This year belongs to Lindros. Next year belongs to Selanne. Which players not yet ready to retire have the best chances to be first-ballot Hall of Famers?
Few hockey topics spark debate better than Hall of Fame inductions. Eric Lindros, he of the dominant yet injury-shortened career, was a popular barroom discussion subject ever since he became Hall eligible in 2010. As of Monday, ‘The Big E’ is enshrined. The discussion is over. Next season, we’ll see Teemu Selanne earn a slam-dunk Hall nod, and Marty Brodeur the year after that.
Time for a new discussion. Which current NHLers have the best chances at first-ballot Hall treatment once they bid the game farewell?
1. JAROMIR JAGR
Piece of cake. Jagr has the best odds at having his three-year eligibility wait waived since Wayne Gretzky in 1999. Few players in history have an accomplishment list as phonebook-thick as Jagr’s. He’s third all-time among NHLers in goals with 750 and points with 1,874. He needs just 14 more points to pass Mark Messier for second. Jagr ranks sixth in assists with 1,124 and in games with 1,644. He has five scoring titles, a Hart Trophy as League MVP, was voted MVP by the players three times and is an eight-time first-team All-Star. He has two Stanley Cups and a 1998 Nagano Olympics gold medal. On top of all that, he’s accomplishing feats in his mid 40s no player has ever done, albeit Gordie Howe did so in his 50s.
What’s especially remarkable about Jagr, of course, is he spent three seasons from 2008-09 to 2010-11 playing for Avangard Omsk in the KHL. His records would be even more amazing had he padded his stats with three extra NHL years. Regardless, he’s among the most talented and accomplished players in hockey history, blessed with dazzling hands, a powerful build and unrivalled work ethic off the ice.
2. ALEX OVECHKIN
‘Ovie’ just churns out goal-scoring crown after goal-scoring crown. Despite not playing in the Live Puck glory days of the 1980s, he lights the lamp almost as well as Wayne Gretzky or Mike Bossy did. Ovechkin joins those two as the only NHLers with seven 50-goal campaigns and needs two more to match them. He’s led the league in goals six times, he’s a three-time MVP, and he’s an eight-time first-team all-star. Ovie is among the most decorated snipers who ever lived…already. He’s still just 31. He’s nowhere near finished filling the net. He’s already a surefire Hall of Famer.
3. SIDNEY CROSBY
Jagr and Ovie get the nod above ‘Sid the Kid’ based on sheer volume of accolades, but Crosby will likely finish his career held in higher regard. He’s the best player of the past 15 years, a two-time MVP, a two-time scoring champ, a two-time Stanley Cup champ, a Conn Smythe winner as playoff MVP and a two-time Olympic gold medallist, scoring the game-winning goal in both tournaments. Crosby’s 1.33 points per game rank him fifth all-time behind only Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Bossy and Bobby Orr. Crosby’s counting stats likely won’t be eye-poppingly elite by the time he retires since concussion problems robbed him of some prime years, but he’s a borderline top-10 player of all-time.
4. PAVEL DATSYUK
‘The Magic Man,’ now toiling in the KHL as he finishes out his career, was arguably the guy other players respected the most as an opponent during his NHL tenure. Datsyuk is one of the best stickhandlers of all-time and had many prolific offensive seasons as a result, but his two-way play made him truly special. He’s one of the best defensive forwards ever, a three-time Selke Trophy winner. Datsyuk won a Stanley Cup with Detroit in 2008, too. A lack of top-drawer individual awards is the only strike on his record, but Datsyuk was such a phenomenal all-around player that he should get his Hall call in no time.
5. JOE THORNTON
‘Jumbo’ still awaits that first Stanley Cup, but he’s quietly done a heck of a lot while waiting. He hits a couple key hall benchmarks as a one-time Hart and Art Ross winner, both captured in 2005-06, the year the Boston Bruins infamously dealt him to the San Jose Sharks for Wayne Primeau, Marco Sturm and Brad Stuart. Thornton is his generation’s best pure playmaker. He’s the only active NHLer with two 90-assist seasons, and no one else has hit that mark in the past 20 years. Thornton’s 973 assists already rank him 13th in NHL history. Thornton has toiled during some of hockey’s lowest-scoring years, which makes that number all the more impressive. If we apply hockey-reference.com’s era-adjustments, Thornton ranks fifth all-time in assists and would have a decent chance to finish his career second behind only Gretzky.
ALSO KNOCKING ON THE HALL’S DOOR…
Jarome Iginla – A 600-goal man with multiple Olympic gold medals. He’s a no-brainer.
Marian Hossa – Hossa hits the lower Hall benchmarks with 500 goals and well north of 1,000 points. Not a truly dominant player, but his two-way savvy and Cups should make him worthy.
Duncan Keith – Keith would have a sneaky Hall resume even if he retired today: two Norrises, a Conn Smythe, three Cups and two gold medals. A true winner.
Zdeno Chara – Checks off the Norris and Cup boxes. Chara also spent many years on the shortlist of the game’s top shutdown defensemen. He’s still as feared as any man in the NHL.
Henrik Lundqvist – Hank has spent almost his entire career as one of the five best goalies in the game. That sustained dominance alone makes him a probable Hall of Famer. A Vezina and Olympic gold help his case, too.
Patrick Kane – Kane may be labelled America’s best all-time player by the time he’s finished. Just added an Art Ross and Hart to a file that included a Calder, Conn Smythe and three Cups.
Roberto Luongo – ‘Bobby Lu’ isn’t quite a sure thing since he’s never captured a major individual award and has no Cups. He was consistently excellent and will end his career with elite counting stats, though.
Evgeni Malkin – Malkin misses enough games every year that he’s somehow under the radar in Hall talks these days. He has two scoring crowns, an MVP, a Conn Smythe and two Cups. Malkin’s 1.18 points per game place him 14th all-time.
Marc-Andre Fleury – Fleury has eight more wins than 2016 inductee Rogie Vachon. Fleury’s just 31, too. By the time his career ends he should be top three in victories. Maybe even top two.
Jonathan Toews – A consummate winner and elite defensive forward with Chicago’s modern dynasty. Also arguably the most revered captain of his generation. Patrice Bergeron has a Hall case for similar reasons to Toews.
Daniel & Henrik Sedin – Not locks but certainly in the discussion. Each twin has a scoring title, Henrik an MVP, and each will finish his career a 1,000-point scorer despite playing through Dead Puck years. For me, the Sedins are more ‘Hall of Very Good,’ but they’re close.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to thn.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin