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To Hall of Fame or not to Hall of Fame?

Sunday 12/31/23

A player being in the Hall of Fame--any of them--or not being in the Hall of Fame can come down to things far more arbitrary than I believe most people are ever aware.

You could always argue that certain milestones that all but guarantee inclusion are arbitrary--3000 hits in baseball, for instance--but I'm talking about the slightest tweaks in numbers--not even the addition of numbers in some cases--being what gets the job done.

I've mentioned Tim Kerr before. I think Tim Kerr is absolutely a Hall of Famer. He was a scoring machine from the slot and one of the greatest power play men in NHL history. Kerr scored fifty goals four times. He didn't just barely get to fifty either--he notched totals of 54, 54, 58, and 58 goals in four consecutive years.

I don't care what era you played in or that this was the 1980s--that's impressive.

Kerr was hurt the next year, then came back in what was the 1988-89 season to play 69 games--so he missed 11--and score 48 goals.

48 goals in 69 games? Impressive again. Obviously, 48 isn't 50, though. If Kerr had five fifty goal seasons, he'd be in the Hall of Fame, I think. That would be too much to overlook. If you just took two goals off of another year, so that he went 54, 52, 58, and 58, and popped them on top of that 48 goal total in 1988-89, he's in. Same amount of goals, ever-so-slight redistribution.

Kerr averaged over a point per game in his career. Yes, that was a shortened career--he was oft-injured. He played at a time, in a part of the ice, where you tended to get injured. In 81 career playoff games--so, basically a season's worth--he had 41 goals. Again, impressive.

I've also talked about Bruce Sutter, who had to do some finagling to give himself a chance to get into the Hall of Fame. I think Bruce Sutter is a Hall of Famer regardless, but I also know he would not be--he just wouldn't have gotten in--were it not for what occurred at the end of his career, when he had nothing left.

Bruce Sutter was a top-level closer--back when closers gave you innings, too--from 1977 to 1984, with one bad year, that being 1983. He was great in 1984, but that year gets a bit dinged up on the resume because that was the year of the Ryne Sandberg Game.

Then he goes to the Braves and he's bad in 1985 and 1986. At that point, he had 286 career saves. He misses all of 1987, and comes back in 1988, and he's worse than ever. Has a 4.76 ERA. But he manages to get 14 saves, giving him exactly 300 for his career, which then ended.

He is not in the Hall of Fame with 299 saves. I am convinced of this. But you never see this brought up. I don't think anyone knows it.

I have another hockey example. Mike Liut: Should be a Hall of Famer. The 1980s weren't a great time to be a goalie. Outside of the Canadiens, the Capitols, the Flyers sometimes, and the Bruins sometimes, there wasn't a lot of defense being played. If you were a goalie who posted a GAA of 3.30 and a save percentage of .900, you were a hold-down-the-fort star.

The St. Louis Blues were a .500 team in 1979-80 and Liut had a nice year, but then they went 45-18-17 in 1980-81. This was the season that Gretzky set the single-season scoring mark with 164 points, before he crushes his own mark with 212 the following campaign. People didn't really know what to make of Gretzky, especially the old-timers. There was the sense that he was faddish, that the numbers were a fluke, that they'd go down and return to "normal." That was wrong.

Liut got a lot of credit for the Blues' regular season success (they ended up getting bounced in the second round of the playoffs by a not very good Rangers team that was then mangled by the Islanders), and 1980-81 was the season of Gretzky and Liut. They became the storylines after Gretzky heated up after what, for him, was a slow start.

Gretzky won the Hart as MVP, with Liut finishing second, but he didn't win it by a lot: Gretzky got 242 votes to Liut's 237. Liut did win the Pearson, though, which is basically the MVP as voted by the players, over Gretzky. Liut was also the first team All-Star for the goalie position. But keep this in mind: the Vezina trophy didn't exist in 1980-81 as it does now. Back then, it was given out to the team with the lowest goals against figure, rather than to whom was deemed the best goalie. The team goalies got it. That version of the Vezina was replaced by the Jennings trophy.

The "new" Vezina went into effect the next season, when Billy Smith won. Liut surely would have won the Vezina as we now think of it in 1980-81. There's not much, if any, doubt about that.

Liut was good enough that he could turn your team or your franchise around. In Hartford, with the Whalers--and they were one of the weaker franchises going at that point--he nabbed a second team postseason All-Star nod and finished third in the Hart voting. So this was a goalie who made ripples in MVP discussions. Then in his thirty-four season, he led the league in GAA.

Liut may get into the Hall of Fame someday. He was a better goalie than Mike Vernon--someone I don't have a problem with being in, though many do--and Tom Barrasso, who I argued for. Surly Canadians still tend to blame Liut for the 8-1 pasting the Soviets gave Team Canada in the 1981 Canada Cup, but that's a scapegoating kind of deal more than anything else. My larger point isn't that Liut would be all set--he would be--if he won that Hart over Gretzky--but more that if the Vezina as we know it existed one year earlier, that he'd be in right now. He wouldn't need both--the second one, which is "less" than the first would do it.

But see what makes one a Hall of Famer and what doesn't, sometimes?

In Kerr's case, it's the redistribution of two measly goals; in Sutter's case, it's 14 meaningless saves when he wasn't any good anymore; and in Liut's case, it's about the timing of a trophy being off by a year.

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