Try to suggest that Wayne Gretzky isn’t the best NHL player ever, and you’ll be met with a series of eyerolls from most hockey fans.
After all, Gretzky collected more assists in his career (1963) than the second-highest scorer in NHL history, Jaromir Jagr, has points. Add in Gretzky’s 894 career goals, which is also the most all-time, and the Great One recorded roughly 50% more points than anyone else in history. That’s a drop-the-mike argument, right?
I’m not so sure. Goals and assists are the simplest and most tangible way to measure a hockey player’s contributions and abilities, but they’re not the only ways. There’s a lot more that goes into being a valuable hockey player than simply putting up points such as physical play, leadership, defensive prowess and more.
It’s also dangerous to use point totals when we’re comparing players from different eras. The age during which Gretzky and his Edmonton Oilers routinely pumped home 5-6 goals or more per night is known as the golden age of NHL hockey. Gretzky may have had a lot to do with that, as opponents had to figure out how to generate enough offense to overcome Edmonton’s potent attack, but there’s also no question that statistics from the 1980s and early 1990s are inflated by the wide-open style that was played. Also, the tiny equipment that was worn by goalies back then is nothing compared to today’s standards.
Speaking of goaltenders, they are commonly referred to as the most important person on the ice. How is it possible that we don’t even seem willing to consider the men who play every second of the game and have the greatest impact on the outcome of it when we’re assessing who is the greatest player in NHL history?
So, prepare to roll your eyes, hockey pundits. I’m going to undertake the difficult task of proving why Wayne Gretzky might not be the best NHL player ever.
Why Gretzky Might Not be as Great as We All Think
Like I said, picking apart the consensus #1 player in NHL history isn’t going to be easy. But here are 3 criticisms of Gretzky that I think are legitimate.
1. He Never Won a Stanley Cup After Being Traded From Edmonton
My earliest recollections of hockey as a youngster begin when Gretzky was just winding down his time in Edmonton, winning his final of 4 Stanley Cup championships with the Oilers in 1988 before shockingly being dealt to the Los Angeles Kings later that summer.
The reason I bring that up is because that was the last time Gretzky hoisted the NHL championship trophy above his head. He was never able to carry the Kings to a Stanley Cup title during his 7-plus seasons in LA (the closest he came was in 1993, when the Kings lost the Stanley Cup final 4-1 to Montreal), and he failed to deliver a championship parade to St. Louis or New York too.
The Edmonton team Gretzky played on is widely considered to be one of the greatest dynasties in NHL history. Part of that was because Gretzky was on the team, but the nucleus of that Oilers roster went on to win another Cup without him in 1990. If you’re going down in history as the undisputed greatest to play a sport, I think you need more than 4 championships – especially when those 4 titles come surrounded by other superstars and in the first 9 seasons of your 20-year career.
2. He Provided No Physical Presence
One of the other things I remember most about Gretzky in those days was opponents weren’t allowed to hit him. I’d later learn that there was no actual wording in the NHL rule book, it was simply something that was generally accepted and, for the most part, followed.
Gretzky’s shiftiness and on-ice awareness made him difficult to hit, but the biggest reason opponents shied away from lining up #99 was because the Oilers had surrounded him with a few enforcers. Drill Gretzky into the boards, and you’d need to answer to Dave Semenko, Marty McSorley or Kevin McLelland. In LA, it was the same thing, with McSorley or Jim Thomson ready to drop the gloves with anyone who dared to hit Gretzky.
Once Gretzky got the puck, he was a magician with it, but he generally relied on his teammates to get him the puck instead of bodying opponents off of it.
3. His Stats are Inflated by the Era He Played In
As I said earlier, the 1980s were the offensive age of hockey. From 1980 to 1986, the average goals-against average for a NHL goalie was 3.77 or higher. To give that statistic some perspective, the average GAA for an NHL goalie has been 2.77 or lower in 19 of the past 20 seasons. That’s the difference of an entire goal per game per team!
Gretzky fattened up his career totals during that time when games featured 2-plus goals more than they do now. He collected at least 160 points in 6 straight years (it would have been 8 if he’d not missed 18 games due to injury in 1987-88), and cracked the 200-point plateau 4 times in a 5-year span.
Once goals started getting a lot harder to come by, however, Gretzky’s statistical dominance dropped severely as well. He reached 100 points just once in his final 4 seasons in the NHL, and he won the league scoring championship just twice in his final 12 campaigns.
If you were to adjust each player’s points per game average to the era in which they played, Gretzky is no longer the highest-scoring player in history. That honor belongs to Mario Lemieux (1.66 points per game adjusted), with Gretzky coming in second at 1.61. Sidney Crosby isn’t far behind him at #3 at 1.50 points per game adjusted, and Bobby Orr – a defenseman – is fifth on the list at 1.33.
5 Other Players Who Could Be The Greatest NHL Player Ever
An argument that a player is not the best ever in their sport’s history wouldn’t be complete without a few candidates that should take their place at the top of the list.
So, here are 5 players who I think are also worthy of consideration for being the greatest NHL player ever.
1. Bobby Orr
It should come as no surprise to see Orr at the top of the list, since the former Boston Bruins defenseman is the player who is most commonly listed with Gretzky as the best ever to play in the NHL.
The Gretzky to Orr comparison is apples to oranges, since they played different positions. But Orr may have revolutionized the game even more than Gretzky did, proving that defensemen could do a lot more than simply get the puck out of their own zone. Orr’s dominance of his position led to 8 consecutive Norris Trophies as the league’s top defenseman. And though Orr ranks just 11th all-time among blueliners in career points in the NHL (thanks to his career being cut short due to injuries), his average of 1.33 points per game is roughly 35% more than his nearest competitor in that category: Paul Coffey.
(By the way, Coffey played his first several seasons with Gretzky in Edmonton. Just a little more fuel for the argument that Gretzky was surrounded with superior talent when he racked up all his points.)
2. Gordie Howe
Howe was the Gretzky of hockey before Gretzky came around, holding the all-time record for points until Gretzky surpassed him in 1989. Since then, 2 more players from the contemporary era (Jaromir Jagr and Mark Messier) have eclipsed Howe’s 1,850 career points as well.
But to get a true sense of how great Howe was, you have to compare him to his peers. Howe won the NHL scoring title in 4 of his first 5 seasons in the league, but the more incredible accomplishment may be how he finished in the top 5 of league scoring in each of his first 19 campaigns.
Unlike Gretzky, Howe also brought a real physical presence to the rink each night, illustrated by the fact he finished among the top 10 in the NHL in penalty minutes 3 times. Let’s just say there’s no coincidence that when a player scores a goal, records an assist and gets in a fight in the same game, it’s known as the “Gordie Howe hat trick.”
3. Sidney Crosby
Crosby’s a unique member of this list because his case for being the greatest NHL player ever isn’t closed yet. At just 30 years of age, he may no longer be Sid the Kid, but he’s still got several prime years ahead – and he’s not showing any signs of slowing down.
Just look at his resume by the time he turned 30: 3 Stanley Cup championships (1 less than both Gretzky and Howe when they turned 30), 2 MVP awards, 2 playoff MVP awards (Conn Smythe Trophy), 2 league scoring titles and 2 Rocket Richard Trophies (most goals in the league). Not to mention the 2 Olympic gold medals, world championship, World Cup and World Cup MVP titles he’s racked up playing for Team Canada. Those accolades in international play may not count in the argument about who was the greatest NHL player ever, but we shouldn’t ignore them either.
Crosby’s accomplished all of this despite having to battle through several serious injuries in his 20s, most notably concussions. He’s third all-time in adjusted points per game (1.50), and could very well add to his collection of Stanley Cup rings in the near future as his Penguins are once again one of the favorites to win the NHL title this season. Crosby’s not the greatest ever to play in the NHL yet, but make sure to revisit this in 5-10 years.
4. Mario Lemieux
Pittsburgh has been treated with elite hockey talent for decades. Crosby is currently flanked by another superstar, Evgeni Malkin (the fact that Malkin wasn’t included on the list of top 100 players all-time is a joke). Before that, there was Jagr, who just happens to be the second-highest scorer of all-time. And before them all came possibly the greatest ever to lace up the skates: Mario Lemieux.
Super Mario made his imprint on the NHL ever since his first shift as a 19-year-old, when he stole the puck from future Hall of Famer Ray Bourque and scored on a breakaway. Lemieux went on to win 6 scoring titles, won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1991-1992, and once scored every way possible (even strength, power play, shorthanded, penalty shot and empty net) in a game, remaining the only NHL player to ever do so.
As I mentioned earlier, Lemieux actually ranks ahead of Gretzky in adjusted points per game, accounting for the overlapping eras in which they played. Oh, and he beat cancer in the winter of 1993, coming back from treatment a couple of months later to record 56 points in his final 20 games (that’s not a typo) and win the league scoring championship. Just imagine what Lemieux could and would have done had his career not been interrupted several times due to back injuries and his fights with leukemia.
5. Dominik Hasek
Once again, any argument about the best NHL player ever needs to include a goaltender, since they play the position that is most critical to a team’s success.
If we’re talking about the greatest goaltending career ever, Martin Brodeur is probably the guy. He won 140 more games than any other goalie in NHL history (even if the win stats are inflated recently due to the shootout), he helped the Devils win 3 Stanley Cups and he claimed 4 Vezina Trophies as the league’s goalie of the year.
However, the debate over who the greatest ever simply to play in the NHL, and for my money, it’s Hasek. His unpredictable style of flopping wildly around the crease bewildered even the best of opponents (Canadian greats Theo Fleury, Ray Bourque, Joe Nieuwendyk, Eric Lindros and Brendan Shanahan were unable to solve him in a shootout in the 1998 Olympic semifinal). He undoubtedly single-handedly made the Buffalo Sabres a contender, leading them to the Cup final in 1999.
Hasek’s career totals don’t bowl you over because he didn’t start playing in the NHL until he was 25, and he wasn’t a starter until he was 27. But 389 wins, 2 Stanley Cup championships, 6 Vezinas and 2 Hart Trophies (league MVP) in the final 15 years of his career makes him the greatest NHL goalie ever in my mind.
If you were able to watch Wayne Gretzky in his prime, consider yourself lucky. I don’t think there’s any debate that he was the most offensively imaginative player to ever compete in the NHL. He anticipated plays well before they developed, he seemingly had eyes in the back of his head, and the area behind the net – previously considered the least dangerous place on the ice for an opponent to have the puck – became known as “Gretzky’s office” because of how many goals he set up from that spot.
But is he indisputably the greatest NHL player ever? I don’t think any of us could ever say that definitively. As great as Gretzky was, he didn’t revolutionize the game as drastically as Orr did and he didn’t have all the physical intangibles that Howe possessed. He benefited from the era in which he played more than comparables like Lemieux, and (through no fault of his own) he couldn’t dominate a game in the manner that Hasek did.
I’m willing to accept the notion that Gretzky is the best NHL player ever. I might even agree with you. But it’s not a claim that can be made without any debate.