by PuckStopsHere on 06/29/09 at 03:12 AM ET
I am comparing them to my Hall of Fame standards using the questions Bill James asks about potential baseball Hall of Famers. I think this is an insightful group of questions that quickly hits at the heart of what makes a player a Hall of Famer
1. Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in baseball
No. I cannot make any reasonable argument that people ever seriously called Brian Leetch the best player in hockey.
2. Was he the best player on his team?
For the majority of his career Leetch was the best player on the Rangers. This run was interrupted in the early 90’s when Mark Messier came to town, but as Messier aged Leetch regained this position and held it into the early 2000’s
3. Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?
Yes. For a time Leetch was the best defenceman in hockey. This is shown by his two Norris Trophies that he won in 1992 and 1997. He had a significant run when he was among the top defencemen in hockey. During much of the 90’s there was debate about who the best defenceman in hockey was - with Ray Bourque, Paul Coffey, Chris Chelios and Scott Stevens as other candidates - some supported Leetch for many years in that time period and others did not. Leetch was the top defenceman in the game during some of this time period.
4. Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?
Leetch won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1994 as the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup. That was his most significant playoff experience. The only other time the Rangers made it to the semi-finals was 1997. Leetch was a significant contributor on many Ranger playoff teams, despite the lack of many successful years. He scored more than a point per game in his playoff career as a defenceman (97 points in 95 games) and topped out at 34 points in his Smythe year.
5. Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?
Leetch finished his final NHL season just after he turned 38. It was an injury plagued season with the Boston Bruins. His last successful season came two years earlier before the lockout. Having a successful year at age 36 probably qualifies him as a yes for this question, but several of his contemporaries lasted quite a bit longer.
6. Is he the very best player in baseball history who is not in the Hall of Fame?
With Yzerman and Hull already inducted this year, Leetch becomes the best player in history who is eligible.
7. Are most players who have comparable career statistics in the Hall of Fame?
He is a defenceman and as such it is harder to compare his numbers with others (as compared to forwards). His 1028 career points places him seventh all time among defencemen (Ray Bourque, Paul Coffey, Al MacInnis, Phil Housley, Larry Murphy and Denis Potvin are ahead of him). Of that group, only Housley is not in the Hall of Fame. So yes most players with comparable statistics are in the Hall.
8. Do the player’s numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?
His offensive numbers clearly do meet Hall standards.
9. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?
At times Leetch was criticized for his defensive play, despite being a two time Norris Trophy winner. While he wasn’t bad defensively, there clearly were better defensive players in the league. Couple that with the fact that Leetch’s prime was during the highest scoring era in the history of the NHL and the answer to this question must be a yes.
10. Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame but not in?
Yes. I think it is clear Leetch is the best eligible defenceman.
11. How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?
While a Norris Trophy winner must be on the radar screen for Hart Trophy voters, Leetch never seriously was considered for MVP in his career. Part of this is a bias against defencemen winning the award and part of it is his perceived lack of defensive skills. Leetch was the playoff MVP in 1994.
12. How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most of the other players who played in this many go into the Hall of Fame?
Leetch appeared in nine NHL All Star Games. They were all deserved. In his rookie year he also posted All Star numbers but was not selected to the team so he could have had 10 selections. Players with this many All Star Games almost certainly make the Hall of Fame.
13. If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?
Leetch was the best player on the New York Rangers when they won the 1994 Stanley Cup. Clearly that makes this answer a yes.
14. What impact did the player have on baseball history? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way?
Leetch’s biggest impact was as the Conn Smythe winner when the New York Rangers won their first Stanley Cup in over 50 years. In New York circles he will go down as a legend for that. He was also a key figure in the success of the US Hockey program in the 1990’s (their biggest sustained success to date) and as such has helped grow hockey in the US markets.
15. Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?
Leetch was a good teammate and a positive guy to have in the clubhouse. The answer to this question is a yes. This is shown in part by his 2007 Lester Patrick Trophy win for services to hockey in the US.
Leetch is not as good a Hall of Fame candidate as Steve Yzerman or Brett Hull in that there is no case that he was ever the best player in the league. However, he was best defencemen in the game for a while and has two Norris Trophies, a Conn Smythe and a Calder Trophy to show for his NHL run. He is one of the highest scoring defencemen ever. That makes him a Hall of Famer.
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