Wayne Gretzky (a question, he’s still not dead)

Marciano490

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This thread more or less came out of a random 4 AM thought project, but can anyone explain Wayne’s statistical dominance?

I can’t think of any other sport where one athlete has put up scoring stats so far and away beyond what anyone else is currently doing except maybe Wilt’s PPG, which I understand the basis of.

Was he just that much better than anyone else who ever lived? Or, when the NHL was mostly Canadians and Americans, was the talent level so much lesser that he was able to dominate in a way that couldn’t be duplicated now?

Even that doesn’t feel right. It’s not like ballplayers in the ‘30s before integration or 70s or 80s before the influx of Latino players were hitting 90 home runs.
 

Rough Carrigan

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He was great. Also, he didn't even try to play a full game. He wasn't trying to play the game that Phil Esposito and Walt Tkaczuk and Bobby Clarke and others played. They played at least some defense. Also, when he came into the league the whole constantly interfere and hold game hadn't evolved and no one played the NJ Devils pack it in defense.

Is 200 points that incredible compared to Bobby Orr getting 140 playing defense?
 

Ferm Sheller

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To add some content, he played on highly talented teams and at a time of prolific scoring across the league.
 

luckiestman

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One thing to consider, Messier was awesome too so this allowed the Great One to rack up a ton of assists as well as goals
 

Ferm Sheller

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And I’m not sure he was better than Lemieux. He played in more games, and that allowed for gaudier numbers, but I don’t think he was better.
 

snowmanny

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This thread more or less came out of a random 4 AM thought project, but can anyone explain Wayne’s statistical dominance?

I can’t think of any other sport where one athlete has put up scoring stats so far and away beyond what anyone else is currently doing except maybe Wilt’s PPG, which I understand the basis of.

Was he just that much better than anyone else who ever lived? Or, when the NHL was mostly Canadians and Americans, was the talent level so much lesser that he was able to dominate in a way that couldn’t be duplicated now?

Even that doesn’t feel right. It’s not like ballplayers in the ‘30s before integration or 70s or 80s before the influx of Latino players were hitting 90 home runs.
Well Babe Ruth's numbers, including leading the league in OPS 13 of 14 years and out-homering the other seven AL teams in 1920, were, well, Ruthian.
 

lexrageorge

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He led the league in short handed goals 5 times, and that was in the middle of his career.
 

The_Powa_of_Seiji_Ozawa

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It also helped that he had Jari Kurri on RW and Coffey on D. And that he had his own personal bodyguard who followed him around on the ice. Those Edmonton teams really were something.

I always thought Lemieux was the more talented player overall as an offensive weapon.
 

SoFloSoxFan

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To add some content, he played on highly talented teams and at a time of prolific scoring across the league.
In the period when Gretzky put up his best seasons, NHL teams were averaging about 4 goals per game. In the last 20 years it's been below 3.


Edmonton specifically scored 5 - 5.5 goals per game. Last year Tampa by far led the league in goals, scoring less than 4 per game.

So part of it definitely is as simple as "the game was different back then".

To be fair, players get 82 games a season to score now when in Gretzky's heyday a season was only 80.
 

luckiestman

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In the period when Gretzky put up his best seasons, NHL teams were averaging about 4 goals per game. In the last 20 years it's been below 3.


Edmonton specifically scored 5 - 5.5 goals per game. Last year Tampa by far led the league in goals, scoring less than 4 per game.

So part of it definitely is as simple as "the game was different back then".

Sure. He was also dominant in his era
 

SoFloSoxFan

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Sure. He was also dominant in his era
Of course he was. That's most of it. Longevity is also a big part of it.

To get to his level of statistical dominance over every other player in the history of the NHL (Gretzky 2867 points vs #2, Jagr, at 1921) it takes a perfect storm of circumstances.
 
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Dummy Hoy

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One thing to consider, Messier was awesome too so this allowed the Great One to rack up a ton of assists as well as goals
They didn't play on the same line.

Gretz was an all time great- top 3-5 or so best offensive players ever, maybe even number one. I think everyone has mostly covered the reasons for his insane numbers. Also, the goaltending had not evolved during his peak- he could pick it when everyone was still trying to go stand-up kick save.
 

luckiestman

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They didn't play on the same line.

Gretz was an all time great- top 3-5 or so best offensive players ever, maybe even number one. I think everyone has mostly covered the reasons for his insane numbers. Also, the goaltending had not evolved during his peak- he could pick it when everyone was still trying to go stand-up kick save.

I did not know that. Is there a database that shows who scored the most goals from Gretzky assists?
 

SoFloSoxFan

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I'd be shocked if it wasn't Jari Kurri.

" Despite not always playing on the same line, Gretzky assisted on 364 of Kurri's 601 career goals, while Kurri had an assist on 196 Gretzky goals.[2] "

 

lexrageorge

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I did not know that. Is there a database that shows who scored the most goals from Gretzky assists?

196 -- Goals by Gretzky on which Jari Kurri earned an assist. Kurri has the most assists on Gretzky's goals by any player. Paul Coffey is next with 116, followed by Mark Messier with 68 and Glenn Andersonwith 63. Among players who didn't play with Gretzky in Edmonton, Luc Robitaille is the leader with 48.
...

364 -- Assists by Gretzky on goals by Kurri, by far the most he had on goals scored by any one player. Gretzky assisted on 115 goals by Robitaille and 106 by Anderson. In all, Gretzky assisted on goals by 141 players.
 

Marciano490

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I was thinking more his points per season records than his cumulative ones. But, looking at the chart below, a lot of it seems era dependent. Most of the top seasons were in the 80s.

Still, it’s just him and Mario up top. Then Yzerman with 155, but even that’s like 25% below Gretzky’s best season and nobody past ‘93 is even close.

Nowadays, it’s rare getting even halfway to Gretzky’s 215 points. It’s not a perfect comparison, but imagine if modern hitters were leading the league with 31 HRs and 95 RBIs.

 

Mighty Joe Young

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GOAT seems to come down to Gretzky, Lemieux and Orr. Lemieux and Orr were similar in that their careers were much shorter. From my own observations having seen all these guys play:

Gretzky vs Lemieux .. more or less contemporaries .. Gretzky had better teammates but Lemieux had a a much shorter career. Peak value I‘d give a slight edge to Mario .. he did more with less .. but longevity wins the matchup so I’d go with Gretzky.

Gretzky vs. Orr .. this one is trickier .. hockey was a lot different in the 60s and 70s than the 80s. Orr revolutionized the role of a defenceman in the game. He was clearly the best player of his era .. and it wasn’t even close. Statistically he racked up some incredible numbers .. albeit in a league that had a severe talent dilution due to the 67 expansion. Of course his career was sadly cut short due to never ending knee injuries. Gretzky’s dominance was equally as great .. and he lasted a lot longer.

I think I’d rate them Orr, Gretzky, Lemieux .. Orr gets the nod for his overall brilliance and the reshaping of a defenceman’s role. He was absolutely amazing to watch IMO (despite not being Bruins fan). But there’s good arguments for all of them.

Edit: mind you , Gretzky was such an outlier that his statistical dominance is kind of hard to comprehend. The funny thing is, he wasn’t a clinical finisher. He’d get just a ridiculous number of chances in a game. If he’d had the sniper instincts of Mike Bossy for example , he might have had another 200 goals.
 
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lexrageorge

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GOAT seems to come down to Gretzky, Lemieux and Orr. Lemieux and Orr were similar in that their careers were much shorter. From my own observations having seen all these guys play:

Gretzky vs Lemieux .. more or less contemporaries .. Gretzky had better teammates but Lemieux had a a much shorter career. Peak value I‘d give a slight edge to Mario .. he did more with less .. but longevity wins the matchup so I’d go with Gretzky.

Gretzky vs. Orr .. this one is trickier .. hockey was a lot different in the 60s and 70s than the 80s. Orr revolutionized the role of a defenceman in the game. He was clearly the best player of his era .. and it wasn’t even close. Statistically he racked up some incredible numbers .. albeit in a league that had a severe talent dilution due to the 67 expansion. Of course his career was sadly cut short due to never ending knee injuries. Gretzky’s dominance was equally as great .. and he lasted a lot longer.

I think I’d rate them Orr, Gretzky, Lemieux .. Orr gets the nod for his overall brilliance and the reshaping of a defenceman’s role. He was absolutely amazing to watch IMO (despite not being Bruins fan). But there’s good arguments for all of them.

Edit: mind you , Gretzky was such an outlier that his statistical dominance is kind of hard to comprehend. The funny thing is, he wasn’t a clinical finisher. He’d get just a ridiculous number of chances in a game. If he’d had the sniper instincts of Mike Bossy for example , he might have had another 200 goals.
Gretzky's career shot percentage when he was with Edmonton (20.9%) rivals that of Bossy (21.2%) and Lemieux (19%).
 

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So Gordie Howe doesn't make the conversation? Gretzky was simply dominant; he's not a big guy but just quick and with superior vision. He was a joy to watch.
 

santadevil

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Goalies were fucking terrible back then too. Needed to make them move just a bit and you could score, or set up a teammate to score so much easier
Watching old 70's and 80's highlights and using those pads that just soaked up the water

He saw the ice the where the play was going so much better than most others
 

wiffleballhero

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In the simulacrum
Also, the goaltending had not evolved during his peak- he could pick it when everyone was still trying to go stand-up kick save.
Goalies were fucking terrible back then too.
Gretzky's rookie year was 78-79 (wha). The curved stick was still under twenty years old. Goalies were still nearly stand up, some of whom, when he started, had played without masks in their youth. The difference between the skates in 1970 and 1980 is also enormous. Watching video of a game from 1965 is like looking at the dark ages compared to 1985.

He was incredible, for sure. But he was also probably the best, most dominant scorer on a great team at an inflection point for the history of the game.
 
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johnmd20

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Goalies were fucking terrible back then too. Needed to make them move just a bit and you could score, or set up a teammate to score so much easier
Watching old 70's and 80's highlights and using those pads that just soaked up the water

He saw the ice the where the play was going so much better than most others
This is true. But it doesn't come close to explaining how Gretzky was so far ahead of everyone in the league, year after year. Shouldn't have everyone just scored a ton of points if the goalies sucked?
 

cshea

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Ovechkin has an outside chance at breaking Gretzky’s goal record. Ovi is at 667 goals, 228 away from 895. He just turned 34. Depending on his health, decline and how long he wants to play, he could do it. 6 more years averaging 40 a season will get him there. That’s a big ask, but if he plays to 42/43 he could get across the finish line.

Adjusting for era, Ovi is probably the greatest goal scorer in league history.
 

Smiling Joe Hesketh

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This thread more or less came out of a random 4 AM thought project, but can anyone explain Wayne’s statistical dominance?

I can’t think of any other sport where one athlete has put up scoring stats so far and away beyond what anyone else is currently doing except maybe Wilt’s PPG, which I understand the basis of.

Was he just that much better than anyone else who ever lived? Or, when the NHL was mostly Canadians and Americans, was the talent level so much lesser that he was able to dominate in a way that couldn’t be duplicated now?

Even that doesn’t feel right. It’s not like ballplayers in the ‘30s before integration or 70s or 80s before the influx of Latino players were hitting 90 home runs.
In cricket, Donald Bradman put up a runs average something like 40% higher than the second-placed guy.
 

Smiling Joe Hesketh

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I am firmly of the opinion that Gretzky dominated his era to less of an extent than Orr dominated his. 92 goals is a great feat but in that high-scoring era it doesn't dominate quite as much. Goalies were fucking terrible, this can't be emphasized enough. A GAA of 3.00 and a save % of .900 were considered All Star level of play; today those are number that get you sent to the AHL.
 

Vinho Tinto

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I am firmly of the opinion that Gretzky dominated his era to less of an extent than Orr dominated his. 92 goals is a great feat but in that high-scoring era it doesn't dominate quite as much. Goalies were fucking terrible, this can't be emphasized enough. A GAA of 3.00 and a save % of .900 were considered All Star level of play; today those are number that get you sent to the AHL.
They were inferior, but it's not fair to put that all on the goalies. Many teams did not give one shit about defensive positioning.
 

Dernells Casket n Flagon

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This thread more or less came out of a random 4 AM thought project, but can anyone explain Wayne’s statistical dominance?

I can’t think of any other sport where one athlete has put up scoring stats so far and away beyond what anyone else is currently doing except maybe Wilt’s PPG, which I understand the basis of.

Was he just that much better than anyone else who ever lived? Or, when the NHL was mostly Canadians and Americans, was the talent level so much lesser that he was able to dominate in a way that couldn’t be duplicated now?

Even that doesn’t feel right. It’s not like ballplayers in the ‘30s before integration or 70s or 80s before the influx of Latino players were hitting 90 home runs.
The Ruth comparison is a good one for dominance that doesn't look quite as dominant only because the league has shifted more offensively whereas in hockey it shifted the opposite direction. The other one I'll put out there is Jerry Rice. Still a massive leader in Receptions, Receiving Yards and Receiving TDs. When he retired he was 40% of any other receiver in reception, 53% ahead in receiving yards and 51% ahead in receiving TDs, which all compare pretty closely to the leads Gretzky has in Goals, Points and Assists. The league has obviously shifted heavily to passing, and he's still 15-20% ahead in those categories, but if it had instead shifted to defense or rushing he'd be a near peer to Gretzky's statistical dominance.
 

johnmd20

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I am firmly of the opinion that Gretzky dominated his era to less of an extent than Orr dominated his. 92 goals is a great feat but in that high-scoring era it doesn't dominate quite as much. Goalies were fucking terrible, this can't be emphasized enough. A GAA of 3.00 and a save % of .900 were considered All Star level of play; today those are number that get you sent to the AHL.
Not like goalies in the 70s were brick walls. Save percentage for the NHL in 1971 was also .90.
 

Ale Xander

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Mario's line had the opposition's top defensive line on him more than Gretzky's line, if for no other reason that Messier's presence.

Mario also seemed to be more of an all-around player.
 

wiffleballhero

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Not like goalies in the 70s were brick walls. Save percentage for the NHL in 1971 was also .90.
This is my point too, though.

The players sort of sucked in the 60s and early 70s. And really, Gretzky, born in 1961, is probably about the earliest birth year of a player who grew up playing with curved sticks. If you were born in 1950 you would have played with a straight stick until you were probably 17. And the skates were laughable compared to the developments in the boot that started to take place in the late 1970s. The open ice game got way better, pretty fast. It took a while for the goalies to catch-up and then it took a while for the defensive positioning to also catch-up.

I thought Gretzky himself was repeatedly on record saying that he would not be able to score now the way he did then with the way positioning works in the current game.
 

TheStoryofYourRedRightAnkle

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Mario's line had the opposition's top defensive line on him more than Gretzky's line, if for no other reason that Messier's presence.

Mario also seemed to be more of an all-around player.
I agree that Mario was better. Had he not had cancer and a bad back he would probably be the NHL points leader or close to it. That said, let's not discount the talent he had to work with too much. Mario played with Jagr, who was his Messier. Like Gretzky, he also played with a bunch of other Hall of Famers: Paul Coffey, Ron Francis, Joe Mullen, Mark Recchi and Larry Murphy. So he had some serious talent to work with, especially on the early 90s Cup teams. Hell, the '93-94 team took 1st in their division despite Mario only playing 22 games.

Neither Mario nor Gretzky played defense more than strictly necessary; both played on the PK mainly as SHG threats. Mario was bigger and faster, though, so probably was more productive with the same effort level.

I hated to watch him and Jagr play the Bruins, but loved to watch them play any other team. They were amazing.
 

joe dokes

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Gordie Howe was the Don Sutton of hockey.
I would have gone with Nolan Ryan.

Gretzky always reminded me of his contemporary in the pros -- Larry Bird. His skills of vision, accuracy and anticipation were supernatural.
Gretzky was the right guy with the exact right skills at the exact right time. He also took advantage of the smaller area behind the net ("Gretzky's office") . His particular skills also helped him dominate when two-line passes were still illegal.
 

lexrageorge

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Gordie Howe was the Don Sutton of hockey.
I would have gone with Nolan Ryan.

Gretzky always reminded me of his contemporary in the pros -- Larry Bird. His skills of vision, accuracy and anticipation were supernatural.
Gretzky was the right guy with the exact right skills at the exact right time. He also took advantage of the smaller area behind the net ("Gretzky's office") . His particular skills also helped him dominate when two-line passes were still illegal.
I think both of these ignore the fact that Howe was a dominant player in his day. His career totals were certainly helped by his longevity, but in his prime he was the best player of his era (mid-1950's). Ryan is indeed closer, in that he did lead the league in ERA+ for two seasons, and was often near the top in others. But there is no way I would ever use Gordie Howe and Don Sutton in the same sentence after this one is complete.
 

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Mario played with Jagr, who was his Messier. Like Gretzky, he also played with a bunch of other Hall of Famers: Paul Coffey, Ron Francis, Joe Mullen, Mark Recchi and Larry Murphy. So he had some serious talent to work with, especially on the early 90s Cup teams. Hell, the '93-94 team took 1st in their division despite Mario only playing 22 games.

Neither Mario nor Gretzky played defense more than strictly necessary; both played on the PK mainly as SHG threats. Mario was bigger and faster, though, so probably was more productive with the same effort level.

I hated to watch him and Jagr play the Bruins, but loved to watch them play any other team. They were amazing.
While technically true Jagr joined after what, 5 seasons? He had Coffey for 4. Recchi for 2 full. Mullen for 3. Not really the same as the career teammates Wayne had. People underestimate how bad those early year Lemieux teams were. Brick was there the 2 years pre-Mario and will occasionally talk about how bad they were. They won 16 games in 83-84. Putrid.
 

Hoya81

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I agree that Mario was better. Had he not had cancer and a bad back he would probably be the NHL points leader or close to it. That said, let's not discount the talent he had to work with too much. Mario played with Jagr, who was his Messier. Like Gretzky, he also played with a bunch of other Hall of Famers: Paul Coffey, Ron Francis, Joe Mullen, Mark Recchi and Larry Murphy. So he had some serious talent to work with, especially on the early 90s Cup teams. Hell, the '93-94 team took 1st in their division despite Mario only playing 22 games.

Neither Mario nor Gretzky played defense more than strictly necessary; both played on the PK mainly as SHG threats. Mario was bigger and faster, though, so probably was more productive with the same effort level.

I hated to watch him and Jagr play the Bruins, but loved to watch them play any other team. They were amazing.
Watching the ‘87 Canada Cup highlights when Gretzky/Mario were frequently paired up on the same line is great to see how dominating they were as well as how ancient the defense/goalie play seems, even on the Soviet team.
 

joe dokes

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Watching the ‘87 Canada Cup highlights when Gretzky/Mario were frequently paired up on the same line is great to see how dominating they were as well as how ancient the defense/goalie play seems, even on the Soviet team.
A bit OT --- A great hockey tragedy (very small 't") was that Orr had to miss the '72 USSR-Canada series. He and Park would have been an otherworldly pairing on D (or PP points).

And back to Gretzky -- I remember regularly reading that the ice surface at Northland Coliseum was usually the best in the NHL.
 

DennyDoyle'sBoil

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There is nothing in hockey like the way Gretzky dominated from 1981 to 1987. It's shocking. He's the greatest hockey player of all time, to me. Orr and Lemieux arguments just seem like things that people want to say to pull the reins back on the obvious. The second highest scoring player in the league for like six years in a row had barely 2/3s of Gretzky's scoring. That's just fucking crazy. I think I read that if you take the lowest number of points that Gretzky lead the league by during that period -- around 65 or so -- nobody in NHL history has ever even led the league by half that in a single year.

I think there's also a myth that Gretzky piled up points that others didn't because he was given an assist just for being on the ice. I haven't tried to google research it, but my understanding that has been de-bunked like the AFC East fallacy. And I also think I remember reading some research that the vast majority of Gretzky's assists were primary not secondary assists -- to a greater percentage than many other hockey greats.

Anyway, whether or not that's true, I don't dispute that the nature of the game at the time Gretzky played was highly suited to his specific strengths. But that's not an argument against calling him the hands down greatest of all time. Every player plays under the conditions they play under. I love hockey -- it's my favorite sport to attend. And I love the 2019 version. But in many senses it's more boring than hockey was in 1980, because it has become much more analytical. Even putting aside the rules changes, there's a sameness to the game now. By and large, the angles are understood. Leverage is understood. Plays look the same. There's still a ton of creativity in the game, but it's all within this very common and similar kind of defensive posture and framework. Yeah, some teams are better than others at execution, but absent the 3 on 3 stuff in OT, you know what the game is going to look like. You know what the shape of the teams is going to be.

Like if a guy sneaks off the boards and takes a back door pass for a tap in today, the commentary is likely to be how the defense screwed that up and how it should never happen. In Gretzky's day, this play would have made Don Cherry fall of his chair with glee.

So, I think what Gretzky had that has really not been seen before in the game, is, to use chess as an analogy, the ability to see more moves ahead than anyone else. There was more discretion in hockey in 1980s, and a game with discretion is where he was king, because he just knew what was going to happen on the ice better than anyone else. He almost always did the right thing with the puck. He knew the odds. He knew which guy was better to pass to, and when the best option to shoot was. He was a constant WPA calculator on skates and he played the game in a way that made it look like he had ESP.
 

TFP

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This thread reminds me of my favorite piece of NHL trivia (which is saying a lot).

From 1980-81 to 2000-01 (TWENTY ONE SEASONS)...only 3 people led the NHL in scoring. Ridiculous consistency of the 3 best forwards of the 80s/90s.
 

johnmd20

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There is nothing in hockey like the way Gretzky dominated from 1981 to 1987. It's shocking. He's the greatest hockey player of all time, to me. Orr and Lemieux arguments just seem like things that people want to say to pull the reins back on the obvious. The second highest scoring player in the league for like six years in a row had barely 2/3s of Gretzky's scoring. That's just fucking crazy. I think I read that if you take the lowest number of points that Gretzky lead the league by during that period -- around 65 or so -- nobody in NHL history has ever even led the league by half that in a single year.

I think there's also a myth that Gretzky piled up points that others didn't because he was given an assist just for being on the ice. I haven't tried to google research it, but my understanding that has been de-bunked like the AFC East fallacy. And I also think I remember reading some research that the vast majority of Gretzky's assists were primary not secondary assists -- to a greater percentage than many other hockey greats.

Anyway, whether or not that's true, I don't dispute that the nature of the game at the time Gretzky played was highly suited to his specific strengths. But that's not an argument against calling him the hands down greatest of all time. Every player plays under the conditions they play under. I love hockey -- it's my favorite sport to attend. And I love the 2019 version. But in many senses it's more boring than hockey was in 1980, because it has become much more analytical. Even putting aside the rules changes, there's a sameness to the game now. By and large, the angles are understood. Leverage is understood. Plays look the same. There's still a ton of creativity in the game, but it's all within this very common and similar kind of defensive posture and framework. Yeah, some teams are better than others at execution, but absent the 3 on 3 stuff in OT, you know what the game is going to look like. You know what the shape of the teams is going to be.

Like if a guy sneaks off the boards and takes a back door pass for a tap in today, the commentary is likely to be how the defense screwed that up and how it should never happen. In Gretzky's day, this play would have made Don Cherry fall of his chair with glee.

So, I think what Gretzky had that has really not been seen before in the game, is, to use chess as an analogy, the ability to see more moves ahead than anyone else. There was more discretion in hockey in 1980s, and a game with discretion is where he was king, because he just knew what was going to happen on the ice better than anyone else. He almost always did the right thing with the puck. He knew the odds. He knew which guy was better to pass to, and when the best option to shoot was. He was a constant WPA calculator on skates and he played the game in a way that made it look like he had ESP.
This is a great post. Gretzky is like Tom Brady, if Brady not only won the 6 super bowls but passed for 5800 yards and 60 touchdowns in a few of those seasons.
 

lexrageorge

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A bit OT --- A great hockey tragedy (very small 't") was that Orr had to miss the '72 USSR-Canada series. He and Park would have been an otherworldly pairing on D (or PP points).

And back to Gretzky -- I remember regularly reading that the ice surface at Northland Coliseum was usually the best in the NHL.
Further OT, but I read many years after the fact that the Soviets that had scouted the NHL players ahead of the series were absolutely relieved that Orr had to miss the series. They felt they had the answer to the NHL's best (and they were not necessarily wrong), but they did feel they would have had no answer for Orr. Orr's performance in the 1976 Series was remarkable given that his knee had disintegrated by that point.

I have no issue with proclaiming Gretzky the greatest. Orr was the most revolutionary in terms of style, and his peak highlights have a much greater "ohh and ahh" factor than Gretzky's. But some of that is due to their respective eras as well. Lemieux at his peak may have been the harder player to defend against. Teams would sometimes successfully shadow Gretzky (our own Steve Kasper is one example, but the Islanders did the same in their first Cup matchup). But Mario couldn't really be slowed down.