McIndoe: Remembering 8 NHL stars who were Hall of Fame locks, until they weren’t

Nicklas Backstrom recently stepped away from professional hockey, prompting me to ponder the status of the Hockey Hall of Fame. Admittedly, I am a big fan of debating HHOF induction. You can expect more discussions in the coming week as the Hall prepares to welcome the 2023 class. Backstrom won’t be eligible for three years if his career is over. Although I doubt he will make it, there’s still a chance. The HHOF committee occasionally surprises us, to say the least. At one point, Backstrom appeared to be on the fast track to the Hall of Fame. In the 2009-10 season, at only 22 years old, he notched a rare 100-point season. At that time, he would have been a top contender on everyone’s list for future Hall of Famers. However, the NHL often hypes players as “HHOF locks,” only to see their potential candidacy fade over time. So, let’s reflect on eight NHL stars who seemed destined for the Hall of Fame, until they weren’t. Here are a few top players who appeared to be lock-ins, and their careers took unexpected turns.

The first player on our list was drafted No. 2 overall, made an immediate impact in his rookie season, and set an NHL record as a teenager with 55 goals. Despite a brilliant start to his career, he was involved in a trade that set him on a circuitous career path spanning five teams. If this sounds like a familiar story, it’s probably because you’re thinking of Jimmy Carson. Despite his early success, the bulk of Carson’s career success came in his first three seasons, and he was out of the NHL by age 27.

Next, we have a player who scored 180 goals in his first five seasons, enjoying back-to-back 50-goal seasons and finishing in the top ten goals list six times by the age of 29. But, scored just 73 more goals over the next 5 years spread across four teams in the league. That player is none other than Dany Heatley. Despite his hot start, his performance declined significantly by the time he was traded to the Panthers, proving that a player’s dominant 20s doesn’t always translate to long-term productivity.

Then there’s a defenseman who became a Calder Trophy finalist and a Norris Trophy candidate in a short time span, establishing himself as a top goal scorer at his position. You’re likely thinking of Dion Phaneuf, whose career took a downturn after a regrettable trade, and he never again reached the heights of his first three seasons.

Last but not least, an accomplished forward who won multiple Stanley Cup titles, became a Selke Trophy finalist, and amassed a high number of points early in his career was Esa Tikkanen. Tikkanen experienced a significant decline in his offensive output but maintained a reputation as a defensively-minded forward, yet never emerged as a strong HHOF hopeful.

Through these players’ stories, we are reminded that a dominant start doesn’t guarantee lasting success in the NHL. It’s a lesson that the HHOF induction is far from assured, and a player’s trajectory can dramatically change over the course of their career.


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