Jacques Plante's Season For The Ages
A special thanks to Todd Denault, respected hockey author and long time friend of EOTP.
He has penned two great books in the last three years, Jacques Plante: The Man Who Changed the Face of Hockey and The Greatest Game: The Montreal Canadiens, The Red Army and the Night That Saved Hockey.
Todd was kind enough to share a story on a significant piece of hockey history, that happened 40 years ago. Surprisingly it involves the Toronto Maple Leafs, but the individual involved is no stranger to Habs history.
A Season For The Ages by Todd Denault
Forty years ago this spring the legendary Jacques Plante completed a season for the ages – a season whose true greatness only came to light many years after the fact.
When one thinks of Jacques Plante, there are many images that come to mind. First and foremost is the visage of the mask, an innovation that helped bring goaltending into the modern age. For those who saw him play, it is the sight of Plante charging out of his net to play the puck, or the sound of his voice, piercing the arena, as he shouted out instructions to his teammates. For others it may be those eccentric parts of his personality – like his ability to knit that left a lasting impression. But for most it is the picture of him as a Montreal Canadien, celebrating a Stanley Cup victory seemingly every spring that remains firmly lodged in their collective memories.
Less remembered is his time in Canada’s other hockey capital – as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Even less recalled is his first year with the blue and white, a season that ranks with the greatest in the history of goaltending.
Jacques Plante was forty-one years old when he first arrived in Toronto in the fall of 1970. At the time the Toronto Maple Leafs were over three years removed from their last Stanley Cup and the organization was in a state of transition. Cup veterans like Dave Keon, George Armstrong and Ron Ellis still remained. They were joined by a small group of veterans led by Norm Ullman and Paul Henderson. The rest of the roster was filled by a raft of inexperienced younger players with unfamiliar names; Harrison, Dorey, Monahan, McKenny, Pelyk, and a first round draft pick from Kitchener named Darryl Sittler.
Right from the start of training camp the team’s head coach, John McLellan, largely left Plante to his own devices and allowed him to function as an unofficial player/coach. Plante took full advantage.
"At first, it was kind of daunting having him as a teammate," remembers then rookie defenseman Brad Selwood. "For the first month or two I found it tough to approach him. He was kind of intimidating. Once you did, however, he was very good, very approachable. His intensity stood out, he was all business. He was very focused in both practices and games. He used the practices to work on game situations. He was a true student of the game. In addition, he was also an outstanding communicator. In practice, he’d lay out situations so you knew what to do in the game. If you made a mistake, he let you know about it but not in a nasty way. I personally took it as constructive criticism. It was never to the point that it was your fault; he just hated to get scored on."
Plante’s well earned reputation as a loner and an eccentric preceded him. But the older, wiser Plante was more amicable and open with his teammates in Toronto than he had been before. Call it age or the passage of time, but he was definitely a more peaceful and calm man at this point of life. The beneficiaries of his new relaxed personality were his teammates.
"I was just a rookie when Jacques joined the Leafs," remembers Darryl Sittler today. "What I liked about Jacques was that he was always very helpful to any of the rookies, as far as developing skills, staying out after practice and letting us take shots on him and all those sorts of things. He was always a pleasant person to be around and I always enjoyed him being around. I obviously had a lot of respect for him, for the career he had."
The changes in Plante extended past his demeanor. He curbed his habit of occasionally smoking a cigar, as well as putting an end to the couple of beers a day he usually imbibed. As a result his weight dropped from 184 pounds at the beginning of training camp to 171 when the regular season began.
In addition to his performance on the ice, Plante would continue to tutor his young teammates, none more so than a young goalie who joined the Leafs midway through the season. On the last day of January 1971, the Leafs would acquire Bernie Parent from the Philadelphia Flyers. Parent had achieved a modicum of success but was widely seen by many in the NHL as an underachiever.
"He’s probably got more natural ability than any goaltender in the league," wrote Gerry Cheevers in his 1971 book Goaltender. "I don’t know too much about his desire though … He’s not the most enthusiastic goaler I can think of."
It wouldn’t take long for Parent to proclaim the day of the trade as "the greatest of his life" and not long after that for many to take notice of the transformation in his game. In 1974 and 1975 he would capture not only consecutive Vezina Trophies but back-to-back Conn Smythe Trophies in guiding the Flyers to successive Stanley Cups.
"There was no one in the world quite like Plante," Parent later admitted to author Kevin Shea. "I learned more from him in two years with the Leafs than I did in all my other hockey days. He taught me a great deal about playing goal both on the ice and in my head off the ice. He taught me to be aggressive around the goal and take an active part in play instead of waiting for things to happen. He showed me how I kept putting myself off-balance by placing my weight on my left leg instead of on my stick side. He taught me how to steer shots off into the corner instead of letting them rebound in front of me. That old guy made a good goalie of me."
In addition to mentoring Parent, Plante who celebrated his 42nd birthday that January, would help transform the surprising Leafs – a team that had finished in last place the season before - to a spot in the playoffs. Plante would play in forty games for Toronto in 1970-71, with a record of 24 wins-11 losses-4 ties, while registering four shutouts. The true measure of Plante’s value to the Leafs that season was exposed on the nights where he was absent from the Toronto goal. Without him the team sputtered to a record of 13 wins-22 losses-4 ties. For the eighth time – to this day an NHL record – Plante would lead the NHL in goals against average, posting a mark of 1.88. Adding to the magnitude of Plante’s achievement was that the combined goals against average that year for the other Leaf goalies: a mediocre 3.39.
Plante’s achievements did not go unnoticed at the time. Plante was named as the goaltender on the Second All-Star team, finishing behind the Vezina trophy winner for that season, Eddie Giacomin of the New York Rangers. In the voting for the Hart Trophy, Plante would finish in fifth place - nine years after he had won the award with Montreal.
"I know it’s incredible, almost unbelievable, but I’m playing better now than when I was with the Montreal Canadiens," a high-spirited Plante told Stan Fischler in 1971. "My reflexes are just as fast, and I have far greater knowledge."
At the age of 42, Jacques Plante had fashioned one of the greatest seasons of any goaltender in the history of the game. But it would take another thirty years for the final judgment of Jacques Plante’s 1970-71 season to come to light.
During the course of Plante’s career the primary statistic for measuring goaltenders was their respective goals-against average. Goals-Against average is calculated by taking the number of goals a goalie allows and dividing that number by the number of minutes he plays, than multiplying that figure by 60. Essentially you’re dividing his goals allowed figure by the number of games he played to see on average how many goals he allows per game.
The statistic however, is a flawed one.
In a seven-game series, goaltender A faces fifty shots in each game, allows only four goals each game while making forty-six saves in each game. His goals-against average is 4.00.
In that same seven-game series, goaltender B faces twenty shots in each game, allows only two goals each game, while making eighteen saves in each game. His goals-against average is 2.50.
Goaltender B has the far better goals against average, yet he has faced thirty less shots a game than Goaltender A, making twenty-eight less saves a game than Goaltender A. With much less work, in terms of shots, has goaltender B necessarily played better than goaltender A?
The primary job of any goaltender is to stop the puck from entering the net, yet the goals-against average statistic does not take that into account. On the other hand a goaltender’s save percentage answers a fundamental question. What percentage of shots does a goalie save? Let’s go back to our earlier example.
Goaltender A saves 46 shots a game while allowing four goals on average. Therefore he stops 92% of the shots he faces. Given as a decimal his save percentage is .920.
Goaltender B saves 18 shots a game while allowing two goals on average. Therefore he stops 90% of the shots he faces. Given as a decimal his save percentage is .900.
Given the same amount of shots, Goaltender A would stop the puck more frequently.
In an effort to remedy this discrepancy the statistic referred to as save percentage gradually gained in popularity, with the NHL officially keeping track of the numbers beginning in the 1982-83 season. Motivated by nothing more than curiosity a private citizen from Regina, Saskatchewan named Edward Yuen took it upon himself to find out the save percentage totals for the years before the statistic was recognized by the NHL. By going through library microfilm and microfiche machines, and using the game reports found in the Winnipeg Free Press, le Devoir of Montreal, the New York Times, and the Globe and Mail, he researched the shot and save totals for every goalie, in every NHL regular season game from 1954-55 through 1966-67, in addition to a few selected years in the 1970’s. After all the information was compiled and double-sourced, he did the math. Mr. Yuen’s findings were subsequently published by authors Jeff Klein and Karl Eric Reif in their 2001 book, The Hockey Compendium
Finally after three decades, the extent of Jacques Plante’s legendary 1970-71 season were wholly revealed. After crunching the numbers it was discovered that over the course of that particular year that Plante had posted an astonishing save percentage of .942. The runner up that year was Eddie Giacomin, the Vezina winner and the man named to the First All-Star team ahead of Plante. His save percentage was .921. The gap between him and Plante was the widest of any first and second place finisher in recorded save percentage history
In addition, the .942 save percentage turned out to be the highest of Plante’s much celebrated career, shattering his career high with the Montreal Canadiens of .929, achieved in the 1954-55 and 1955-56 seasons respectively. But above all Plante’s .942 save percentage from 1970-71 was found to be the highest recorded in NHL history, surpassing the official NHL record held by Dominik Hasek, who posted a .937 save percentage with the Buffalo Sabres in the 1998-99 season.
Jacques Plante, the most accomplished goalie in hockey history, the winner of seven Vezina Trophies, one Hart Trophy, and six Stanley Cups may have in fact, had the greatest season of his career on a Toronto Maple Leaf team that finished fourth in its division and was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. 1970-71 was a year in which he didn’t play on a powerhouse team, win the Stanley Cup or the Vezina trophy or play behind a roster of Hall-of-Fame players, but above all it was a season that statistically has gone unmatched by any goalie since. And all of this was accomplished when he was forty-two years old.
Truly, it was a season for the ages.