We continue our look at retired numbers not retired with a look back at the 1980’s. There is no lack of potential candidates for numbers worthy of honor, as seems fitting for a club that developed into a consistent playoff participant in the decade.
“3” Six players wore the number “3” before Scott Stevens donned it in 1982 as an 18-year old rookie fresh off being taken fifth overall in the 1982 Entry Draft. He is the best Capital to wear that number before or since. No Capital defenseman was within 50 points of Stevens (429 points) in the decade (Larry Murphy: 345), and he was third among all skaters in points for the ‘80’s.” His plus-90 rating for the decade was second-best (Rod Langway: plus-106), and his 182 power play points were topped only by Mike Gartner (213). He was famous for playing with an edge, his 1,628 penalty minutes being more than twice as many as any other Capital in the decade (Gartner: 704). Among his individual honors, he finished third in Calder Trophy voting as top rookie in 1983, he received all-NHL team votes in six of his eight seasons in the decade (including a first-team selection in 1988), he received Norris Trophy votes in five seasons (runner-up to Ray Bourque in 1988), and he was twice selected to play in the NHL All-Star game.
“16” Before there was Nicklas Backstrom, there was Bengt-Åke Gustafsson. Yes, both are natives of Sweden, but the similarities do not end there. Gustafsson was arguably the best two-way center in franchise history before Backstrom came on the scene in 2007, and he was, in his own way, perhaps as underrated a performer as Backstrom has been for much of his career. In eight seasons played for the Caps in the 1980’s, Gustafsson was fourth on the team in goals (173), third in assists (321), second in points (494), fifth in plus-minus rating (plus-60), third in power play points (171), first in shorthanded goals (16) and points (20), and second in game-winning goals (30). The 1980’s were long before the NHL kept detailed statistics on ice time, penalty killing, and other measures, but Gustafsson was also an adept penalty killer and defensive player (four times earning votes for the Selke Trophy for top defensive forward). His statistical rankings in the 1980’s would no doubt be higher had he not sat out the 1986-1987 season to play with Bofors IK Karlskoga in Sweden.
“35” The 1980’s were not kind to goaltenders. Twenty-two players scored at least 300 goals in the decade (Wayne Gretzky posted an amazing 626 by himself). Capitals goaltenders were not spared in the deluge of goals. Small wonder that no Capital goaltender appearing in at least ten games in the decade had a save percentage as high as .900. So when one looks at Al Jensen’s .883 save percentage in his five-plus seasons with the Caps in the 1980’s, that is not a bad number. Although he spent much of his tenure with the Caps splitting time with Pat Riggin, Jensen posted a superb 94-48-10 record with the Caps in the ‘80’s with a 3.27 goals against average and that .883 save percentage. His eight shutouts led all Caps netminders for the decade as well.
Scott Stevens is the clear choice here. Even though his late career with the Caps was rocky – the episode in Georgetown, his eventual departure via free agency -- he was among the best defensemen in team history, even before embarking on what would be a hall of fame worthy career with the New Jersey Devils. He was the complete package from the moment he took the ice as an 18-year old rookie until he departed after the 1980-1990 season.
“21” At 5’8”, Dennis “Pee-Wee” Maruk was small, even by 1980’s standards, but in only three seasons with the Caps in the decade he posted 141 goals. He was the first player in team history to record 50 goals in a season, 60 goals in a season, and 100 points in a season. Despite playing in only 240 games with the Caps in the ‘80’s, he was fifth in goals scored.
“27” Dave Christian, a member of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” United States Olympic Men’s Hockey Team, was the second-leading goal scorer for the Caps in the 1980’s (193, 21 of them game-winners). His 67 power play goals were also second on the team for the decade.
“14” Gaetan Duchesne was known primarily as a defensive player in his six seasons with the Caps in the 1980’s, but he was an underrated player in the offensive end of the ice, his 87 goals and 225 points contributing to a third-best plus-69 rating for the Caps in the decade.
“8” This number will be retired someday, but before a certain Russian winger arrived in Washington, a defenseman wore it for the Caps. Although he took a lot of grief from fans during and after his tenure in Washington, Larry Murphy was a productive offensive defenseman for the club, posting 86 goals and 345 points (both second among defensemen) in the 1980’s. He was an unsurprising second in power play points in the decade (153), but he also led Caps defensemen in shorthanded points in the decade (six).