Meltzer's Musings: Kerr vs. LeClair, Quick Hits
FLYERS HEAD-TO-HEAD: KERR VS. LECLAIR
When I was growing up, I always enjoyed reading the "Who's Better?" feature in Hockey Digest, in which two NHL stars would be compared in various aspects of their games and the writer would come to a final conclusion as to which player was the superior all-around player. I didn't always agree with the verdict, but it was entertaining reading.
For years, I have toyed with the idea of adapting the same idea to comparing Flyers players head-to-head. Context needs to be added to adjust for era (as best as possible) for players who were not contemporaries. However, the very best players could be effective in any era given adjustments in their training techniques and the advances in the technology and gear -- such as today's goalie equipment versus the much smaller and less protective equipment of the 1970s to late-1980s.
Two of the best comparison players from Flyers history are Tim Kerr and John LeClair. It is nearly impossible to choose which oak tree-like power forward was the "better" player for the Flyers. Both were dominant scorers for many years. Kerr and LeClair were simultaneously very similar and very different players.
LeClair and Kerr each had tremendous size and strength to bull their way to the slot or set up shop in the crease. Both were generally quiet and stoic sorts who led by example. Both were underrated in their ability to score goals in different ways apart from deflections and rebound put-backs in front.
LeClair also had an overpowering slap shot he could unleash from anywhere over the blueline, while Kerr was also deadly from about 25 feet away from the net and could score from his knees or even flat on his belly better than just about any player I've ever seen (including LeClair, who was quite adept in his own right). Both players started out their NHL careers as centers but were better known as wingers. Both could score goals by the bushel and turn the tide of a game that started out poorly.
There were also some notable differences, apart from LeClair shooting left and Kerr shooting right.
For instance, Kerr fought quite a bit (and was good at it) early in his NHL career, whereas LeClair only had one fighting major in his Flyers career; and that one wasn't even a bona fide fight. LeClair was deserving of more serious consideration for the Lady Byng Trophy than he ever got. LeClair could get physical -- just a dip of his shoulder often sent would-be checkers tumbling to the ice -- but he was one of the cleanest checkers I ever saw. Fortunately for opponents, LeClair was usually slow to anger. Kerr was generally peaceful until provoked but could get pretty nasty when he got fired up.
Neither LeClair nor Kerr were artistic skaters or Selke Trophy candidates as defensive players but I thought LeClair was the better of the two in that area, especially in his younger years before he slowed down. On the flip side, LeClair sometimes had a tendency to overstay shifts whereas Kerr paced himself a bit better. In terms of even-strength effectiveness, I'd give LeClair the nod over Kerr but no one could touch Kerr when it came to being a power play juggernaut.
Durability-wise, LeClair would get a major edge over Kerr despite the fact that LeClair started to break down physically once he hit his 30s. In his 20s, LeClair was seemingly indestructible. With Kerr, there were major injuries to his knees and, later, his shoulder, that set him back early in his career and cut his prime shorter than it otherwise would have been.
Kerr had an advantage over LeClair of playing in the high-scoring 1980s to early 1990s, whereas LeClair's best seasons came in the mid-to-late 1990s when scoring was decreasing leaguewide amidst rampant clutch-and-grab defense and widespread copycatting of the Jacques Lemaire version of the neutral zone trap. Teams stocked up on huge defensemen specifically to combat players like LeClair and Lindros.
That said, a healthy Kerr would still have piled up the goals in any era. Additionally, I don't think LeClair would have scored more in the 1980s than he did as Lindros' linemate. Kerr played with some quality setup men such as Peter Zezel and Pelle Eklund but no one who created as much space for his linemates as Lindros.
Very honestly, even as I try to come up with a final verdict of which player was "better," I still don't know which one I'd pick. It's splitting hairs. The Flyers were even more fortunate to have had both players on the team in their respective eras.
If I had to be pinned down on one or the other, I'd give the narrowest of victories to LeClair on the basis of greater NHL longevity. With that said, I think Kerr at his peak in the mid-1980s was a shade more dominant as individual player than LeClair in the mid-1990s during the times when Lindros was out. Honestly, you couldn't go wrong either way.
SUNDAY QUICK HITS
* Alum Birthday: Pete Peeters, a two-time All-Star goaltender with the Flyers and a Vezina Trophy winner the season after he was traded to the Boston Bruins, turns 57 today. The Flyers dealt him to the Bruins on June 9, 1982. In return, the Flyers received young defenseman Brad McCrimmon. The move also cleared a path for top goaltending prospect Pelle Lindbergh to be promoted to the NHL on a full-time basis.
* Alum birthday: Right winger Drew Callander turns 59. Callander was a second round pick in 1976 who spent parts of three seasons with the Flyers. Along with defenseman Kevin McCarthy, Callander was traded to the Vancouver Canucks in Dec. 1978 in an ill-fated deal for former two-time NHL All-Star Dennis Ververgaert. McCarthy went on become the Canucks captain and played in an NHL All-Star game, while former 37-goal scorer Ververgaert notched a combined 23 goals over one-and-a-half seasons in Philly.
* Today in Flyers History: On Aug. 17, 1977, the Flyers signed an undrafted collegiate free agent forward from Providence College. The player had finished the 1976-77 season on an AHL tryout with the Springfield Indians. Although the player never earned an NHL callup and did not make much impact with the Maine Mariners in his one and only full AHL season, he went to become a recognizable -- sometimes controversial -- name and face around hockey.
The player's name: Brian Burke.
Burke was a bit player on the Mariners' Calder Cup championship winning team of 1977-78. He dressed in 65 games as a fourth-line forward, collecting three goals, eight points and 60 penalty minutes. Burke dressed in eight of the Mariners' 16 playoff games, failing to record a point but posting 25 penalty minutes.
After playing one season in the AHL, Burke temporarily left hockey to attend Harvard Law School. He earned his juris doctor in 1981. Burke then got back in the hockey business.
For much of the early to mid-1980s, Burke was an NHL player agent. In 1987, Pat Quinn (a connection from Burke's time in the Flyers' organization) hired him as the Vancouver Canucks' director of hockey operations.
Burke served in that post until 1992, when he left the Canucks to accept the general manager post with the Hartford Whalers. After one season on the job in Hartford, Burke accepted a job with the NHL and gave way for Whalers' head coach Paul Holmgren to also become the GM.
From 1993 until 1998, Burke served as the NHL's executive vice president and director of hockey operations and handled league disciplinary issues. In 1998, he returned to the Vancouver Canucks, succeeding old friend Quinn as the general manager. Burke remained through the 2003-04 season.
After the lock-out canceled 2004-05 season, Burke joined the Anaheim Ducks front office. As general manager in 2006-07, his club won the Stanley Cup. In Nov. 2008, Burke left the Ducks to join the Toronto Maple Leafs.
From Nov. 2008 to Jan. 2013, Burke had a tumultuous tenure as president and general manager of the Maple Leafs. On January 9, 2013, Burke was kicked upstairs into a senior advisory role and removed from hockey operations. He resigned nearly nine months later to pursue an opportunity with the Calgary Flames.
On Sept. 5, 2013, Burke became the Flames' president of hockey operations; which remains his current job title. After general manager Jay Feaster was fired, Burke served as interim general manager until hiring Brad Treliving on April 28 of this year.