jersey by watching videos of Devils goals from the 1995 Stanley Cup playoffs. And if there was one man that kept coming up back then, it was Claude Lemieux. Scorer of 13 goals in the postseason, winner of the Conn Smythe trophy, and shadower of (let's see if I remember this right) Cam Neely, Jaromir Jagr, John LeClair, and Keith Primeau. He picked on his assignment, limited their effectiveness, while roaring back to score goals in response. Given that he only took twenty penalty minutes in the entire postseason, he was actually fairly well disciplined for a guy who got under the skin of his opponents just by being there. It was a magnificent playoff performance. That helped make a young 11-year old me really sad when he was traded away in a three-team deal in October 1995.

Lemieux's playoff exploits may have peaked in 1995, but he definitely had plenty of high points before and afterwards. After ten games in the 1985-86 season, he stuck around for Montreal's magical Stanley Cup run. After a nasty arbitration hearing with Lou in 1995, Lemieux was shipped off to Colorado, where he helped kick off a mean rivalry with Detroit, and aided the ex-Nordiques in winning their first Stanley Cup in 1996. While the Avs didn't go all the way in the 1997 playoffs, Lemieux scored 13 in 17 games. When he returned to New Jersey in a 2000 trade, he won his fourth Stanley Cup as the Devils won their second.

Even with his many postseason appearances, he doesn't fit in with the other top playoff scorers in history. Here's the top ten according to QuantHockey, in order: Wayne Gretzky (122), Mark Messier (109), Jari Kurri (106), Brett Hull (103), Glenn Anderson (93), Mike Bossy (85), Joe Sakic (84), Maurice Richard (82), Claude Lemieux (80), and Jean Beliveau (79). Yes, Claude's ahead of Mario in an offensive category. Unless I'm mistaken, only Lemieux on that list isn't in the Hockey Hall of Fame. I don't think anyone's arguing that he should be either. Ergo, it's easy to see all of his success and playoff goals and think he's really clutch. He's a guy who "gets up" for the second season. However, that's not the case at all. The reality is that Lemieux was a good player who got so many opportunities to score by playing a lot in the postseason, mostly in an earlier era, and just shooting a lot.

First of all, Lemieux isn't just a top-ten playoff goal scorer. He's also fifth all-time in playoff appearances with 235 games according to Quant Hockey. Ever since Lemieux stuck with that 1986 Montreal team, he's been in the playoffs in every season until his first with Phoenix in the 2000-01 season. That's 15 straight seasons where he played beyond the regular season. Moreover, his teams went beyond the first round in all but four of those 15-straight playoff years. More games mean more minutes, more shots, and more chances to score.

Second, Lemieux benefited from the state of the game back then. He scored 70 of his 80 playoff goals from 1986 through 1997. He was age 20 through 31 so he enjoyed additional games at the peak of his career, which helped him out. While the Devils brought the neutral zone trap back into vogue from 1993-94, the average goaltender posted up save percentages that would be considered quite low today. According to QuantHockey, the average playoff save percentage surpassed 90% only three times between 1986 and 1997. If you look at the average regular season save percentage, it didn't get up to 90% until the 1995 season when it was 90.1% and it stayed above 90% after 1996-97, which was still only 90.5%. Sure, Patrick Roy, Ed Belfour, Martin Brodeur, and Dominik Hasek were in the league but the average goalie just wasn't as good. The equipment was smaller and some of the goals allowed would just be hideous today. For example, here's Lemieux's game winning goal against Philly in the 1995 Eastern Conference Finals.

Your eyes did not deceive you. Lemieux scored from just over the blueline. Ron Hextall wasn't screened, he just reacted too slowly and got beat. As an aside, that goal was scored within the last minute and turned the series in New Jersey's favor 3-2 in Philly. Good times! But as much as I'd love to say Typical Flyers Goaltender Problems, that type of soft goal wasn't all that uncommon. Here's Lemieux scoring in a similar way on Mike Vernon in the 1995 Stanley Cup Finals. Similar in that Vernon really looks dumb here, but different in that Lemieux got to the top of the circle before unloading.

This was before butterfly goalies inspired by Roy really became commonplace the league and goalie equipment swelled. Lemieux got to play through the high-scoring 80s and got the lion's share of his playoff goals before save percentages soared. Hence, he got to score quite a lot in all of those games he played in.

Third, and this is the point I want to impress upon the most, Lemieux was a really good hockey player. Check out his career stats at Hockey Reference. He didn't go Chris Kreider after an impressive ten goal, six assist playoff showing in 1986. He put up 23 goals, 57 points, and 184 shots in his first full NHL season in 1986-87. He progressed and enjoyed his most productive seasons with New Jersey in the early 1990s. His first three seasons as a Devil ended with 30, 41, and 30 goals with 271, 296, and 311 shots. The guy was an offensive stud then. Lemieux's production dropped in a big way in 1993-94 to only 18 goals and 44 points, but that's because he didn't shoot nearly as much. He went from 311 shots down to 181. Fortunately, he upped his rate and his production bounced back with a seven goal, eighteen point playoff run in 1994. In 1995, Lemieux really got cold and shot at about 5%; but he rebounded just in time for the postseason where he put up 13 goals. With Colorado for the first time, he returned to putting up over 300 shots and put up 39 goals. He wouldn't reach those heights again, but was a consistent 20+ goal player for three more seasons after his 1997-98 was cut short due to injury. The guy wasn't just a PIM machine and an agitator; he brought a significant number of offense to the table.

In total, Lemieux scored 379 goals off 3,650 shots in 1,215 games. That's not a super high shooting percentage, but that's an average of about three shots per game. That's plenty more than what would expect from a guy who's reputation is largely irritating the other team. Lemieux really did have a good shot and he was a fast player. You can see evidence of both in the two videos. It's worth noting that Lemieux really took to Jacques Lemaire's neutral zone trap and he received special assignments in the 1995 playoffs to cover top opposition wingers. He really was a skilled two-way player. Again, no, he doesn't have Hall of Fame numbers but it wasn't like some switch went off when mid-April or May rolled around every year. His rate of shots increased a bit to 3.1 per game (760 shots in 234 games) but that's not really that huge of a jump. While he had seasons where he shot really well, he had his years where he struggled but still fired away. Even though, he only scored ten goals from the 1998 playoffs and onward, he did earn 20 assists in the process (best year among those: four goals and six assists in the 2000 Cup run). He found a way to contribute beyond making an opponent mad, which is why he played as much as he did until the twilight of his career. Lemieux was a very good winger in his day, especially in his five seasons with New Jersey from 1990 through 1995.

I understand that the Grate One really doesn't belong among the legends of the game around him in terms of all-time playoff goals scored. I get that it's easy to figure he's got some sort of knack for the postseason, especially with his performances in 1986, 1994, 1995 (seriously, 13 goals, all at evens, while marking top players), 1996, and 1997. The reality isn't as enticing. Lemieux played more NHL playoff games than four other players ever. He played mostly in an era where the goaltending was still growing slowly to a level similar to today. He was still young so he thrived when he did. But putting all of this together still reveals that Lemieux wasn't just really lucky or just turned up at the end of seasons. He had plenty of offensive and defensive skill to go with his abrasiveness. And very good players tend to be very good when given the chances to play in the postseason.

One more thing: Expect Lemieux to stay in the top ten in all-time playoff goals. Recent Devils signing Jaromir Jagr sits eleventh on the list with 78 goals. Had his stick not run cold with Boston in this past Spring, he may have reached or surpassed him. If he can still go and the Devils can make it in, then he'll have one more chance at it. Even if Jagr does it (and we should hope so!), the next active scorer is Patrick Marleau with 57. I think it's safe to say Claude will still be a top-ten NHL playoff scorer for a little while longer.

Thank you for indulging me in going back into the Devils' past and gushing over one of their standout players. Please leave your thoughts, memories, and other findings about Claude Lemieux in the comments.