The Hockey Hall of Fame will announce its class of 2022 today, the first in two years thanks to the pandemic. It’s a big day for fans like me, who love to argue over this stuff — who made it, who didn’t, who shouldn’t have and why.
But while I’m sure I’ll end up debating the merits of the Sedins and Roberto Luongo and Henrik Zetterberg today, I wanted to go in a different direction for this post. Instead of the Hall of Fame, I want to write about some guys in the Hall of Very Good.
That’s a phrase we break out often around this time of year, and we usually mean it as an insult or at least a way to diminish a player. Someone will make the Hall of Fame case for a Rod Brind’Amour or Guy Carbonneau or Daniel Alfredsson or Kevin Lowe, and someone else will immediately dismiss them with a wave and a “Nah, it’s supposed to be the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Very Good.”
That’s not what today is about. Instead, I want to make a roster of 20 guys who we could probably all agree aren’t Hall of Fame material. I’m not doing guys like Alexander Mogilny or Jeremy Roenick, or even the Chris Osgoods or Pierre Turgeons. All of those guys still have a chance to get in someday. I mean guys who almost certainly won’t, but who still had great careers that are worth recognizing. (In other words, if your favorite player isn’t on here, just assume it’s because I think he’s going to the real HHOF someday instead of yelling about it in the comments.)
Fair warning, this is pretty much going to be a list of guys from the 80s and 90s. Pretty much everyone from the Original Six era who was any good is already in the Hall of Fame and most of the more recent stars could still be getting consideration, so we’ll focus on a window that just happens to line up nicely with my childhood. And for extra fun, even though the real HHOF doesn’t work this way, I’m going to induct each one of these guys with one specific team, just to make sure we still have something to argue about at the end of this.
It’s the Hall of Very Good, only as a celebration. Let’s remember some guys, even if the HHOF committee never will.
C Saku Koivu, Canadiens
In pretty much the ultimate Hall of Very Good achievement, Koivu played 18 years in the league without ever getting a single all-star vote. Instead, he consistently put up 15 to 20 goals and 50+ points every year, while playing a two-way game and serving as Habs captain for longer than anyone since Jean Beliveau. And of course, there was his inspirational return from battling cancer in 2002, one that included one of the loudest ovations in hockey history.
Retire his number, Montreal. Yeah, I know, you want to be one of those special teams that reserves its rafters for Hall of Famers. This guy beat cancer, and every one of your fans loves him. Do it.
RW Tim Kerr, Flyers
In the mid-80s, if you absolutely needed a winger to go out there and score you a goal, you turned to Mike Bossy. But if he wasn’t available, Tim Kerr was usually your next best option.
After going undrafted, Kerr burst onto the scene with the Flyers with a 54-goal season in 1983-84. It was the first of four straight years with 50+, making Kerr one of only 10 guys to ever have that many in a row. (Among the players who never accomplished it: Alexander Ovechkin, Pavel Bure and Mario Lemieux.) Injuries ended the streak when he barely played in 1987-88, but he came back with a 48-goal season the next year and won the Masterton for it.
Taking out the injury year, Kerr had a peak of 272 goals over five straight seasons. We can wonder what Bossy would have done over a full career if he’d stayed healthy, but when we’re having that conversation we may want to wonder it about Kerr as well.
LW Kevin Stevens, Penguins
I get paid to write about hockey, but I’m not sure I can find the words to make you understand how dominant Kevin Stevens was back in the early 90s. He was an absolute wrecking ball, not quite the traditional power forward (because he didn’t fight much) but just an unstoppable force on a Penguins team that was built on finesse. He scored 190 goals in four seasons, including 109 during a two-year run in 1991-92 and 1992-93 that also saw him post 234 points. The devastating injury he suffered in Game 7 against the Islanders derailed his career and his life, and probably cost the Penguins a third straight Cup. But in his prime, few guys had a beast mode like Stevens did.
C Vincent Lecavalier, Lightning
Lecavalier is one of those guys where there were several points in his career that you would have figured he was a slam dunk Hall of Famer, starting with him being drafted at No. 1 in 1998 and highlighted by his 50-goal Rocket Richard season. His production nose-dived shortly after, and he never did end up being the Michael Jordan of hockey, but at his best he was all sorts of fun to watch.
Plus, he had the stones to fight Jarome Iginla in the Stanley Cup Final, which was just badass.
RW Alexei Kovalev, Rangers
Apologies to whoever ends up coaching this team, but we can’t build it without Kovalev. One of the most infuriating talents in league history, you never knew if Kovalev was going to win the game with a beautiful goal or lose it by faking an injury in playoff overtime. This is the guy who once made his coach so mad that he wasn’t allowed to come off the ice for almost half a period, only he thought he was being rewarded. And then scored, because of course he did.
Plus I think enough time has passed that even a diehard Leafs fan can admit that this was funny as hell.
LW Gary Roberts, Flames
Roberts played a decade for the Flames, peaking with a 50-goal season and helping them to the franchise’s only Stanley Cup before neck problems forced him to retire at the age of 30. Then he came back a year later, and it turned out his career wasn’t even halfway done. His comeback lasted 11 more seasons, during which he forged a reputation as a playoff warrior who was too much man. When the game was on the line, Gary Roberts was here to kick butt and chug whey protein smoothies, and you’d better pray he wasn’t all out of smoothies.
C Bernie Nicholls, Kings
Bernie Nicholls had the single greatest offensive season by any player not named Gretzky, Lemieux or Esposito, prove me wrong.
You could make the case, right? His ridiculous 1988-89 season saw him post 70 goals and 150 points, the only guy to hit both plateaus in a season apart from those three legends. You could obviously make the case for guys like Steve Yzerman or Brett Hull or whoever, but that’s the point — those guys are certified hockey legends. Nicholls is mostly the answer to a trivia question, and the holder of one of the most unbreakable records in hockey. But it’s not like he was a bum over the rest of his career, because even if you take out that one outlier season he still topped 1,000 points and 400 goals. And we shouldn’t take out that season, because it was one of the most ludicrous years any player has ever had.
RW Trevor Linden, Canucks
Linden’s career arc is so strange. He debuts as a teenager with 30 goals, and hits that mark again in five of his next seven seasons while leading his team to within a game of the Stanley Cup. Then he turns 26 and plays 11 more seasons without ever hitting the 20-goal mark again. During that span, he gets a knife stuck in his back by the so-called greatest leader of all time, bounces around a few teams to create some all-time “this guy looks super weird in that uniform” images and finally returns to the Canucks to finish his career, which he does in one of the greatest scenes ever.
LW Wendel Clark, Maple Leafs
Look, you knew he was going to be here. I may have written a word or two about him in the past, so I’ll just say this: If you didn’t love Wendel Clark, or at least respect him, or at least fear him, then you didn’t like 1980s/90s NHL hockey.
That’s the greatest fan-made video of all time, and if you just watched it and don’t want to bench press your car right now, you are dead inside.
C Barry Pederson, Bruins
If you know the name, then chances are you remember him as the guy in the middle of the Cam Neely trade — one of the most lopsided moves ever. But here’s the thing — in the years leading up to that move, Pederson was really good. He placed in the top six in scoring in back-to-back years in 1982-83 and 1983-84, scoring 40+ goals both years and peaking with 77 assists in 1983-84, trailing only Gretzky and Paul Coffey. Through his first three full seasons, he had 130 goals and 320 points and played in two All-Star Games and a Canada Cup, plus racked up 32 points in just 17 playoff games in 1983. The guy was a stud. And he was only 23.
So what happened? A bulge in his shoulder turned out to be a rare tumor, and multiple surgeries cost him most of a season. He was never the same player when he returned, and the expectations that came with the trade to Vancouver didn’t help. But it’s not fair that so many fans remember him as an overrated trade piece, when the reality was that he was absolutely on a Hall of Fame path until a tumor sidetracked him.
RW Rick Vaive, Maple Leafs
Speaking of bad Canucks trades, the Leafs didn’t win many deals during the Ballard era, but they robbed Vancouver in 1980, sending them Tiger Williams for a guy who was about to rewrite their record book. Vaive scored 33 in his first full year in Toronto, then rolled off the first three 50-goal seasons in franchise history. His 54 stood as the team record until Auston Matthews broke it this year, and during those three seasons from 1982 to 1984, only Bossy and Gretzky scored more.
Should Vaive be in the Hall of Fame? With under 800 career points, no. But should he have his number retired in Toronto? That might be a discussion worth having.
LW Bob Probert, Red Wings
The GOAT. And sure, maybe he was the greatest at a job that should never have existed. But it did, and Probert did it better than anyone, while also being a damn good player.
My enduring Probert memory was the night in 1992 that he returned to Maple Leaf Gardens. He’d been unable to leave the United States for three years due to legal trouble, and when news broke that the restriction had been lifted and Probert would be in the lineup for the Wings, the buzz in Toronto was unbelievable. We’re talking Gretzky/Mario level “got to see this guy” energy. And when the inevitable came, the roof blew off the place.
Probert had his troubles off the ice, and that’s an understatement. But on the ice, the guy was a rock star.
D Eric Desjardins, Flyers
Desjardins stuck around for 17 years, 11 of them in Philadelphia, and ranged from borderline star to borderline Norris guy the whole time. He never quite crossed that border, but he did get Norris votes in six seasons while consistently cranking out 40 or 50 dead puck-era points for the better part of a decade.
Also, his hat trick in Game 2 back in 1993 was quite possibly the greatest game any defenseman has ever had in Stanley Cup Final history. I’m serious, name one that’s better. I don’t think you can.
D Reed Larson, Red Wings
Some younger fans will ask, “who?” But anyone who’s ever looked up stats for defensemen is nodding their head right now, because Larson shows up everywhere. He’s the most productive defenseman that you might not even know about.
For starters, Larson ranks in the top 25 for goals scored by a defenseman, just ahead of Brad Park, and in the top 30 for points, just ahead of Zdeno Chara. He had six 20-goal seasons, plus seasons of 17, 18 and 19 goals. He was the first American defenseman to ever hit the 200-goal mark, and played for Team USA in the 1981 World Cup.
He never won a Norris, although he did crack the top 10 twice. But if you needed somebody to wind up for a big clapper from the point, back when that was still a thing, there was a time when Larson was about as good as they came.
D Al Iafrate, Capitals
Do you want fun? We’ve got your guy. Do you want end-to-end speed? A blistering slapshot with an old-school wooden stick? Unrestrained metalhead energy? Butted-out darts from intermission? Yes to all of it. You want a full head of hair and the self-awareness to say no to posing for glamour shots in tight jean shorts? Look, no player is perfect, but Al Iafrate was the freaking best.
D Steve Duchesne, Kings
Duchesne was another of his era’s best offensive defensemen and still ranks in the top 20 among pure blueliners in career points. Everyone ahead of him is in the Hall of Fame, except for Gary Suter who will not be on this list because he knows what he did. Also, Duchesne was in the Eric Lindros trade and was once the key piece in a trade for Jari Kurri. Not bad for a kid who didn’t even get drafted.
D Dustin Byfuglien, Jets
Our third pair will be our physical one, and I’m not sure we’ve ever seen a physical force quite like Dustin Byfuglien. Even the (very) short list of bigger players always seemed to stop just short of using their full powers. Not Byfuglien, who would wreck some guy, then take a break to score a few goals, maybe play a shift at forward because why not, and then wait for the first guy to finally get up and wreck him again. He didn’t establish himself as an NHL regular until he was 22 and left the league at 33, but for a while in between, he was an unstoppable combination of hockey skill and dad strength.
D Darius Kasparaitis, Islanders
Did he play on the edge? Yes. But did he ever cross that line and become dirty? Also yes. He was a brutal open-ice hitter who’d also happily punch you in the face after the whistle if he thought he could get away with it, or if he couldn’t but your face just needed a punching anyway. He received one Norris vote and one all-star vote in his entire career, but for 14 years teams wanted this guy on their blue line. His best endorsement: He drove Mario Lemieux so crazy that the Penguins had to go out and trade for him.
Andy Moog, Oilers
I’m including Moog for a few reasons. First, he gives us a legitimate custody battle between Boston and Edmonton fans, which is always fun. I went with the Oilers, where he played an extra year and won three Cups as a (mostly) backup, but Bruins fans could pull out a Jennings and a year as a Vezina finalist.
But more importantly, Moog was a throwback to the era of tiny goalies who had to actually move their arms and legs to stop shots. At just 5-foot-8, we’ll never see another goalie like him. But back then, he stuck around long enough to rack up 372 career wins, plus 68 more in the playoffs. Also, there was this:
Arturs Irbe, Sharks
Another little guy, and another custody battle, as Hurricanes fans will surely claim him too. But there’s something to be said for being the heroic goalie on a bad expansion team that eventually becomes a good-ish expansion team. And if you do it wearing the cushions from the basement sofa at your parents’ house, all the better. That was Irbe, a 10th-round pick who was never a superstar but was almost always dependable, earning Vezina votes in four seasons and finishing as high as fifth. He was in net for two of the most remarkable playoff runs of his era: the Sharks’ upset of the Wings in 1994 and the Hurricanes’ push to the conference final in 2002. You can list him as 5-foot-8 all you want, every fan of that era knows the guy was four feet tall at most.
So, that’s my team, the inaugural class of the DGB Hall of Very Good. But what about yours? Feel free to nominate a few HOVG guys of your own down in the comments.
(And to the real HHOF’s selection committee, please don’t embarrass me by picking one of these guys today.)
(Photo of Saku Koivu being honored by the Canadiens in 2014: Francois Lacasse / NHLI via Getty Images)