The Ilya Kovalchuk Hall of Fame debate

Updated: July 12, 2013 at 11:56 am by Cam Charron

Some discussion on Twitter early Friday afternoon after Ilya Kovalchuk’s Hall of Fame candidacy in the wake of his surprise retirement from the National Hockey League. It’s worth noting that Kovalchuk’s career is not quite over yet: he’s still 30 years old and has a few real good productive years left in Russia and probably a couple of Olympic games left in him as a real key contributor. Without the NHL playoffs to restrict him, I can see him being a very key figure in Russia’s World Championship bids each year as the European leagues are intelligent enough to end their seasons beach weather hits and players are freed up to go to the Worlds each year.

I’m a proponent “for” Kovalchuk. I think that his international resume, including two World Championship golds, and what’s to come, will more than make up for his lack of playoff success at the NHL stage. Really, he’s played just 32 playoff games, because he spent most of his North American career toiling away in Atlanta.

Besides, the Hall let in Pavel Bure, a dynamic, high-scoring offensive player who also had a lack of team success as an NHLer, and found himself out of the NHL far too early. Kovalchuk has 816 NHL games and 417 goals, compared to Bure’s 702 games and 437 career goals. I loved Pavel Bure and grew up cheering for him and pretending to be him playing ball hockey and was convinced to wear glasses because my mother found a picture in the newspaper of Pavel Bure wearing glasses, but I think there’s an argument to be made that Kovalchuk is just as good.

Using Behind the Net to calculate goals per game and using QuantHockey to fill in the gaps, I’ve found the average number of goals per team dating back to 1992, through 2013. Using it we can create a crude “era-adjusted” table of goals per season, so that one goal is weighted as a goal from 2002, which was Kovalchuk’s rookie year:

  Goals per Game  Bure Kovalchuk Bure Adjusted Kovalchuk Adjusted
1991-92 3.48 34   25.6  
1992-93 3.63 60   43.3  
1993-94 3.24 60   48.5  
1994-95 2.99 20   17.5  
1995-96 3.14 6   5.0  
1996-97 2.92 23   20.6  
1997-98 2.64 51   50.6  
1998-99 2.63 13   13.0  
1999-00 2.75 58   55.3  
2000-01 2.76 59   56.0  
2001-02 2.62 34 29 34.0 29.0
2002-03 2.65 19 38 18.8 37.6
2003-04 2.57   41   41.8
2005-06 3.03   52   45.0
2006-07 2.88   42   38.2
2007-08 2.72   52   50.1
2008-09 2.85   43   39.6
2009-10 2.77   41   38.8
2010-11 2.73   31   29.7
2011-12 2.66   37   36.4
2013 2.65   11   10.9
TOTAL   437 417 388 397

I think the term “dead puck era” as it relates to the late 1990s and early 2000s doesn’t really hold up. Teams scored just as much in 2003 as they did in 2013, so the idea that Bure played through the “dead puck era” and Kovalchuk didn’t isn’t necessarily dishonest, but not factual.

Bure still had three excellent seasons, cracking 50 “adjusted” goals three times. Unfortunately, he was about as durable as a bloodstained tissue in a Sharknado and didn’t play enough to get the gaudy offensive totals he deserved.

Still, durability should be an issue. Bure was 1st in goals per game during his career but 5th in total goals. Kovalchuk had more goals than any NHLer during his career but was 2nd in goals per game, behind Alex Ovechkin. Bure was 7th in points per game (minimum 500 games) and Kovalchuk was 6th. The difference between the two likely lies that Bure was the first “true superstar” of a Canadian team that desperately needed to compete, while Kovalchuk bandied about in relative obscurity.

Kovalchuk’s career isn’t over, but if it was, I think he’s comparable enough to Bure to warrant a HHOF bid. I tend to avoid Hall of Fame discussions, but Kovalchuk was one of the most dynamic, exciting players of his era. His thin resume can be pinned more on the ineptitude of Don Waddell and Thrashers management than on Kovalchuk alone, and I’m excited to stay up late in the winter to watch him skate circles around some Slovenian team that may be without Anze Kopitar.