Given that hockey possesses such a raw, galvanizing immediacy—there is no better sport to watch in-person—you might think there are less passionate discussions about the game’s history than, say, with baseball, which always has one foot in the batter’s box and another in the days of yore. But you’d be as wrong as a goal judge who touches off his lamp when the puck rings the crossbar. The NHL’s recent list of the 100 greatest players of all-time is ripe fodder, and ripe for raking apart. Too many compilers? Hell, yes, there are too many compilers. Guys here on the back of the legends that surround them, and not actual substance? Omissions to make you think, “there is no way, in any universe, that so and so is not better than so and so”? Check, check, check.
In the spirit of raw, galvanizing debate, here are five players on the list who shouldn’t have sniffed it, and five more deserving.
5. Jonathan Toews
The brickbats might start flying with this one, as Toews is as loved and respected a player as there is in the current NHL. He is also, easily, sans any competition, the most overrated. This does not mean he is not awesome. Because he certainly can be. When it’s money time—that is, when there is the goal you must have, or the goal you must not accede—Toews demands the ice. He simply must be out there. But his offensive game is limited—and in decline—which makes him something of a poor man’s Bob Gainey defensively, with better scoring chops. His value, were are told, is in leadership and intangibles. I love a good faceoff win, but come on—Doug Jarvis and Ken Linseman were also faceoff circle beasts. As for leadership, a lot of that is people saying nice things about you because you’re well-liked. Not a lot of measurables there, and sometimes a lot of over-puffing.
4. Eric Lindros
A player who was a hell of a lot more lore than something more strictly value-related. You talked about Lindros like he was someone out of a Marvel comic or 17th century Germany fairy tales. He was bigger, faster, his backhand once shattered the glass behind a net. Lindros won a Hart trophy as MVP, and placed in the top ten four other times. He would have had an Art Ross as scoring leader, only he tied Jaromir Jagr for points and Jagr won based on having more goals. Lindros never scored fifty goals. He had one 100 point season. He had two in the 90s, then his next best was 79. Dominant play, briefly, while he was right—that is, before he got popped for having his head down one too many times. But he does not belong on this rarified ice.
3. Pavel Datsyuk
A player who might inspire more support than Toews that he must be there, it’s also easy to balk at Datsyuk’s inclusion, once you’re able to separate in-shift dominance from total career performance. For one shift, Datsyuk, on any evening, could be the best player in the world. In the offensive zone, and the defensive. Who many players can we say that about? A dozen? On this his candidacy rests. People are blinded by the dangles, but Datsyuk just didn’t dominate, across a ten, twelve, fifteen-year stretch, like he should have. He finished in the top ten for the Hart four times, despite his mastery of the Selke trophy for best defensive forward and what should have been, for all of his gifts, more offensive production, with only three seasons in the top ten for scoring. 113 points in 157 playoff games also seems more like broth than soup. Not hearty enough.
2. Scott Niedermayer
This one is just wrong. Nice player. Good run. All-timer? Stop. It was easy to fall in love with Niedermayer’s skating ability, but there’s a theme with these guys—the concept was always neater than the reality. Niedermayer won a Norris as best d-man and a Conn Smythe as playoff MVP. He was twice a Norris runner-up, and he absolutely belongs in the Hall of Fame. No doubter. His offensive game was better than his stats indicate, given that he didn’t play in the most scoring-friendly of times, but if hockey had a practice squad, he’d be on it for this 100-man dream team.
You pot more than 700 goals—which only seven players have done—and you’d think there’s no way you don’t belong on this list, but Mike Gartner was never elite. He was very good, and elite only in the way that he remained very good, for a very long time. He scored 50 goals once. He went over the 100 point mark once. There was never a night where an opposition, at the NHL-level, thought, “damn, we are facing Mike Gartner tonight, what are we to do?” He played in the high-flying 1980s, when 100 point seasons were common, and Gartner would basically tally his 35 goals and 80 points every year. He was never higher than a fourth-team All-Star selection, which isn’t even really a thing, and this was a winger, not as a center, which had the highest concentration of great players. He never finished in the top ten for Hart voting. He finished in the top ten for scoring all of once. He is King Compiler.
5. Evgeni Malkin
There is no one on planet earth who thinks Mike Gartner was a better hockey player than Evgeni Malkin, unless you have some serious bias going on. Malkin has led the league in scoring twice, and for sizable chunks of Sidney Crosby’s career as the best player of the last twenty years, Sir Sid has been the second-best player on his own team. Malkin is one of the top fifty players of all-time. His problem is having his head on right consistently, disappearing sometimes, or letting an opponent’s gnat-like approach to shadowing/aggravation get in his head. But there have been decent stretches where Malkin was the best in the world. And he shows up in the postseason, with 36 points in his Conn Smythe year of 2009, and a better than a point-per-game average in the new NHL when hardly anyone does that in the playoffs. A list exists in large part to make people talk. But omissions like this make such lists look fatuous, and can render talk superfluous if there are any more slights this egregious.
4. Ed Belfour
Goalie might be the most important position in sports—it’s goalie, quarterback, or pitcher—and there aren’t a slew of goalies on the list, which might be surprising. Nor are there a slew in the Hall of Fame, and there’s no harder position to get in at. So: goalie standards are very high. But Belfour should be here, comfortably. He won two Vezinas as top goalie, he easily could have had another, he was often in the conversation. He was even in the talk, sometimes, for the Hart. He played in both the high-scoring early nineties and the Dead Puck era, and was always the same guy. He didn’t have the defenses in front of him that Martin Brodeur did, and he wasn’t as good as Patrick Roy, but those were the only two goalies in his era—which was rich in goalies—who stood above him.
3. Michel Goulet
The Rod Carew of hockey in terms of being underappreciated? Look: the 1980s was a decade of mega-wattage star power. Kurri, Gretz, the Boss, Trots, Stevie Y, Mess, Denis Savard, Bourque, Coffey, Super Mario, Dionne. Not hard to get lost in a shadow or two. Goulet was never as good as Nordiques teammate Peter Stastny, but that could be the case while still being plenty good enough. Consider: three first team All-Star selections, two second team selections, four 50-goal seasons, four 100-point campaigns, six seasons in the top-10 in goals. And here’s a stat for you: in 1983-84, Goulet finished third in scoring behind Wayne Gretzky and Paul Coffey. So if the Oilers didn’t exist, Goulet would have been your Art Ross winner. During the 1980s. Crazy but true.
2. Doug Gilmour
The controversial pick, maybe, but there was a time—a two-year period—when Mario Lemieux was near his best, and Doug Gilmour was the best hockey player in the league. He didn’t win a Hart—he came close—but if you watched him, you saw an elite playmaker, plus plus goal scorer, defensive wizard, supple skater, and all-around bull-dog who dominated all three zones, the corners, the slot, the space behind the net. This was when he was on the Leafs, but he had already been huge for the Flames. Under-sized dude with out-sized talent, he even stood out on the 1987 Canada Cup Canadian team that might be the finest hockey squad ever.
1. Dale Hawerchuk
The mini-Gretzky of Winnipeg was a glorious scorer, the league’s second-best passer after the Great One during his NHL time, a 50-goal man, a Hart runner-up—to #99—and a regular recorder of 100 point seasons. As he aged, he still scored. The goals went down a little, but there would be 70-something assists to go along with the 20-something goals. Also, he excelled on that Canada Cup team. So why isn’t he here? Is Winnipeg the NHL’s Siberia, where no one knows what you do because you do it late at night back East? Do omissions like this make you think that they’re a kind of baiting to get people talking? Eh—maybes all around. But there ain’t no tiniest tiny bit of a doubt that Dale Hawerchuk was better than Mike Gartner. Is there?