Yesterday was the great one's birthday. It was also the third straight off day for the Oilers, who won't play another game until February 2nd. To me, that combination of events presented a perfect opportunity to look back on the Oilers' glory years, which were not coincidentally also the prime seasons of the greatest hockey player of all-time.
Every hockey fan knows about Gretzky's most famous records. 894 goals, 1963 assists for 2857 career points, and of course the famous 50 goals in 39 games that he scored in the fall and early winter of 1981. Die hard Oilers fans, like the readers of this blog are probably aware of other Gretzky records, like his 73 career shorthanded goals, or his career high of 47 points in a single postseason in 1985.
Personally, my favourite Gretzky record had been the 79 point margin of victory that he had in the 1983-84 Art Ross Trophy race. Yesterday, while taking a closer look at my favourite record, I learnt a new, more astounding piece of trivia, that some of you may have known, but I don't believe receives enough attention.
From the 1981-82 season to the 1986-87 season, a span of six years, Wayne Gretzky led the NHL in scoring by at least 65 points, every year.
That may not just be the coolest hockey stat I've ever heard, it may also be the coolest hing I've ever heard about anything, EVER!
In fact, the first season of that stretch, Gretzky's 92 goal, 212 point effort, highlighted by his legendary 50 goals in 39 games, was his smallest margin of victory in the Art Ross race during those six years of dominance. From 1982-83 to 1986-87, Gretzky led the league in scoring by more than 70 points, five years in a row!
I compiled a list of Art Ross Trophy winning seasons, where the leading scorer had at least 150 points, and led the runner up in scoring by a margin of at least 25 points. There were nine such instances in NHL history. As far as I could tell, these nine seasons represent the nine most lopsided scoring races in league history. Gretzky won the Art Ross in eight of these nine seasons, including each of the seven biggest scoring title margins ever.
Here is a graph of the aforementioned seasons:
I think this graph does a good job of illustrating just how dominant Gretzky was in the early to mid 1980s. In the five year stretch when he led the won the scoring title by 70 points every year, his margin of victory was larger than half of his runner up's point total.
Here's another way of phrasing Gretzky's dominance in his prime, that absolutely blows my mind:
Number of times that Gretzky led the league in scoring by 65 or more points, from 1981-87 (six seasons): 6
Number of times that anyone has ever led the league by half that amount, other than Gretzky from 1981-87: 0
It's a popular move by contrarians to suggest that despite Gretzky's ownership of the NHL record book, Lemieux or Orr may have been better players when healthy and in their primes. Each of those guys were incredible players in their heyday. But be sure not to underrate Gretzky's best years, his Edmonton years, and characterize him as a player who simply won a lot of scoring titles, and played a bunch of games (as if either of those are bad things). Let's be perfectly clear. In his prime, Gretzky didn't just win scoring titles. He blew his competitors out of the water!
In the six year stretch in his early 20s, which I would label as Gretzky's prime (1981-87), He played 473 games, scored 437 goals, and had 782 assists, for a total of 1219 points. The second leading scorer in the league over that time frame was Mike Bossy, with 698 points. Bossy would have needed to score an additional 14 points per season just to have as many points as Gretzky had assists! Obviously Gretzky's assist total is going to put everyone else to shame, but at that point in his career, Wayne was averaging over 70 goals per season. In fact, he outscored Bossy, along with every other NHL player, by more than 100 goals during those six years of utter lunacy.
I think that starting next year, Gretzky's birthday should be a statutory holiday, so the nation's stats nerds can spend the entire day marveling at his hockey-reference.com page, like I did yesterday.