Over the weekend Steve Simmons, everyone’s favorite Canadian hockey columnist, used the opening section of his weekly notes column to ponder whether or not Sidney Crosby or Jean Beliveau is currently the fifth greatest hockey player of all time behind the hockey Mount Rushmore of Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr, and Gordie Howe.
(Howe would not make my hockey Mount Rushmore, but that is another argument for another day).
The jumping off point was Crosby recently celebrating his 32nd birthday (32?! My God, where are we going?) and where he stands among the NHL’s greats.
I have some assorted random thoughts on this so am going to put them out there and let you decide what you think.
1. I have a love-hate relationship with these type of arguments because I do think it is possible to at least reasonably compare players across generations, you just have to make sure you’re taking a lot of time to consider the context of each era and what each player did versus their peers and how that translates to a different time. And when it comes to comparing NHL players across generations you need a LOT of context because the league and game has changed so much.
Sometimes that context gets ignored in a battle of “let’s just count the rings and awards!”
Just use the Beliveau-Crosby comparison as an example.
The former played in a six-team league, with a shorter schedule, where the deck was consistently stacked in his team’s favor.
The latter plays in a 30-31 (and soon-to-be 32) team, salary capped league that is a systematic, over-coached defensive slugfest where goalies are the size of a house with cat-like reflexes.
No individual player is ever going to win 10 Stanley Cups in today’s NHL. No one was ever going to consistently score 100 points in Beliveau’s era because they simply didn’t play enough games.
The criteria for awards voters look for is fluid and constantly changing.
2. Let us get back to the “versus their peers” discussion for a second, because I think that is always a pretty telling sign for greatness and keeping context in mind for each era because it’s measuring what players did against people that were playing in the same competitive environment against the same level of competition.
How much better and more productive was a player versus the same players they were competing with?
Crosby is currently averaging 1.29 points per game for his career, which is pretty insane number for any era and it completely blows every other player in today’s game out of the water.
The next closest player (minimum 500 games played) during Crosby’s career is Evgeni Malkin at 1.18. That is a 0.11 point per game difference.
He has a 0.26 per game lead over the fifth-leading scorer from this era. A 0.31 lead over the 10th-leading scorer.
Those are significant leads.
How does that compare to some other random all-time greats through the same age?
— Through Gretzky’s age 31 season he had an insane 0.31 per game lead over the next closest scorer during that time period (that next closest player would be Lemieux) and a literal ONE POINT PER GAME LEAD over the 10th leading scorer. Just stupid numbers.
— Through Lemieux’s age 31 season he held a 0.11 lead over the No. 2 scorer (Gretzky ... they flip-flopped as Gretzky declined and Lemieux reached the height of his powers), a 0.75 lead over the fifth scorer, and a 0.82 lead over the 10th scorer.
— Through Howe’s age 31 season he was 0.09 points ahead of Bernie Geoffrion in second place, 0.29 points ahead of the fifth scorer, and 0.46 ahead of the 10th scorer.
— Going back to Beliveau because that is the comparison that started this whole thing ... he was in second place through his age 31 season, 0.02 points behind Howe.
— Rocket Richard was 0.01 points behind Elmer Lach through his age 31 season and within 0.18 points of the five players immediately trailing him (Max Bentley, Ted Lindsay, Ted Kennedy, Sid Abel, and Bill Mosienko.
— Bobby Orr retired at age 30, but when he did he was tied with Phil Esposito at 1.39 points per game and within 0.11 points of Guy Lafleur and Marcel Dionne in fourth and fifth place. He was also a defensemen in an era when defensemen did not provide a ton of offense. So he was a total force.
— How about old friend Jaromir Jagr? Through his age 31 season he was actually third (behind Gretzky and Peter Forsberg) and within 0.06 points per game of Joe Sakic and Eric Lindros.
Speaking strictly in terms of just offense, his level of dominance is right in line with the other all-time greats.
He is a notch below the “Mount Rushmore” players like Gretzky and Lemieux, but on pretty level footing with players like Richard, Howe, Beliveau, Jagr, etc.
3. Then you have the “career” vs. “player” aspect, and what I mean by that is this: It wouldn’t be unreasonable to argue that Sidney Crosby is going to end up having a better “career” than ... say ... Mario Lemieux. Crosby’s team has won more in a tougher era to win in, they are going to end with similar amounts of individual hardware for their trophy cases, and Crosby is going to play longer with a chance to finish with more goals, points, etc.
But no sane person would ever argue that Crosby is the better player.
As a quick aside on that, several years ago (right after the 2008 and 2009 Stanley Cup runs) a friend asked me which Penguins duo I would rather have: Lemieux-Jagr or Crosby-Malkin. My response was that I would take Lemieux and any other player in Penguins history over Crosby and Malkin. Not as a disservice to Crosby-Malkin, but to simply make the point on just how downright dominant Lemieux was.
So what does all of this mean for the purposes of our discussion?
Crosby is clearly an all-time great, by any objective or subjective measure you want to use.
He is not on the Gretzky, Lemieux, or Orr level, a trio that stands on a level all their own.
He does seem to at least be in the next tier of players with Richard, Beliveau, Howe and so on somewhere in the top-10 all-time greats. What order you place them is up for debate and will largely depend on what the rest of Crosby’s career looks like.
Where does Sidney Crosby currently rank among the NHL’s all-time greats?
This poll is closed
Somewhere else in top-10