Crosby's the best now, but can we compare him to Gretzky?

Robin Short
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Now that Sidney Crosby’s broken away from the pack and firmly established himself as the world’s preeminent hockey player, the inevitable comparisons have commenced: where does The Kid stand up to the game’s all-time greatest skaters, particularly The Great One, the most prolific scorer in the NHL’s history?

Crosby’s got a ways to go before overtaking Wayne Gretzky and his 61 scoring records, 10 scoring titles, nine MVP awards and four Stanley Cups.

Still, there was an interesting take in the Globe and Mail a couple of weeks ago, when Mike Grange presented an argument for Crosby over Gretzky. Taking into consideration Gretzky’s extraordinary 1981-82 season, when he scored 92 goals and totalled 212 points — a single-season campaign we may never see again — Gretzky averaged 2.65 points per game. The Oilers were averaging 5.21 goals a game, higher than the league standard of 4.08 at the time.

Crosby, meantime, is averaging 1.66 points per night. The league goals-per-game average was just 2.83, with the Pens averaging 3.18.

All that means Crosby’s figuring into his team’s scoring right now more than Gretzky with the Oilers while at his zenith. What’s more, Gretzky had Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey, Mark Messier et al to feed the puck to, and to receive return passes from.

Crosby? Next to him on Pittsburgh scoring is Evgeni Malkin, another centre, and a defenceman, Kris Letang. Crosby’s linemate, Chris Kunitz, has eight goals in 33 games.

Of course, these are but numbers, and like a piece of putty, anything can be moulded from them.

Still, comparing athletes is part of what makes sports fun.

How does Barry Bonds stack up against Henry Aaron? (He doesn’t.) Cliff Lee against Sandy Koufax?  (Ditto). Brett Favre and Johnny Unitas? Lebron James and Bill Russell?

And on it goes.

Truth is, there can be no real comparison of athletes today to those of bygone eras.

Gretzky played in the free-wheeling ’80s. Crosby toils in a time when greater emphasis is placed on defence, where bigger and faster players make for far less room on today’s ice.

Still, you can only imagine Bobby Orr roaming the blueline on Gretzky’s Oilers, or the Canadiens of the late ’70s or Islanders of the early ’80s.

Yet today, if Orr were coming up through the juniors, some scout would be questioning the defenceman’s size (Orr stands about 5-10).

How about Jean Beliveau, or “Big Jean” as he was known? Today, the ex-Canadiens’ great would be of average size. Beliveau finished in the NHL’s top 10 scorers at least once in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

Where would he stack up against, say, Steve Yzerman?

Keeping with the Gretzky-Crosby reasoning, could it be said that Maurice Richard and his 544 goals in 979 games is the game’s purest goalscorer, greater than Gretzky or Mike Bossy? And given that the Rocket played in the ’40s and ’50s, when even the most prolific goalscorers were totalling just 30-35 goals?

Or did Richard and Bobby Hull have it easier than Crosby and Steven Stamkos, who today must find a way to slip the puck through a gaggle of bodies, past netminders perhaps more athletic as anyone on an NHL roster? Moreso, certainly, than Gump Worsley.

Nick Lidstrom, when he’s finished, will be considered among the top five defencemen to ever play the game. Not an overly physical sort, could Lidstrom have survived the 1970s like Denis Potvin and Larry Robinson?

There is more than enough evidence to suggest Gretzky is/was the game’s best player. Cynics will argue that had Orr remained healthy, he would undeniably lay claim to the title.

Same case can be heard for Mario Lemieux, too.

Fact is, Orr’s career was cut short because of a bum left knee, and Lemieux suffered through back pain and cancer. Neither reached the 1,000-game mark, and neither — like baseball’s Mickey Mantle — met his full potential.

Richard, Beliveau, Phil Esposito, Guy Lafleur, Gretzky and Crosby all played in different eras, with different equipment and different ways of playing.

Same game, but very, very different.

So, before we start anointing Crosby as the greatest ever, or Lidstrom as the best since Orr, let’s keep the apples compared to the apples, or least the Sher-Woods with the Kohos (wood, of course).

Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email

Organizations: NHL, Oilers, Globe and Mail Kohos

Geographic location: Pittsburgh

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Recent comments

  • Chris
    December 24, 2010 - 12:02

    I think that it's an interesting thing to think about, but I agree it's not something to to be taken seriously. Sure, I think it would be fun if you plucked Pavel Datsyuk out of today's game and plopped him down in any other era of hockey and watch him run rampant, but it doesn't do it justice. Players today have the benefit of world class training, and it's only getting better and better and better. If Orr was to be placed in todays game he'd probably have a much harder time because everyone is so much better conditioned. Hockey Intelligence is the only thing that can really Permeate the ages. For this reason, the smartest player are the ones that would translate best from the old era to the newer. And I still think they'd have trouble putting up the same numbers. However, place a decent offensive player from todays game, say... Ryan Getzlaf, in the 1960's he'd run through everyone because he is bigger, stronger, and faster than almost anyone from that time. Also equipment plays a factor, sure goalie equipment has gotten bigger, (so have the goalies), but everything from the sticks, to the skates, to the surface of the ice has gotten better. This is one reason I think Lidstrom might be the best defensemen of all time, because he thinks the game better than, well, anyone. At least 1A and 1B with him and Orr.