January 08, 2013

Who's Better? Mark Howe vs. Phil Housley

Last week we looked Phil Housley and whether or not he should be elected into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Interestingly, I probably got more feedback on this HHOF Worthy feature than most. Quite a few people disagreed with my stance that Housley should remain on the bubble and not be included in the Hall.

A fellow named "Lee Shoe" presented the best case for Housley's inclusion, comparing him to another Hall of Fame defenseman from (more or less) the same era: Mark Howe.

Here's Shoe's interesting analysis (click to enlarge):

As you can see Housley and Howe had remarkably similar careers. Two offensive defensemen who also played left wing. Very similar statistics and resumes. At first I thought this was a very convincing quantitative argument.

But statistical comparisons are a dangerous way to evaluate players. Hockey statistics offer incomplete pictures of players at best. The passage of time often allow us to overlook the qualitative side of things, and that where Howe dominates over Housley.

Mark Howe was undoubtedly the better defensive defenseman. In fact it's not even close. Because he was a skill d-man who played quietly in terms of physicality, his steady, positional defensive game was almost underrated then and time has underrated him even more now. Mark Howe was the whole package. I saw one comparison of Howe to Scott Niedermayer. In terms of style of play, I think that is warranted.

Housley was a power play specialist and an offensive defenseman. He was very good - even elite - at what he did. But Housley was, as I already stated, an consistent adventure in his own zone. Another emailer compared Housley to Sergei Gonchar, which seems fair to me.

Housley was a Norris Trophy nominee just once in his career, while Howe was runner-up three times. More impressively, Howe was a Hart Trophy finalist as league MVP in 1985-86. Housley never came close to achieving that.

The playoffs are where hockey heroes are made. Housley made it to the Stanley Cup final just once, with Washington late in his career. He was then waived and released, if that means anything. Howe, meanwhile, made it to three Stanley Cup finals, and was an undoubtedly more significant contributor to those three runs.  Neither ever won the Stanley Cup, by the way.

Moreover, Mr. Shoe also conveniently handcuffs Howe's playoff totals. Howe spent his first six seasons playing in the WHA, winning two Avco Cup championships. (We'll disregard his 41 goals, 92 points in 75 playoff games because he played as a forward.). Now I'm no big fan of the WHA, but it was a major league and Howe was a champion. We can not ignore that.

If you offered me the choice of either Mark Howe or Phil Housley to build a team around, the choice is obvious: Mark Howe.

Lastly, Mark Howe had to wait 16 seasons before he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. To me that indicates that the HHOF selection committee used Howe as the standard for inclusion, but set the bar just a bit higher. The Hall can be rightfully criticized for some choices at forward, they have high standards on defense and in goal. If Howe was the standard for all those years, I'm not so convinced Housley will get in anytime soon.

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