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How Good Would Wayne Gretzky be in Today’s NHL?

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Paul Pidutti
9 months ago
Paul Pidutti is the founder of Adjusted Hockey and the creator of the Pidutti Point Share (PPS) system, a comprehensive measure of Hockey Hall of Fame worthiness. You can find his content on Twitter (@Adjusted Hockey) and on his website adjustedhockey.com.
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The hockey community widely accepts Wayne Gretzky as its G.O.A.T.  In fact, he very well might be the greatest, or at least most dominant athlete, in any team sport.  Oilersnation.com pitched the question as to how good #99 would be in the NHL in 2023.  Let’s use both data and some sound judgment to find an answer!
Before we get into the numbers, let’s disprove some popular takes on past generations.  

Myth #1: The sport today is too unrecognizable for a player to evolve so quickly.

The elephant in the room: Gretzky’s NHL of the 1980s is clearly not the same calibre as today.  The puck movement, the size, skill and skating of its players, the technology and equipment, the technique of its goaltenders – it’s so much better today. We know that. 
But consider Ray Bourque. He was a Norris finalist at age 20 and at age 40. Nicklas Lidstrom controlled the sport pre- and post-lockout through age 41. Want a forward? Mario Lemieux, Gretzky’s only true historical peer, was the NHL’s most productive scorer in 1988.  After two retirements, cancer, and debilitating back injuries, he was still the NHL’s most productive scorer in 2003 in the NHL’s offensive graveyard days. Want more recent forwards? Jaromir Jagr, Alex Ovechkin, and Sidney Crosby stayed near the top of the sport for nearly two decades.
The takeaway: All-time great players evolve – quickly and efficiently. We also can’t forget these are examples of players aging! Today, we’re talking only Gretzky at his peak.

Myth #2: Gretzky was too small and behind today’s physical standard to thrive.

The Great One would be below average height and weight in today’s NHL.  His fitness level, even if outstanding at the time, would surely pale in comparison to say, Nathan MacKinnon’s. Yet today the players enjoy what is surely the least physical or violent brand of hockey in history. Suspendable plays today were encouraged when Gretzky starred. The NHL has come a long way in player safety, even if today’s standards are famously inconsistent.
Jack Hughes? Patrick Kane? Cale Makar? Mitch Marner? Nikita Kucherov? These modern superstars range from downright small to slight at best.  So, there’s an argument a 1984 Gretzky replica need not even be concerned physically. With his prodigious background, status, scrutiny, and most importantly, his understated competitive fire, there’s also no question Gretzky could and would take every step to rapidly bring his strength and fitness to a 2023 world-class level.

Gretzky’s Peak

Myths busted, let’s get to the math! Historical context and framing generational gaps are, well, kind of my thing.  Here is Peak Gretzky’s output, neutralized for era, using Hockey-Reference’s method and my own work on adjusted games played and pace stats. 
Clearly, we’re not talking about any other all-time great player here.  With full respect to Phil Esposito or Guy Lafleur, this isn’t a man winning scoring titles comfortably.  This is a weapon of a hockey player so dominant that the Art Ross Trophy was secured by Christmas for six years straight.  His worst in six seasons is a 44% lead in the scoring race!  Yikes.
But how good are these adjusted totals? After penalizing him severely for playing in a scorer’s paradise, does anyone of recent vintage even sniff Gretzky’s electric blue blades?

Era Equivalents

While I swear this isn’t an Edmonton puff piece, all eyes naturally turn to Connor McDavid, the modern-day Gretzky.  But is he really? That’s a big Jofa helmet to fill. Has McDavid or Crosby or Ovechkin or some surprise candidate ever reached #99’s stratosphere?
Let’s check the top 5 adjusted seasons among active players in each of goals, assists, and points.
This helps tremendously in our search for what Peak Gretzky would look like in 2023. Using standout seasons of recent vintage – and McDavid’s current masterpiece year – we have some comparison from a statistical perspective.
  • Goal scoring:  You remember that shot-out-of-a-cannon version of 22-year-old Ovechkin? The one that scored 65 goals when 60 hadn’t been touched in 12 years.  That’s comparable to Gretzky’s best season as a goal scorer.
  • Playmaking:  No one active today is close to Gretzky’s best.  McDavid did top a pace of 100 adjusted assists per season, but with full respect to the feat, it was in the abbreviated Canadian division season over just 56 games.
  • Point production: Again, McDavid’s shortened 2021 with only six opponents is the best among active players. If he maintained that play over 26 more games (a big if, of course), we’d have gotten a glimpse of a typical year for Peak Gretzky!
  • Point production, 2.0: Peak Crosby (ages 23-25) might be the most comparable taste of Gretzky’s potential, reached before, during, and after major concussion issues. Across 99 games in those three seasons, Sid was an adjusted 144-point per 82-game player. It’s impressive enough that you could squint and see a perfect healthy season on that trajectory approaching Gretzky. One of hockey’s most famous what-ifs.

Answering the Question

It says a lot that we need to project and massage the adjusted numbers of today’s icons to approach Gretzky.  While the game has changed dramatically since his record-smashing achievements launched a dynasty, it’s absurd to say Gretzky would be a mediocre player in 2023. In summary, here’s why!
  • Historically great players evolve, with Lemieux as the finest example. It’s easy to forget that Gretzky retired only six years before Crosby (still outstanding today) debuted.
  • Players Gretzky’s size still dominate in an NHL that is irrefutably less physical than the 1980s version. Many current stars are no more anatomically advanced than Gretzky’s slim frame maneuvering in the 1980s violent jungle.
  • After leveling the playing field, Gretzky’s feats remain unmatched by anyone roaming the ice today. Slices of Ovechkin’s goal scoring, McDavid’s playmaking, and Crosby’s potential production were able to approach Peak #99 in short bursts. 
For these reasons, Gretzky being a star today seems a foregone conclusion. It’s clear from the eye test he couldn’t keep up with McDavid’s toolkit – no one today can either. But you could shave 40% off The Great One’s adjusted production and he’d still flirt with 100 points! It’s realistic to place Peak Wayne among the world’s best players today. Transporting him overnight in a time machine might lend itself to a transition. His shot not up to today’s standards, Gretzky’s vision is carved perfectly to today’s NHL. He could certainly evolve into a Kucherov-like, pass-first magician. Or a dynamic, puck-hounding, all-situations, elite playmaker like Marner. 
Could most 1980s players today hang in the NHL?  No way. Many would surely get embarrassed by the pace. Gretzky is not any other player. He was so far ahead of his peers, so competitive, so evolved, so brilliant a tactician, and so well suited for 2023, that he’s the perfect player to adapt and flourish in today’s NHL. Good luck Wayne – Oilers Nation has your back!
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