The Hockey Hall of Fame announced its class of 2016 yesterday, with Eric Lindros, Sergei Makarov, Rogie Vachon and Pat Quinn receiving the game’s ultimate honour.
These announcements always make for a fun debate. And that extends to future classes; we’re already seeing some attention turn to 2017 and beyond, when we’ll have a mix of holdovers from this year’s vote, recently retired sure-things like Teemu Selanne and Martin Brodeur, and some tougher cases like Daniel Alfredsson and Saku Koivu.
But today, let’s look ahead even further. Let’s look at the five players nearing the end of their careers who could make for the toughest calls among active players when they become eligible for Hall of Fame consideration.
Let’s set a couple of ground rules. First, we’ll focus on players who are 36 or older, since drawing the line there should limit us to players who truly are almost done. Note that that limit means we can hold off on a few contentious names, like the Sedin twins and Henrik Zetterberg.
And we’re also going to exclude active players who are already shoe-ins. That list might be controversial in its own right, but we’re going to go ahead and award early Hall passes to:
- Jaromir Jagr: Because come on.
- Zdeno Chara: While he only has one Norris, his seven post-season all-star nods and a Stanley Cup win as a captain will be more than enough to get him in.
- Jarome Iginla: Scoring 600+ goals means guaranteed entry (unless you’re Dave Andreychuk).
- Marian Hossa: I took an in-depth look at the argument for Hossa last season, and concluded that his case was strong but not a slam dunk. I heard from several respected hockey people who thought he was a sure thing, and he’s since added another Stanley Cup ring, so let’s say he’s in.
- Joe Thornton: Every player ahead of him on the career points list is already in, with the exception of Selanne (who isn’t eligible). And his playoff run this year seems to have put a few dents in that “can’t win the big one” narrative that’s followed him through his career. Maybe voters pull a Mark Recchi and make him wait, but surely we can all agree he gets in eventually, right?
With those five off the board, here are the five active players that look like they’ll make for the toughest HHOF calls.
The longtime Devil’s status for next year isn’t known yet. He’ll technically become a free agent on Friday, but all indications are he’ll be back in New Jersey or not at all.
The case for: He’s an extremely well-respected veteran with two Cup rings. He’s also crossed a pair of major milestones, cracking both the 400-goal and 1,000-point marks during the 2014-15 season.
The case against: While he did reach both milestones, it was only barely, and he didn’t add much to his career totals last season due to injury. Plenty of players with better career numbers haven’t made it in, and that remains true even if you adjust for era. Realistically, Elias was always very good but was never viewed as one of the game’s very best – his 2000-01 season was the only one in which he made a postseason all-star team or cracked the top-10 in Hart voting.
My vote: This feels like one of those Hall-of-Very-Good cases. He’s a no for me.
Prediction: Elias is a tough call who always seems to split the vote. One factor that could work in his favour: he played his entire career for one team, and for some reason that seems to help. As the all-time leading scorer for one of the more successful franchises in recent league history, he’ll have an entire fan base (and more than a few media) pushing his candidacy hard. But unless he comes back and has a big year or two, I don’t think he gets in.
Please note that as of 2016, the Hockey Hall of Fame does not give bonus points for Twitter jokes. It should, but it doesn’t.
The case for: If he retired today, Luongo would finish with the seventh most wins in NHL history, one back of Jacques Plante (he’ll probably rank fourth by the end of next season.) He also ranks in the all-time top-10 in save percentage, and 11th in career shutouts. He’s been a second-team all-star twice, and a Vezina finalist three times (although he’s never won.)
The case against: He’s never won a Stanley Cup, which matters for goaltenders even though there’s a good argument that it shouldn’t – the HHOF hasn’t inducted an NHL goaltender without a Cup ring since Tony Esposito in 1988. Further, Luongo’s wins total is offset by his also ranking fifth in career losses, and in that sense his candidacy starts to look a bit like another goaltender who racked up big career numbers without ever winning a ring: Curtis Joseph, who hasn’t got a plaque and doesn’t sound like he’ll get one anytime soon.
My vote: An easy yes. Cup or no Cup, Luongo is easily one of the best of his generation at a position that’s badly underrepresented in the Hall.
Prediction: If the vote were held today, it would be a close one. Remember, the Hall has been notoriously stingy with goaltenders, inducting just five in the last 20 years. But given how well Luongo has played even into his late-30s, the betting here is that he can put up another season or two strong enough to move him from the “tough call” column to a solid yes.
We’ve already waved Thornton in the door. But what about his longtime teammate?
The case for: He’s already passed the 1,000-point mark, and he should crack 500 goals next season. Adjusting for era, those numbers put him solidly into HHOF range; he’s already passed guys like Joe Nieuwendyk and Denis Savard. (Although it’s worth noting that adjusted-era scoring is far from a perfect metric.)
The case against: You could tag him with the same “can’t-win” label that’s followed Thornton around, although you shouldn’t because it’s a silly way to look at a team game like hockey. But Marleau’s case is clearly weaker than Thornton’s; he’s never been a postseason all-star or won a major award, and has only one top-10 finish in Hart voting.
My vote: He wouldn’t have my vote today, and I’m not sure that even two or three more productive seasons would get him there.
Prediction: Marleau’s recent play suggests that he could be a solid player for several seasons to come, so it’s possible we could be looking at a guy with nearly 1,200 points by the time he’s done. That might be enough for a dead puck-era player, if barely. But if the end of the road is near, he won’t make it.
Like Elias, the longtime Coyotes captain hits free agency on Friday but isn’t expected to go anywhere.
The case for: Assuming he plays next year, he’ll crack the 400-goal mark and has a chance at 1,000 points. Those numbers wouldn’t be enough for most players, but Doan has always been known as a guy who can contribute beyond the scoreboard. He’s a physical player with a reputation as a heart-and-soul leader, and voters have been known to lower the statistical bar for guys who fit that mold.
The case against: The numbers aren’t quite there, and it’s possible that playing in a market like Arizona won’t help his case. More importantly, he was never really in any sort of “best player” discussion. He was never a postseason all-star, and according to the hockey-reference.com records, he’s yet to receive even a single Hart vote over the course of his career.
My vote: The parallels to Elias go beyond their contract status, as both players have put up similar numbers over long careers spent with one team. Elias has two Cup rings and a better peak, while Doan has that reputation for a physical game. I think he’s a weaker candidate than Elias, and the weakest on this list, so my vote here is a no.
Prediction: Certain hockey types love their power forwards, but Doan probably needs two more big seasons.
OK, we’re stretching the definition of “active” a little bit here, but if it’s good enough for the Coyotes’ accounting department, it’s good enough for us.
The case for: He’s widely considered one of the best two-way players of his generation, scoring ridiculously brilliant goals at one end and winning three Selkes for his work at the other. Two Stanley Cup rings will help. If anything, my guess is you may even be surprised to see him on the list at all, since many seem to assume he’s a lock.
The case against: Stronger than you probably think. He’ll finish his NHL career with 918 points, and the list of modern day forwards who made the Hall without even getting near the 1,000-point milestone is basically limited to guys whose careers were cut short by injury. In fairness, Datsyuk’s career was short too, because he didn’t make his NHL debut until he was 23, but that’s not really the same thing. He was never a first-team all-star, only had one second-team selection, and only had one year in which he finished in the top five in Hart voting.
And while his two-way play was excellent, the Hall’s track record with defensive forwards is spotty; Clark Gillies waited over a decade, while Steve Larmer and Guy Carbonneau didn’t get in at all. And then there’s Rod Brind’Amour, another multi-time Selke winner who outscored Datsyuk by over 250 points, but who never even seems to have his name come up.
My vote: He’s in. Look, the case against him being a slam dunk is a lot better than you’d expect. But he’s still a Hall-of-Famer.
Prediction: First ballot. Numbers and individual honours are nice, but the hockey world loves Pavel Datsyuk.