Friday, October 28, 2005

Curtis Joseph Gets 400th Win

Last night, Phoenix defeated Calgary 3-2. In this game, Curtis Joseph got the 400th win of his career. He is only the ninth goalie ever to acheive this feat. Yet, I do not consider him a Hockey Hall of Famer should his career end right now. Why is a feat like this not enough? What would CuJo have to accomplish to become a Hall of Famer?

There are thirteen currently acitve NHL players that I consider worthy of the Hall of Fame regardless of what they do (or do not do) for the rest of their careers. They are:

Dave Andreychuk
Ed Belfour
Martin Brodeur
Chris Chelios
Dominik Hasek
Jaromir Jagr
Brian Leetch
Mario Lemieux
Nicklas Lidstrom
Luc Robitaille
Joe Sakic
Brendan Shanahan
Steve Yzerman

Curtis Joseph is the winningest goalie of all time who is not either in the Hall of Fame (Sawchuk, Hall, Plante, Esposito,Fuhr), a still active player on this list (Belfour, Brodeur) or a retired player who was on this list in his career who has not yet been retired long enough for hall eligibility (Roy). Obviously somebody must be the winningest goalie of all time who is not a Hall of Famer and why not Joseph? He has never won a Vezina trophy (the closest he came was runner up in 1999). He has never won the Stanley Cup (or even made the finals) - although that is a team success and not an individual one. He has never once made the first or second team all star in the post season. He has twice played in the NHL all star game. He was a widely respected goalie for most of the 90's who was considered one of the best goalies of that era (although there always was somebody better in Roy or Hasek or Brodeur). He was consistently chosen as a goaltender for Canada in international play, although he did not have huge success in most of his international tournaments. Most of these stats make him a candidate for the hall, but none are clearly enough to put him in.

Joseph played the majority of his career in the goalie dominated low scoring latter half of the 1990's and early 2000's. It is reasonable to expect that more goalies would make the hall from this era then in most other eras. One would argue that a goalie like Joseph making the Hall when he was never the best goalie in the NHL would be like a Ron Francis type making the Hall when he was never the best centerman in the NHL (Gretzky, Lemieux, Messier and Yzerman were better) when Francis was a great player who played the best years of his career in a very high scoring NHL.

The strongest argument for Joseph making the Hall is his wins total. The first question that needs to be asked is how important are wins? Wins are a poor goalie stat. This is largely a team statistic. Goalies on good teams tend to get lots of wins. Goalies on poor teams do not. One criticism of Joseph is that he hasn't ever won the Stanley Cup. This is largely because he never played on a team that could be legitimately called a serious Stanley Cup contender. In many years in St Louis, Edmonton and Toronto, the team advanced a few rounds in the playoffs for the most part because of Joseph's superb goaltending. One could argue that the best cup contender Joseph ever played on was the slightly over the hill 2003 and 2004 Detroit Red Wings. Joseph was a bit passed his prime on these teams as well, although still a better than average starting goalie. The fact that Joseph has a top career win total despite not playing on a great team is remarkable. It would certainly help his case.

Whether or not wins are a the best stat to determine how good a goalie is, they are a good measure of good goaltenders. And goalie who is among the all time wins leaders is a good one. However, not all the wins leaders are quite Hall of Fame calibre. The next several goalies after Joseph in the wins leaders are "not quite" Hall of Famers. The next goalies are Mike Vernon, John Vanbiesbrouck, Andy Moog, Tom Barrasso and Rogie Vachon. So it is quite reasonable for a goalie with Joseph's wins total to not be a Hall of Famer. If Joseph moves up the list a little bit further he would get to an elite group of goalies. If he were to (for example) catch up to Tony Esposito for fifth place in wins at 423 (it may be sixth place before Joseph gets there as Brodeur is likely to reach that point first), most likely, I would consider Joseph a Hall of Famer (assuming he doesn't hang on for several years as a mediocre goalie just to do it).

Curtis Joseph is not quite a Hall of Famer yet, but he is close. A very good season (or two) from him would get him so far up the career wins total that he would make it. I refuse to call a player a Hall of Famer based on a projection of his career. All too often, players fail to reach their projections. I can imagine Joseph making my Hall of Fame list someday, but he is not there yet.

Along with the obvious relation of goalie stats to the quality of their team (look at how Harry Lumley's stats changed with his surroundings, or Terry Sawchuk, or Rogie Vachon, to name a few), you also have to look at how goalies were used in different eras. In the Original Six era, it was common for goalies to start most, if not all, of their team's games (hence, Sawchuk, Hall, Plante, etc. amassed huge win statistics, especially when their team did well). For the greater part of the post-expansion era's first 30 years, it was customary for two goalies to share the load almost equally (Fuhr and Moog in Edmonton, for example, or Roy and Hayward in Montreal, which always mystified me), to the detriment of their respective bulk numbers. Now, we seem to be back to the older paradigm, and good goalies tend to play most of their team's games, allowing them to pile up 40-plus wins a season once again (And go, Martin Brodeur--I would love to see Parent's season win total finally be bettered).

It's hard to compare eras in any sport (if we look at career stats, we would have to assume from win totals that most of the best goalies have all come along since 1980), but that would be like saying that the best baseball pitchers all date from the dead ball era (ca. 1900-20) based on ERA, wins, shutouts and other stats. However, when circumstances are favorable, any mediocre athlete can look good on paper. How many barely-above-average forwards scored 100 points in the offense-happy 70s and 80s? How many people have voted for Guy Chouinard or Stephane Richer (to name two of many that came to mind) as a Hall-of-famer due to distortedly high offensive numbers? Not many, I wager.
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