Wayne Gretzky retired after the 1998-99 season, despite having led the league in assists in two of the preceding three seasons, and leading the New York Rangers in scoring for the third straight season. He was playing over 21 minutes a game, more than any Ranger apart from their top defensive pairing. He skated alongside veterans Adam Graves and John MacLean, who combined for 66 goals with the Great One, and only 41 the next season without him.
Given the difficulty of a 38-year-old withstanding the physical toll imposed by 82 games of NHL hockey, and perhaps unwilling to transition to a secondary role for his twilight seasons, Gretzky decided to conclude his fantastic playing career.
What if GM Glen Sather had convinced Gretzky to stay on? What kind of impact would Gretzky have had, and for how much longer? Using historical data from other elite forwards who played on through their grey-bearded seasons, we can project what could have been.
Methodology in brief
Our calculations were based on Mark Messier, Mark Recchi, Igor Larionov, Gary Roberts, Gordie Howe, Dave Andreychuk, John Bucyk, Adam Oates, Dave Keon, Brett Hull, Alex Delvecchio, Dean Prentice, Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Ron Francis and Jean Ratelle. In each case, we looked at their average production from ages 35-37, shifted it to line up with Gretzky's, and then took an average of their adjusted scoring and GVT for ages 38+.
1999-00 New York Rangers: 80 points, 12.7 GVT
Playing alongside friends Theo Fleury and Adam Graves, the Great One led the New York Rangers in scoring for the fourth straight season, and even edged out Mark Recchi's 63 assists to lead the league in assists for a final time, and the third time in four seasons. In real life, Fleury's goal-scoring dropped from 40 to 15, and Graves' from 38 to 23, but buoyed by the Great One's playmaking, he and Graves combined for closer to the previous seasons' 78 than their historical 38.
Unfortunately, the additional 12.7 goals above replacement value Gretzky provided weren't nearly enough for the New York Rangers to compete in the postseason. Right up until the trade deadline, the wires were abuzz with rumors of a move to the Toronto Maple Leafs, though nothing materialized.
2000-01 New York Rangers: 76 points, 10.2 GVT
Glen Sather convinced his pal to sign on for another season when he brought in Mark Messier, with whom 99 would form a deadly power play, teamed up with Petr Nedved, Theo Fleury and Brian Leetch.
Historically, the Rangers boasted three 30-goal scorers (Nedved, Fleury and Radek Dvorak), but struggled in their own end, allowing a league-high 290 goals against. There's very little Gretzky could have done to help that, and the Rangers were once again nowhere near the playoffs.
This year, the late season trade rumors featured Toronto and even Pittsburgh, where the Great One could have scored his 3000th NHL point playing with the Magnificent One Mario Lemieux, who had made his successful comeback earlier that season on the high-octane Penguins.
2001-02 New York Rangers: 65 points, 9.4 GVT
How did Glen Sather entice a 40-year-old Wayne Gretzky to come back to a non-competitive team for one more year? Not only could Gretzky prepare for the 2002 Olympics Games skating with Messier, Nedved and Fleury, but imagine how exciting it would be to see number 99 feeding the puck to Eric Lindros. Sather even revealed that he had been negotiating with the Florida Panthers to acquire Pavel Bure, who scored an amazing 117 goals over the past two seasons despite their lack of any other legitimate top-line forwards.
Having been convinced that New York was the place to be, Gretzky placed second to Lindros in team scoring, and won Olympic Gold with Team Canada, but unfortunately the Rangers were still terrible defensively and missed the postseason. It was Gretzky's final season in a Blue Shirt, his extra 211 fictitious points giving him 460 as a Ranger, good enough for 14th on their all-time scoring list despite just six seasons with the club.
2002-03 Detroit Red Wings: 46 points, 4.1 GVT
Of the respected players we used for seed data, only half of them continued playing at this advanced stage of their careers. Hungry for one more Stanley Cupone of the few things Gretzky had failed to achieve since leaving Edmonton in 1988the Great One surprised everyone by signing a one-year contract with the mighty Detroit Red Wings.
Helping to seal the deal was the opportunity to play with friends and former linemates, fellow legends Brett Hull and Luc Robitaile. They felt right at home with fellow superstars competing in their twilight years, including Steve Yzerman, Igor Larionov and Brendan Shanahan.
Despite the occasional slumps and injuries, it was a fun season for the Great One, though the Red Wings still came up a little short of winning the President's Trophy. Unfortunately, the 41-year-old could do little to avoid their first round upset at the hands the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, who historically swept the dynastic squad of legends on their way to the Stanley Cup Finals.
2003-04 Edmonton Oilers: 52 points, 6.1 GVT
Though his season with Detroit was seen as a surprise, it felt only natural to see Wayne Gretzky end his storied NHL career where it began, as an Edmonton Oiler. Instead of signing veteran playmaker Adam Oates, the Oilers opted for their favorite son, who finished second in team scoring playing alongside Radek Dvorak, with whom he occasionally played in our fictitious Rangers seasons, and his possible Salt Lake City linemate Ryan Smyth.
In November Gretzky played in his second outdoor NHL game, the first one being back in 1991 with the Los Angeles Kings, where he scored a goal in their 5-2 victory in Las Vegas. Historically, Montreal won 2003's match up 4-3, but Gretzky's extra jump helped the team take the game to overtime, where the Great One himself set up the game winner.
Thanks to the Great One's leadership and contributions, those extra two points were enough to scratch their way into the playoffs at the expense of the Nashville Predators. Despite being knocked out in the first round by his former Detroit teammates in a tough seven game series, Gretzky looked back on his final season as a great success.
2004-05 Lockout season: Gretzky retires
With the 2004-05 season came the Lockout, and Gretzky's official (fictional) retirement. In our alternate reality, Gretzky added 318 points to his impressive career totals, crossing the 3000 mark all the way to 3175 career NHL points before any other player had even reached 2000.
Gretzky also added a gold medal to his trophy case, and an amazing 17th distinction as the NHL's league leader in assists. He got to compete in a second outdoor NHL game, help his beloved Oilers make the postseason in 2004, and got one last chance to play with legends like Mark Messier, Theo Fleury, Eric Lindros, Pavel Bure, Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille (in our fictional account, at least).
Players as talented as Wayne Gretzky can play almost as long as they want to, provided they're comfortable with a reduced role using their experience to help out younger players on a depth line, and to work the power play. It's a great opportunity for a younger generation of fans to get a look of their own at the sport's true legends, and helps ease the transition from a quieter and more strategic era in hockey to the high-energy, jump-of-the-glass tempo of today.
Sigh. I miss Gretzky.
Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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