1987:  Center Wayne Gretzky of the Edmonton Oilers looks on during a game against the Los Angeles Kings at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California. Mandatory Credit: Mike Powell  /Allsport

It’s a question that has been asked since before Sidney Crosby was drafted: will he be to the modern game what Wayne Gretzky was to his era a quarter century earlier?  Gretzky himself suggested that Crosby might be able to beat his records, but so far that hasn’t come close to happening.  Of course the game is different now, too; scoring in the NHL is far less than it was in Gretzky’s heyday.

 

As a result, it seems highly unlikely that Crosby will break Gretzky’s seemingly insurmountable scoring records.

 

But if Crosby had played when Gretzky did, starting his career in the early 1980’s, would he have had a chance?  One way to estimate is to adjust Crosby’s scoring by the NHL’s goals per game.  What follows are Crosby’s numbers vs. Gretzky’s numbers, each projected over a full 82-game slate (in Gretzky’s time, seasons were 80 games long) and adjusted upward to reflect goal totals during Gretzky’s career.

 

Season Wayne Gretzky Sidney Crosby
First 53G – 89A – 142PTS 45G – 72A – 117PTS
Second 56G – 112A – 168PTS 49G – 113A – 162PTS
Third 94G – 123A – 217PTS 54G – 107A – 161PTS
Fourth 73G – 128A – 201PTS 47G – 99A – 146PTS
Fifth 96G – 131A – 227PTS 72G – 82A – 154PTS

 

One thing the chart doesn’t take into account is that Crosby is seven months younger than Gretzky in each of the seasons for this sort of comparison. 

 

That said, the difference between the two seems clear to me.  Crosby would have been a phenomenal player in the 1980’s, and probably would have challenged Gretzky for the scoring title in certain seasons, but even adjusting for era he doesn’t have the same incredibly prolific level of offensive production.

Comments (34)

  1. It’s a completely different game now, I don’t think a comparison is fair.
    If you put Crosby in a time machine and dropped him in 1980, nobody would catch the guy; he’d be the strongest guy on the ice, be fit enough to play 40 minutes a game and he’d have a one piece stick that people would think he got from some aliens.
    He’d score 200 goals every year and goalies would retire during the pre-game skate.
    I’m not saying Crosby is better than Gretzky was, I’m just saying things have changed quite a bit in 30 years.

  2. While it’s true what you say noskillgill you’ve also got to take into account the training of not just coaches, defenseman and goalies now but how forwards we’re trained. Do you really think Crosby would be the same player he is now if he had played in the 80′s somewhat cause there is some natural skill there but these guys train and are much bigger and stronger then what the players we’re in the 80′s. While Crosby would score more back then but still Gretzky would likely dominate every year. And not for nothing but Crosby does not make no buddies into some buddies like the way Gretzky did during his time.

  3. The other thing to account for is teammates and linemates. Crosby and Malkin are seldom on the same line; Gretzky and Kurri could feed off each other all day.

  4. Devon, no. I don’t think he would be the same Crosby if you trained him in the style of the time. I’m saying that if you dropped today’s Sidney Crosby into 1980, he would dominate the ice. If he was born in 1960, he would probably have been like Dino Ciccarelli.

  5. “One thing the chart doesn’t take into account is that Crosby is seven months younger than Gretzky in each of the seasons for this sort of comparison. ”

    Also, Gretzky had an extra year of professional seasoning in the WHA that Crosby didn’t get.

    But you’re right, it’s not all that close, even adjusting for eras. I think that Crosby’s comparable would probably be Dale Hawerchuck – I’ve always thought that their games were similar, and Hawerchuck was the best player in the league not named Wayne or Mario in the 80s, so it’s not too bad a comp.

  6. Can’t really compare the players. Talk to most pros and they will tell you that in the early 90′s and all hockey before, players used to come to training camp to shed the excess pounds they gained goofing off all summer. Players now get a couple weeks off before hitting training regiments and coming into camp in better shape than most 80′s players were in mid season.

    That being said, Gretzky was the reason why a lot of these players started changing thier regiment. He was the first player totally commited to playing the game. Once his practices became mainstay with younger players coming up, the entire skill level of the league increased. Not to mention, look at goalies. Look at what Patrick Roy had for equipment in 1986 compared to 1996. Pads, blockers, catchers, etc were all way smaller meaning more holes for skilled players.

    Plain and simply, Gretzky was 20 years ahead of his time. He would be brutal in today’s game by comparison because of strength and training but I really think that Gretzky is the whole reason players are the way they are. So, cause in facto, without Gretzky…there would be no Crosby.

    All in all, Gretzky has to be the better player as Gretzky was unique and spawned a generation of copycats. Crosby is better than most players in today’s NHL but nothing that Crosby does will make players and the game better 20 years from now than they are today.

  7. @Noskillgill/Doug:

    I agree completely with what your saying; I just buy into the idea that an elite player in one era would become an elite player in another, because his skill relative to the skill of all players is still very high, with conditioning, training, etc. as an extra variable.

    We obviously can’t compare, but exercises like this are probably as close as we can get.

  8. Doug Otway makes a great point about the difference in conditioning. Gretz used to get a good month of skating around booze hounds; those records will never be broken.

  9. A very different class of player in each. The one thing that stands out is that NO one could hit Gretzky, couldnt catch him and usually couldnt see him until it was too late.Crosby is an exeptional player for sure but he would have been hit , just like now, and he doesnt come close to seeing the ice like The Great One. Myself, I am not a big Gretzky fan, and think that it is impossible to compare one era to another but Crosby would have to become a hell of a lot better if anyone thinks he will or can leave a legacy behind like number 99. AIN’T HAPPENING!

  10. Speaking of “class”, Crosby lacks some of that in this era also. It still surprises me that after winning the Cup, he was too busy celebrating to shake the hand of the captain of the team that he and his team mates had just beaten. And from a press point of view, that more of an issue wasn’t made of it. Different era in many ways now, so tough to compare…….

  11. “Speaking of “class”, Crosby lacks some of that in this era also. ”

    You wouldn’t say that if you’d ever seen Gretzky live. He swore more than any other player on the ice (to the point that my mom got mad at him once when we saw the Oilers play at MLG and didn’t forgive him for a decade) and yapped at his share of officials as well.

  12. @Finn, Imagine if the Wings had won that game and Crosby had left the ice before Lidstom had gotten to the handshake line. He would have been eviserated. Lidstrom is the guy who got a free pass in my opinion.

    @Jonathon, is there any way to adjust the table for the number of goals each player’s team scored as compared to the league average that year.

  13. This is a really stupid article.

    When Gretzky hit 208 points, the next closest player was Kurri at 131 points.

    He nearly doubled the 2nd highest scoring player (And likely would have, if Kurri wasn’t on the same line).

    Gretzky was so absolutely brutally dominant, that it felt like a cheat code in a videogame. He never did it with strength, finesse, speed, or size. Gretzky was slow, weak, small, mediocre shot. He just watched the entire game through the reflection in the glass, so nobody really knew where he was looking but he saw absolutely everything.

    Tretiak called Gretzky the “Invisible Man”. “You don’t see him for a few mins, then all of the sudden he appears out of nowhere, passes to nowhere, and the puck is in the net”.

    And Crosby would NOT have scored 200 goals in the 80′s. Gretzky was still a top scorer in the league near his 40′s in the dead-puck clutch n’ grab era.

    The player closest to Gretzky’s dominance…. Lemieux came out of retirement at 36, and had 76 points in 43 games.

    If Gretzky were playing in his prime today, I’m sure he would still have multiple 200 point seasons, and the NHL would have to change a plethora of rules to stop him from being so dominant.

  14. “and the NHL would have to change a plethora of rules to stop him from being so dominant.”

    On that point, I once again raise my voice in support of revoking the Oiler rule and allowing coincidental penalties to yield 4-on-4 play, even if they were fighting majors.

  15. comparisons like this are ridiculous because of the aforementioned reasons. Training, both on and off ice are much more intensive and detailed. Goaltenders are monumentally better in today’s game than back in the 80′s. The fact is you can’t compare Gretzky to Crosby. Although I do have to say that Gretzky wasn’t that great of a player if you broke him down. He had an average shot, even for back in his playing days. He didn’t skate particularly well, and he wasn’t strong on the puck. He had the benefit of playing during an era where physical play was almost non existent and he was protected by his team and the league as they had him as the NHL’s poster boy. He also did think the game really well but in today’s game Gretzky would probably be scoring at the rate he was going near the tail end of his career. A 70-80 point playmaking center who would be capable of 15-25 goals. Which isn’t exactly anything to scoff at as he would be a top 6 forward. Just not as blown up as a “generational player”.
    PS. Lemieux, Francis, Lafontaine, Hawerchuk, etc were all better players.

    • Gretzky was scoring over 90 pts his 2nd and 3rd last seasons, and was one of the top 5 players in the league in points both years, and lead the league in assists in both. That’s at close to 40 years old with a bad back and arthritis in his shoulder in an even lower scoring league than today. If you think he’d somehow be a worse player at age 25 than he was as an injured over-the-hill 35 yr old, I think it’s time to re-evaluate your opinion.

      Gretzky played against guys like Selanne, Forsberg, Mogilny, Bure, Sakic, and Hull – most the great players of the 90′s. None of them ever won a scoring title. Even in the 90′s, on a mediocre Kings team past his prime, he won 2 more scoring championships (3 on the kings in total). Guys like Selanne are still good enough to play today, same with Jagr. If they’re good enough at 40, but weren’t as good as Gretzky when they were his age (heck they weren’t as good when he was 30 and they were 24), I think a prime Gretzky of 23-25 yrs of age would be just fine in today’s league. Even with better goaltendind and defenses, he’d still probably hit 170 pts.

    • Also, while I disagree with it, there are some arguements for Lemieux being better. But what possible reason can you give to say Francis, Lafontaine, or Hawerchuk were better than Gretzky? He had more assists in one season (163) than any of them ever had in their best career seasons. None ever won even 1 scoring title, Gretzky won 10.

      Lemieux always comes down to “coulda woulda shoulda,” but IMO even he falls short of Gretzky. Gretzky holds all the records for a reason.

  16. It’s not that nobody COULD hit Gretzky, it’s that few players WOULD. Semenko and McSorely rode shotgun for those teams and would beat in the brains of any foe who got too fiesty with the Great One. Compare that to Crosby going back and forth behind the net, cutting in circles, while Jason Spezza tries to keep up with him. He’s getting slashed, grabbed at, and he just rags the puck for five, ten seconds until he spies Letang for the slapper.

    Few teams would play Gretzky the way Spezza was trying to play Crosby, for fear that somebody was going to punch them in the face. That sort of thing is frowned on in Bettman’s NHL, to the extent that even teams with enforcers don’t deploy them in the same manner.

  17. Andrew:

    You lost me when you suggested that Ron Francis was a better hockey player than Wayne Gretzky.

  18. The funny thing about Andrew’s ramble is that he missed the obvious reason why Gretzky scored as many goals as he did in spite of not being what anyone would call a natural goal-scorer… namely, that goaltending was shit in the early 80s.

    But I have no doubt that Gretzky would regularly top the 100-assist barrier in today’s NHL. For crying out loud, Heinrik Sedin was only 20 short this season.

  19. You should really ask some old Oilers fan about this Jonathan. Vic mentioned once that Gretzky was territorially dominant (and by the tone I guess that was more than what Crosby does now) but played against weaker opposition until the late 80s.

    Still, Crosby probably belongs somewhere in the conversation. A player his age, becoming the best player in the league when he did… it will probably be written in hockey legend history.

  20. One of the things about hitting a passer is that it doesn’t stop the pass. Big reason why people weren’t trying to run 99.

  21. Gretzky also scored 894 goals over his career, including a 92 goals season… so somehow or another the dude must have gone to the net, these weren’t all slappers from the blue line.

    I’m too young to have seen him play myself so I can’t judge, but labeling him a pure passer when he scored that many goals (no matter the era), seems like it doesn’t do him justice.

  22. No comparison! The NHL is still the elite league in the world, but I am not convinced that there is any real superstars in the League at the moment like other eras. You pro-rate and do whatever you want, but the overall schedule is a measure of an athlete and if they are unable to compete in each and every game, that is simply their own shortfall.
    Crosby is good, very good as is OV, but there is no genuine superstars in the NHL currently!
    The press needs to make these comparisons and I am not sure what it is founded on, other than the press needs to have superstars to relate to professional sports. DO not think this is a big deal, or a slight of the current players, this type of situation happens in sports. Boxing had it’s golden era of heavyweights, then the Duran, Leonard era from welterweights to middleweights, these types of changes take place and it is good for sport. It does not mean that the NHL is still not great to watch; in some ways the NHL is more fun to watch than the Gretzky/ Mario era, it is a wide open field of teams and that is fun.
    Yet the press still needs to support some star, now that Crosby is out it is Halak, or Toews.
    Have fun with the NHL and Hockey in general, there is no real superstars, live with it.

  23. Fred Wilson- I’m not sure how you define superstar, except through the adulation that player receives from the press.
    If you mean, there aren’t players that can dominate as much as Gretz or Mario did, maybe you’re right. But I would argue there are many MORE superstars now than there were in the ’80s, if only based on media coverage. I think we need to define superstar actually…

    I would also say that Crosby is head and shoulders above nearly every other players in the world (IMO the only other 2 players that are in the same realm are OV and Datsyuk) and to me, that says superstar.

  24. Gretzky never relied on speed, strength or a shot.

    He analysed the defensive systems, and tactically dismantled them.

    He surgically broke down weaknesses in the opposing players games, and exploited it.

    Every minor rule he would exploit. Any minor rule that could be bent, he bent.
    (This included the ‘Wayne Gretzky Line Change’ where Messier would jump off of his shift from one end of the board, and Gretzky would jump on giving a 15 foot headstart).

    You can’t bring strength speed conditioning, size into the Gretzky argument, because he exploited the weaknesses of those. He was just smarter than everyone on the ice, and the coach combined.

    I think the offensive talent is not nearly as creative as Gretzky was back in his day.

  25. Jacque comes closest. It’s hard to compare across eras, but not so hard within an era. Let’s start by assuming the NHL has been the best league in the world in any era with virtually all of the best players. Best goalies too, even if the scorers got ahead of them for a while. So the best comp for me is how a guy does against his peers of the day.

    Wayne Gretzky won the scoring title by 29 points the year he turned 20. It was the largest margin of victory in the history of the Art Ross Trophy.

    The next six years he won the Ross by 65, 72, 79, 73, 74 and 75 points. (!!!!!!) In four of those seasons he had enough assists to win the title without any goals at all. Except typically he would lead the loop in goals too (5 times).

    I have two words to say about the argument that Gretzky was a poor skater: “Bull” and “Shit”. The guy had the best first step I have ever seen, and it’s not close. He was way faster than credited for, but what set him apart was his agility and lateral motion. He might not win a straight foot race, but he would win the race to the puck over and over and over again. Part of it was anticipation, and part was reaction time. The guy could read a change in direction of the puck like nobody before or since. To my eye – and I watched him play live almost 500 times – his reaction time was seemingly instantaneous.

    The main reason opponents stopped trying to hit him was that it was a totally ineffective tactic. If they did catch him it was like “hitting a rope” as one opponent put it. More to the point, if they took a run at him he would make them look like complete idiots. Then there was a the Semenko factor beyond that.

    As a shooter Wayne was like a junkball pitcher, had a fabulous knack for flatfooting the goalie or finding that little chink in his armour. He did have a pretty decent fastball (slapshot) but an awful lot of his damage was done in close.

    The main difference between Gretzky and Crosby to my eye is that Sid invites the contact and rolls off of it with his “strong muscular thighs”, whereas Gretzky had this amazing ability to avoid the hit and make the play anyway. He refused to bulk up because he thought it would take away from his speed and elusiveness. The other main difference is that Sid hasn’t won any scoring titles by 50+ points. He’s a great player, but he doesn’t dominate the league to anywhere near the same degree. 10 Rosses? 9 Harts? Nothing against Sid, but that ain’t happening.

  26. anyone who says gretzky wasn’t a good anything is a fool… if gretzky didn’t have a good shot.. then why the players that did not score 90 goals?.. or 100 since gretz was able to get 90.

    gretz was a playmaker… lol.. no he was a everything, playmaking was just 25% of his game, besides if he was indeed a playmaker, and have no shot.. then how did he score more goals than everyone else? .. including the snipers???

    .. he was a good skater, a was a good shooter, he was the best passer, the best stick handler, the best on ice coach, the best ever. (notice some say good, not the best)

    .. the allstar skills competition rules had to be changed because of gretz, skating around the pilons, you have to take the puck around too,.. in gretz’s days you didn’t everyone was allowed to hold the puck outside the turn.. problem was, only gretz could exploit it… all THE BEST ALLSTARS TRIED.. but couldn’t… because he was THE BEST.. best at all-star skills is BEST PERIOD. gretz was a sportsman, he gave others a chance to shine in skill comps, he could score 20 goals a game all by himself, but always passed when he saw someone else had the chance to score too. he was the anti-kobe bryant of 1980,90′s NHL. he will never be replicated.

    … and the goalie crap … lmao.. if goalies were sooo bad, why were there shutouts? .. goalie equip was small because guys still used wooden, straight curved sticks, and nasty back hand shots from close in… goalies had to scramble and poke away the puck… players couldn’t bang the puck from the point the same way they can now. these days goalies just make themselves big and slow walls to stop shots from the circles or higher. back then it was a standup game, lateral, upclose and personal, forehand, backhand, behind the net, in the blue ice, in the white ice.. goalies had to stack the pads, and poke the puck.

    different sticks=different pads.

    the goalies skill haven’t changed, they were always good.. it’s been a few years but the last time i played pond hockey with mr. bawer .. the china wall, he was way past “senior citisen” and he still posted a shutout, wearing just shoes(no skates).. goalioes were better than now days.. even in there 60′s, and 80′s.

    get a grip on reality if you think otherwise.

  27. Well, I didn’t call him a pure passer. The point was you can’t really risk running a guy who dishes out almost 2000 assists in his career.

  28. Plenty of quotes available from guys who played in the 80s and the clutch and grab era. In the end it’s pretty simple – Gretzky was once in a generation – occasionally underestimated because he actually played at the same time as another generational talent (Lemieux).

    Gretzky changed the stats, the approach, and the entire philosophy of how you win a hockey game.

    When Crosby does that, whether he puts up equivalent numbers or not, he’ll be in the same category as Gretzky and Orr. Until then, he’s “only” one of the best players in the game…

  29. Crosby? – Ho`s Crosby?

    Gretzky rules!

  30. What’s really missing from this comparison and the comments is really quite simple for thse who grew up and watched Gretzky from his junior days, and read and studied the evaluations of a multitude of hockey players and experts. The popular highlight reels do not tell the true story about Gretzky. But, many ex NHL players and hockey experts have said “Gretzky was the smartest player to ever play the game”. Phil Esposito who played with Orr said Gretzky was much more brilliant, one step ahead of Orr and 5 or 6 ahead of everyone else. If you look for games that are seldom seen in highlight reels, for example 1984 Canada Cup game tying goal against Russia. Watch as Gretzky fishes the puck off a rebound, taps it through the legs of the RUssian player attempting to break up the play and then passes it exactly between to Russian players to Doug Wilson. This is all done with absolutely no time to think, he simply knew exactly where to place the puck.

    In 1984 the Russians thought they had 5 players better than Gretzky. Igor Dmitriev reportedly said that they had not seen a player that could do so much damage while seemingly being invisible.

    Denis Potvin said that they tried to hit Gretzky, but they couldn’t catch him. No matter how “protected” people might have thought he was, it is impossible to go 20 seasons without catching a serious hit and being hurt. Yet, Gretzky had tremendous instinct, and that is what saved his ass. He wasn’t big, he wasn’t a great skater, and he knew it and modified his game to adapt to this. He relied on his mind and his instincts which were and will likely remain incomparable.

  31. Bottom line look at highlights from the 80s, goalies a joke compared to today’s game, goalies bigger, well the equipment, take up way more of the net, more athletic and better coached, Gretzky equivalent to a Brad Richards type in today’s game because you could never be able to keep together an all-star team like the 80s Oilers either.

  32. yes the game have change since yes even gretzky has said it but how come evreybody wasn’t scoring 200 pts then now we are talking

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