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Reflecting upon Tom Barrasso joining Hockey Hall of Fame

The former Penguins’ netminder takes his place in hockey history tonight in Toronto

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Pittsburgh Penguins v New Jersey Devils Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The 2023 Hockey Hall of Fame class is a very goalie-centric occasion that will see Henrik Lundqvist, Mike Vernon and Tom Barrasso all honored as the centerpieces of this year’s class. (Pierre Turgeon, Caroline Ouellette, Ken Hitchcock and Pierre Lacroix are also being inducted this year).

Here’s Barrasso after receiving his ring and jacket:

And while Mario Lemieux isn’t seen or heard from very much these days, even Le Magnifique went out of his way to contribute a little ditty on about his goalie:

How valuable was Tom Barrasso to the Pittsburgh Penguins? We wouldn’t have won two Stanley Cups without him.

Tommy was that good. His arrival in Pittsburgh in 1988 gave us the belief that we could be a contender, and the two Cups followed a few years later — in 1991 and 1992.

He was one of the best goaltenders of his generation — big, quick, athletic and technically sound. He could win a game 1-0, or he could win a game 6-5 (as he did in the clinching game of the 1992 Cup Final in Chicago). It wasn’t always easy playing net behind the offense-minded Penguins of the early 1990s — we loved to skate and score and didn’t always backcheck — but Tommy had the perfect mentality to deal with all situations and help us to victory.

His rookie season in Buffalo in 1983-84 likely never will be repeated. He came directly out of Massachusetts high school hockey and won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goaltender at the age of 18. It was a no-brainer to also name him rookie of the year. The Penguins then managed to acquire him in a trade six seasons later — thankfully — and that helped pave the way to our championship era.

It seemed perfect that Tommy posted a shutout the night we won the first Cup in franchise history at Minnesota in 1991.

There were a lot of future Hall of Famers on the early ‘90s Penguins — Paul Coffey, Ron Francis, Jaromir Jagr, Joe Mullen, Larry Murphy, Mark Recchi, Bryan Trottier, myself — but Tommy was the glue in net who gave us the chance to win two Cups together. He went on to have an amazing 19-year career — playing for Ottawa, Carolina, Toronto and St. Louis in addition to the Penguins and Sabres — but everyone on those great Pittsburgh teams knows how much he meant to us. He’s one of the big reasons we all have rings. And he’s a very deserving inductee into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

The Hockey Hall of Fame summarized Barrasso here:

In 777 regular season games, Tom Barrasso won 369, lost 259, was in goal for 86 ties and 18 overtime losses. At the time of his retirement, Tom’s regular season win total was the second-highest ever recorded by an American netminder. He also set NHL records for most career assists and most career points by a goaltender with 48.

In 119 NHL playoff games, Barrasso won 61 and lost 54. Playoff records include most consecutive wins in one playoff season (11 in 1992), most consecutive NHL playoff wins (14, stretching from May 9, 1992 to April 22, 1993) and shares the record with several goaltenders with most wins in one playoff season with 16 in 1992, the maximum number of wins a team can collect in the post‐season.

The HHOF has always had an...interesting relationship with goalies. For a time it was a regular occurrence to see netminder recognized, like in 31 year stretch from 1958-1989, the Hall inducted 27 goalies.

That dried up and changed in a major way over the last 30+ years; only eight male goaltenders were elected from 1990-2022. The drought was even more severe over the first half of that stretch from 1990-2005, when only two goaltenders got the call.

At some point in that long drought, players like Vernon and Barrasso could have been included, but that never took away from how the Penguins remember their overlooked but vitally important goalie. Rob Rossi from the Athletic:

“But you need the goalie. Every Cup team needs the goalie. Barrasso wasn’t just any goalie. He was the goalie for that team.” (Scotty Bowman)

It’s not that the Penguins didn’t play defense. Or couldn’t. Bob Errey — one of Pittsburgh’s more defensive-conscious forwards — noted that most of the club’s defensemen were of the stay-at-home variety. The back end wasn’t all Coffey and Murphy moving the puck or moving with the puck.

However, defending for the Penguins then was different, Errey said.

“Tommy was an extra defenseman, basically,” he said. “And teams that wanted to pound our defensemen — they just couldn’t. Tommy would get to the puck and send it our way, and we had so many guys who could make plays and finish.

“Honestly, it probably wasn’t fair to have a goaltender like Tommy, with the way he played, on a team like ours. He made us better because of all the things he could do besides making the saves.

“And I want to be clear about something because maybe this gets overlooked: Tommy made the big saves. He had that knack in the big moment when he needed a save, and we just always felt like he’d make it.”

It took a long time, but in a way it’s fitting that the final member of those great 1990’s Penguins teams to make the Hall will be their goalie, who had to wait his turn for all those other top offensive players to get in. (Well, there’s still Jagr to go, but who knows when he’ll stop playing to be eligible). For a team known so much for the offensive flare and scoring power, they still needed someone to stop the pucks to help them win championships. That will be Barrasso’s legacy, and it’s finally going to be enshrined in hockey history.