Ridiculous Hypotheticals part one: Would Gretzky be Gretzky in 2018?

(Photo Credit: Glenn Cratty / Allsport)

Here’s a couple fun factoids about Wayne Gretzky.

The instant his brother Brent stepped on the ice for his 1st shift with Tampa Bay in 1993, the Gretzky’s became the #1 all-time NHL brother scoring duo.   Easily out scoring Bobby/Dennis Hull and Peter/Anton Stastny.

Take this to a family level.  The Sutter’s did outscore the Gretzky’s by about 60-70 or so points.  The Sutter’s combined for 4994 games (Brandon and Brody not counted for this) while the Gretzky’s combined for 1500.


What made #99 so great?

In my opinion, Gretzky is the best player to ever lace up the skates.  When I was younger, I’d get buzzed and argue for Bobby Orr or Gordie Howe (there’s more to the game besides offense!).  But I’d lose and here’s why.  Compare them to their peers.


Gretzky’s peak came from 1981 to 1987.  Here’s a table of his points and the runner-ups.


81-82 82-83 83-84 84-85 85-86 86-87
Gretzky 212 196 205 208 215 183
next 147 124 126 135 141 108
Difference 65 72 79 73 74 75
% more 44.22% 58.06% 62.70% 54.07% 52.48% 69.44%


Gretzky did not just win scoring titles, he won them like Secretariat at the Belmont Stakes (Secretariat won that race by 31 lengths.)   This is Bob Gibson’s “Year of the Pitcher” 1.12 ERA, but for six consecutive years.


Sold!  What’s this article about again?


Wayne Gretzky would be a first ballot hall of fame in any era.  But would an 18 year-old Gretzky drafted this year break some 60 odd records and get his number retired league wide?



And here’s why.


Teams play much more structured now


To be fair, teams tried to play defense.  But there’s wasn’t much of a system.

There’s a famous game, Dec 11, 1985.  Edmonton defeated Chicago 12-9.  Gretzky had 7 assists, Glenn Anderson and Jari Kurri had hat tricks.  Watch the highlights.

A ridiculous amount of goals scored off unforced turnovers from the defense.  The break out play was chip to a forward and hope.

An exotic defensive system was something just barely beyond 1st guy back pressure the puck carrier, 2nd guy back cover the slot.

Forechecking was “You on the wing, go knock the snot out of someone!”


There’s something to be said for this style of play; it’s improvisational and an individual’s talent is more of a factor.  But the NHL eventually did learn, teamwork will regularly beat talent.  Today’s game is highly structured.   Teams now perform choreographed breakouts, and use a deliberate forecheck designed not to knock people down but direct the puck where you want it to go.


The average player is twice as good in 2018 as he was in 1984.


I’m not even talking bigger/stronger/faster.  Although they are.  I’m talking about fundamentals.

Who remembers Rick Zombo?  Zombo was a serviceable defenseman, played 652 NHL games, 242 of them with the Blues.  My friends nicknamed him the Skating Dead.  He usually got to where he needed to be, but oh how he wobbled on the way.  Rick Zombo would not be drafted by any current NHL team, because literally everyone is a better skater.

That’s a direct consequence of improved pee-wee and juniors developmental programs.  The drills and fundamentals are more efficiently taught at every level.  Today’s players are universally better skaters and puck handlers than they were 35 years ago.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that Connor McDavid is currently the best player in the NHL.  The gap between him and an average player is much smaller than Gretzky and a 1984 NHL regular.


And finally, goalies are stars now, and the butterfly is a way more effective goal tending tactic.


I read this on the internet once, so it’s got to be true.  In the 70s and 80s a disproportionate number of goalies in the NHL were the youngest brother; my personal parallel is when we forced my best friend’s kid brother to be the ‘All-Time Hiker’ in sand lot football.  Patrick Roy changed that.   He’s generally credited with popularizing the butterfly too.  Now I think Hasek was the best goalie ever (not having watched Tretiak enough to have an informed opinion).  But Saint Patrick was the first rock star goalie.

Roy changed the story of hockey.  After Roy, hockey players aspired to be goalies.  They were no longer the kid who couldn’t skate.


In summary what does this all mean?

Not. A. Thing.

Part of the fun of sports is debating your greatest of all times or trying to compare eras.  It’s a good cocktail party debate, but in the end completely meaningless and ridiculous.  Gretzky was still born in 1961 and not 2001.

Another Gretzky legend won’t happen again in our lifetime.  Hockey’s changed radically over the last 25 years; for the next Gretzky, hockey will need to change radically once more.

Thanks for the memories Wayne, I was there for your first home game as a Blue against the Panthers.  That’s the night the Kiel Center replaced the old arena on Oakland and became St. Louis Blues home ice.


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