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January 27, 2011
Numbers On Ice
Wayne Gretzky's Records Examined

by Tom Awad

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Wayne Gretzky entered the NHL in 1979, and by the time he retired 20 years later he had rewritten the NHL record book so thoroughly that it was unrecognizable. Gretzky set 61 league records, and 12 years later only one of them -- most career overtime assists -- has been broken. Many of the rest are so far ahead of their runners-up that we wonder if they would be broken even if the NHL lasts for another 100 years.

There are four reasons for Gretzky's incredible statistical dominance. The first is that he had the good fortune to enjoy his NHL prime during the highest-scoring period in league history. During Gretzky's first ten seasons, the NHL averaged 3.81 goals per game, about 27 percent more than the three goals per game that has been the league's long-term average, and 35 percent more than the 2.83 post-lockout average.

He was healthy; because he avoided a more physical style that would wear down his body, Gretzky only missed eight games in his first eight seasons, played a full 20 years in relatively good shape and missed more than 20 percent of the games in a season only once.

The Edmonton Oilers' top unit in his heyday featured Jari Kurri, Mark Messier and Paul Coffey. These days, you can only find teams that overwhelming at the Olympics and in video games. Later in his career, Gretzky would rack up assists feeding Luc Robitaille.

The last and most important reason is, of course, his own superlative talent and drive. Gretzky's hockey sense was the greatest the NHL has ever seen, better even than Bobby Orr's, and it allowed him set records that more physically gifted athletes like Mario Lemieux could not break.

Which of Gretzky's records are simply due to the good fortune of having played in the 1980s, and which would stand regardless? Adjusting player stats to the league's historical long-term average of three goals per game, we can judge Gretzky's records on their true merit.

92 goals in a season, and 50 goals in 39 games, 1981-82

Perhaps Gretzky's most famous records but, amazingly, among his least impressive. The 1981-82 season was the only season since the 1940s in which average scoring broke the barrier of four goals per game, and thus all statistics from this season are inflated; this is a year in which Dennis Maruk scored 60 goals and 136 points. Adjusting for eras, we can see that Phil Esposito's and Brett Hull's best seasons are more impressive, both corresponding to 77 adjusted goals, while Gretzky's 92 goals are adjusted down to 71. Amazingly, Alexander Ovechkin's 65-goal 2007-08 season shows up as the fourth-most impressive goal-scoring display in history.

20110127_timo_1.png

Active player who'll get closest to breaking it: Steven Stamkos, who may one day post the NHL's first 70-goal season in 20 years. Courtesy Hockey Prospectus

163 assists in a season and 215 points in a season, 1985-86

Gretzky owns the top four and nine of the eleven highest-scoring seasons in NHL history, so it's fair to assume that even adjusting for eras he would dominate this category. In fact, he does, but only by a hair. His best season adjusts to 164 points, only one more than Mario Lemieux's 163 adjusted points in 1988-89. In fairness to Gretzky, he still owns six of the seven top point-scoring seasons even after adjustment. His dominance in assists is even more dramatic: He owns the five most impressive assist-scoring seasons in history, and Mario Lemieux's 114 assists are the closest anyone has even gotten to Gretzky's mind-boggling 163 assists! Of all Gretzky's single-season records, 163 assists is perhaps the most untouchable.

20110127_timo_2.png

Active player who'll get closest to breaking it: For points, Sidney Crosby, who was on track for a 130-point season before being injured this year. For assists, Henrik Sedin has dominated the NHL in this regard recently, but Nicklas Backstrom likely has a better long-term chance of one day hitting 100 assists. Courtesy Hockey Prospectus

51-game point-scoring streak

Yet another record whose greatness is hard to quantify, Gretzky's 51-game point-scoring streak was recognized as an impressive accomplishment at the time, with many comparing it to Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak in 1941. Streaks become exponentially more difficult to achieve as scoring levels drop: A player who averages two points a game can be expected to be register a point in roughly 86.5 percent of his games, making his odds of a 51-game streak roughly 0.06 percent -- or about 1 in 1,600. However, if scoring levels drop by 25 percent and that player now averages 1.5 points per game (a still-respectable 123-point season), he will now only score a point in 77.7 percent of his games, and his odds of scoring 51 straight games are 1 in 391,055! Active player who'll get closest to breaking it: Crosby's 25-game scoring streak earlier this year is probably as close as we'll get to this for some time.

Ten scoring titles

Yes, the 1980s were an inflated period for scoring, but Gretzky led the NHL in scoring 10 times, including an incredible seven times in a row. He also lost an 11th on tiebreakers. By contrast, Gordie Howe and Mario Lemieux won six each, and Phil Esposito and Jaromir Jagr five each. No active player in the NHL has won it more than once.

Active player who'll get closest to breaking it: Alexander Ovechkin has won one scoring title and came within three points of two others. While he'll never win it this season, he could win three or four more in the next decade.

3,239 combined regular-season and playoff points

The sheer magnitude of this number speaks to how unique, how exceptional Gretzky's career was. Gretzky leads both the regular season and playoffs in goals, assists and points, and the numbers are not close. He has 2,223 total assists, more than any other player has points. In other sports these records are hotly contested: Pete Rose's 4,256 hits are only two percent more than Ty Cobb's, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's 38,387 points are 4 percent more than Karl Malone's. By contrast, Gretzky's raw points lead over Mark Messier is /b>48 percent. Even after adjusting for scoring levels, he still holds 2,743 points, 200 more than Gordie Howe's adjusted totals, in far fewer games. Courtesy Hockey Prospectus

Active player who'll get closest to breaking it: Mark Recchi is the current leader among active NHLers, with 1,650 combined regular-season and playoff points, and nobody will exceed that total for at least a decade.

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Gretzky was so good, he even owns some records that aren't officially recognized: Because of his single year of experience in the WHA, the NHL refused to designate him as a rookie in his first season even though he was only 18 years old. Gretzky's 86 assists and 137 points that year are unofficial rookie records that hold to this day.

Happy birthday, Wayne. There are very good odds that, even in another 50 years, most of your records will still stand, testaments to an immortal talent.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Tom Awad is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Tom by clicking here or click here to see Tom's other articles.

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