Let's play a game.
I'm going to give you the statistics of a group of former National Hockey League defensemen, and you tell me which ones most deserve to go in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Regular Season: 1068 games played, 152 goals (0.14 per game), 619 assists (.58 per game), 771 points (.72 per game), +148 rating, 26:14 average ice time per game.
Playoffs: 164 games played, 24 goals (.15 per game), 93 assists (.57 per game), 117 points (.72 per game), +28 rating, 28:58 per game.
Regular Season: 1270 games played, 240 goals (.19 per game), 537 assists (.42 per game), 777 points (.61 per game), -4 rating, 24:54 per game.
Playoffs: 146 games played, 26 goals (.18 per game), 47 assists (.42 per game), 73 points (.59 per game) , even rating, 26:15 ice time.
Regular Season: 1263 games played, 172 goals (.14 per game), 568 assists (.45 per game), 740 points (.59 per game), +167 rating, 25:21 ice time.
Playoffs: 202 games played, 25 goals (.12 per game), 73 assists (.36 per game), 98 points (.48 per game), +20 rating, 26:32 ice time.
Regular Season: 1205 games played, 247 goals (.20 per game), 781 assists (.65 per game), 1028 points (.85 per game), +25 career rating, 27:03 per game.
Playoffs: 95 games played, 28 goals (.33 per game), 69 assists (.73 per game), 97 points (1.06 per game), +2 rating, 28:29 per game.
Regular Season: 1157 games played, 227 goals (.19 per game), 450 assists (.39 per game), 677 points (.58 per game), -27 rating, 22:59 per game.
Playoffs: 118 games, 22 goals (.19 per game), 37 assists (.31 per game), 59 points (.50 per game), -8 rating, 22:45 per game.
*Note - Ice time started being tracked in 1998-99.
Got your answers? Without cheating? Good. Now let's add their accomplishment's resume and see if that changes things.
Defenseman A: Two Stanley Cups, Olympic gold medal, World Junior Championship gold medal
Defenseman B: One Stanley Cup, Olympic gold medal, two World Championship gold medals, one Norris Trophy
Defenseman C: Three Stanley Cups, Olympic gold medal, World Junior Championship gold medal, World Championship gold medal, World Cup gold medal, Conn Smythe Trophy, one Norris Trophy
Defenseman D: One Stanley Cup, Olympic silver medal, World Cup gold medal, two Norris Trophies, Conn Smythe Trophy, Calder Trophy.
Defensemen E: Selected to five NHL All-Star games.
That change anything? Have you figured out the players yet?
Player D is Brian Leetch, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2009. Player C is Scott Niedermayer, who went in as a first-ballot HHOF member this year. Player B is Rob Blake, considered by many to be a sure-fire bet for the HHOF in the near future. Player E is Kevin Hatcher, considered a very talented offensive defenseman of his time and a member of the US Hockey Hall of Fame, but a player that will never sniff the HHOF.
And Player A, as you might have guessed by now, is Sergei Zubov.
Zubov was eligible for the HHOF for the first time this season, but he was not a part of the five-member class. That's totally understandable when you consider that class consisted of Niedermayer, Chris Chelios and Brendan Shanahan along with builders Geraldine Heaney and Fred Shero.
Blake was also eligible this year, and according to this Puck Daddy article, is considered a much heavier favorite to eventually make the HHOF than Zubov. That's a sentiment I've seen reflected many places.
I just don't understand that. Blake has three things going for him over Zubov in my view - his higher goals-per-game rate, his two World Championship gold medals and his Norris Trophy.
Let's start with the Norris Trophy, since it's probably the elephant in the room. Blake was awarded the Norris in 1998 after a 50-point season with the Los Angeles Kings, a somewhat mediocre-but-still-a-playoff team that year. He had 23 goals and 27 assists in 81 games, finishing fourth on the team in scoring and third in goals, great accomplishments both. But he was a bit of a mess in his own end with a minus-3 rating. To be fair, that was a positive sparking showing compared to his minus-28 from the year before. And it wasn't a team problem - Blake was the second-worst defenseman and sixth worst player on the team that year who had played at least 20 games.
If you want to look for better Norris candidates from that season, this site is a good starting place. No, no other defenseman scored 20 goals, but several had better points ratios to go along with better play in their own end.
As far as the World Championships, Zubov had far fewer opportunities to play in it than Blake because Zubov was, for the most part, leading far better teams that went deep into the playoffs. Blake won his titles in 1994 and 1997, years in which he combined to score 28 NHL goals with 99 points but finished with a minus-35 rating on two very poor Kings teams. Zubov, meanwhile, was leading his teams to eight consecutive playoff appearances at the time. His first chance to play in a WC as an NHL player came in the spring of 2002, but at age 32 and having suffered a shoulder injury during the season, he was more apt to rest.
So in my mind, the only real argument for Blake over Zubov is the goals. Blake did have a howitzer of a shot and he was not afraid to unleash it. But goals are only a part of a defenseman's game and certainly shouldn't be the only factor in determining his offensive skill. Indeed, Kevin Hatcher finished 13 goals shy of Blake in 113 fewer games played, a slightly better goals-per-game average, and no one is clamoring for his induction in the hall. Zubov was the far superior playmaker over the same span, and he put up those numbers, for the most part, in a Dallas system that did not emphasize offensive chances.
And let me stop those who want to bring up Blake's "superior" defensive game. Blake was a remarkably skilled hitter, no doubt. But his overall play in his own end was quite erratic. Some seasons he was unquestionably one of the best on his team, but others he was unquestionably one of the worst. In his best seasons, Blake was sheltered by the Colorado Avalanche, who used Adam Deadmarsh, Jon Klemm and later the late Karlis Skrastins to take the heavy defensive load away from him. He was tremendously useful in his offensive specialist role, but he was not a defenseman put out to stop the other team's best forwards.
Blake is a player who developed a fearsome reputation in his heyday, and that reputation is, at least in my opinion, what's driving the relatively strong push for him now. He was a tremendous offensive defenseman with a gigantic hipcheck, but he was not even close to one of the best all-around defensemen in the league, even in the year he won the Norris.
Niedermayer, who was a no-brainer choice this year, was one of those top all-around defensemen. He didn't have quite the offensive numbers of the top-tier scorers, at least not sustained over the course of his career, but he was superb in his own end and was the leader of his teams at every level. It may have taken him longer than was probably necessary to get the sort of recognition he deserved - while the New Jersey Devils were the dominant Eastern Conference franchise of the mid-1990s to the early-2000s, they were not media darlings - but he richly deserves the praise heaped on him now.
The question of reputation and recognition are the only thing, in my mind, that keep Sergei Zubov from being considered a sure-fire Hall of Famer right now. He burst onto the NHL scene as a rookie with the New York Rangers, becoming the first defenseman to lead an eventual Stanley Cup champion in scoring, but he slipped into league-wide obscurity after being traded to Dallas. He had a reputation for not being very good defensively, but he had far better numbers in that area than Blake.
Plus/minus is a very flawed statistic, but it's really the only one we have to compare a player's relative defensive acumen across a career. Zubov's numbers were higher because he was almost always on good or very good teams, but one of the big reasons those teams were so good was because Zubov was on them. He wasn't along for the ride - he created the ride's path.
In Dallas, Zubov was unquestionably one of the Stars most trusted players in his own end. He didn't make the highlight reels with big hits, but he didn't need to. He was annually among the team's leaders in short-handed ice time, and he was one of the players put on the ice to protect a one-goal lead in the final minutes. Unfortunately for him, without showing up on the highlight reels, he developed the reputation that he was only average defensively. That seems to have stuck with him, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
Perhaps this came from the fact that the Stars, at their peak, often deployed the shut-down pair and walking Peter Forsberg nightmare of Richard Matvichuk and Derian Hatcher while Zubov spent his time with Darryl Sydor. That was true some seasons, especially 1999. But the Stars also played Zubov with Hatcher for long stretches, and they were arguably the best defensive pairing in the league in 2002-03.
Over their respective careers, Zubov had better offensive numbers than Niedermayer and Blake, though not as good as Leetch. Both Zubov and Niedermayer, though not Blake, could have legitimately put up many more points if they didn't play in defensively-focused systems for long stretches of their careers. He has essentially equal plus-minus statistics to Niedermayer, much better than Blake and Leetch. He was used in all situations and throughout his career was used as a top-pairing, shut-down defenseman.
I've made no secret of the fact that I'm a big Sergei Zubov fan. And this is not new either. I was puzzled by his lack of recognition coming out of the last lockout as well.
But even trying to step back my personal admiration of his game, I fail to see how a player like Rob Blake is considered a heavy favorite for the HHOF while Zubov stands more of an outside shot. When I look at their respective careers, I just don't see a different in Blake's favor outside of the World Championship titles.
In fact, given Zubov's complete resume - the team titles, the statistical dominance - I'm a little befuddled as to how anyone can think he's not at least an extremely serious candidate on his own merits before you start comparing him to players who are already in or may soon be.