Friday, June 10, 2005

Why Valeri Kharlamov probably belongs in the hall of fame

...and why I did not support him in 2005.

Valeri Kharlamov was one of the 2005 Hockey Hall of Fame inductees. He is one of the best players in Russian history. In the 1972 Summit Series he was widely considered the most dangerous forward on the Soviet team. He is a two time top scorer in the Russian league who was very successful in international play. Unfortunatelt, he died young in a car crash at age 33, possibly reducing his career achievements.

There haved been many Russian players who have been top players in their league and in international play. This group includes Anatoli Firsov, Vladimir Vikulov, Boris Mikhailov, Alexander Maltsev, Sergei Makarov, Vladimir Krutov, Valery Vasiliev, Vsevolod Bobrov, Valeri Kharlamov and others. The question is how many of these guys should be in the hall of fame? Just how good were the stars in the Russian league? How well would they have done if they played in the NHL? How certain are we in these answers?

To start answering these questions, we can look at games played between Russian league players and NHL players. There were a few short series played, the 1972 Summint Series, the 1974 WHA-Russia series and a few Canada Cups are examples. These series were usually played at the beginning of the season. The Russian players were better conditioned and more familiar with one another then the NHL teams who were all star teams thrown together after the players had the summer off. In short series it is possible for a fluke to occur when a player gets hot or cold and plays significantly above or below their usual level. Some famous examples of flukes in Canada include Paul Henderson in 1972 and John Tonelli in 1984. These were both player below hall of fame ability who dominated international play. The Russian players were also less well socuted then any NHL player would be. There may (or may not) exist holes in their game that would have been exposed with more exposure. These series are useful, but they are far from perfect.

In some cases, we can look at crossover players who had significant careers in both Russia and the NHL. Slava Fetisov is one example of this and has made the Hall of Fame. Igor Larionov is another example who probably will make the Hall of Fame, but he is not yet eligible. At the same time, we should note other Russian stars such as Vladimir Krutov who came to the NHL and were abject failures.

I think the best method to determine approximately how many Russian league players should be in the hall of fame is by waiting and watching a generation or two of Russians in the NHL. If (for example) about 3 Russians per generation make the Hall of Fame based upon their NHL play, it is quite reasonable to assume that there were about 3 Russian players in the 1970's who were Hall of Fame quality.

We can also look at the Russian elite league stats to determine who the best Russian players were and see how they rank relative to those players we saw in the NHL. We need to bare in mind the differences between the Russian elite league and the NHL. Note that assist records are hard to come by (I haven't seen any complete assist records - if you know of any please leave me a message). Assists are not the same, unlike in the NHL where there are tow assists on most goals, and in some case the player getting the assist had little to do with the goal being scored, the Russian league is much more conservative giving out assists. Also note that the Central Red Army team was essentially an all star team. In Russia, army service is manditory. Any player serving in the army can play on the Central Red Army team. Those players who were hockey stars trhat the Red Army wanted to keep were kept in the army and given army duties that could be fulfilled by playing hockey. Essentially, the Central Red Army team had the first look at every Russian player. Those tghey chose not to take populated the other teams. As a result, those players who played upon the Central Red Army team rarely, if ever, played against anybody who was as a good a player as they were in Russian league play. The very best Central Red Army players should have inflated stats because of their lack of competition.

Of course we can listen to the opinions of other people who are "hockey experts". If they say some of these players are the best they have ever seen, that is worth something. At the same time, these hockey experts may not have seen any more games involving the Russian player then you or I did (if you watched all the Olympics and othe international tournaments available) and these experts may be the same people who induicted people like Clark Gillies to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

With that background as a lens to interpret things, we can look at Kharlamov and see if he is a hall of famer. Sergei Makarov is the Russian with the most career goals, including Russian elite league, international play and NHL. I think this makes Makarov a better choice. He has more goals and crossover success in the NHL. Kharlamov is the sixth highest goal scorer among Russians. This number is probably kept low due to his early death. Boris Mikhailov has the most Russian elite league goals in his career.

I think Kharlamov was a very good player. I think Kharlamov was the most dangerous scorer in 1972, which is a historic year and thus increases the way he is remembered. I think Kharlamov gets a bit of a "halo effect" pushing his hall of fame chances due to his premature death. I think Kharlamov probably should get inducted in the hall of fame someday. I think that Sergei Makarov is a better choice right now among Russians. I am not too unhappy with Kharlamov's induction as long as Makarov and probably Mikhailov get inducted someday. I'm not sure how many Russians from the pre-NHL days should be inducted. I think that it is very hard to accurately gage just how good the Russian league was in the days before Russian players regualrly made their way to the NHL. I think that Kharlamov is likely good enough, but I do not think he is the best choice of the Russian players available.

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