Thursday, June 19, 2008

Igor Larionov Is A Good Hall Of Fame Selection

The 2008 class of the Hockey Hall of Fame was recently announced. Among them was Igor Larionov who I feel is a very good addition to the Hall of Fame.

Larionov first played in the Russian Elite League at age 17 and was quickly established as one of the best players in the league. He played twelve years in Russia and was a four time Russian League All Star and the Player of the Year in 1988. He had a very successful international career playing for the Russians. He was a two time World Championship All Star and a one time World Junior Championship All Star. He is best known for playing on top Soviet forward line - the KLM Line (along with Vladimir Krutov and Sergei Makarov). In many international tournaments, such as Canada Cups, he showed himself to be as good as (if not better than) many players who currently are members of the Hockey Hall of Fame. Larionov was known as the "Russian Wayne Gretzky" not so much because he was a dominant in the Russian system as Gretzky was in the NHL, but because he was the top Russian centreman and had a very similar skillset to Gretzky.

At age 29, when the Soviet Union was falling apart, Larionov had his chance to play in the NHL. He joined the Vancouver Canucks who had spent an eleventh round draft pick on him back in 1985. He made a difficult transition to the NHL scoring only 44 points in his first season and 34 in his second. Things began to click in his third season where he scored 65 point and added ten more in 13 playoff games. Despite his success, Larionov wanted to leave the NHL temporarily to play in Switzerland. The Canucks were paying a large annual transfer fee to the Russians for Larionov's services, which he did not approve of. By playing a year outside the NHL, the transfer fee would no longer exist. Larionov played a year with Lugano of the Swiss League.

The Vancouver Canucks left Larionov exposed in the waiver draft and he was selected by the San Jose Sharks. San Jose lured Larionov back to the NHL the next season and Igor played for the Sharks for a little over two years. He was then traded to Detroit for Ray Sheppard in early 1995.

Detroit set up a situation where Russian players could thrive. The team played the left wing lock, which was the trap system widely used in the Russian system. They put together a five man Russian unit (as in the Russian League, five men units of forwards and defencemen were often kept together). This unit included Sergei Fedorov, Slava Kozlov, Slava Fetisov and Vladimir Konstantinov along with Larionov. It was here that Larionov had his greatest NHL success. He scored 71 points in the remaining 69 games in his first season in Detroit. In his first stint in Detroit, Larionov was a key part of two Stanley Cup winners (1997 and 1998). He played in the 1998 NHL All Star Game.

In 2000, Larionov was signed as a free agent by the Florida Panthers. His Florida stay lasted only 26 games before he was traded back to Detroit for Yan Golubovsky. He was a key player in one more Detroit Stanley Cup in 2002.

In 2003, Larionov signed as a free agent with the New Jersey Devils. He was now the NHL's oldest player. He was limited to 49 games played and scored on 11 points before announcing his retirement.

Larionov has a very unusual career trajectory. He was widely considered one of the best players in the game when he was playing in the Soviet system. At age 29, he had to learn a new lifestyle and a new system of hockey to play in the NHL. Though he was probably in the latter part of the prime of his career physically, the learning curve was steep. He was 36 when he had his best NHL season. It is highly unusual for a player to peak in the NHL at such an advanced age. This was the point when the combination of his physical skills and his knowledge of the hockey system under which he played reached a maximum in the NHL. This fact alone suggests that had Larionov been raised in the North American system he might have had much higher scoring totals in his first NHL seasons and much higher career totals as a result. it also suggests that many European stars who came to the NHL and were not given as long a chance as Larionov could have been very good NHL players had they had the opportunity. Larionov remained a useful NHL player at a higher age than all but a handful of NHL players in the league's history. This is a testimony to his skills. In his NHL career, Larionov scored 644 points in 921 NHL games. This was a career that did not begin until Larionov was 29, an age where many NHL players' careers are winding down.

Because Larionov is an unusual case, it is hard to map him to the questions Bill James asks about potential Hall of Fame players. Nevertheless, I will try (note Bill James's questions are for baseball but can be applied to hockey).

1. Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in baseball?

Any reasonable analysis would call Wayne Gretzky the best hockey player in the world during Larionov's prime, so he was not the best player in hockey at any point. However, it is reasonable to say he was the best player in the Soviet system for a while - afterall he was their player of the year in 1988 - though I think most people would argue Sergei Makarov or Slava Fetisov was the best Russian player at the time. It is hard to answer exactly where the best Soviet players line up in a list of the best players of the 1980's because of the lack of games between the NHL and the Soviet system, but in those games played it is clear Larionov was one of the best players in the world. At no point in his NHL career would anyone have seriously considered Larionov to have been the best player in the NHL, however if a handful of NHL stars had joined the Russian League instead of it being the other way around, it is not clear whether or not that might have changed and Larionov might have been considered the best player in the world. Of course, that point is pure speculation.

2. Was he the best player on his team?

At no point in Larionov's NHL career was he the best player on his team. He was clearly the best player on the Central Red Army Team in 1988 when he was the player of the year. That is an impressive feat since the Central Red Army Team was essentially the all star team of the Soviet system and contained all of the best players in the league. That said, more often than not, during Larionov's tenure in Russia, another player would likely have been selected as the best player on his team.

3. Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?

Wayne Gretzky was the best centreman in hockey during Larionov's prime and Mario Lemieux afterwards. No, Larionov was not the best centre in hockey. He was clearly the best centre in the Soviet League for many years.

4. Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?

The NHL equivalent of pennant races is probably the Stanley Cup playoffs (since there isn't really a heated race for first in a division or conference). Larionov was a key contributor in several Stanley Cup playoffs winning three cups with the Detroit Red Wings. He was never the best player on the team, but he made many important plays and scored important goals (most famously a 2002 triple overtime goal in the finals vs. Carolina in game three - making Larionov the oldest player ever to score in the Stanley Cup finals). Larionov's playoff success is not limited to his time in Detroit. He was a key playoff performer in both San Jose and Vancouver. In fact, his most productive Stanley Cup playoff offensively was in 1994 with the San Jose Sharks when he scored 18 points in 14 playoff games.

5. Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?

Definitely. In fact, for a time he was the oldest player to play in the NHL since Gordie Howe (though Chris Chelios is now older). There are no players who were valued NHL contributors at an older age than Larionov who are not in the Hall of Fame (if they are eligible - which Chelios is not since he is still active).

6. Is he the very best player in baseball history who is not in the Hall of Fame?

A case could be made that Larionov is the best hockey player ever who is Hall of Fame eligible and was not yet there. That case depends on how you value his time in Russia and how you address the fact he didn't hit his NHL prime until age 36. It is a viable argument and one which I believe is accurate but it is very hard to show statistically.

7. Are most players who have comparable career statistics in the Hall of Fame?

Here is the problem with Larionov's case. His NHL statistics are not as good as most Hall of Famers. This is because he was 29 when he played his first game and 36 when he hit his peak. Very few Russian players have as good statistics as Larionov does while in Russia, but since Valeri Kharlamov is the only Russian forward in the Hall of Fame, it is impossible to make any kind of comparative argument since there are so few players to compare with. There do exist players (Sergei Makarov is the best example) with better statistics in Russia who are not in the Hall of Fame, though very few Russian players have numbers as good as Larionov.

8. Do the player's numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?

As with the previous question this is hard to answer. Larionov's Russian numbers meet the Hall of Fame standards by themselves if we assume that Kharlamov is the standard. His NHL numbers are poor by Hall of Fame standards but that is because his prime years were not spent in the NHL.

9. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?

Larionov was significantly better than his NHL numbers suggest. He was 29 before his first NHL game and 36 when he hit his NHL peak. In international play he was clearly as good as many of the best NHL players of the 1980's who are now in the Hockey Hall of Fame. I think it is clear that had Larionov been raised in the North American system it is clear that his numbers would be among the best all time.

10. Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame but not in?

If we accept the case that Larionov is the best player who is eligible for the Hall of Fame but not in it, then he is the best centreman who is not in the hall. His rivals would be Doug Gilmour and Adam Oates, but I think it is a reasonable statement to say Larionov was a better player, however not in his NHL years.

11. How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?

Larionov never had anything resembling an MVP-type season in the NHL. He had an MVP season in the Soviet Union in 1988. Whether that is comparable to an NHL MVP season is debatable. He had three or four MVP-type seasons in the Soviet League.

12. How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most of the other players who played in this many go into the Hall of Fame?

Larionov played in one NHL All Star game in 1998 and this was more of a career appreciation than a suggestion that he was having an all star type season in 1998. It was a 47 point season for Larionov. The closest he came to an All Star type season was 1995/96 where he scored 73 points in 73 games. In the Soviet League, Larionov had All Star type seasons every year of the 1980s. Most Hall of Famers play in many more All Star Games than Larionov and that is because most Hall of Famers play the best years of their career in the NHL.

13. If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?

If the older Larionov we saw in the NHL was the best player on his team they would not have much chance at winning their division or the conference. Larionov was a top second and third line centreman in his NHL career. That said there were weak teams where he might have been their top scorer at times. Those teams would be basement dwellers. If his talent level in his prime in the Soviet League carried over to the NHL, he would have been as good as many players who were the top players on division and conference winning teams. In Russia, the Central Red Army was essentially a league all star team and Larionov was their best player at times. They clearly won the league championship.

14. What impact did the player have on baseball history? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way?

Larionov was the most successful NHL player of the first wave of Russian stars to enter the NHL. He was one of the key players in bringing the successful implementation of the left wing lock system in the NHL in the 1990's. He was part of a group of five players who switched as a unit while in Detroit. That was definitely a new technique for the NHL, though as of yet it has not caught on as an NHL strategy. Larionov played a big part in establishing Russians and Russian hockey in the NHL.

15. Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?

Despite the widely held stereotype of selfish Russians who do not care about their team, Igor Larionov was a popular selfless player who is well loved in the hockey media. This alone is a remarkable achievement. Larionov was a popular character player with teammates and played with sportsmanship.

These questions do not suit Larionov well because his prime was not played in the NHL. It was played in the Soviet system. There likely are several Soviet players who are Hall of Fame talents who either did not play in the NHL or only played in the tail ends of their careers. I hope that at some point more of them get inducted. It doesn't look like that will happen in the immediate future.

It is unclear how many Russians do belong in the Hall of Fame. The best way to attempt to answer this might be through a demographic study. If the Russians are able to produce a Hall of Famer every n years after the fall of their league, assuming conditions were roughly the same they should have produced one at the same rate when their Soviet system was going strong. The assumption that everything else stays constant is clearly a poor one. The fall of communism in Russia changed things dramatically. The rise of a stronger Russian League that is already drawing borderline NHL talent will change things again. Further, noting that there likely should be a given number of Soviet players who made the Hall of Fame does not prove they actually do exist or help identify those players.

Igor Larionov's induction to the Hockey Hall of Fame is a good one. He was one of the best players in hockey and managed to remain a very good one into his forties. He had an unusual career since he did not play in the NHL until age 29 and did not hit his peak until age 36. As a result, his NHL numbers alone do not make his Hall of Fame case. Nevertheless, he has a very strong Hall of Fame case and it can be argued that he is the best player who was available for induction.

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