In many sports – particularly baseball – it seems like just about any action and tactic can be chronicled with a hard number statistic. Sure, you cannot put a number on chemistry, desire, heart and – let’s face it – the greed that can sometimes be the driving force behind sporting success, but it seems like numbers can explain a huge portion of what happens in games.
Hockey stats lag behind and for good reason: there are some things that are simply difficult to measure without just using your eyes and a fair share of subjectivity. Sure, you can look at a faceoff won or a goal averted as a “success” for a defensive forward, but that doesn’t always tell the whole story. Neither does a plus/minus or Corsi number.
This lack of data/benchmarks for great work by defensive forwards is obvious in everything from Selke Trophy voting and Hall of Fame inductions. The fantastic number-crunching blog Behind the Net took a look at the serious lack of shutdown forwards in the Hockey Hall of Fame beyond Bob Gainey and Bob Pulford and provides two compelling examples of worthy inductees.
Since the 1980s, I’d argue that there’s a reluctance to recognize the defensive forward, an important player lost in the astronomical offensive numbers we saw three decades ago, rarely to be recognized even when the defensive game re-emerged in the mid-90s. Sure, if there comes a player that joins point-per-game offense with relatively good defense, he enters the conversation, and when Selanne’s opportunity comes around his average defense will be sufficient. But what about those defensive forwards?
Case in point is a player that entered the league in Gainey’s waning years, and survived the 1980s and early 90s with his elite defensive reputation intact. Guy Carbonneau toiled over 19 NHL seasons, winning 3 Selkes and 3 Stanley Cups, all the while carrying the label of the league’s best defensive forward. Beyond that, he did something incredibly well that Bob Gainey rarely ever did: win faceoffs. In the process, Carbonneau played 1,318 games, scoring 260 goals, 403 assists, and 663 points along with a career +/- of +186.
Another more-recent example is a player currently without a job, Jere Lehtinen. Also the recipient of 3 Selkes and a Stanley Cup, Lehtinen has had a more prolific scoring career than Gainey or Carbonneau, but this was certainly not to the detriment of his defensive game. For sure, if you were to ask 100 hockey experts on the best defensive players of the period 1995-2010, Lehtinen would enter the conversation for almost every one. With 875 games played, 243 goals, 271 goals, 514 points, and a career +176, who could argue? He only had one season where he finished with a minus (Gainey had two, and Carbonneau four) despite playing on a number of suspect Dallas teams. He and Modano were constants on teams that boasted some of the most incredible goaltending statistics in NHL history, including Ed Belfour’s 1997-98 and 1998-99 and Marty Turco’s 2002-03 and 2003-04. Yet it is unlikely that Lehtinen will get his due, much like Carbonneau sees each year come and go without a chance to join his Montreal brethren in the hallowed Hall.
In a time when statistical analysts are bringing us ever closer to defensive player value, it’s time to remember that those Red Wings, those Devils, those Penguins, didn’t get there without Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby, Jay Pandolfo, John Madden, Jordan Staal, etc. The defensive forward is still important, still integral to regular season success, playoff hockey, and the Silver of all Silvers. I’m not saying enshrine Michael Peca on principle, but I do believe that each generation boasts at least one defensive forward that deserves enshrinement along with the multitudes of point-per-gamers nominated from year-to-year by our hockey writers and dignitaries.
Both Carbonneau and Lehtinen seem like perfectly reasonable selections for the Hall of Fame, at least when you compare their impact on the game in relation to good-but-not-quite-elite inductees such as this year’s selection Dino Ciccarelli.
I think it comes down to a lack of education and data, though. Simply put, it’s difficult to know which forwards make a big impact beyond looking at team-based statistics such as plus/minus. If there were easier (or at least more prevalent) ways to measure how useful a forward is defensively, it would be easier for everyone to judge these players.
This is why the movement for deeper statistical analysis among bloggers (and the occasional mainstream writer) is such a great thing. Some of the number crunching can make you a little dizzy, but with time I think that the blogosphere and writers in general will develop stats that are both simple and sophisticated.
Then maybe we can finally give the New Age Gaineys their deserved recognition.