With a Hall-of-Fame resume, Tom Barrasso deserves enshrinement

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Tuesday June 6th, 2017

If it’s not quite as difficult for a goalie to get into the Hall of Fame as it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle when we’re talking getting into heaven, then it’s as challenging at least as stuffing in the puck shortside on a burly keeper wedged against the post. 

The Hall has a ridiculous standard for goalies. Let’s put it is this way: the Phil Housley, Clark Gillies, Dino Ciccarelli version of a goaltender has as much chance of enshrinement as that dude who plays half-cocked in your beer league does. 

But that doesn’t mean that there still aren’t gargantuan oversights that make you wonder if there’s any consistency at all. Personally, I always circle back to Tom Barrasso, who might have won a Conn Smythe twenty-five years ago as the Pittsburgh Penguins went back-to-back if Mario Lemieux hadn’t gone to Wayne Gretzky-levels of playoff efficacy. 

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Those early 1990’s Penguins teams were like a lite version of the Oilers of the previous decade. They certainly increased the electricity bill for the upkeep of a lot of scoreboards, and they were rammed to the hilt with Hall of Famers, none of whom were exactly masters of their own end. 

Which isn’t to say that Barrasso was hung out to dry like Grant Fuhr was throughout his Oilers run, but it’s not easy for a goalie who already has major hardware and could have had more, to then win repeat championships and find himself beyond the Hall’s tracking system. 

Barrasso was massive deal in these New England parts when he emerged in 1983-84 just out of high school. Goalies did not do this very often back then and never do it now. The fact that Barrasso did makes you feel, for a second, like he must have been some product of the 1940s, a product of the War years when guys were out of the league because of their overseas duties, thus opening up spots. 

How does a goalie get that good, that young, facing only eighteen-year-olds and younger? You go from there to kicking Ray Bourque slap shots, gloving Mark Messier snappers on the wing and thwarting Mario Lemieux’s breakaway backhand flips from entering your net? What prepares a goalie for that? The wrists shots of a kid who hasn’t even gone to his high school prom yet? 

But there Barrasso was, tending goal for the Buffalo Sabres, a middle-of-the pack team that had featured a serviceable Bob Sauve in net and an aging Gilbert Perreault up front. It was the team’s annual fate to get booted out of the Adams Division playoffs. They played an uptempo game, which was appealing—you liked when your team had a game against the Sabres because you’d see some flash-and-dash that night on TV. They also weren’t shy to what might have seemed like novelty, sticking a high school kid from Massachusetts in the net. He wasn’t even Canadian! This was very odd. But Barrasso, in what is one of the half dozen most confounding goalie tricks of all time, won both the Calder and the Vezina. He was 26-12 from a so-so team with a GAA of 2.84. To have a goals against average under 3.00 in the 1983-84 practically makes you the hockey version of Bob Gibson with his 1.12 ERA in 1968. 

David E. Klutho/Sports Illustrated

Playoff success would elude these Sabres—as they just weren’t very good, apart from a few key positional guys and that Adams Division was stacked with a balanced Bruins team, a Canadiens squad reloading to return to Stanley Cup glory and a top-heavy Nordiques ensemble led by Peter Stastny and Michel Goulet. Here in Massachusetts we couldn’t believe that one of our own was doing this—someone not that much older than you might have been, in the grand scheme of things, if you so much as played peewee hockey. 

But here’s where it gets weird and why I don’t think Barrasso has made the Hall of Fame yet. People will tell you that it’s because he was anything but a media darling and could be a complete jerk to reporters and fans alike. This kind of accounting shouldn’t matter at all and if you’re going to penalize someone’s on-ice play because of how they talked to reporters, then cull the Hall, I say, and kick out all the adulterers and guys who got in punch-ups outside the rink or broke their contracts or what have you. Being nice to Scoops Johnson has absolutely nothing to do with stopping tipped slap shots from the point. 

Barrasso’s greater problem might have been that he was hidden in plain view. Consider his sophomore season, when that 2.84 GAA was lowered to a positively-nutso 2.66. He finished second for the Vezina behind Pelle Lindbergh, with his 3.02 GAA on a much more defensively sound Philadelphia Flyers team. We call this getting hosed. Barrasso should have opened his career with back-to-back Vezinas. But he had a knack for finishing second—he’d so so again in 1987-88, when the much-beloved Fuhr finally got his one-and-only Vezina, and again once he moved on to Pittsburgh in 1992-93. 

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The feeling in Buffalo was that Barrasso had no playoff success, that he was a goalie who couldn’t hack it in the postseason, a fallacy his time in Pittsburgh dispelled. So: What more does anyone wish to see? The career numbers are there, the win totals are there, the hardware is there, but did you ever think of Barrasso as ultra-elite like Patrick Roy or was he akin to a John Vanbiesbrouck from his own era? 

Win a Vezina as a just-out-of-high school prodigy and you’re bound to become the goaltender version of a one-hit wonder. You get typecast as the guy who did some super notable thing and that maybe obscures other things. In 1997-98, Barrasso finished third in Vezina voting and went on to retire with 327 wins—a boatload—and a 3.27 GAA, despite playing in the offensively juiced up 1980s and early 90s. What on earth did this dude say to voters that was that bad? You wonder, sometimes, if it’s a case not so much of hatchets not being buried, as it is of hatchets being dug up. Salt the earth, I say, and focus on what grows in a nice, fertile crease like this. A veritable Hall of Fame harvest, with Barrasso. 

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