I despise discussions about Hall-of-Fame worthiness, mostly because the argument devolves into either emotionless fact-comparing that comes off sounding inhuman, or fact-ignoring, annoyingly subjective “gut” arguments that accomplish nothing. However, in the wake of Gary Roberts’ retirement from the NHL after 21 seasons, I scrambled to throw together a puff post wishing the gritty vet well as he parks himself in front of the Hockey Hall of Fame for good, but discovered, to my WWGRD-worshiping horror, that Gary Roberts is not, in fact, a Hall of Famer.
I first hopped to the easiest requisite argument to prove Hall of Fame worthiness: picking a comparable player already in the Hockey Hall of Fame and proving why Roberts was better. Cam Neely seemed the logical choice — surely the power forward who retired at 31 and whose induction was largely aided by his charisma and tireless charitable efforts would prove no statistical match for the uber-consistent Roberts, right?
Not quite. Neely scored 395 goals in 726 career NHL games (an average of 44.6 per 82 GP); Roberts netted 438 in 1224 career games (29.3 per 82 GP). Granted, that average is dragged down by Roberts playing a much larger portion of his career at an advanced age and in an era where goalies were actually capable of making saves occasionally, but Roberts only scored 257 goals before turning 31, Neely’s age at retirement. Both players dealt with injuries and both played through the strike-shortened season, eliminating those elements as significant explanations for the goal discrepancy; Cam Neely was simply a better goal-scorer than Gary Roberts. Roberts did win a Cup, a feat which Neely’s teams never accomplished, but Neely also has 57 career playoff goals to Roberts’ 32, even though Roberts played 37 more playoff games, so it’s tough to outwardly argue that Roberts was a better individual postseason performer than Neely, even if his teams ultimately had more success.
Furthermore, Neely posted three 50-goal seasons and finished in the Top 10 in Goals in 4 different seasons; Roberts scored 50 just once and 40 once, and only finished in the Top 10 in Goals in one season (’92-’93). Ray Sheppard and Tony Amonte each finished in the Top 10 in Goals twice, Alexei Yashin did it 3 times, and John LeClair did it 6 times — I realize this is a random assortment of players and a seemingly arbitrary plateau to point out, but the list goes on and on, and basically renders Roberts’ season-by-season scoring accomplishments inadequate as evidence for his Hall of Fame worthiness.
What about Roberts’ career accomplishments as a whole? For comparison’s sake, here’s a list of the forwards that have been inducted into the Hall since 1997 that played the majority of their careers in the 80s and 90s, along with their career NHL goal totals:
Glenn Anderson (498), Ron Francis (549), Mark Messier (694), Neely, Clark Gillies (319), Bernie Federko (369), Jari Kurri (601), Dale Hawerchuk (518), Mike Gartner (708), Denis Savard (473), Joe Mullen (502), Wayne Gretzky (decent amount), Peter Statsny (450), Michel Goulet (548), Bryan Trottier (524), and Mario Lemieux (690, in like 50 career GP).
The only players Roberts’ totals rival are Gillies, who won 4 Cups with the Islanders, and Federko, a questionable selection in his own right who still scored 220 more points than Roberts in 224 fewer games.
Career goal totals are by no means the be-all and end-all of an NHL player’s worth, even when making a strictly statistical argument, but this list of recent inductees conveys a sense of the gaudy numerical accomplishments of the elite players from the high-scoring 80s and early-90s eras which Roberts doesn’t possess. Additionally, the numbers aren’t going to dwindle anytime soon — an astonishing 19 of the top 50 point-getters in NHL history are either active, still between retirement and Hall eligibility, or have been passed over in their first couple eligible years. In short, a lot of no-brainer-type players are going to get pumped into the Hall in the coming years, making the climate extra-difficult for fringe candidates like Roberts.
Roberts’ best chance at cobbling together Hall support rests with the evocative labels that have accompanied him throughout his career — “Winner,” “Gritty,” “Teammate,” “Intangibles,” “Locker-Room Presence,” “Feared,” “Fearless,” “Fearing,” “Fearable,” “Feary McFearson,” etc. While I do not wish to demean these cliches or the fact that Roberts absolutely deserves every one of these labels many times over, I simply glance back at that list of recent Hall of Famers, as well as the list of those on their way — Yzerman, Sakic, Fedorov, Shanahan — and realize that the same intangible argument could be posed on behalf of practically every individual in question. As for the players who don’t scream “leader,” well, knock Jaromir Jagr’s intangibles all you want — even though the “presence” he brought to the locker room usually came in the form of college basketball scores from games he’d bet on that day, the dude has 1599 career points and two Stanley Cups.
Ultimately, this endeavor has left me exactly where I predicted I’d be in the opening paragraph — caught between wanting to just say “c’mon, who doesn’t love Gary Roberts, throw him in the Hall of Fame,” and being unable to objectively argue that he truly does belong in the Hall based on his season-by-season accomplishments and his career accomplishments in comparison to those of his era’s elite.
That doesn’t mean Roberts won’t get in, of course. I’m confident that he eventually will. And on the day when the Hall finally opens its doors for a lovably terrifying above-average power forward who played his heart out for a seemingly impossible 21 seasons, then believe me, I’ll be applauding with the rest of Pittsburgh (and Calgary and Toronto). Right after I go back and trim this post a tad.