Wednesday November 18th, 2009

With Brett Hull, Brian Leetch, Luc Robitaille and Steve Yzerman inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame last week, it's time to talk about next year.

Now, there are only two genuine contenders among next year's newly eligible class (sorry, Barnaby). Joe Nieuwendyk has undeniable credentials. In 20 seasons, he scored 564 goals and 1126 points, won a Calder Trophy in 1988, a Conn Smythe in 1999, Olympic gold in 2002 and King Clancy leadership trophy as captain of the Flames in 1995. He won three Stanley Cups with three different teams, and was one of the best faceoff guys to ever enter the circle. He seems to be a no-brainer.

Eric Lindros, on the other hand, will spark some fascinating debate. Though his talent was obvious (1.14 points per game, 15th all-time among players with at least 10 seasons), the big-bodied winger was beset by injuries too often, and as a result, his career was not as long or illustrious as many believe it could -- or even should -- have been. His battle with concussions is well-documented, and probably much worse in reality than anybody knows. The question, then, becomes: Can you deny a player, who was among the very best in the league when healthy, a place in the Hall because of factors that were largely out of his control?

Now, there are plenty of other issues -- including but not limited to his refusal to play for the teams that drafted him (Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and then the Quebec Nordiques) and the internal disputes that turned public and ugly, particularly with Flyers GM Bobby Clarke, but as a player, he was feared by opponents and loved by fans. His time to make the Hall will come; whether it will be next year, however, is very much a question.

So given that the Hall of Fame welcomes at most four players into the club each year, this could open the door for some who haven't yet made it into Toronto. Names like Doug Gilmour, Pavel Bure, Dave Andreychuk, Dino Ciccarelli, Adam Oates, Phil Housley, Guy Carbonneau, Mike Vernon and Rogie Vachon could come up in discussion, and all have their cases. But of those still waiting to get the call, here are the five most deserving.

Venerable GMs like Hall of Famer Lou Lamoriello often liken their teams to orchestras. Everybody plays their part, and only when every instrument is there does the music really sing. So why does the Hall disproportionately lavish honor on the so-called first violinists? Where's the appreciation for the viola players, the bassoonists? Carbonneau, like Hall of Famer Bob Gainey, was among the best defensive forwards to play the game. A three-time Selke Trophy-winner (and two-time runner-up) who won three Stanley Cups and captained the Canadiens for five seasons, he wasn't exactly an offensive liability, either. His 663 career points were more than Gainey's 501. Carbonneau was the best at what he did for the better part of the '80s. If the Hall wants to recognize the best players and not just the best scorers, Carbonneau deserves a long discussion.

Eligible since 2006, the Russian Rocket is now the only player with five 50-goal seasons not enshrined in Toronto. Though his career was interrupted and ultimately derailed by injury, he was the most exciting and fearsome scorer in the league during his peak years (1992-2001). For those that would call him a one-dimensional player, perhaps it's better to think of him as a multi-dimensional scorer. And while he never did win a Cup, he got close; lifting an otherwise middling Vancouver Canucks team to a finals Game 7 against the Rangers in 1994. His career was short (12 seasons), but for sure, very sweet.

With 608 career goals and 1,200 points, Ciccarelli is probably the best hockey player you've barely or maybe even never heard of. At 5' 10" and 185 pounds, he never backed down from players twice his size, and he took the abuse that came with standing tall around the crease. Despite his physical game, he was remarkably durable and always a consistent scoring threat, capitalizing on so-called garbage goals. As gritty off the ice as he was on it (he went to jail for a day in 1988 for assaulting Luke Richardson of the Maple Leafs during a game), Ciccarelli hasn't got the most pristine reputation. While some people argue that such things shouldn't count for anything when it comes time to vote, in reality, they probably do.

Best known as half of a duo with Brett Hull in the potent Blues offense of the early '90s, Oates had the misfortune of being overshadowed by his more illustrious partner. He was also regarded as the league's second best playmaker . . . behind Wayne Gretzky. Still, Hull and Oates were a huge hit in St. Louis even though they only played together for two-and-a-half years. Oates went on to become a legend in Boston, where he delivered career-highs of 45 goals and 97 assists in 1992-93, most of his feeds to players not named Cam Neely, who was injured for much of the season. The following season, Oates fueled Neely's 50 goals in only 49 games. But let's face it: being a distributor is nowhere near as glamorous as being the finisher. Still, Oates's career 1.06 points per game average over 1,337 matches in 19 seasons is impressive and he deserves to be recognized.

GMs instinctively look at playoff numbers to see what a player can do when it matters most. Gilmour was one who came through when everything was on the line. Nicknamed "Killer" for his intensity, he ranked 13th all-time in game-winning postseason goals and averaged more points per game in the playoffs (1.03) than he did during the regular season (.96). That's not to say he was unproductive as an undersized pivot for seven NHL clubs. Over 20 seasons, Gilmour amassed 1,414 points, 17th all-time, and won a Stanley Cup with Calgary in 1989. He set a Maple Leafs franchise record with 127 points in 1992-93 -- the same same season that won the Selke Trophy as the league's best defensive forward. Now that's impressive.

Full disclosure: My esteemed colleague Michael Farber sits on the Hall of Fame selection committee, but takes the vow of silence on this subject more seriously than Buddhist monk. So this column is in no way, shape or form based on inside information. Not to say I haven't tried to get it out of him.

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