James O'Brien

Hockey Daily Dose

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Dose: Greatest of Our Time?

Wednesday, December 04, 2013


So, it sounds like the NHL will finally get Wayne Gretzky the several millions he’s been owed for years, thus ending a brief era known as “one of the only times we can credibly feel bad for Wayne Gretzky.”

 

(Well, unless you’re a parent cringing at the racy things his daughter posts on the Internet. That could be different.)

 

As a recovering Mario Lemieux apologist - hey, my age group falls in that sweet spot, along with Hulk Hogan idolatry - there’s a part of me that will always feel that Gretzky’s greatness is amplified by being born at the exact correct time. Everything worked out so well for “The Great One,” though I’ll freely admit that he’s the Greatest of All-Time (or the GOAT, as the kids/people on the Internet like to say).

 

Just to reiterate for the slower readers out there, Gretzky is the best ever. This is more about arguing that the gap probably isn’t as large as it seems … and even if it is, that we should at appreciate what we do have.

 

Truth be told, my inner cynic almost always rebels against consensus demigod conversations, as there is an admittedly biased part of me* who’s not so sure about virtual no-brainers such as Michael Jordan, either.

 

Editor's Note: Rotoworld's partner FanDuel is hosting a $2,000 Fantasy Hockey league for Wednesday's NHL games. It's just $10 to join and first prize is $400. Starts Wednesday at 7pm ET. Here's the FanDuel link.

 

For everything NHL, check out Rotoworld's Player News and follow @Rotoworld_ HK+@cyclelikesedins on Twitter.

 

Oh, and there’s still some time to join a Yahoo! Hockey Pool, so get on that.

 

Anyway, this is a long way of saying that I think that Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin are accomplishing truly amazing things, perhaps historically great work. And the same can be said for Jaromir Jagr and a few others before them. I find it hard to fathom what kind of numbers those players would have generated if their primes came in the profoundly different 80’s and so on.

 

CROSBY’S PLACE AMONG MODERN SCORERS

 

After I took a quick look at just the raw numbers, it’s clear how difficult it is for players to be regular scorers in the modern (still kind of dead puck) era. Crosby’s 1.41 point-per-game average since coming into the league in 2005-06 towers over the rest.

 

Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin are the other truly dominant producers with 1.22 averages.

 

That's impressive stuff, but it's the rest of the league that kind of depresses me. Among players who've notched at least 100 games played between 2005-06 and now, only 18 players have averaged a point-per-game. (Plays sad music.)

 

THE GRETZKY DIFFERENCE

 

To keep things simple, I looked at Wayne Gretzky's astounding run of work from 1979-1980 to 1988-89 rather than his full career (which, by the way, it must be said that he actually put up great numbers more or less until the end of his NHL days ... my childhood sports brain morphed that memory). The result wasn't surprising: Wayne Gretzky blows everyone else away with a 2.37 point-per-game average. (It just doesn't even make sense that someone was ever able to do that.) Only Mario Lemieux flirted with two points-per-game, even in that era.

 

Still, when you dig deeper and consider context, maybe our current great ones are almost as amazing as "The Great One." Here are the players with higher (or equal) point-per-game averages than Crosby in those high-flying times:

 

1. Gretzky - 2.37 points

2. Lemieux - 1.94 points

3. Mike Bossy - 1.52 points

4. Peter Stastny - 1.46 points

5. Jari Kurri - 1.41 points (tied)

 

While 18 players averaged a point-per-game in the other sample, 47 did it in this span. Granted, it’s a bigger window of time, but that also cancels out a few small window of time guys.

 

CHANGING TIDES

 

Want an idea of how astronomically different NHL scoring has become in the 20-30 years that separate Crosby and Gretzky? The basic gist is that there was an average of 7-8 goals scored per game in the halcyon 80’s while the average now rests between 5-6. Basically an extra goal per team. Yikes.

 

It might be easier to look at the average of how many goals teams scored each season, something made even more profound based on the fact that we now have 82-game seasons versus 80-game ones.

 

To avoid boring you, I went every three years:

 

1979-80 league average: 281 goals scored

1982-83 league average: 309 goals scored

1985-86 league average: 317 goals scored

1988-89 league average: 299 goals scored

 

2005-06 league average: 253 goals scored

2008-09 league average: 239 goals scored

2011-12 league average: 224 goals scored

 

Yikes.

 

THE EYEBALL TEST

 

I’m certain there are metrics out there that adjusts for the difference of trying to score a goal in the 80’s versus right now. Maybe they’re even legitimate enough to generate real conclusions.

 

Still, there are a million factors - some very human, some systemic - that make comparing players from one era to another seem kind of silly. (And really, that applies to other sports; Babe Ruth hit more home runs than entire teams in his era.)

 

Watching clips of older games, it makes today’s game seem so … congested.

 

The players are alarmingly large now. Everyone skates in a way that makes many of the old clunkers look like they were walking. Goalies went from looking like misshapen dudes who attached couch cushions to their legs to the modern look that makes an accountant-size goalie seem like a half-man half-tank. (Seeing Dominik Hasek sans pads was revelatory … it looked like he weighed about 150 lbs.)

 

We all assume that everyone’s at the top of their game every night, but marathon seasons assure that isn’t always true. So maybe climbing the mountain that comes with scoring a goal today is simply a more demoralizing challenge than it was years ago. When you’re tired - say, you’ve played three games in four nights - that lack of breathing room could be more crushing.

 

Conversely, maybe it’s easier to relax when the points come a little easier.

 

IF YOU MUST WANDER INTO THE PAST, AT LEAST BASK IN THE PRESENT TOO

 

This isn’t a matter of saying that Gretzky isn’t the greatest. No reasonable person would argue otherwise, unless you’re pounding the Bobby Orr drum.

 

My point is that maybe we don’t realize just how great we have it now, too. Crosby scoring points over and over again might not be more amazing or even equally impressive as what Gretzky did … but it’s the closest thing we have now and could be the closest thing we’ll see for ages.

 

And, circling back to something I’ve sermonized about before, Alex Ovechkin is producing some goal scoring feats that don’t even seem like they should be possible in this tight-knit era.

 

Really, the Dose is mainly about finding diamonds in the rough, but today felt like the kind of day to take a moment out to trumpet something truly special. Don’t sleep on Crosby and a handful of others.

 

And don’t dismiss the possibility of Sidney Crosby possibly winding up in the GOAT conversation some day … if we can somehow keep it relative.

 

INJURIES (full list)

 

Steve Stamkos is aiming for a Feb. 6 return from his scary shin injury. Good news for Canadian fans and fantasy owners; not sure if this is the right move for Stamkos short-term, though … Sergei Bobrovsky is day-to-day with a lower-body injury … Henrik Zetterberg is day-to-day with a back issue … The not-very-helpful update on Ilya Bryzgalov is that he could be back as soon as Thursday or could be out “two years.” Thanks a bunch, Dallas Eakins …. The update on Ryan Malone is that he’s out three-to-four weeks with a fractured ankle … Tyler Bozak suffered an upper-body injury … Alexander Edler is day-to-day with a lower-body injury of his own.

 

* - I might still be scarred by Charles Barkley’s Phoenix Suns losing in the NBA Finals. It doesn’t help that the NBA 2K video games failed to allow me to exorcise those demons in polygonal form. Just saying, 2K Sports, just saying.



James O'Brien is the Hockey Daily Dose's author and has been a contributor to NBC's Pro Hockey Talk for more than four years. Follow him on Twitter.
Email :James O'Brien



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