Thursday, November 14, 2019

Six more active players who’ll make for tricky Hall of Fame debates someday

It’s Hall of Fame Induction weekend, one of my favorite times on the hockey calendar. I love the HHOF, partly because of the history and reverence and celebration of the game’s history. But mostly, because it gives me an excuse to do one of my very favorite things: Argue with strangers about questions that don’t actually have a correct answer.

Hey you, do you feel like arguing? No? Wrong! Of course you do, you dummy. See, it’s fun. We’re having fun right now.

Hall of Fame debates are great fun when they involve the players who are up for induction, or even the ones who are about to be honored. (Guy Carbonneau? Really? OK, as long as we’re sure.) But I’ve never been good at waiting around for an argument to be fully formed, so I also like to occasionally take a swing at some of the active players who’ve been around long enough to establish a career trajectory that may or may not be tracking toward the sport’s ultimate honor.

We did this earlier in the year, when we looked at names like Phil Kessel, Shea Weber and Marc-Andre Fleury. As part of the discussion that followed, plenty of other names were thrown out as equally worthy of consideration. So today, let’s take a look at six more names that are trending toward a tough Hall of Fame call, and where I think they’ll end up.

Brent Burns

Why it’s a tough one: He’s got some pretty decent numbers for a defenseman, although he racked up at least some of them as a forward. He was good in his own end, but probably not great. He was among the very best in the league in his prime, but his prime didn’t kick in until he was almost 30. Also, the beard is either a major plus or a dealbreaker depending on how it looks on any given day.

The case for: Let’s start with the Norris Trophy. Burns has one, from 2017, and the list of players who’ve won the award is almost entirely HHOF guys. And it’s not like he just had one crazy outlier award year – the technical term for that is “a Theodore” – and then went back to being just OK. He’s been a finalist two other times and a postseason all-star three times in all. If your first question for a Hall of Fame candidate is “Were you ever in the conversation for being the best at your position?” Burns is a definite yes.

Beyond that, he’s the leading scorer among defensemen in the cap era, and we all know that offense sells when it comes to the Hall of Fame.

The case against: Those three Norris-caliber seasons all came within a four-year period, so while his peak is high it may not stretch for as long as you’d like. He could extend that this year, and he’s off to a decent start, so we’ll wait and see.

Moreover, he’s an offensive defenseman whose offensive numbers are in the ballpark of the Hall, but only just. If he retired today, a) that would be weird timing, and b) he’d still be 150-200 points behind modern guys like Sergei Zubov, Rob Blake and Scott Niedermayer. That’s fine – he’s got time to bank those points. But he’s not there yet.

Worth remembering: Burns will be remembered as one of the most entertaining characters of his era, which won’t hurt his cause. (It won’t hurt, right? Please tell me we’re not going to hold the occasional smile or joke or naked photoshoot against him.)

Should he get in? I think he’s on track with another Norris-caliber season or two, or with three or four good-but-not-great years to pad his numbers. So at this point, it may be a race against Father Time.

Will he get in? I’d say he needs about 750 points from the blueline to feel like a safe pick, and he’s on pace to get to that mark and maybe even blow by it. But he turns 35 this year, so injury or a major drop in production loom. If I had to bet, I’d say he gets in.

Ilya Kovalchuk

Why it’s a tough one: Because first, based on recent news we may be stretching the definition of “active” here. And more importantly in the big picture, as we’re so often reminded, it’s the Hockey Hall of Fame, not the NHL Hall of Fame. Except that in the era where European players have free access to come over to North America for their pro careers, it’s pretty much been the NHL Hall of Fame.

The case for: He was one of the best offensive wingers in the NHL for over a decade, racking up six straight 40-goal seasons in an era where those were really hard to come by. He won a Richard and had two All-Star nods that came eight years apart and three other years in the top three. So if you’re looking for a guy who was in the “best at his position” conversation, he passes the test. And through 2013, he was easily on pace to hit the major offensive milestones you need for a Hall career.

The case against: Kovalchuk’s departure for the KHL complicates things, because it means his NHL numbers won’t end up where they’d typically need to be. Based on his limited production since his comeback, it’s fair to say that he won’t get to 500 goals or 1,000 points even in the unlikely event he gets another NHL shot. You can take his KHL numbers into account, and you should, because again it’s the Hockey Hall. But how? What’s the conversion rate? It adds a layer of complexity that some voters won’t want to bother wading through for a one-dimensional goal scorer.

Worth remembering: The Hall will have to wrestle with the KHL question with Jaromir Jagr and Pavel Datsyuk before Kovalchuk comes up for a vote. Both of those guys would get in on their NHL years alone, but acknowledging the KHL on Hall of Fame resumes might crack the door ever so slightly for Kovalchuk.

Should he get in? When he left the NHL in 2013, he already had comparable numbers to guys like Pavel Bure and Cam Neely, so you could argue that if he’s blown out his knee instead of just taken a better job somewhere else, he’d be a cinch. I’d be on the fence if I had a vote, but I think I might lean toward yes because I’m more of a high-peak guy than a longevity one.

Will he get in? I don’t think he does. He made his name in a market that doesn’t exist anymore, left the league in a way that made him some enemies and hasn’t done much in a comeback that now seems to be over. Who’s going to stand up in the room on selection day and pound the table for him?

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