TORONTO — Some on-ice combinations work better than others, and each of the four players inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday can attest to that.
Brett Hull’s favourite set-up man was Adam Oates. Brian Leetch felt most comfortable partnered on the blue-line with Jeff Beukeboom. Luc Robitaille’s best offensive season came on Jari Kurri’s wing. Steve Yzerman meshed well with Gerard Gallant and Bob Probert.
Finding just the right chemistry with a linemate or defence partner isn’t easy, even for players of their calibre. It’s rare when things click exactly right, and once the parts change, it may never be recaptured again.
Hull learned that when Oates was traded from the St. Louis Blues to the Boston Bruins in February 1992.
“It was over at that point,” Hull said. “Adam and I not only had chemistry on the ice, we were very close friends off the ice and roommates on the road. It’s easy when all he wants to do is give you the puck to score goals, and he felt about getting assists like I did scoring a goal.”
Hull scored 72 and a career-high 86 goals in the two full seasons he played on Oates’ right wing, and 70 more during the 1991-92 season in which Oates was traded.
Craig Janney was part of the return for Oates but he and Hull didn’t really mesh, and the sniper never scored more than 57 goals in a season afterwards.
“I can’t even guess how many goals I would have scored if he didn’t get traded,” said Hull. “I still had success and scored goals but it was never the same.”
Leetch understands how Hull feels.
He spent nine years teamed with Beukeboom on the New York Rangers blue-line and knew the defensive end would be taken care of while he attacked. Though they were polar opposites as players, they were an ideal match.
“He was big and tough, that helped me out a lot number one,” said Leetch. “He was not going to go very far into a zone ever, he might pinch down the boards to do a big hit but if I was rushing the puck, I knew there was going to be one guy back.
“He was excellent at delaying, buying time for backcheckers and me to get back in the play, and he played tough in front of the net. There were never guys stationed there for very long.”
Robitaille’s teammates in Los Angeles and Detroit included Wayne Gretzky, Jimmy Carson, Marcel Dionne and Yzerman but he rarely took a regular shift with any of them outside of the power play.
Out of all those great centres, his most productive season — 63 goals, 62 assists for 125 points — came with a converted winger playing the middle.
“It’s kind of funny because all the years I was in L.A., I was put on the second line always because the idea was we’re going to get two scoring lines,” he chuckled. “I had a new centre almost every few months.
“Bernie Nicholls was really good, I played a lot of power plays with Wayne and that was very, very special. Funny enough in 1992-93, they put Jari Kurri as my centre and that’s the best year I ever had statistics-wise. It’s the irony of how things go sometimes.”
Yzerman played 22 seasons with a host of linemates.
Wingers Ron Duguay and John Ogrodnick helped guide him early in his career and he later posted some of his gaudiest numbers with Gerard Gallant by his side.
“Gerard was a great linemate for me, he was an up and down guy with a great shot, I liked to hang on to the puck and give it to him,” said Yzerman. “We played with (Bob) Probert for a little while, he kind of patrolled the wing and looked out for me and I was given a little bit of leeway when he was out on the ice, and he was a guy who could also finish. That was a great line.”
Towards the latter part of his career, Yzerman became a more complete player, as effective defensively as he was offensively. Chemistry was formed with an unlikely duo en route to a Stanley Cup championship in 1998.
“I played with Tomas Holmstrom and Darren McCarty in the ’98 playoffs and we were kind of a, I don’t want to call it a checking line, but we weren’t a high-scoring explosive line,” said Yzerman, who had six goals and 18 assists in 22 playoff games that year. “For whatever reason that worked. Those guys competed so hard.”
Perhaps the most talented duo he ever played with was at the 2002 Olympics. The line wasn’t together long but it helped capture gold for Canada.
“I played with Mario Lemieux and Paul Kariya for four of the six games, it was a short period of time, but boy did I enjoy that,” Yzerman recalled with a smile. “We found some chemistry there.”