Martin St-Louis’ induction into the Hall of Fame Monday night was a victory for the nobodies. He was never drafted. Generously listed as 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds, he seemed even smaller in the Dead Puck Era, when size trumped speed in a clutch-and-grab universe. He didn’t receive a proper NHL opportunity until the Tampa Bay Lightning scooped him up in the summer of 2000 when he was 25, after the Calgary Flames tossed him away.
Now he enters the Hall with an MVP, Stanley Cup, two scoring titles, 1,033 points, three Lady Byng Trophies and an Olympic gold medal. He didn’t eke into the club. He was a slam-dunk selection, quietly one of the more decorated players of his generation. St-Louis found a way to shine when the hockey world seemed to conspire against him. He opened our eyes to the idea there were other neglected talents out there who simply needed chances to prove themselves in bigger roles.
Who among the NHL’s active player crop has potential to become the next St-Louis? By next St-Louis, I mean undrafted player who blooms late and forges a Hall of Fame career. The likes of Mark Giordano and Mats Zuccarello are great success stories but too far along in their careers to approach Hall-worthy status. Which recently discovered undrafted players have the potential to embark on St-Louis-esque paths, though?
This alphabetical list of candidates includes someone from the very team that discovered St-Louis. Note the exclusion of goaltenders such as Sergei Bobrovsky and Antti Raanta, however. The position is so fickle that it’s not as far-fetched for teams to connect on Hail-Mary signings of undrafted star goalies. Just ask Ed Belfour.
The St-Louis comparisons are inescapable for Gourde. He has a similarly miniature build, plays for the Lightning and filled the net as an amateur. Gourde did it in major junior, whereas St-Louis did so at the NCAA Div. I level with Vermont. Like St-Louis, Gourde got his first real NHL opportunity in his age-25 season. He scored 25 goals and finished fifth in Calder Trophy voting. As a sophomore, he’s averaging a point per game and playing top-six minutes. The Lightning just re-signed Gourde for six years at a $5.17-million cap hit, so they clearly intend to keep him in a prominent role. Yanni Gourde, Hall of Famer? If you laugh, you’re committing the same sin as the people who doubted St-Louis. That’s the whole point of this list. Gourde is a long shot but has already spent his young career defying expectations, so maybe we should reconsider doubting the guy.
Krug graduated from the USHL as one of its smallest blueliners during a time when the hockey world hadn’t yet awakened to the idea size doesn’t matter as much as it used to. He had to spend several seasons turning heads at Michigan State in the college ranks before the Boston Bruins took a chance on him in 2012 after he was named a Hobey Baker finalist. Krug proved a quick study at the NHL level, sniping four playoff goals as a rookie on a Bruins team that came within two wins of the Stanley Cup in 2013. He’s one of the best offensive blueliners in hockey now, and advances in our understanding of statistics and what constitutes good defensive play have changed the way we look at “little guys” on defense. Krug, 27, hasn’t bagged any major NHL hardware yet, but St-Louis didn’t win a thing until his age-28 season.
The Lightning unearthed St-Louis, Gourde and Tyler Johnson as undrafted gems, but even they’re guilty of neglecting a good one, though the Columbus Blue Jackets did so first. Marchessault couldn’t climb the depth chart high enough to earn significant minutes in Tampa, even though his underlying per-minute numbers in the AHL and NHL suggested he was a productive player just waiting to be unleashed. Even stranger: after he did get his chance in Florida and blew up for 30 goals, he got tossed in the trash again. The Panthers inexplicably exposed him in the 2017 expansion draft, and he became a star for the Golden Knights, fuelling their shocking debut season with a career-best 75 points. There’s a real parallel to St-Louis here. Marchessault was abandoned again and again until a team finally realized it had a first-line talent.
‘The Bread Man’ falls into a different category than the others on this list. He too was discovered late, but that was largely because he toiled in Russia. He checks the other St-Louis boxes, however: smallish build, scooped up for a dirt-cheap price, became one of the league’s best players. In terms of overall skill, Panarin has the best chance to mimic St-Louis’ career accomplishments and build a Hall of Fame resume. Panarin already has a major award, having taken home the Calder Trophy as a rookie with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2015-16. He’s earned Lady Byng votes and been a second-team all-star once already. Since his rookie year, Panarin is tied for sixth among NHLers in points, ahead of Alex Ovechkin, Claude Giroux and Evgeni Malkin, to name a few. Panarin is one of the sport’s best two-way players as well. Where he chooses to sign his next contract will go a long way toward determining whether he becomes the next St-Louis.