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To Retire Or Not Retire: Markus Naslund's #19

Fans were used to this for much of last decade.
Fans were used to this for much of last decade.

Usually a jersey retirement is met with applause and remembrance - and I have no doubt that Markus Naslund's night on December 11th against Tampa Bay - will be just that and more.

We've seen a number of voices, opinions or tweets present dissenting opinions as to whether Naslund deserves one of the highest honors a player can receive. Some of the voices belong to folks who wouldn't like a damn thing the franchise does anyway (Hi Edmonton!), so ignore the lot of those.

But others think it's fair to ask if such praise should be given to a player who, while he has impressive stats, didn't bring a Cup home and was often chastised as a soft and inefficient captain. Let's quickly dissect the numbers, at least broadly, and put them in a greater context and review what a jersey retirement really is.

Naslund will represent the 97th retired number, excluding the Leafs honored jerseys and the numbers put back into circulation by the Whalers and Nordiques after their respective relocation. 484 skaters & goalies have played for the Canucks since 1970 and only three have seen their numbers retired (%0.6).

Below is a list of all the players (sorted by points) who have had their number retired, dating back to Steve Yzerman in 2007 which seemed apropos considering he'll be the other retired #19 in the house on December 11th. Goalies have been excluded and the * means they served a team captain on one of their teams. The Stanley Cup count doesn't factor in Cups won as a coach or scout. Also note I wanted to include team records but it was difficult to be 100% certain of every possible team record an individual may have so it was removed.

Let's concede this is a small sample and many were from a different era of hockey. Of the 21 respectable individuals (or 22 if you count Messier), Naslund is 16th in games played, 8th in goals, 13th in assists and 11th in points. He joins roughly 60% of the sample who have no NHL records, the 32% who aren't in the hall of fame and the 32% who never won a Cup. So his numbers - obviously goals & points - cast him well with the others but nothing screams he's a no brainer pick either.

But there's no hard and fast requirements here. Retiring a number has no set template; it's what the team has defined as player value worthy of grand acknowledgment. Take Bob Gainey who had four consecutive Selke trophies along with his five Cups and he played every NHL second with Montreal. In other words, a slam dunk from all angles. Other times it's about what that player did more for the franchise: Keith Magnuson didn't have the pedigree of others but served as Chicago's captain, played every game with the Hawks and died suddenly in a car accident. Similarly, Numminen was one of the best Europeans to ever play, had that heart scare and was a mainstay for the Jets when they became the Coyotes. Neither Magnuson or Numminen won a Cup. Some players are a mix of on and off ice accomplishments: Adam Graves played in more games but was far off Naslund's totals, but also had his career year in the Rangers clutch 1994 SC win and has done considerable off-ice work for the organization and remains their employee even today (Prospect Development and Community Relations).

It's completely Vancouver's right to look at their all-time leader in points, who spent 12 of his 15 seasons at GM Place Rogers Arena (including seven as captain) and was their nightly scoring threat and give him the top honors they can. He was the face of the franchise who helped steer it away from the dark days of the late 90's back to a team worth watching and, more importantly, spending money on. Naslund's community worked is almost always understated. He shouldered the brunt of criticism (as he should) all the while earning his way to the Pearson, a Hart trophy nomination, 5 All Star appearances and 345 goals for the Orca (49 of them game winners).

In a pure hockey sense, is he in the same category as a Yzerman, Anderson or Robitaille? No. Yet it doesn't erase his value to the organization either and that's what matters. I commented earlier it's a Catch 22: if you retire the jersey, it's in line with the already debatable choices (though not with the Vancouver faithful) to put Linden and Smyl up; if not you ignore the contributions of one of the most skilled players who impacted the franchise and helped the community.

Does Naslund deserve to be honored for his contributions to the Canucks? Absolutely. Was this the right one? Yes as long as you accept that one team's definition of value can stand in stark contrast to others and clubs with a more rich history are bound to be skeptical of some Vancouver selections, both now and going forward, just as we can praise or be skeptical of the other 29 teams.