Why Sidney Crosby Is This Generation's Wayne Gretzky
What Crosby is doing in the modern era is as impressive, if not more so, than what Gretzky did in his time.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Pool Photo via USA TODAY Sports
It's time to start appreciating Sidney Crosby—not just as the best player in the NHL today, but as one of best players to ever live.
Crosby, despite all of his personal and team accomplishments at the age of 28, has been a victim of expectations and nostalgia during his already Hall of Fame career. He has two Stanley Cups, two Olympic golds, two MVPs, two scoring titles and a Conn Smythe Trophy. That should be enough to build a high enough wall to make him impervious to silly criticisms from sweaty former players that believe he doesn't work hard enough despite all the evidence to the contrary.
Crosby is this generation's Wayne Gretzky yet the former will always be punished for not being the latter.
When Crosby entered the league, he was heralded as the next Great One, the kid that would rescue the NHL after a full-season lockout. Crosby had the weight of the best ever on his shoulders while playing in the shadow of the second-best ever in a city that was facing the possibility of losing its hockey team. An 18-year-old from Nova Scotia was asked to be everything to everyone, to anchor a team in Pittsburgh and make it worth it for politicians, owners and fans to invest in a new arena.
And he thrived through all of it.
It's not as sexy as the idea of Gretzky bringing hockey to Hollywood during the second act of his career but what Crosby was able to do at such a young age in such a pressure-packed situation seems to be an afterthought or totally forgotten when discussing his legacy.
If doing all this while playing for Mario Lemieux and in comparison to Lemieux's career in the memory of fans isn't difficult enough, competing against the ghost of Gretzky, even if that's not something that enters Crosby's mind at any time, influences perception just as much as the expectations. The old guard in the hockey media can't wait to tell you how much better everything was in Gretzky's era, including Gretzky himself.
One look at the all-time leading scorers page on Hockey Reference is enough to induce eye rolls from anyone that has spent any part of the last decade hearing Gretzky-Crosby comparisons. Two-thousand, eight-hundred and fifty-seven points is a number that assaults the imagination of anyone that didn't live through Gretzky's era. If all you ever watched was the Dead Puck Era of the 1990s or its sequel of recent years, it's inconceivable how a human could register nearly 3,000 points in 20 NHL seasons.
Baseball, in a way, benefits from its history. The home run leaderboard is attainable for today's greats the way Gretzky's 2,857 points are not. Both baseball and hockey have changed over the years like any sport, but baseball's changes allow for its most storied offensive records to be broken; hockey's changes have beaten scoring out of the game to a point where comparing hockey in 2016 to a time as recent as 30 years ago is—no pun intended—pointless.
Gretzky averaged 1.921 points per game during his career; Crosby sits at 1.327, a number that will surely slip as he ages in a league where scoring continues to decline. Gretzky and Crosby are first and fifth, respectively, in the history of the sport in this category.
Now consider the extreme differences between the two eras.
NHL teams averaged about 3.5 goals per game during Gretzky's career; Crosby has played 11 seasons in which the average is 2.8 per game. Scoring is down about 20 percent between the eras, which factored into Gretzky's numbers, drops his points per game to 1.54, which is still the second-best mark behind Lemieux (1.883).
If Crosby received a 20 percent boost from playing in an era more beneficial to generational players, his average jumps to 1.58 points per game.
Not only did Gretzky play in a time when goaltenders looked like dads that threw on some pads to defend a net against their 7-year-old, he played during a time when a salary cap was nothing more than a story players told their kids to scare them into avoiding socialism. It was easier to score and keep great teams together and Gretzky benefited greatly from that.
Crosby plays in a time when creating enough cap space to add Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary is the difference between winning a Stanley Cup and losing in the first round; when power plays don't occur as frequently, and when everyone is looking for an angle to reveal why he's not that good although his resume says he's as good as anyone.
Why does Crosby catch so much grief despite his greatness? Maybe his era is also a detriment when compared to Gretzky's time, too.
In the 1980s, the internet wasn't a thing. People thought the movie WarGames was the height of a technological thriller. If you saw Gretzky play on TV outside of Edmonton more than five times in a year, you were probably a billionaire that owned a yacht and showed people your satellite dish the way that drug dealer shows Russell Crowe his microwave in American Gangster.
Otherwise, you saw highlights of Gretzky's game and read about his stats in the late edition of your newspaper. There wasn't fierce competition for eyeballs on your hockey content. Everyone just understood Gretzky was the greatest and it's hard to imagine there was a journalist in Edmonton in 1982 picking at his game, hinting that he ate hot dogs every day and never lifted weights.
If Gretzky played under a spotlight, Crosby plays under an electron microscope. All his games are available on TV and the internet. There are dozens of websites dying to give you an original take—perhaps one that says he's not a true leader and is hurting his team as a captain three weeks before winning another Cup. If Crosby goes four games without a goal, it's national news.
Even with all this working against Crosby, he will likely crack 1,000 points next season as a 29-year-old, a mark he would have eclipsed long ago if he hadn't lost more than 100 games due to a lockout and concussion issues during his prime. If he plays 10 more seasons and averages 70 games a year at a .09 points per game, he will finish his career with about 1,600 points.
Crosby has been slightly better than a point per game the past two seasons, which is a far cry from his five 100-point seasons and might be the new norm. But that's just as much about the era as it is any decline in his game because of injuries.
Crosby will never measure up to Gretzky on the career scoring charts but he shouldn't have to. What he's doing in the modern era is as impressive, if not more so, than what Gretzky did in his time.