HHOF Profile: John LeClair

This is the first in an upcoming series profiling the most intriguing HHOF cases. These profiles will focus on eligible candidates and will ramp up leading to the June announcement of the 2023 HHOF class. You can find an earlier post on 2022 inductee, Daniel Alfredsson, here.

The HHOF Narratives 🎭

  • Big Proponent: “A dominant, three-time 50-goal scorer, hero of the Habs’ last Cup title, and star of U.S.A.’s landmark World Cup win, he’s the only five-time year-end All-Star outside the Hall.”
  • Big Opponent: “His run as an elite player was only six full seasons propped up by linemate Eric Lindros, while two overtime goals and the World Cup greatly inflate a Hall of Very Good career.”

The Basics πŸ’

  • Position: Forward (Left Wing)
  • NHL Teams: Montreal, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh
  • NHL Career: 16 seasons (1991-2006)
  • First Eligible for HHOF: 2010
  • HHOF Status: Not Inducted

The Hardware πŸ†

  • On-Ice Honours: All-Star: 2 x 1st-Team (’95, ’98); 3 x 2nd-Team (’96, ’97, ’99)
  • Off-Ice Honours: None
  • Stanley Cups: 1 (’93); Finals: 2 (’97)
  • International (best-on-best): representing U.S.A.
    • 2 x Olympian: 1 x Silver (’10)
    • 1 x World Cup: 1 x Winner (’96)

The Statistics πŸ’»

  • 7-Year Peak: Adjusted Pace of 50/46/96

The High Noon Card πŸ“ˆ

The regular knock on John LeClair‘s HHOF candidacy is that his peak was brief, insignificant in a historical sense. A valid criticism, perhaps. LeClair’s time among the game’s best was contained largely to his age-25 to age-30 seasons. However, High Noon reveals two critical things about the Vermont-born sniper:

  1. He spent around a decade in the league’s top 50 forwards. This is no small feat. It extinguishes the idea that LeClair is merely a footnote in hockey history.

  1. He spent a half-decade among the NHL’s top six forwards. This is rarified air. Every eligible forward that spent five years in this dominant stratosphere is in the HHOF.

Why hasn’t anyone noticed LeClair was so good?

The former Legion of Doom line member is rarely mentioned among HHOF hopefuls. TSN noted eight male holdovers in its look ahead to the Class of 2023. LeClair was not listed. A simple visual emphasizes his terrible luck in terms of scoring environment.

LeClair’s outstanding seven-year peak is highlighted above. It began precisely as NHL goal scoring fell off a cliff. Offence dropped so dramatically and quickly that elite scorers of this generation are unfairly an afterthought. Keith Tkachuk. Marian Gaborik. Patrik Elias. Peter Bondra. Ziggy Palffy. All are criminally underrated talents, victims of circumstance with better resumΓ©s than many elected forwards.

Here’s what LeClair’s goal totals look like from 1994-95 to 1999-00 had he played in a neutral scoring setting (i.e., six goals per NHL game) and without a lockout:

  • 45, 49, 52, 59, 49, 44 — a total of 298 goals (50 per year)

What if LeClair had the good fortune of having his best six years from 1980-81 to 1985-86? For timeline purposes, this period would be around Glenn Anderson‘s best scoring window. Brace yourself.

  • 58, 65, 67, 77, 64, 58 — a total of 389 goals (65 per year!)

Bonkers totals, I know. There wouldn’t be enough aloe in Philadelphia to soothe the necks of the NHL goaltending union from LeClair’s lamp-lighting. He placed 10th, 5th, 3rd, 3rd, 5th, and 7th in goals during the stretch — second in the NHL to Jaromir Jagr by a single goal. His production was not limited to goals only, as he snagged top-10 finishes in points on four occasions.

The PPS Card πŸ“Š

We’ve established the 6’3″ winger’s best years were otherworldly. Remarkably, LeClair’s peak is 15th-best among all post-expansion forwards. 15th! His Peak score in PPS (119) is sandwiched between Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg. As Larry David would say: “Pretty good. Pretttttttty, pretttttttttty, pretttttty good.”

But how about the rest of LeClair’s case? Suiting up for only 967 games, his Career value (68) is pedestrian, but still better than 21 of the 61 post-expansion HHOF forwards. As for his Pace, 83 is an excellent score, which would rank 18th. Even as major injuries limited his game count after age 30, LeClair’s game never fell off the rails until his final partial season. All told, his PPS before bonuses is looking outstanding.

How about those bonuses? LeClair scores +10 (out of a maximum 30) for his playoff work. His post-season credentials are a mixed bag. His overall production (89 points in 154 games) is well off his regular season marks. Yet, he is etched in Montreal folklore, two of his four goals that playoffs being overtime winners in the ’93 Cup final. LeClair also reached four conference finals with the Flyers, including the ’97 Cup run where he potted 12 goals in 19 games. For Award Share bonus, he scores just +1, twice garnering MVP votes, but generally playing second fiddle to Lindros.

LeClair’s story — and HHOF case — cannot be told without covering his role in the 1996 World Cup. In the 14 best-on-best international events to date, the U.S.A. has won a single title. LeClair was a force, his 10 points in seven games landing him on the tournament all-star team. Both LeClair’s and the States’ standing in the hockey world launched exponentially from the victory. While the 1980 Miracle On Ice inspired millions and created monumental awareness, it was not best-on-best. There were no North American professionals at Lake Placid. So, 16 years later, America was not yet an accredited hockey power. LeClair and company’s comeback over Canada left a mark on future generations of American talent, and as such, boosts an already strong case.

Overall, the PPS system loves LeClair. It would take him out for a steak dinner, a romantic comedy, and even spring for buttered popcorn. His PPS score (284) exceeds the standard (235) by 49, the largest gap of any eligible post-expansion player awaiting election.

The Comparisons πŸ”

LeClair’s closest contemporaries in PPS (i.e., HHOF worthiness) are fascinating. Neither have careers like him (or each other), but their contrast is highly illustrative.

  • Pavel Bure represents the Ghost of Christmas Past, if you will. Retired from knee injuries at 31, Bure is a vision of LeClair’s 20s. From a style perspective… absolutely not! Bure was the blazing assassin of his day, LeClair a large and powerful force. LeClair played only 16 games in his age-31 season, serious back injuries putting his career at risk. Had he not returned in his 30s for a few more good-but-not-great years, he’d resemble Bure’s tragically incomplete career. Despite three Rocket Richard Trophies, Bure’s peak is still a tick behind Big John’s. That’s how dominant LeClair was at his best.

  • Mats Sundin is LeClair’s perfect contrast. Sundin was never as dominant as LeClair. Not even close, in fact. His High Noon is #16. Sundin’s well-earned path to the HHOF was a slow and subtle burn, featuring a productive 15-year stretch tallying between 76 and 97 adjusted points. LeClair and Sundin represent two logical routes to the Hall — be a top-five player for five years, or be a top-30 player for 15 years. The common beef in my Twitter mentions regarding HHOF cases is “player X was never truly great.” LeClair was truly great. Sundin was extremely good for an extremely long time. PPS rewards them both equally.

The most similar career to LeClair? Using Adjusted Hockey’s player comparison tool, it’s Paul Kariya (PPS: 276). Both directly crossed paths at their best, nabbed five year-end All-Star nods at left wing each, earned a best-on-best international belt, had serious injury scares, and were left with underwhelming totals due to relatively short careers in historically lean scoring times. Kariya waited four years for induction. LeClair is up to 13.

The Deep Dive 🀿

We’ll dismiss a few of the long-held views on LeClair’s candidacy:

  1. He was a product of Lindros. Yes, LeClair benefitted from Lindros (and vice versa, naturally). Lindros was injured a lot, missing 96 games in the five full seasons of their partnership. Without The Big E in the lineup, LeClair scored at a 46-goal pace, virtually identical with his regular output in those days. If we’re playing this game, it’s a slippery slope across history. Is Jari Kurri‘s career as brilliant sans Wayne Gretzky? Why didn’t Mikael Renberg start burying 50 with Lindros?

  1. LeClair’s career totals are too light for the sport’s greatest honour. We’ve shown LeClair played at a time that decimated career totals. So, why compare totals to when goals were 120% to 150% more frequent? Hockey misses the plot a lot when using raw counting numbers. But let’s entertain the argument. LeClair played four years of college hockey (a common route for Americans of the late-1980s). Had he left Vermont a little sooner and cobbled together 50 points in his early 20s, would that make his career better? If he didn’t miss half the 1994-95 year to a lockout, he’d have another 30 more points. If he didn’t lose the entire 2004-05 cancelled season, he was a lock for 50 points (he had 55 before, 51 after).

So, if LeClair was a low-impact rookie earlier and didn’t lose games to lockouts, he easily crosses the 1,000-game mark, posts around 470 career goals and 950 points in The Dead Puck Era. Would that make him a better player? Certainly not. It would just be an arbitrary marker for a sports bar conversation — empty calorie output near the beginning or end of a long career.

On Twitter, intentionally lacking context, I posed the question whether someone scoring at a 50-goal pace for seven years puts a player in the HHOF. The results were a resounding yes (82%).

Over LeClair’s best seven seasons, he scored 268 goals in 466 games, a 47-goal pace per 82 games. It’s not 50, sure. But we know the latter half of this stretch was an offensive graveyard. Adjust for era, and you have a seven-year stretch of exactly 50 goals per year. Plus, we know that if LeClair entered his prime in the early 1980s, the same output equates to scoring 65 a season!

The above exercise shows that the hockey public wants dominant players in the HHOF. The same community, however, has proven reluctant to acknowledge that goals and points scored in the 1970s, 1980s and into the mid-1990s simply have less value than scoring in the last 25 years. A goal is not a goal. It never has been and never will. A dollar as currency fluctuates daily in its purchasing power, let alone yearly. Goals are hockey’s currency. LeClair scored goals when goals were scarce, dominating the game.

While assigning defensive credit prior to the modern analytics movement has its limits, it’s notable that LeClair’s defensive impacts are positive. Every team LeClair played on in his first 12 full NHL seasons were top-eight in fewest goals against. Additionally, the well-documented flaws with plus/minus aside, LeClair was a plus player each season through age 35. That’s with a medley of roster quality, roles, coaches, and teammates. Across his 16 seasons, he is fifth in plus/minus (+204), trailing only Jagr, Sergei Fedorov, Forsberg, and Lindros. Great company, if nothing else.

Lastly, LeClair’s generation of American stars and trailblazers is underrepresented in the HHOF. By PPS score, Americans Tkachuk, Jeremy Roenick, Gary Suter, John Vanbiesbrouck, Tim Thomas, and Tom Barrasso all warranted serious looks upon retirement. While several of these candidates have harmed their cases off the ice, any one of them fits well into the Hall statistically.

The Verdict 🚦

LeClair’s case is that of a player possessed, reaching the greatest of heights in an impressive stretch commanding the sport. Is the HHOF glaringly incomplete without LeClair? Perhaps not. But he is unquestionably one of — if not the best candidate — on the outside right now.

His peak years were utterly dominant. His play stayed at a high level for a decade. He checks the oft-cited playoff and international hero boxes. Had LeClair’s timing been slightly different, his face would have been etched in the Hall for a decade now. In the next two cycles (2023, 2024) where quality first-year candidates are scarce, LeClair deserves enshrinement.

Adjusted Pace, High Noon, PPS System, High Noon & PPS Player Cards, Player Comparison Tool from Adjusted Hockey;
All other data from Hockey-Reference.com

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