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VHL 40 in 40 #38: It's That Time Again

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It's That Time Again

It has been a while, both for 40 in 40 articles, and this particular episode, but it's time for a big return. The creator of the original VHL 20 in 20 series, the excellent Zero, used his last article to ask the question: who is the greatest player in VHL history? In a league based on results it is quite surprising how rarely this question is asked or at least both asked and then analysed in depth. Nonetheless, 20 seasons have passed since the last such article and it is long past time to re-ignite the debate, find out if the answer has changed, and investigate if it's the right one.

Truthfully, there is no reason to beat around the bush: the majority of the replies have not altered since S21. Perhaps the main reason why the best player ever debate is almost non-existent in the VHL is because the answer is pre-determined for so many. Since his retirement following a full VHL career in Season 8, no one has come close to matching Scotty Campbell's 600 goals and 1,239 points. His award case is slightly more within reach, but Campbell was also top scorer a record five times, alongside countless other offensive awards, as well as twice being named playoff MVP and thrice regular season MVP (a trophy now named after him). Lack of championships is not an argument which can be held against Scotty Campbell for he won a cup with three of his four teams, and four Continental Cups is matched only by contemporary Doug Schneider and beaten by one other man (more on him later). Possibly above all the tedious listing of Campbell's frankly ridiculous list of accolades is the fact that he is accepted as the best by all generations of VHL members, from those who witnessed him to those who joined 30 seasons later and could possibly be expected to have a more favourable opinion of modern big names.

"Even though he might have played in a time with weaker competition, his numbers are just insane. The way Campbell dominated the league is something im sure we will never see again, which I believe makes him the greatest of all time." - James Assayag, agent of Hall of Famer Jukka Hakkinen and currently Jakob Ackerman

"It's Scotty Campbell plain and simple. He put up the crazy numbers that no one will ever beat and it might have been in the early years he still put up the numbers." - Greg Harbinson, agent of Hall of Famer Markus Strauss and currently Devin Sundberg

"Even though I wasn't in the league during his career, it has to be Scotty Campbell. He leads the league in just about every important category for a forward; there's nobody who really even comes close to the numbers he put up. To dominate the VHL like he did, even if it was early in the league's history, is an incredible feat. I don't think anyone will be able to match what Scotty Campbell did." - Willem Janssen

"The league may have been very different in the early seasons but there is absolutely no denying his dominance. When people say Gretzky is the greatest NHL player ever the only thing that even needs to be looked at is the record books and you can do the same in the VHL with Campbell. No one has been able to come close to beating his points total from S5 and it can't be denied that Scotty on a team meant a cup forthcoming." - Robert Sharpe, agent of Hall of Famer Alexander Beketov and currently Jackson Miller

"This is pretty tough because different eras have different strengths, and players in Season 1 had less TPE than they do now. At the end of the day, it has to be Scotty Campbell, he was the most dominant player of his era by a large margin. When you think of the early days it's him. He is the Wayne Gretzky of the VHL." - Tyler Owens, agent of Milos Denis

"Last time I participated in this, I very tactfully suggested that Scotty Campbell is the greatest of all time, and my opinion hasn't changed much since then. There's no doubt that there's been a number of great players since then, or even "better" players, arguably. I'm sure dropping a stud like Naomi Young in the VHL's first era, she would be even more dominant than Scotty. However, Campbell is and was just unbelievably ahead of everybody in almost every category in almost any timeline. He dominated no matter the setting; regular season, playoffs, or World Cup. While his era was certainly less developed and maybe "easier," he did start on equal footing with everybody else in the league. I just think he's too far ahead of everybody, both during his career and afterward." - Hall of Famer Jardy Bunclewirth, agent of Hall of Famer CAL G

"There have been some phenomenal players in the VHL over the ages, but for me none compare to the first great. Nobody had as much sheer talent and ability to dominate the league as Scotty Campbell. True, it was a different league back then with completely different talent levels, but in no era has anyone had such a step up against their peers. Campbell was the VHL's first true superstar, and his legacy has lived on for a reason. They don't call him the VHL's Wayne Gretzky for nothing." - Noah Lefevre, agent of Gifford Shock

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Scotty Campbell found success in Vasteras and everything thereafter was a formality

Plain and simple, as stated by these fine men, Scotty Campbell was the best of his time, possibly more so than any generational great. Although his 630 TPE was the most by any forward at the time of his retirement (and remained quite high for much of the first two decades), Campbell's dominance was not a foregone conclusion. For the first three seasons of the league's existence, Campbell was matched in TPE by Calgary's Brett Slobodzian who in fact was the league's best players for two of the three years. Sadly, this juggernaut match-up came to an end when Slobodzian's career was derailed by off-ice incidents in the off-season: he returned for two seasons as a mere shadow of himself and retired as an extreme version of the VHL's Mario Lemieux to Campbell's Gretzky.

Mike Szatkowski, Kevin Brooks, and Christian Stolzschweiger hit 900 points after Campbell but their peaks were much too short and their eras too intertwined to be considered legitimate threats to Campbell's crown. There is no statistical argument to be had here, we instead have to look at one of the main points in several of the above quotes: Campbell's generation and how it stacked up against the future.

At the conclusion of Season 17, Grimm Jonsson became the first (and to date, only) player other than Campbell to be crowned VHL MVP three times, as well as becoming the first 1,000 TPE player in the league. This may seem a requirement for Hall of Fame status these days, but this was quite an accomplishment back then: until Season 25, Matt Bailey at 954 and David Henman with 878 rounded out the top three all-time “TPE whores”. When I answered this question in Season 21, I replied with Jonsson, with the core of my argument being that he was, by virtue of his TPE, a better and more talented player than Campbell. This seems a strange argument in hindsight, since many players after Campbell would have performed better than Campbell if they had played in the same era: that's not really Campbell's fault though. We can safely say now that most of today's stars would be a much better match for Jonsson (if not superior to him) if they played in the lower quality which was the second decade. Fortunately, while this argument doesn't hold up, Jonsson did excel by the same criteria as Campbell, in that he was the best of his time.

"I'd have to go with Grimm Jonsson. The ultimate leader and his statistics go along with it. He embodies what a captain is all about and he is the type of player you build your roster around. Campbell played in a time where it was easier to score." - Hall of Famer Joey Kendrick, agent of Hall of Famer Kameron Taylor

Ultimately Grimm Jonsson's career was split in two parts, one in New York, whom he led to a franchise-first championship with four Messier (now of course Grimm Jonsson) Trophies in five season, one in Seattle, where he took all the individual honours as the league's best forward. Was Jonsson's peak too short to stand a chance? It was as close to Campbell as most people can get and don't let the career stats fool you: Jonsson played in an era where one season a defenceman, Tomas Jenskovic (Campbell's protege) led the VHL in scoring. It's a matter of opinion obviously and while the majority opts for Campbell, I supported Jonsson last time and don't now only because the last 20 seasons have provided us with a few more legitimate contenders.

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Grimm Jonsson: the first successful “next Campbell”

Who are these men? Before we get to them, a mention for those who I was surprised were no one's nominee in their answers. Recently retired Odin Tordahl has dominated his own era in a way unseen since Jonsson and though I have often mentioned that the past generation surprisingly lacks in Hall of Fame quality, Tordahl's talent can not be in question. A slow career start akin to Jonsson meant the fellow Scandinavian's career stats are also less impressive than many players who have no chance in this argument (Josh Vestiquan, Carl Jacobs, Mikka Virkkunen, and Alexander Chershenko to name but a few). Yet when Tordahl got going, especially in his last four seasons in New York, there was almost no stopping the winger. Thrice VHL top scorer, perhaps the main thing holding back Tordahl was his sole MVP honour, in part due to the dominance of Tuomas Tukio.

Goaltenders like Tukio have a legitimate claim to be the next Campbell, who scored as much as he did in part because great goaltenders didn't become numerous until the third decade. Aidan Shaw, Daisuke Kanou, Alexander Labatte, Benjamin Glover, Remy LeBeau and of course Tukio all have claims to be called the VHL's greatest ever goaltenders, and perhaps the size of this list, much like for the best defenceman discussion, is what holds back the goaltending position from claiming this title. There is of course a certain irony that the increasing influence of goaltenders, which has helped turn down goal totals and claimed MVP honours (unthinkable in the days of Campbell and even Jonsson) and thus stymied many a forward who had hopes of beating Campbell, is also the reason for goaltenders to be almost out of consideration for best player of all-time.

"In the end I went with a goalie, and it was an incredibly difficult choice given that he had a counterpart who was equally talented. Daisuke Kanou is a name newer guys will recognize from the award ballot, as the Playoff MVP Trophy is named after him. Kanou won three of these awards, and an equal number of cups in the late teens and early twenties of the league's existence. He wasn't a clear cut better player than Aidan Shaw (who has the top goalie trophy named), and both were incredible players. But I decided that Kanou is the greatest player of all time because he had one thing that Shaw didn't: a lot of cups. It was a hard choice, especially when you try and stack up against guys like Cambpell, Boulet, Jenkins and newer names like LeBeau and Low. But I think that Kanou has to take the cake." - Kyle Snow, agent of Hall of Famer Daniel Braxton

In place of expected nominations such as Shaw, Tukio, Tordahl, or even a defenceman like Labatte or Braxton, I was surprised by one response, both for what it was and that I had never considered the option. Indeed, while you can try to compete with Campbell against your own generation with a large trophy case, you could also try to get as close to his stats as possible. That's next to impossible in this day in age but some recent Hall of Fame inductees did come close, maybe not to 1,200 points, but an equally impressive 900. Calgary lifer Volodymyr Rybak edged as close as anyone to this mark but Phil Rafter became the first player to reach 900+ points and 400+ goals since the elite quartet of Campbell, Szatkowski, Stolzschweiger, and Brooks (trio even since Brooks didn't quite get 400 goals).

"Phil Rafter: One the best players to ever grace the VHL, 5th most in all time points in the league. All this while everyone around him was working with crazy amounts of TPE as well. Only under 100 point plateau twice in his career, and even though he didn't leave the league with more than one cup, he was the benchmark for forwards during the late 20s and early 30s." - Conner Low

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A strange image in between Phil Rafter paragraphs, but won't somebody think of the goalies?

Rafter set himself up for great things from his rookie season by hitting 100 points, a total rarely achieved by any rookie and often by those, like Jardy Bunclewirth and Michael Angelo, and recently Travis Boychuk, who spend extra post-draft season in the VHLM. Rafter got full eight VHL seasons and thanks to a strong start, his 120+ point seasons at his peak added up to a higher total than similar greats before, during, and after his time (like Jonsson and Tordahl for example). Was there an element of luck for Rafter? Without a doubt, but you don't hit 900 career points on luck alone, and any champion and great player needs something extra to push them over. It is, though, up to debate whether Rafter was the best forward of his generation, a dilemma which even pushed his induction into the Hall of Fame back by two seasons, and will undoubtedly lessen his chances of improving a position of a top 10 if not top 5 greatest forward to number 1.

Rafter spent his whole career on a line with a record-breaking player: David Smalling, who once held the single season hits record, is the career leader in the stat, and won the most ever five Scott Boulet Trophies. Smalling was one face of a growing amount of superb two-way forwards in the league, a quality now almost a pre-requisite to be considered a great (just compare Tordahl or Niklas Lindberg's hit totals to Campbell, Szatkowski, and Jonsson). Smalling didn't get as many points as Rafter, often the player with least penalty minutes in a season, and if you combined the two Davos greats, you might have the perfect forward. Unless of course that already happened.

Smalling set a single-season hits record in his rookie season just a year after Leeroy Jenkins first broke into the 400 hits territory: they were both then beaten by Tukka Reikkinen's 430 during his MVP season in Season 30. Jenkins and Reikkinen once got my vote as the two players better than Campbell, for combining 800+ points with hit totals which rivalled physical specialist Smalling. There is more to these two of course: Reikkinen had a superb offensive season in S27 and has the distinction of being the only player to win a cup with both Vasteras and New York, two teams who have always struggled to win championships. Jenkins has a trophy case while almost matches Campbell's, with every offensive award imaginable, as well as four Scott Boulet Trophies – the record he held with Boulet which Smalling beat. Not least of course, Jenkins was the first player to win more Continental Cups than Campbell: winning his record-breaking fifth in his final season in the league.

"I have been one who loves himself a good power forward so guys like Tukka Reikkinen or Leeroy Jenkins are very intriguing. I think they are the only two who both appear in the record books for both most points and most hits, so I'd throw their names into the discussion." - David Collier

"Leeroy Jenkins didn't make a lot of friends during his run in the VHL, and perhaps that could hurt him in this conversation. He hopped from team to team looking for a lot of Continental Cups, and he ended up adding five to his resume by the time he retired. The Season Thirty-One Hall of Fame inductee would win four Scott Boulet Trophies as the league's best two-way player and also won four more major individual awards over his time in the league, including the Most Valuable Player. Campbell is the easy choice. He has 268 more points than anyone else, and while he never had to play the best goaltender of his era (Matthew Pogge was a teammate of Scotty) that number is incredibly hard to ignore. With that being said, I think it's time to shine a light on arguably the best two-way player to ever lace up the skates. Jenkins would finish with 815 points (good enough for eighth all-time by the time he retired) and a ridiculous 2182 hits (2nd all-time when he retired). I tend to lean favourably to players that could do it all, and while he is not the greatest offensive threat in VHL history, a case can be made that Leeroy Jenkins is the best all-around talent to ever play." - Chris Miller, agent of Hall of Famer Ryan Sullivan

I tend to agree with my current GM and while I was once swayed in favour of Reikkinen, it does seem that he had the benefit of retiring two seasons after Jenkins and thus being fresher in memory. It also didn't hurt that he dominated the recent Season 40 Hall of Fame tournament playing alongside Jenkins. That said, Jenkins had it all, and with a better rookie season like Rafter, he would be the runaway contender for Campbell's throne. Jenkins was hurt by an increased attention for defencemen and goaltenders for individual honours and this makes his trophy case not as big as it could have been. That is a flaw for him and clearly the different flaws of Jonsson, Jenkins, Tukio, Rafter, and Tordahl is what continues to allow Scotty Campbell to dominate this vote, but there is no doubt a debate to be had here. Perhaps in the next 20 seasons someone will come along to make this debate obsolete and we will finally have a defined candidate to go to as the anti-Campbell. Until then, this has been the S41 recap of the best player of all-time, far from conclusive but of course it never could be.

End of Part 38
Special thanks to all those who responded to my question

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