Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Mario Lemieux

Mario Lemieux announced his retirement today. He had an injury-plagued career for the Pittsburg Penguins, but still managed to tally 690 goals in only 915 NHL games. He won Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992, and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1997, after his 1st retirement, when he had Hodgkin's disease.

He was a hell of a deceptive player, possessing huge size and reach, and I can't recall seeing him ever skate super-hard. Not that that is a dig- he had a mesmerizing flow to his game, and perhaps the best hands of any big man in NHL history.

So the question that Barry Melrose and Darren Pang answered today on Sportscenter is, where does he rank? Is he better than Gretzky?

It ain't even close. Gretzky is clearly better. He had a longer career, more points, more records, more trophys, more Cups. Gretz had 10 Hart trophies (MVP). Mario had 2. The one argument I heard when Mario retired the first time is that Mario averaged more points per game than Gretzky- 2.00 (1494 points in 745 games), which was unprecedented in the NHL. But Mario at that point did not suffer the inevitable trailoff that players do when they get into their mid 30s. Those stats are 1984 through 1997- 12 seasons. Let's look at Gretzky's first 12 seasons in the NHL- 1979 through 1992. That's 2142 points in 925 games, for a 2.31 points per game average. Still think there's an argument here? Gretzky had a longer career, and a longer and higher peak.

The real question is where Mario ranks in the annals of the all time greats. To make a baseball analogy, it's a Sandy Koufax problem. What do you do with a guy who didn't have longevity, but a short-lived brilliance? In my mind, peak production counts, but so does longevity. There's also the inevitable stickiness of comparing players in different eras. How do you compare Lemieux with Howe or Richard? Richard had more points. The best thing about sports is arguing about stuff, so here's my top 5 skaters in order:

  1. Wayne Gretzky. No comparison. I don't know if there's every been a player in a major sport that's been more dominant during his career than Wayne.
  2. Gordie Howe. 25 years in the NHL counts for something, along with being #2 in all time goals. More points, trophies, and Cups than Lemieux. And I don't count that whole "played in 12 different decades" farce he conducted in the 70's, 80's and 90's.
  3. Bobby Orr. Indisputably the best defensemen of all time, and revolutionized the defensive position. Suprisingly, he played in fewer games than Mario, but still won more Harts, along with 8 straight Norris trophies (best defenseman).
  4. Mario Lemieux. Tough one between him and Orr. Managed to win 2 Hart trophies even though he played in the Gretzky era.
  5. Maurice "The Rocket" Richard. First 50 goal scorer, and in a time where scoring 40 was amazing.
Comments are enabled, so let the flames begin.

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