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(Ron Frehm)
(Ron Frehm)

Gretzky or Crosby?

Is Crosby already better than Gretzky? Add to ...

So let's try and connect some thoughts here.

Sidney Crosby is, by any measure, in the midst of an absolutely monstrous season. As Eric Duhatschek pointed out the other day, so far this year the Penguins star has temporarily muted what was a pretty spirited debate, one that gets waged at breakfast tables, bar stools and arena dressing rooms across the land: Sid or Ovie, who's better?

His conclusion is that unless Ovechkin does something special from here on in, Crosby at his current pace will separate himself from the competition in Gretzky-like fashion.

Meanwhile James Mirtle veers away from the crowd around Crosby on the eve of the Leafs-Penguins game tonight and chats with his linemates/lottery winners, the otherwise undistinguished Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz, neither of whom is on pace to score 50 points this season.

And this is where I clumsily stick my nose in: How does what Crosby is doing this year - trouncing the competition with no-names for linemates - compare with Gretzky at his peak?

At first glance it doesn't. If he can keep it up Crosby is on pace to finish with 132 points - the most by someone in an Art Ross season not named Gretzky or Lemieux since Marcel Dionne in 1979-80 - but not in Gretzky's league.

In his prime, Gretzky would laugh at 132 points, given he scored that many or more for 12 straight seasons, and cracked 200 points, hockey's statistical Everest, four times.

But the numbers are closer than you'd think at least to this point this season (small sample size; small sample size!).

And while numbers don't make the hockey player, they have to be a big part of the story when you're discussing Gretzky; they're so overwhelming it almost seems pointless bring up anyone else not named Lemieux.

Consider though Gretzky's most ridiculous - in my mind - season; 1981-82 when he scored 92 goals, added 120 assists and finished with 212 points.

It's mind boggling, but it also goes without saying that goals were on sale back then. In 81-82, Gretzky averaged 2.65 points a game but teams were averaging 4.08 goals a night. The Oilers? Only 5.21 a game; that's all.

So far this season Crosby is averaging 1.66 points a game, but the league average is just 2.8 goals a game and the Penguins are averaging 3.13.

Which means, by ratio, Crosby is tearing it up, even compared with what might be the most prolific season in hockey history.

The ratio between Gretzky's points per game and goals per game league-wide was 1.54 (2.65/4.08) -- the smaller ratio the bigger the impact the individual is having, in theory.

The ratio between Gretzky's and the Oilers team total was 1.96.

Crosby? So far this year the ratio between his scoring and the league average is 1.68 or slightly less that Gretzky's. Put another way, Gretzky was having a bigger impact on league scoring overall.

But then we get to how Crosby is affected by his team and it gets a little more interesting as the ratio between his point totals and the team's goal scoring is 1.89.

Translation?

So far this season Crosby is having a bigger impact on his team's scoring than Gretzky did on the Oilers at the peak of the fire wagon era, when they were the most effervescent offensive show the NHL has ever seen.

Numbers can be twisted a lot of ways, but that kind of jumps out at me because it's at least one sign that Crosby - when totals are adjusted to account for league and team averages - is better than Gretzky, or at least more more impactful.

It feels weird to even write that.

Which isn't to say Crosby is better than Gretzky. There are many measures of an athlete and a hockey player and even if Sid the Kid does keep the pace this season, he'd need about five more like it before you could really make the case.

But what it does say, and sadly I'd add, is that we may never know exactly the potential ceiling for Crosby.

In his best years with the Oilers Gretzky always had two and sometimes as many as four teammates in the NHL's top-20 in points per game, we know who they are by rote: Kurri, Messier, Coffey, Anderson etc.

This year so far the Penguins don't have a single other player in the top-20 in points per game, though you'd think Evgeni Malkin will be eventually; he has before.

But Crosby takes the ice mostly with Kunitz and Dupuis; that's a long way from Kurri finishing you plays or having Coffey feeding you the puck on the power play.

And in a hard-cap league the reality is Crosby is stuck; the cavalry isn't coming.

Is Crosby better than Ovechkin? This year certainly.

Is Crosby better than Gretzky? A few more seasons like this one and it might be worth the argument. The problem is as long as he's playing with two guys named Mo -- his fate in a hard cap league -- it will be pretty hard to win it.

 

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