by PuckStopsHere on 06/03/12 at 03:45 PM ET
One thing that is obvious to me when looking at my list of currently active Hall of Famers in the Nicklas Lidstrom retirement post is that there is a lack of currently active Hall of Fame defencemen in the NHL today. There is only one currently active Hall of Fame level defencemen likely to play in the league next year in Zdeno Chara. Chris Pronger is also officially still active though he is on the longterm injured list and may never play another hockey game in the NHL. This is a remarkably low number of players.
When we look at a list such as my Hall of Fame list it is possible that it is not truly representative of the picture because a bunch of players are coming along in the pipeline who are soon to meet the standards for Hall of Fame induction. In the NHL today that isn’t the case.
Among older defencemen, the best Hall of Fame candidate who is yet to meet my standards for induction is Sergei Gonchar. He was a top offensive defenceman but never good enough for a Norris Trophy. He is no longer playing at that level but remains a core player in Ottawa. His most likely case for Hall of Fame induction comes from an increase in his career totals. He currently has 748 career points, which likely means he has a way to go to reach that point. I find it hard to suggest any other older defencemen have a serious Hall of Fame case at all.
Among the defencemen currently in their primes Shea Weber and Duncan Keith are the best candidates. Keith has won a Norris Trophy. Weber may win one this year. A projection of their careers probably leads them to Hall of Fame level but they are not there yet. There are several other even younger defencemen who might have Hall of Fame careers but since they are younger this is a more speculative determination.
If we look at these players by birth year we have Nicklas Lidstrom (1970), Scott Niedermayer is retired and Hall of Fame calibre (1973), Chris Pronger (1974), Zdeno Chara (1977). The potential candidates are Sergei Gonchar (1974), Duncan Keith (1983) and Shea Weber (1985). We have a gap where no defencemen of Hall of Fame calibre who was born in the later 1970’s and early 1980’s.
In order to see how unlikely this is we need to have an idea how many Hall of Fame defencemen come along in a normal period of time. It is not too useful to find that the Hockey Hall of Fame claims there are 77 inducted defencemen. It isn’t clear that induction rates have remained constant over time. It isn’t clear when “hockey began” to have a meaningful starting year to figure out a rate of defencemen induction. In the early days players often played multiple positions, so position determinations are a bit arbitrary. In recent times we will undercount the number of Hall of Famers because they have yet to be inducted. A more meaningful statement is that eight defencemen have been inducted in the last ten groups. This seems like a fairly standard rate of induction of defencemen in the past few years. Thus we would expect about 0.8 defencemen per season (or year of birth) to make the Hall of Fame. In six years we would expect 4 or 5 defencemen to make it to the Hall of Fame but no candidates exist in the time between Zdeno Chara and Duncan Keith. So what went wrong?
We are dealing with low numbers of players so statistical noise is a problem. We are looking at a situation that is still in progress, so it may still change but I think enough hockey has been played that we are seeing a meaningful effect.
These players would have hit their NHL primes around the 2004/05 lockout and into the post-lockout years. They didn’t emerge. I think the systematic problem is parity. Very few teams have considered themselves good enough to win without playing a strict defensive system in order to keep the score close. Thus they have forced their defencemen into a system and not allowed them the freedom to develop into stars. Defencemen are held back from the attacking zone and held in defensive shells. Not only is this true in the NHL, it is also becoming more and more common in minor and junior leagues that feed the NHL. If a defenceman never gets a chance to develop into an exceptional player, it won’t happen.
There is a lack of proven Hall of Fame calibre defencemen in hockey today. In fact Zdeno Chara is the only defenceman who is of proven Hall of Fame calibre who is likely to play in the NHL next season. This is because there is a lack of other candidates born in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. That lack of top defencemen in that time frame is a meaningful thing. There is a lack of great defencemen born at this time. I think this is due to a lack of opportunity for defencemen to excel in the modern NHL. The modern defensive schemes do not allow them the freedom to become dominant players as opposed to cogs in the system. I think this is a problem in today’s NHL and I think it can be solved by one or more teams acquiring enough talent to dominate the NHL with it. In the copycat culture of the league other teams will allow their defencemen more freedom. The problem is that the salary cap system does not allow teams to build up a lot of talent that they feel free to rely on it instead of a stifling defensive scheme. This affects defencemen more than any other position because they are key to any defensive scheme. It has cost the league some outstanding defensive careers.
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