The fresh canvas of an 82-game schedule launches today. For some players, it’s a blank slate, years of NHL action on the horizon. For others on the back nine of their careers, hockey immortality is at stake. To kick off the new season, we’re counting down the five Hockey Hall of Fame cases for which 2023-24 is most crucial to shaping a future date with induction. These résumés range from incomplete to simply needing a cherry on top.
For the last year, I’ve offered new insight on HHOF cases. But while awareness of statistical context in hockey is making strides, it’s not an overnight switch. Reputation, team success, and basic career totals understandably still drive a lot of the public discourse around a player’s worthiness. So, whether it’s age, contract status, injury history, team contention window, or the sprint to reach historical milestones, each player below is at an imperative juncture in an exceptional career.
5. John Tavares
Age: 33; PPS Score: 256 (+21 vs. Standard); Team: Toronto
Over the years, it’s often been said that there is a HHOF benefit to being in the Maple Leaf limelight. If you’re Tavares (or Curtis Joseph), you may not agree with that sentiment. Through last season, Tavares polled at an absurdly low 19%. Yet, every eligible two-time MVP finalist is enshrined in the HHOF, a feat J.T. had achieved by age 24. From the beginning, he’s been metronome-level consistent, methodically reaching era adjusted totals of 492 goals and 1,100 points.
Unfortunately, the most consistent players are often underappreciated. Steady, elite play often blurs together when compared to the flash of having a signature season or two. Case in point, has anyone put up 36 goals and 80 points more quietly than Tavares did last year?
Naturally, the Leafs’ captain wears some of their post-season underachievement. With two years left on his megadeal and just two playoff rounds won in his career, the ubiquitous pressure to win continues to rise. Continuing his workmanlike march to the 500-goal club is a given. But a deep playoff run this season in hockey’s famous fishbowl will go a long way to highlighting how outstanding and Hall-worthy Tavares has been.
Age: 35; PPS Score: 294 (+59 vs. Standard); Team: Boston
Last month, I took the time to wax poetic about Marchand’s overlooked excellence and how he’s already deserving of a place in the HHOF. So, why is this season important for one of the game’s most polarizing figures?
- Not everyone is as high on him as his PPS score suggests. 58% of poll respondents gave Marchand the green light. A solid result, but with an injury history and a small, battered body, there could be limited runway to further boost that figure.
- Being named Bruins’ captain puts Marchand in the crosshairs. It’s an incredible honour to wear the “C” for a respected franchise entering its 100th NHL year. But what if the Bruins flop and go from all-time juggernaut to distracted, rudderless group outside of the playoff picture for the balance of Marchand’s career?
So, while Marchand’s already done enough to warrant election, it remains to be seen if 14 of 18 members of the Selection Committee will support such a complicated legacy one day. Nailing his debut as captain and efficiently banking the 138 career points needed to reach 1,000 will help lock his spot in the Hall.
Age: 36; PPS Score: 229 (-6 vs. Standard); Team: Washington
Famous for his successful 16-year (and counting) partnership with Alex Ovechkin, Backstrom’s HHOF candidacy once seemed on cruise control. Through age 33, the Swedish centre averaged a sizzling 79-point pace, plus a special performance in securing the Capitals first Stanley Cup in 2018. A member of the 1,000-point club (1,032), he’ll also pass the 1,100-game threshold early this year.
The last four seasons, however, have been unkind. Cruel, in fact. Struggling through mobility issues, games lost to two COVID-abbreviated schedules, and time off for his 2022 hip surgery, Backstrom’s scored just 40 goals over four seasons. While always a pass-first, elite playmaker, major questions linger with his candidacy. Polling at 32%, the Selection Committee would need to elect a forward that:
- May score fewer than 300 goals (currently at 271 with two years under contract).
- Scored 25 goals in a season just once.
- Never finished above 9th place in Hart Trophy voting, earning votes just twice.
- Never finished above 7th place in Selke Trophy voting.
- Got out of the second round of the playoffs just once.
While it shouldn’t matter what a surgically-repaired 36-year-old achieves as an encore, Backstrom’s case is borderline enough that any late flashes of brilliance or association with Ovechkin’s record chase can only help.
Age: 36; PPS Score: 223 (-12 vs. Standard); Team: Ottawa
Giroux’s HHOF case is in a unique group with Phil Kessel in that it matters who you ask.
- The pro-Claude crew will point to his three MVP-calibre seasons, or his seven top-10 finishes in NHL assists, or his inspiring play in the 2010 Cup Finals run, or the spring he stood up to Sidney Crosby and the Penguins, or when he slipped into the best player in the world conversation — even if it was a generous suggestion.
- The detractors may point to an inconsistent career weaving mediocre years with the great ones, or a single 30-goal season leaving his point totals filled with secondary assists, or an inability to move the post-season needle with the Flyers after those early runs (4/14/18 in 35 playoffs games spanning nine years), or getting into only one game in any of the three Crosby era best-on-best Team Canada titles.
PPS has Giroux a little short at 223, which is where it feels right now. Fans thought so too, with 25% supporting induction. Another inspiring year pumping up his career numbers as an elder statesmen on the upstart Senators — and hey, maybe even a playoff drive — may keep Giroux’s case in sight longer and make all the difference.
1. Joe Pavelski
Age: 39; PPS Score: 245 (+10 vs. Standard); Team: Dallas
Through age 29, the thought of Joe Pavelski in a HHOF article would have been preposterous. With 191 goals, 415 points, and 26 playoff goals, Pavelski was a nice player in a low-scoring era, part of a Sharks’ core that was largely known for its regular season brilliance and playoff disappointments. Heck, he wasn’t even the best forward named Joe on his team. Few players approach the output of their 20s in their 30s. Nearly everyone falls dreadfully short.
Fast forward a decade and Pavelski, entering his age-39 season, has obliterated his 20s. Ready for it? Another 258 goals, 586 points, 47 playoff goals, and a relentless force on two Cup runner-ups (’16 Sharks, ’20 Stars). Coming off a 77-point, +42 season on a ready-for-prime-time Dallas team, Pavelski is not done adding to his totals or his case.
PPS has Pavelski — 449 goals, 1,001 points, 13th all-time in playoff goals (73) — above the HHOF standard. But doing so quietly and without major award love can be a kiss of death for a player’s candidacy, let alone a low key, late bloomer playing in southern markets. His approval rate was a respectable 55% in polling, but far from iron clad for a guy pushing 40. While a decline has to be expected soon, acting as a steadying heartbeat and contributor to a Cup winner could offer that signature moment.
- Sergei Bobrovsky — Age: 35; PPS Score: 296 (-15 vs. Standard); Team: Florida
We saw what stealing a few playoff rounds can do for a goalie’s case this spring. Can Bob (17% polling) grab lightning twice and memorialize his HHOF hopes? It’s easy to forget Bobrovsky has two Vezina Trophies.
- Mark Giordano — Age: 40; PPS Score: 233 (-36 vs. Standard); Team: Toronto
Despite a Norris and some dynamite years in the analytics era, Gio is not seen as a candidate (10% polling). Could a Lanny McDonald Cup moment steals some hearts?
- Jamie Benn — Age: 34; PPS Score: 232 (-3 vs. Standard); Team: Dallas
While his rapid mid-career swoon greatly hurt his stock (3% in polling!), would captaining a Cup winner combined with his Art Ross Trophy prove revisionist?
- John Carlson — Age: 34; PPS Score: 255 (-14 vs. Standard); Team: Washington
Carlson (13%) has 622 points, 5th/4th/2nd Norris finishes, and had 20 playoff points to earn his Cup ring. A 71-point man just two years ago, can Carlson extend his peak and enter a crowded blueline conversation?
- Brent Burns — Age: 38; PPS Score: 281 (+12 vs. Standard); Team: Carolina
A Norris winner (and three-time finalist) with more era-adjusted points than Chris Chelios, Burns rightfully tops the PPS standard. At 46% in polling, is a Cup somehow the credential still needed to cement his impressive (and fun) legacy?
While these superstars have their sights on immortality, Father Time has his sights on them. And we all know his record is flawless. As the puck drops for the NHL’s 107th season, please enjoy these ten respected veterans while you can. Here’s hoping they’ve got some signature moments in store for us in 2023-24.