Scoring in the NHL - And how freaking good was Gretzky?

BaseballJones

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Wasn't sure if this was worthy of a new thread, but not long ago a mod said if I have doubts, it's better to start a new thread... so... here we go.

Was looking at Marchand's stats and obviously he's having a tremendous year. 38 goals, 45 assists, 83 points. Superb season. Definitely should be at least in the MVP conversation (though almost certainly won't win it).

McDavid leads the NHL with 91 points.

I then started thinking about past seasons, and my mind turned to Gretzky. Here are his scoring totals from 1980-1987:

1980-81: 55 g, 109 a, 164 points
1981-82: 92 g, 120 a, 212 points
1982-83: 71 g, 125 a, 196 points
1983-84: 87 g, 118 a, 205 points
1984-85: 73 g, 135 a, 208 points
1985-86: 52 g, 163 a, 215 points
1986-87: 62 g, 121 a, 183 points

I mean.... those numbers are... mind-boggling. Was Gretzky THAT much better? Or was the scoring environment THAT much different?

This season, teams are averaging 2.75 goals per game. In 1980-81, teams averaged 3.84 goals per game. That's a huge difference. 3.84 goals = 139.6% of 2.75.

Crosby has 42 goals, leading the NHL this year. Let's say he gets 3 more to end with 45. 139.6% of 45 (to account for the difference in goals per game) = 63 goals. Gretzky scored *92* in 1981-82. He scored 87 in 1983-84. Those numbers are SO far above what the leaders should have been (even if you give, say, Crosby every goal that makes up the difference between today's scoring environment and when Gretzky was in his prime).

Take Gretzky's 1981-82 goals scored (92) versus a supposed 45 goals from Crosby this season. 92 = 204.4% of 45.

If you put that into perspective, imagine a major league leader hitting 204.4% of the homers another year's leader did. So take Jim Rice's 46 homers in 1978. 204.4% of 46 = 94 homers.

Or take Porcello's 22 wins in 2016. 204.4% of 22 = 45 wins.

It's CRAZY how many goals Gretzky scored.

Now, I just started watching hockey in 1979-80, and very sporadically in the beginning. So it's hard for me to remember just how good Gretzky was.

Can some of you who recall him playing give me some perspective? Is this just a matter of the game changing, or was Gretzky REALLY just THAT much better?

*Just for fun, here are the goal scoring leaders in 1981-82:

- Gretzky: 92
- Bossy: 64
- Maruk: 60
- Ciccarelli: 55
- Vaive: 54

So yeah, maybe he WAS really that much better. I guess I'd just like some people who remember him clearly giving me some perspective from what you *saw*, not just what the numbers say. Because these numbers are totally mind-boggling. They're like Bonds, circa 2000-2004.
 

NYCSox

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Very short answer is scoring environment. At its peak, the average NHL team scored four goals per game (the Oilers were usually at 5+ per game, topping out at 5.5 per game). Today, as you noted, the average NHL team scores about 2.8 goals per game. That doesn't take anything away from Gretzky but there is a big difference in today's game, especially goal tending techniques (the butterfly style has been a huge factor) and defensive strategy. And a lot of that drop in scoring has come at the expense of production from top 6 forwards.
 

Trotski

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I think for me, the most amazing thing is that you could remove every goal he's ever scored, and he'd STILL be the career leader in points scored. That's incredible.
 

j44thor

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Combination of a transcendent player playing at the right time.

Goaltending was pretty horrible in the 80s to early 90s compared to the offensive skill and teams didn't play the clutch and grab that dominated the late 90s. Goalies got much better (starting with the butterfly) and at the same time their equipment exploded in size which dramatically reduced scoring.

Case in point, Pete Peeters had a 2.36 GAA, 8 SO and went 40-11 in 82-83 all while posting a LOL esque .904 SV pct that would place him 41st in the NHL this season.

Grant Fuhr backstopped most of the Gretzky Oiler cup championships and had a career .887 sv pct. That probably wouldn't cut it in the AHL today.

There is no disputing Gretzky was a very special player but the environment certainly enhanced his skill set. Hell 5'5 Darren Pang was in net back in Gretzky's day.
 

veritas

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Gretzky's career is far and away the best ever, period. There are non-insane arguments that peak Lemieux or Orr were better though
 

Red Right Ankle

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Hockey Reference's adjusted stats have him #3 for goals and #1 for assists and points. The stats adjust for scoring environment, schedule length and roster size.

I am not in love with the methodology for the roster size adjustment, but the stat generally gives sensible results. I am also not 100% clear if their lists include WHA stats or not - the page title is WHA and NHL leaders but the table title is NHL leaders. If they do, you'd have to discount Gretzky a little and Howe quite a bit as they both spent some time in the weaker league. Howe's last two 100 point seasons were in the WHA and Gretzky's first was.
 

Red Right Ankle

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So yeah, Gretzky was really fucking good in one end of the ice. However he was pretty bad defensively. Two 100+ point seasons with the Kings with a negative plus/minus!
 

reggiecleveland

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In hockey drafts there were all kind of Gretzky rules, his points counted as 1/2, if you drafted him you missed your next 5 picks etc, or he was simply not allowed to be picked.
 

Jettisoned

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Didn't players take much longer shifts prior to 15-20 years ago? The average shift length now is something like 45 seconds. According to my dad it was like 2-3 minutes in the 60's. Did this mean more ice time for top lines or did they have similar ice time for each line, only with longer shifts?

If the top liners on every team played 30+ minutes per game because the games were less intense on longer shifts, it would be easier to rack up points. We'd have seen a big shift in points from the upper quantiles to the lower ones in the 90's or whenever the shifts got shorter if this were true, as well.
 

Saints Rest

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My recollection is that the awful neutral-zone trap came into being shortly after Gretzky retired.

Looking at leading goal scorers, year by year, it's interesting (to me at least) that pre-1978-79, there had been one year where someone scored more than 68 goals (Espo in 70-71). Over the next 18 seasons, the leading scorer bested that # twelve times (and a thirteenth season where Bossy had 68) -- and one of those seasons was strike-shortened. Since Lemieux had 69 in 95-96, only one player (Alex Ovechkin with 65 in 2007-8) has scored more than 60 goals.

So that run, from the late-70's to the mid-90's was the heyday for goal-scoring in the NHL.
 

SumnerH

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No, shifts were longer but about a minute or a bit longer but not 2 minutes for sure. TOI seems to first be recorded in 1998-1999: http://www.hockey-reference.com/teams/BOS/1999.html

but I well remember the Esposito/Hodge era Bruins and the need for 2 sets of Power Play lineups for each power play.
Short shifts were pioneered in part by the Flyers; Frank Shero used short shifts against the Buffalo French Connection line.

Those Espo/Orr Bruins were already working in the Shero-influenced era:
The Boston Bruins, who generally play both Orr and Phil Esposito a minimum of 40 minutes per game, have been so impressed with Philadelphia's success that they ordered Esposito to interrupt a Florida vacation and make a trip to the Spectrum to scout the way Clarke and the other Flyer centers work. "That's how Phil's going to play—about 80 seconds per shift, not three minutes," says Boston Managing Director Harry Sinden.
Mike Keenan went to 45-second-ish short shifts full-time with the mid-1980s Flyers, and other teams quickly followed suit.
 

BaseballJones

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I know scoring was higher in Gretzky's day, but man he was SO much better than any of his contemporaries, at least in terms of producing points. To Saints Rest's point above, I just kind of randomly picked the 1985-86 season. Gretzky wasn't even among the top 5 goal scorers - his teammate Jari Kurri led the league with 63 goals.

Points leaders:
Gretzky: 215
Lemieux: 141
Coffey: 138
Kurri: 131
Bossy: 123

Gretzky had 163 assists. 22 more assists than the number two point producer had points.

That's insane. And it wasn't like he didn't score. Dude had 52 goals himself.

When he was wrapping up his career, in a very different goal-scoring environment, when he was with the Rangers, at ages 36 and 37, he led the league in assists still, with 72 and 67 (shows you how different things were). Finished top 5 in MVP voting at age 37.

Unreal.
 

lexrageorge

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As someone mentioned Gretzky's defense above, I wanted to point out that Gretzky was not nearly as bad as a defender as his +/- with the LA Kings indicates.

Granted, Gretzky was never one to use his body to dig out puck from the corners of the defensive zone. But, he did have an ability to get to loose pucks, and also was quite good at stealing the puck from opposing players. He often played on the #1 penalty kill line for those Edmonton teams.

Yes, Gretzky famously (or infamously) achieved a -25 while scoring 38 goals and 92 assists for the 1993-94 LA Kings team. However, that LA Kings team was horribly defensively all the way around (24th out of 26 teams in goals against). Gretzky's linemates were Jari Kurri (who, like Gretzky, was 33 years old and starting to slow down) and Luc Robitaille (never a strong defensive wing). The blue line was Rob Blake (good start) and a bunch of drek: Zhitnik, never a strong defender, was only 21, as was Darryl Sydor. Charlie Huddy was 34. The #1 goal tender was Kelly Hrudey, who was 33.

Gretzky himself was not exactly the same player at 33 as he was in his 20's. While still skilled with the puck, he couldn't as effectively put his skills to use against opposing puck carriers. He was strictly an offense-only player from that point forward to the end of his career. But while he would never be confused with Bergeron on the defensive end, his defense was better than his critics give him credit for.
 

reggiecleveland

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3 things about Wayne

1. What really shocked me about 99 at he end of his career was how much his goal scoring dropped off. 9 goals his last year.

2. As a young player though he was no a shutdown center he often anticipated and intercepted passes and turned them into scoring chances. With strong d is Edmonton he was encouraged to gamble a bit.

3. He was surrounded by incredible talent in Edmonton. They won a cup without him after he left. Messier, Kurri, Coffey were almost generational talents on their own. I believe Super Mario puts up 215 with that crew as well. But it is a chicken or the egg scenario.

Bonus Point: It is impossible to relate how sick of Gretzky a fan of any other team became in Canada at that time. I have enjoyed the suffering the Oiler fans that jumped on Wayne' bandwagon have been through the last few decades. Hoping for a first round exit this year.
 
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lexrageorge

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3 things about Wayne

3. He was surrounded by incredible talent in Edmonton. They won a cup without him after he left. Messier, Kurri, Coffey were almost generational talents on their own. I believe Super Mario puts up 215 with that crew as well. But it is a chicken or the egg scenario.
That 1990 Cup winning team is an interesting story in and of itself. After Gretzky was traded, Edmonton went into free fall in the standings. The 1989 team finished 3rd in the Smythe and lost in the first round to the Gretzky's. The Oilers were better in 1990, but were still considered the 2nd best team in the West after Calgary when the playoffs started. Edmonton was down 3-1 in their opening series against the Jets before they came back to win 3 consecutive games, the first 2 by 1 goal. Meanwhile Calgary lost to the Kings, and then Bill Ranford suddenly turned into Ken Dryden the remainder of the playoffs. Still say the B's may have much more competitive in that series had Petr Klima not happened in Game 1; the B's truly had nothing left in Game 2.

Bonus Point: It is impossible to relate how sick of Gretzky a fan of any other team became in Canada at that time. I have enjoyed the suffering the Oiler fans that jumped on Wayne' bandwagon have been through the last few decades. Hoping for a first round exit this year.
I felt the same way about the NY Islanders; I was living in the middle of Islanders country in the early-to-mid 80's.
 

BigPapiLumber Co.

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I love Gretzky and think it's pretty clear he's the best of all time. But there's a great quote from Gordie Howe that goes something like this: "You put 5 Bobby Orrs on the ice against 5 Wayne Gretzkys or 5 Gordie Howes, and the Orrs win every time."
 

Vinho Tinto

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I grew up in the 80s and remember those Oilers teams that won 4 out of 5 as just being the overwhelming favorite. Surprised to see they won the Presidents trophy just twice.