Phil Kessel is off to a crazy good start this season and a big reason the Toronto Maple Leafs are holding on in the top of their division. His league leading 10 goals and 20 points puts him on pace for a 70/140 season if he keeps it up, which would make him the highest point getter in a season since Mario Lemieux’s 1995 season. Kessel stands above a crowd that includes superstars like Ovechkin and the Sedin twins (and at one point included Sidney Crosby, whose perpetual concussion makes you wonder if he’ll ever return to form) is impressive indeed.
But if we extended our frame of reference back another decade, Kessel’s performance suddenly seems decidedly less impressive by comparison. That’s true of basically any NHL player, however, because eventually you have to come across Wayne Gretzky in the stats column, and you realize just how large his figure looms over all of hockey.
Every sport has their legendary figures, but Gretzky seems straight out of a tall tale, like a bad Chuck Norris joke. Upon his retirement, he held a combined total of 61 NHL records, so dominant that he was essentially enshrined in the Hall of Fame the second he announced the end of his career. To date, he is the only player in history to achieve the fabled 200 point season, a feat he accomplished four times in his career (Lemieux came within a point in the ‘88 season, but couldn’t quite make it).
To put that in perspective, I combed through the NHL’s Art Ross winners from the past few decades to see how close we’ve gotten to that magical mark in the past decade and a half. Jaromir Jagr posted the best point total of the period in the ‘98-’99 season. He notched 127 points. Which means that in the past decade and a half, no one has come closer than 73 points of the fabled 200 points mark. If we look at Gretzky’s all-time best season (215 points 52 goals and 163 assist), that widens the gap to 88. That career best season amounts to 2.69 points per game. Those are fantasy sports league breaking numbers. As in, on a below average day, you’d be hearing Gretzky’s name twice per game from the scoring announcer.
If we took this level of statistical dominance to any other sport, it would be mind-bending. The best scorers in the NBA over the past five seasons have averaged around 30 points per game, an impressive number to be sure. If Michael Jordan had dominated his sport to the level that Gretzky did, he would have averaged well over 50 points per game in his best season. He averaged 37. Wilt Chamberlain did manage to hit the 50+ PPG club in ‘61 with Philadelphia. But Gretzky hit his impossible level four different times.
None of this is meant to slag Jordan or Chamberlain so much as it is to put into perspective how absurdly good Gretzky was. I was born after Gretzky’s golden age, from 81-86, when he posted his four 200+ seasons, and so can only experience his talent through video retrospective and archival footage. I get excited enough watching our current stars play. I can’t wrap my head around the fact that their on-ice heroics can’t hold a candle to the insanity of Gretzky. It makes me wonder if we’ll ever see some one challenge for his crown, or hell, even prove themselves worthy to maybe hang out around his throne area. Gretzky called Crosby the closest thing to his return when he watched his early scouting, put Crosby hasn’t come anywhere near Gretzky’s numbers. If Gretzky’s own groomed successor can’t do it, will we ever see another Gretzky? For now, it seems unlikely.
This all leads to the question: Was Gretzky really that supernaturally talented or have league and team dynamics changed so much since then that a 200 point season is nearly an impossibility today? I am curious to hear your thoughts. Shoot them our way in the comment section. Until next week, keep your stick on the ice!