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10 Years Ago: THN’s Top 50, #2

We’re down to the penultimate pick in our review of the 1998-99 best players as listed in a decade-old The Hockey News Yearbook. Tomorrow, I’ll post #1, and then for Thursday’s opening-night post, I’ll have a complete list sans commentary of the 1998-99 Top 50 compared to the 2008-09 list. There’s definitely some eyebrow raisers in there. Of course, who knows how we’ll judge the 2008-09 list ten years from now.

Today, though, let’s look at a player that was one of the most dominant of the 1990s: Paul Kariya.

It’s hard to predict how history will remember Paul Kariya. There’s no doubt that he was and still is a great player, and his numbers are a solid argument for Hall of Fame status. However, considering just how impressive his game was during the first part of his career, one has to wonder why he didn’t maintain his high level of play. If you took snippets of Kariya’s career, you’d be hard-pressed to pin down exactly what the guy was. In the first half, his points-per-game projected him at 100+ point seasons—a feat that he accomplished twice and was on pace to two more times had it not been for injuries. Amazingly, Kariya bounced back from the vicious Gary Suter crosscheck that took him out of the 1998 Olympics with an 82-game, 101-point campaign in 1998-99.

With that in mind, it doesn’t appear that his concussion problem issues acted as a turning point for Kariya. Something about the 2000s just brought his game down, even when he should have been in the theoretical prime of his career.

But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves. For this selection at #2, Kariya was just recovering from the crosscheck incident and finished the season with only 22 games under his belt. Still, the two seasons prior included 108 points in 82 games (95-96) and 99 points in 69 games (96-97), the latter of which helped propel the Ducks into their first playoff appearance.

On the ice, Kariya was one of the league’s fastest skaters and had deadly accuracy with his shot. This, combined with a strong work ethic and a keen playmaking ability, put him in a level above the rest during the late 1990s. The Hockey News Fantasy Guide even featured a cover story debating whether Kariya or Jaromir Jagr was a better fantasy pick. For this moment in time, Kariya certainly deserved to be somewhere in any top five list of players.

Despite two disaster campaigns (01-02 in Anaheim and the ill-fated 03-04 season in Colorado), Kariya has remained essentially a point-per-game player for much of his later career (last season’s 65 points are probably as much a product of his St. Louis teammates as his declining skill). However, he’s not the game changer he used to be and he’s a far cry from the guy who broke 40 goals/100 points several times.

Today, it seems like Kariya’s been in the league forever but he’s still only 33. That means that we’ll probably see three or four more seasons out of the Vancouver native, but they won’t be at the sustained level of greatness like, say, Joe Sakic (who ironically is not in THN’s top 10 for 1998-99).

In comparison, THN’s #2 player for 2008-09 is a guy who shares some of the same on-ice qualities as Kariya but is a completely different person off the ice. Alexander Ovechkin’s game is based on speed and a great shot, but he’s also a boisterous, passionate person while by all accounts the quiet Kariya is humble and disciplined (insert your own joke here about Asian stereotypes). Ovechkin has a physical element to his game while Kariya’s approach has always been a little more cerebral. Playing with hypotheticals, if 1998 Kariya played in the post-lockout era, how high would his point totals be? If he brought 1998 Teemu Selanne with him—heck, maybe even 2008 Selanne—they’d probably match Ovechkin’s.

Filed in: NHL, | Mike Chen's Hockey Blog | Permalink
  Tags: alexander+ovechkin, paul+kariya

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