August 10, 2013

Edmonton Journal's Top 50 Hockey Players of All Time

David Staples of the Edmonton Journal recently displayed his list of the top 50 players in hockey history. What makes the list unique is Staples tried to take some of the subjectivity out of the process by relying strictly on voting results on major trophies.

Players were given scoring points for winning (and, where possible, for being named as a runner-up or finalist) the Hart Trophy, the Conn Smythe Trophy and the Norris trophy. In the case of the Conn Smythe trophy Staples relied on a 2001 project by The Hockey News and a group of historians to name Stanley Cup MVPs prior to the trophy's creation in 1965.

It is an interesting attempt by Staples, and the results are, for the most part, fair. The top players are still at the top, and I really like that players from older eras are given equal footing to today's stars. There are some notable players missing, sure. But there would be no matter how Staples came up with his list. At the end of the day, subjectivity can never be removed from the debate - and that's what makes these debates so fun.

I have seen groups of excellent hockey historians at HFBoards.com try this as well. Only they dug endlessly to find fully published annual voting results in their entirety and awarded a scoring system for everyone who got a vote. So, for example, if Steve Yzerman finished 4th in Hart trophy balloting and therefore was not officially recognized as a trophy finalist, he'd still get an appropriately weighted share of credit in the process.

That allows for some correction in the obvious flaw. Some players - Yzerman being the perfect example - never got a fair shake at winning such trophies because he played in an era dominated by Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. As a result Yzerman does not make Staples list of the top 50 players of all time.

The gang at HFBoards.com also gave weight to post-season All Star team nominations. This is especially relevant for defensemen in the years before the Norris trophy was introduced (1954). The top 4 defensemen in those seasons likely would have been the top candidates for the Norris trophy anyway. And for many years the All Star nod truly indicated the top goalie in hockey rather than the Vezina Trophy.

The other flaw in Staples system - and he openly admits to it - is that he still is relying on subjective opinion. Granted the experts of the day should be given full credibility, they ultimately are still engaging in a subjective and non-transparent vote.

I have been toying around with my own revamped top-100 list. For the longest time I, like Staples, have been trying to find a weighted system where I can eliminate the subjectivity. Ultimately the best formula I have come up with so far still relies heavily on my own opinion. I don't think there is any getting around this point. Nor should there be.

I think it's okay to allow subjectivity in these matter, so long as there is measured transparency engaged in the process. By that I mean the authors of these lists need to better define greatness and then stay true to that definition throughout the process.

How do you define greatness? Defining greatness is a very individual quest. As Wikipedia suggests, "Greatness is a concept that is heavily dependent on a person's perspective and biases." So very true. Which is why I have yet to see anyone completely agree with anyone else on a list of the greatest 100 hockey players ever. These lists - these opinions - are as individual as snowflakes.

But in order for me to properly define the greatest 100 players in hockey history, I think I have to come up with a more concrete definition of greatness, at least I see it.

Although admittedly I'm using quite an unscientific formula, I weigh career achievements (era statistics, awards, championships) and legacy (impact on and off ice, peak dominance) equally high. I rank player ability as the third most important ingredient, and that often acts as a tie breaker. Hence, I'm not necessarily looking for the better player, as in text book definitions of what a hockey player should be, but for players with the greatest careers and greatest legacies. 

With that definition openly set for the readers and for myself, the list comes together quite nicely. The process is still subjective yet welcomed. The results will always be controversial, but they are also more defined and transparent. 

I continue to tweak my new list of the top 100 hockey players of all time and will unveil the final list in the new season. 

No comments: