Re-reading Ken Dryden's The Game the other day, I came across his ode to Bob Gainey:
If there is such a thing as a "player's player," it would be Gainey. A phrase often heard and rarely explained, it is seldom applied to the best player of a sport, as Gainey is not, for performance is only a part of it. Instead, the phrase is for someone who has the personal and playing qualities that others wish they had, basic, unalterable qualities - dependability, discipline, hard work, courage - the roots of every team. To them, Gainey adds a timely, insistent passion, an enormous will to win, and a powerful, punishing playing style, secure and manly, without the strut of machismo. If I could be a forward, I would want to be Gainey.
- Ken Dryden, The Game, p. 82
As many of us know, Bob Gainey is in the Hall of Fame (a first-balloter, no less), enshrined for that very will to win as a solid defensive forward on some of the most successful teams in NHL history. He, by all means, deserved the accolades, winning the first four Selke Trophies (a record that still stands, pending a Datsyuk challenge), the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1979, and 5 Stanley Cups. The great architects of the Soviet hockey program, Anatoli Tarasov and Viktor Tikhonov, proclaimed Gainey to be the world's best all-around player in his prime. The Hockey News pegged him at #86 on their 1998 list of the greatest hockey players of all-time.
All of these honors are pretty incredible when you think of his career stats (as so many of the current HOF-eligible players are thus analyzed): 1,139 games, 239 goals, 262 assists, and 501 points as a left winger. In his best years, he averaged just over a point-every-other-game. He finished with an overall +196, a tidy number though small compared to some of his teammates (Lemaire - +349, Lafleur - +453, Shutt - +393, Robinson - +730). Inducted in 1992, his more dubious reputation as a GM was too late to influence any voters (I know it shouldn't regardless, but it does, people).
Thus, we know that Gainey's contributions were not measured by the final stats, but by the large volume of praise for his less-tangible accomplishments. He was the defensive forward, an essential component of any successful team in any period of NHL history. He's also unique, being one of the few HOF inductees of the NHL's last 40 years that was almost solely a defensive forward, the other being Bob Pulford (barely...he retired in 1972).
This all begs an important set of questions: Were Gainey and Pulford the only electable defensive forwards of the last 40 years? Are there no comparable talents that matched Gainey and Pulford's contributions and success? When we think of HOF-calibre players today, what does it take to consider a player with Gainey's career stats? Would a forward that scores many goals but completely neglects his own end of the rink be more likely to be elected than a forward that played solid (think, award-winning) defense in addition to the occasional goal/assist?
Since the 1980s, I'd argue that there's a reluctance to recognize the defensive forward, an important player lost in the astronomical offensive numbers we saw three decades ago, rarely to be recognized even when the defensive game re-emerged in the mid-90s. Sure, if there comes a player that joins point-per-game offense with relatively good defense, he enters the conversation, and when Selanne's opportunity comes around his average defense will be sufficient. But what about those defensive forwards?
Case in point is a player that entered the league in Gainey's waning years, and survived the 1980s and early 90s with his elite defensive reputation intact. Guy Carbonneau toiled over 19 NHL seasons, winning 3 Selkes and 3 Stanley Cups, all the while carrying the label of the league's best defensive forward. Beyond that, he did something incredibly well that Bob Gainey rarely ever did: win faceoffs. In the process, Carbonneau played 1,318 games, scoring 260 goals, 403 assists, and 663 points along with a career +/- of +186.
Another more-recent example is a player currently without a job, Jere Lehtinen. Also the recipient of 3 Selkes and a Stanley Cup, Lehtinen has had a more prolific scoring career than Gainey or Carbonneau, but this was certainly not to the detriment of his defensive game. For sure, if you were to ask 100 hockey experts on the best defensive players of the period 1995-2010, Lehtinen would enter the conversation for almost every one. With 875 games played, 243 goals, 271 goals, 514 points, and a career +176, who could argue? He only had one season where he finished with a minus (Gainey had two, and Carbonneau four) despite playing on a number of suspect Dallas teams. He and Modano were constants on teams that boasted some of the most incredible goaltending statistics in NHL history, including Ed Belfour's 1997-98 and 1998-99 and Marty Turco's 2002-03 and 2003-04. Yet it is unlikely that Lehtinen will get his due, much like Carbonneau sees each year come and go without a chance to join his Montreal brethren in the hallowed Hall.
In a time when statistical analysts are bringing us ever closer to defensive player value, it's time to remember that those Red Wings, those Devils, those Penguins, didn't get there without Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby, Jay Pandolfo, John Madden, Jordan Staal, etc. The defensive forward is still important, still integral to regular season success, playoff hockey, and the Silver of all Silvers. I'm not saying enshrine Michael Peca on principle, but I do believe that each generation boasts at least one defensive forward that deserves enshrinement along with the multitudes of point-per-gamers nominated from year-to-year by our hockey writers and dignitaries.