Wayne Gretzky goes by many names, but his name is most commonly associated with “The Great One.” No one will wear his number, and no one will reach his milestones. In an age where statistics rule, and championships are on a pedestal, sometimes true greatness is growing in the shadows of so many legends that came before them. Preconceived notions that the Rushmore* players will be there forever, never to be touched in modern eras because, well most of you just want to complain about how the game is played. Orr, Howe, Messier, Lemieux, Jagr, and of course, Gretzky. The guys that I myself, never saw much of (Jagr being the ageless exception), but know enough that they’ve earned the right to be the names that are first thought of when talking about hockey. Here’s the thing, we’re a society that lacks day to day appreciation for what we get to watch, but thrive in hindsight of what once was. Just here me out on this one; STOP.
It’s time. Seriously, it really is. It is finally time to add another name. Crosby.
We good? Have you let out your sighs, your tantrum, your “all he does is cry” complaints. Relax, and just hear me out. Generational talents are rare, but somehow this generation is watching multiple superstars, legends in their own right, and being blown away every season. It’s always been Crosby v. Ovechkin since they both came into the league in ’05**, and there are already talks of adding the likes of McDavid and his fellow young phenoms, but let’s cool our jets for a minute. Let’s focus on the here and now. Crosby v. Ovechkin is over and done. Between the two of them there are two Stanley Cups, one Conn Smythe, and eight gold medals. To Ovi’s credit, three of those gold medals are his. The rest, Sid. Oh, he’s also knocking on the door of a third cup and in all likely hood a second Conn Smythe, but right now we’ll stick with what he actually has. What he has, is the hockey world at his finger tips. Everything he touches turns to gold, he just wins. “Oh my god Kyle do you see how stacked Pittsburgh is?” Yes, my word, yes I do. Watch. Watch him do things that we just don’t see anymore. He quite literally, and I saw this in game seven so trust me, thinks two passes ahead of what he’s actually about to do. He has you beat before he touches the puck.
Hockey by nature is an incredibly fast paced game, so it isn’t always easy to make much out of who’s on the ice, unless you’re an avid fan who is dialed in on every detail, down to line changes. But, even my golden retriever starts wagging his tail when 87 steps onto the ice. He isn’t a facilitator, he isn’t a sniper, nor is he a power forward, to be completely honest, I don’t know what we call a guy like that, other than unstoppable. I don’t need to explain every facet of his game to you, if you’re reading this, you know. He’s just better than your favorite player. Here’s where I might lose you, but he just might be better than anyone, ever. There, it’s out there. It might be time we take every factor into account, and really discuss what was originally never even supposed to happen. Points? Get out of here. No one will come close, that’s not the point. He is the epicenter of the hockey world.
Lets call today’s game, the “genius” era. Players are smarter, goalies are bigger, goalies PADS are bigger, (don’t worry, the pants are constantly getting smaller) and defense is key. For arguments sake, let’s call Gretzkys game, the “broken” era. The game wasn’t broken, but there’s a strong possibility that some of the players were. Goalies had on soccer shin guards, and very few ever got down on the ice. The average goals per game in the time 99 scored his first 1000 points, was EIGHT! In comparison, the league hasn’t had an average over 5.6 in eight years. Not to mention one staggering note on Gretzky, the guy was constantly taking passes while pitching a tent at the other teams blue line. I know, I know, whatever works, but it’s worth mentioning. I’m not here to degrade anything Wayne did in his career, because he’s still the only one with his number in everyone’s rafters, let’s just look at some facts.
Essentially, scoring is down. Big time. It all goes back to one central argument and that is, goalies. To throw some numbers out there, Gretzky, with scoring down 19% between the broken era and the genius era, we are able to get an “adjusted” ppg for Gretzky that still comes in at 1.56, slightly below his career of 1.92. Crosby is holding a 1.31 ppg at this point in his career, so yes, broken still comes out on top. It works both ways though, and Sid would have an opposite adjustment to account for what he may or may not of done, and low and behold, it’s 1.56 Not definitive though, today’s game would also force Gretzky to change is style, and yesteryears game would greatly benefit Sidney and his game.
If 87 played in that era, IF, then he could abandon some of his responsibilities as the best two-way in the game, and focus on scoring, since that is what ultimately drove the league back then, and don’t forget about a backhand shot that is harder than most wrist shots, he’d be a nightmare. In contrast, 99 would need to adapt to a more defensive game, be a better two way player, and it would inevitably drag his numbers down, just a bit, but noticeable. If you were lucky enough to see Gretzky play, you saw how effortlessly he could skate by a defender and find the back of the net. That’s not luck, he really was that good. If you’re lucky enough to be able to watch today’s game, then you’ve seen how effortlessly Sidney Crosby can fight off two defenders in his defensive zone, skate by another, and similarly, find the back of the net. Now, none of this is for certain, and it’s not fair to The Great One that Crosby has to be bigger, faster, stronger, just to survive in the league. Just like it’s unfair to not acknowledge the fact that The Kid is in fact, bigger, faster, and stronger.
Most of you don’t want numbers thrown at you, you don’t want the comparison if it has to be broken down to percentages and all that math, it’s understandable. Most of you don’t even want to admit that this is even a conversation. Some of you though, some of you you are starting to realize, starting to grasp, that pure talent is the ultimate tiebreaker. Winning rules all. In his second year in the NHL, Gretzky was already skating beside the likes of Messier, Jari Kurri, and Paul Coffey. Crosby, had Malkin, who wasn’t even in the recent unveiling of the NHLs Top 100. Don’t want numbers? Just watch. Sidney Crosby can do things on the ice we’ve never seen before, not in this era, not ever. In no way is he doing it on his own, but his ability to turn people like Conor Sheary into postseason folk heroes is what should amaze you. He knows where the best shot is, before he has the puck on his stick.
Hockey sense is a cliché way to say he’s smarter than the 11 guys on the ice. He is. If we put his vision under the same umbrella as his hockey sense, he quickly becomes the most lethal two way player in history. Gretzky had impeccable sense himself, he just used it to break out early and get out on a breakaway, there’s nothing wrong with that, but he isn’t exactly helping the back check. It really comes down to volume v. efficiency. Gretzky scored more, faster, has four cups, and is actually so far ahead in points, that he could’ve never scored an NHL goal, and still be the all-time leader. Incredible. Crosby will always have less points, in a time where his average of 1.3p/g is still .2 better than his active opponents. He is also the only player ever to win Olympic Gold, a Stanley Cup, World Championship, World Jr Championship, Hart, Art Ross, and the Conn Smythe award in his career.
Points? Big gap. Accolades? Probably split. Greatness? Undeniable. But why tip toe around this seemingly “untouchable” debate over hockey’s all time greatest? Crosby is far from done. He’s four wins away from another cup, and plenty of points are to be had for the 29 year old kid from Nova Scotia. Just remember this, if scoring was at such a high in the broken era that it’s not even comparable, doesn’t that tilt the argument towards Sid? We have years before all is said and done, it’s just not so certain anymore.
* – Rushmore is commonly referred to in sports as all time greats, similar to Mount Rushmore.
** – Ovechkin was drafted in 2004, but the lockout pushed his rookie year until 2005, Crosbys rookie year.