Wayne Gretzky's greatest season probably isn't the one you think it is

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Thursday March 23rd, 2017

Were it possible to hold a séance and conjure up the ghost of a carnival barker who delighted in trying to dazzle you with barely believable figures, that individual would look to get his hands on the Wayne Gretzky stat book. You can do some real crazy things with Gretzky-based math, at both the micro and macro level, and still be telling the truth.

Let me drop a micro-level one on you: in 1985-86, when Gretzky scored his career high of 215 points, he scored in 78 out of 80 games.

That’s actually true. I’d like to say I’m making that up—even I don’t especially believe myself there—but there it is, something you couldn’t even do in squirts. Here’s one for the macro-level: Gretzky won three scoring titles after leaving Edmonton. More than you’d think, right? Guess who how the highest scoring season in the 1990s? You want to say Mario Lemieux, don’t you? But it would be Gretzky, with 163 in 1990-91, for which he did not receive the Hart trophy as MVP. That went to Brett Hull. Shouldn’t have, though, but sometimes you get sick of giving the hardware to the same person, year after year.

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Gretzky buffs are like Mozart and Sherlock Holmes buffs. They like to cite stats, weird-but-true facts—truths, in the case of the great detective, if you prefer, but call it mind-expanding bits of info all the same. Mozart wrote this symphony in this short amount of time, Holmes deduced this because of a pat of butter, Gretzky scored his 1000 point in his 424th game. You get the idea. And one of the most popular Gretzky topics is which year was his best.

Pretty much everyone focuses on three campaigns: 1981-82, when he exploded into global stardom well beyond hockey and atom-bombed the record book with 92 goals and 212 points. Then there was the aforementioned 215 point campaign. After that, we have ’83-’84, when Gretzky was on pace to score more points than ever, ending up with 205 in 74 games, and scored in 51 in a row.

Had I to pick from the three, I’d go with ’83-’84, but being allowed any selection at all, I’d go with what Gretzky did thirty years ago, in 1986-87. He didn’t top 200 points, as he did on four other occasions, finishing with 183. After “only” scoring 52 goals the season before, he led the league in that category again with 62—as if he wished to prove that he still could, if properly motivated, and not trying to average two assists a game, as he just had. But let’s go inside the scoring numbers that year, and also do something that we must do with Gretzky’s career, which we often fail to do, being so bewitched by the singular math of his achievements.

Seven players had 100 points that year. But normally when someone would finish second to Gretzky, they’d do so with more than 130 or 140 points. Sometimes a group of players would be all bunched up like that.

This, after all, was the high-flying 1980s, before there were defensive layers, and teams packing it in. Call it Pony Express hockey, a mad dash of mad dashes, dudes racing up the ice, dudes racing the other way on the counterattack, with head shots being thrown, guys coming out of their skates in blatant attempts to injure—you didn’t need 20/10 vision to see it—and stick fouls that must have left most players picking splinters out of their midsections after the game.

In short, it was kind of glorious, and YouTube will attest that. Lose yourself in some clips. But: that season, the No. 2 man, Gretzky’s triggerman linemate Jari Kurri, finished second with 108 points. That’s two more than Patrick Kane had last season, in a league where no one will get 100 this season, you are an ungodly sniper if you score 40 goals, and a point-per-game average makes you a modern day Mario Lemieux. Or Peter Stastny, at least.

True, Lemieux had 107 points and missed almost twenty games, but what does it tell you if you outpoint your linemate, the scoring runner-up, by almost 80 points? Some differences, in math, mean more than other differences. Gretzky had years where he’d lead the league by comparable margins, but those other players he was besting were excelling more, and here in 1986-87, we see them excelling less, because, presumably, conditions have become less favorable for them to do so.

Everyone was impacted—save, of course, Gretzky. He basically did what he did in, say, 1982-83, a sub-200 point year sandwiched around years he went over the double century mark.

People like to argue that Gretzky would get killed in today’s league. Mirth-inducing. The rules would have favored him—you can’t so much as lay out your laundry, let alone a guy with his head down—and a Gretzky without a redline for two-line offsides would have always been behind the D, or sending someone who had been off on yet another merry breakaway.

But let’s look at this a different way, away form the numbers. Gretzky is still ascending in his career at this time thirty years ago. His finest hockey awaits him: that will occur in the fall of 1987, at the Canada Cup. I’m going to say that no one has ever played hockey close to as well as Gretzky did in that three-game final against the Soviets. Part of the reason was that he controlled the game more, exuded his dimensionality with greater range into every last cranny of the rink, picked more spots that had greater meaning. Whereas, before, a 9-3 blowout and a 2-2 third period edge-of-your-seater were handled indiscriminately. Shifts without points carried greater heft, set tones, set up forthcoming shifts. Forthcoming games. Forthcoming series, too.

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The points dipped a touch, but everyone else’s dipped a lot, even all-world guys like a Kurri. Mark Messier had 107, which was a good number for Mess, and he also had a game that transitioned well to different iterations of how the game was being played, from era to era or just year to year. Offensive blueliner Paul Coffey missed a lot of games, which is probably where Gretzky’s 200-point season went. But if Coffey had been there? He might have buried that 215 mark.

Gretzky, by the way, had 121 assists that year, even though his stud teammates weren’t doing quite what they had been doing for the bulk of that decade. So he was spreading it around more. Naturally, you see that assist total, and you’ve probably just had the epiphany, if you haven’t been trying to come to grips with one like it for years, that Gretzky didn’t need any of those 62 goals, and he still would have led the league in scoring by 13 points with a big fat zero in the goal column. Our Mr. Carnival Barker man wouldn’t even bother with that stat, because he’d know you’d take him for a huckster and go somewhere else, even if he was saying the Gretzky-laden truth. 

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