Every year about this time, some lone voice in the wilderness starts rattling a sabre about how former Dallas Stars defenseman Sergei Zubov should be in the conversation for the Hockey Hall of Fame.
And every year, the vast majority of the hockey media overlooks him as a possible strong candidate.
That can get a little blood boiling among Dallas hockey fans and media who got to see Zubov up close and personal for 12 years. Bob Sturm went on a great rant on Tuesday where he laid out the frustrations people have with the arguments against Zubov (of note, Sean McIndoe wrote the Grantland piece he mentions, not Katie Baker - Sturm acknowledged the error after the segment).
The arguments against Zubov take either one of two shapes - the lack of individual recognition/awards he received proves he doesn't belong with the elite of the elite or his defensive game was a liability that makes him too one-dimensional to truly be considered one of the best.
Those essentially mesh into the same case - Zubov was very good, but he was not one of the best of his era.
So let's take that argument and actually compare him to those considered the best, including defensemen both of his era and slightly before and after. How does he compare to Hall of Famers like Brian Leetch, Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer and Rob Blake? Let's use 10 of the best defensemen that Zubov shared the ice, chosen for no particular reason whatsoever, to examine that question.
Given the eras we're looking at, which stretch from the 1980s into the 2000s, some of the metrics we use to evaluate defensive play and possession-driving ability these days simply aren't available.
Because of that, we will have to look at the dreaded plus/minus, knowing that it is imperfect in many ways. Time on ice is also mentioned to gauge how heavily teams rode each player, but be aware that it first was tracked in the 1998-99 season, so it only includes the years after that point.
Lidstrom vs. Zubov vs. Bourque
These are the two players who sit obviously head and shoulders above Zubov in this era. Nicklas Lidstrom has a very strong argument for the best all-around defenseman of all time and is a direct contemporary to Zubov. Ray Bourque played in a slightly earlier, more offensively-tilted era which explains some of his incredibly gaudy offensive numbers. Even so, there is no arguing that he is in a class by himself.
The thing to remember are these are also the two undisputed heavyweight champions of two eras, the high-flying 1980s and early 1990s and the dead-puck era of the mid 1990s through the mid 2000s. They are the gold standard, and there are plenty of Hall of Famers who don't come close to their careers. Of course Zubov doesn't measure up - no one does.
Niedermayer vs. Zubov vs. Pronger
On the other hand, Zubov compares extremely favorably to Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger.
Niedermayer, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, has more hardware than anyone on this list save one of his teammates coming up shortly, but when taken by themselves, his stats are less impressive than Zubov's. Niedermayer, considered a roving two-way defenseman who played in a tenaciously defensive system, had significantly fewer points and points per game and played slightly fewer minutes on his teams. Their plus/minus is essentially equal per game (Zubov's scales up to 175 with 1263 GP), and Niedermayer's is less impressive in the playoffs.
You can point out Niedermayer's point totals in his prime were held down by the Devils defense first, last and always system, but the Stars played a similar style where they sacrificed offense for defense (just ask Mike Modano). Both players spent time in slightly more high-flying eras and teams (Niedermayer with the Ducks post-lockout and Zubov with the Rangers in the early 90s).
I know this seems like blasphemy given how Niedermayer is revered among some, but from a production standpoint, they are very solid comparables with Zubov coming out slightly ahead. You can make a very strong argument that if Zubov played in a more media-heavy market like the NYC metro area (or in a conference where there were fewer heavyweights, and thus his team likely to go further in the playoffs each year), be would be looked at like Niedermayer is today.
Pronger was obviously a different type of player, a big, mean shut-down force with some decent offensive capability. The newest Hall of Famer on this list, he also boasts the only comparable time on ice to Bourque. Like Niedermayer, his offensive production falls short when compared to Zubov, but unlike Niedermayer, you can see evidence of superior defensive play both in plus/minus and deployment. He also very directly crossed eras with Zubov in a way that some others, like Bourque, did not. Who is "better" really depends on your personal preference, but neither is outclassed by the other.
Stevens vs. Zubov vs. Leetch
These are two pretty different defensemen who played in about the same era, slightly before Zubov. Scott Stevens was the prototypical big hitter patrolling the Devils blue line (such a big hitter than many of the hits he threw would be suspendable today as blindside shots to the head), and he had some great offensive seasons as well, scoring 78 points in 1993-94. The time on ice here is a little lower than one might expect, but as Stevens played 16 seasons before they started tracking time on ice, it's hard to know if it's truly representative for him. Once again, this is a stylistic choice as to who is "better" between Stevens and Zubov, but neither clearly outclasses the other, especially when you consider the offensive benefits Stevens may have received from playing in the 1980s.
Brian Leetch is a very interesting comparison, especially since he and Zubov were teammates for a few years on the Stanley Cup winning Rangers. In terms of points per game, Zubov out-produced Leetch in two of those three seasons. Leetch has a significantly higher points per game average than Zubov for his career, but he entered the league five years before Zubov at the end of the offensive bonanza that was the 1980s, racking up an astounding 331 points in 317 games over that time.
If we compare just the seasons Zubov was in the league, Leetch's production drops to 0.784 points per game, very much in the neighborhood of Zubov. Additionally, his defensive game was never his strength - when you can score 50 points and up a team-worst minus-36, that tells you something. So in terms of comparison, you can argue Zubov was a better all-around player, though it certainly is debatable. They are clearly peers in the same category, whatever you think of the relative worth of offense vs. defense..
Chelios vs. Zubov vs. Blake
Much like Pronger and Stevens, Chris Chelios is a different style of defenseman than Zubov, relying on feared checking and elite defense to go along with decent offense. Playing until he was approximately 192 years old, Chelios' time on ice is likely dragged down by the fact that some of his most productive and important years aren't fully captured on this list. Next to the Devils and his Red Wings teammate Lidstrom, he has probably the most impressive hardware haul. However, once again, the "better" of him and Zubov really depends on the style of play you're talking about.
This is your annual reminder that Rob Blake is a Hall of Famer. Blake was considered an "all-around defenseman" to excuse his slightly lower production values, but in reality he was a career minus player and several times a minus player on good teams where he was among the worst defensemen in the category. His production also dropped as significantly in the playoffs as anyone on this list (though he was a large playoff contributor to his lone Cup team, brought in as a late-season trade). He threw hip checks that ended up on SportsCenter I guess?
Zubov was a superior player in every meaningful way to Blake, so if Blake is the standard by which we judge Hall of Fame defensemen from this era, Zubov most certainly belongs.
Chara vs. Zubov vs. Gonchar
This is where the comparisons start to get silly. Zdeno Chara is obviously a totally different type of player and of a slightly different era than Zubov, and it's still unclear whether the entire body of work in his career will be enough for the Hockey Hall of Fame. He will definitely have his proponents for being the dominant force on a very good Bruins team. Is Zubov better, worse or equal to Chara? That's hard to put a finger on and depends on what you value. Chara is better in terms of his disruptive ability in his own zone (which being fairly dangerous offensively), but Zubov is the far superior offensive force (while being strong defensively. I'd argue Zubov is the more valuable piece.
Sergei Gonchar is a prototypical offensive defenseman and is considered a strong enough one that he will get some Hall of Fame consideration based on that alone. While his point totals are higher (indeed, he's the highest-scoring Russian-born defenseman of all time), his per-game production is significantly lower. The extra points come from his few extra seasons in the NHL, which come mainly by virtue of the fact that he was four years younger and thus just clear of the era where Russian players had difficulties coming over. Zubov played his first NHL season at age 22; Gonchar at age 20.
The bottom line is this: If the argument is "Zubov is as strong a candidate as the other top defensemen of his era, but lack of cross-continental media recognition of that fact will keep him out," I can buy that. That, sadly, is probably what will happen. You can argue he's a better overall defenseman than Leetch, but he doesn't have the eye-catching point totals. Same for Blake and highlight-reel hip checks. He didn't end up in front of as many eyeballs, and therefore the people who drive such decisions aren't as familiar with his career.
For whatever reason - language/nationality factor, market exposure, plethora of great contemporaries, or lack of highlight-reel hits - Zubov has fallen by the wayside in this discussion. But this idea that the lack of recognition means his candidacy is not good enough in and of itself is laughable. Even if someone wasn't exposed to him much when he played, a look at the statistics alone should tell you that.
Zubov is, bar none, one of the best defensemen in an era full of Hall of Famers. There's no reasonable way to argue otherwise.