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Lack Of Elite Defencemen Today

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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Comments

CMo44's avatar

Weber, Suter, Doughty, Karlsson, Chara, Letang, Keith, Pietrangelo, Girardi = all either currently elite or future elite.  There is hardly a vaccum at D when it comes to top-end talent.  The amount of young potential studs on the blueline in the NHL right now is staggering. 

Plus there’s youngsters who are providing more O than D right now like Fowler and Del Zotto, (J.Johnson, too) but the D comes with age and experience.

Posted by CMo44 on 06/03/12 at 04:04 PM ET

redxblack's avatar

Lidstrom wouldn’t have likely qualified as “elite” by your standards until he was in his late 20s/early 30s.

Posted by redxblack from Akron Ohio on 06/03/12 at 04:48 PM ET

PuckStopsHere's avatar

Redxblack

You are correct about Lidstrom.  I wouldn’t have identified him as being elite early in his career.  I would have identified him before he turned 30.  Thirty year olds are born in 1982.  So I think it is far enough into their career that we would clearly have found even a late-bloomer like Lidstrom.

These players are conspicuous by their absence.

Posted by PuckStopsHere on 06/03/12 at 06:59 PM ET

redxblack's avatar

Perhaps because there is NOBODY like Lidstrom! ; )
(he said in the most homerific fanboy voice overcome with emotion about his favorite Red Wing recently retiring)

Posted by redxblack from Akron Ohio on 06/03/12 at 07:22 PM ET

J.J. from Kansas's avatar

Calling it a post-lockout problem is a bit difficult. It seems this problem goes a bit beyond that.

When Scott Stevens retired during the lockout, the only players in the league that were a lock for the HOF at the time were Lidstrom and Leetch.

Bourque, Coffey, and Murphy all retired together in 2001, and all of them were likely Hall locks before the “Dead Puck Era.”

The same could be said about MacInnis and Leetch. Fetisov’s case is more about what he’s done for hockey than the kind of hockey that was played while he was earning his way into the hall. Stevens, Pronger, and Lidstrom are perhaps the only NHL defensemen to earn their way into the Hall of Fame with a great part of their careers coming between 1995 and 2004. Chara fits the description, but the majority of the “work” Chara’s done to get himself to that level has been post-lockout.

The parity argument would make a good one for the trouble the NHL may have pulling out of this supposed funk of not enough surefire Hall-of-Famers playing in the same league at the same time, but I don’t think it works well as the cause of the issue.

Posted by J.J. from Kansas on 06/03/12 at 08:49 PM ET

PuckStopsHere's avatar

JJ

That is false.

When Stevens and MacInnis retired, I had Lidstrom, Leetch and Chris Chelios as active hall of Famers and I had Pronger and Niedermayer coming down the pipeline quickly enough that I had them there by the end of the first post-lockout season.  Thats 5 active players where we now have one in Zdeno Chara.

Posted by PuckStopsHere on 06/03/12 at 10:23 PM ET

J.J. from Kansas's avatar

Chelios is a pretty bad oversight on my part. yikes.

Posted by J.J. from Kansas on 06/03/12 at 10:39 PM ET

PuckStopsHere's avatar

And we have both forgotten Rob Blake

Posted by PuckStopsHere on 06/03/12 at 10:44 PM ET

Avatar

when that age group first became aware of hockey it was offensive and Gretzky and Lemieux were the hero’s.  The talented ones all chose to be forwards since that was the position that was the most glamorous.  saying the hockey world stifled all the talent, is calling everyone coaching and managing hockey teams unoriginal to the point of blindness.  this is more of a “be like Mike” (or Wayne or Mario) phenomena.

Posted by akwingsfan from alaska on 06/03/12 at 11:18 PM ET

Avatar

I’m not convinced parity is the primary cause for the lack of great defenseman of a certain age. Sometimes it’s just luck. The lack of great defensemen born in the late 70s/early 80s does not look like it is going to spill into the mid 80s to early 90s.

Here’s a list of very, very good defenseman born in 1986 or earlier:

Shea Weber (1986), Ryan Suter (1986), Keith Yandle (1986), Alexander Edler (1986), Kris Letang (1987), Drew Doughty (1989), P.K. Subban (1989), Alex Pieterangelo (1990), John Carlson (1990), Victor Hedman (1990), Erik Karlsson (1990), Tyler Myers (1990), Adam Larsson (1992).

Of course, not all those guys will wind up with Hall of Fame careers. Most won’t. But Weber is on track; Doughty, Pieterangelo and Karlsson have shown very early in their careers that they have the skills to get there; and many of the others—even the older ones—still have some potential to take their games another step forward.

Posted by Sven22 from Grand Rapids on 06/05/12 at 04:49 PM ET

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imageThe Puck Stops Here was founded during the 2004/05 lockout as a place to rant about hockey. The original site contains over 1000 posts, some of which were also published on FoxSports.com.

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