By John Steigerwald
June 18, 2017
Former NHL players Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr and Mario Lemieux react during the NHL 100 - Media Availability as part of the 2017 NHL All-Star Weekend at the JW Marriott on January 27, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Getty Images)
I would bet Sidney Crosby wants to throw up when he’s asked about his legacy.
I could be wrong, but I get the feeling most players and coaches — especially the great ones — never use the word and hear it only from the media.
It’s been only fairly recently that the media seem to have developed an obsession for discussions about the effects of a season, a series or a game on a player’s legacy.
I don’t know who’s in charge of North American Sports Legacies, but I’m pretty sure they’re pretty impressed with Crosby’s back-to-back Stanley Cups and Conn Smythe trophies.
The Tom Brady rule that defines the greatest player in a sport by the number of championship teams he plays on isn’t followed here, so I’m still going with Mario Lemieux as the greatest Penguins player of all time, but Crosby is a solid second.
It wasn’t too long ago that Jaromir Jagr was being given that spot.
But what about Crosby’s place on the all-time list?
Is he stuck at no better than fourth for the rest of his life, no matter how many more times his name is carved on a trophy?
The consensus seems to be that Wayne Gretzky, Lemieux and Bobby Orr are the top three, with some discussion allowed for the order.
If Crosby is only the second-best Penguin of all time, he can never go higher than three, right?
Maybe he’s better than Gretzky.
If it’s only about goals, assists and trophies, nobody will ever move Gretzky out of No. 1, much less down to three.
Sidney Crosby is handed the Conn Smythe trophy by Gary Bettman after the Penguins won the 2017 Stanley Cup on June 11th. (NHL.com)
The possibility that Crosby is better than Gretzky was raised in this space last week, and I apparently haven’t had the space taken away from me, so let’s dive in a little deeper.
Maybe you noticed that Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said this week that he’s going to be looking for muscle between now and October.
He said that, after watching the abuse that Crosby took this season, it’s become obvious to him that the league isn’t going to protect him, so he’ll find players who will.
Anyone who knows anything about hockey knows that Crosby and Lemieux took more abuse in a week’s worth of regular-season games than Gretzky took in his career.
You would have a hard time finding any video of Gretzky being involved in a routine check. And that sets him apart in hockey history every bit as much as his goals and assists.
That’s why I believe Lemieux is the greatest player of all time.
He put up comparable numbers in several categories despite the NHL’s stupidity that allowed him to be hacked, clutched and grabbed all over the ice.
Crosby has dealt with just as much abuse and has been the best player in the world for 10 of the last 12 years. He’d be 12-for-12 if not for injuries. And he does things on the boards and in the corners as a grinder that Gretzky never dreamed of doing.
I don’t think Gretzky would get the kid-glove treatment in 2017 that he got 30 years ago when he put up a ridiculous 215 points and led the Edmonton Oilers to their third Cup, and the instigator rule would keep his goons unemployed.
I do know something that he would get today that he didn’t get in the 1986-87 season.
A much smaller target.
The nets are the same size but the goalies and their pads are a lot bigger.
The Penguins’ No. 1 goalie in 1987 was Roberto Romano. He was 5-foot-6, 170 pounds. His goals-against average was 3.61 and his save percentage was .884.
Mike Vernon, 5-9, 180, was one of the better goalies in the league and played for the Calgary Flames, who finished in second place in the Smythe Division behind the Edmonton Oilers.
The Winnipeg Jets finished third in the Smythe with Pokey Reddick, 5-8, 170, and Daniel Berthiaume 5-9, 155.
Gretzky and the Oilers swept the Jets in the second round of the playoffs that year.
If Pokey got on Daniel’s shoulders they might not be a bigger barricade than Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators, who’s 6-5, 217 and wears pads big enough for Reddick and his family to live in.
Most of the goalies Gretzky played against were his size or smaller. Most were under 6 feet. Lemieux was bigger than every goalie he played against.
Crosby didn’t see a goalie under 6-2 in the playoffs this year.
During the season he faced Carey Price, Tuukka Rask, Roberto Luongo and John Gibson, all 6-3; Steve Mason, Martin Jones, Robin Lehner and Frederick Anderson, all 6-4; Scott Darling, 6-6; and Ben Bishop, 6-7. I counted two goalies under 6-2.
And these guys are more athletic and better coached than most of the guys Gretzky and Lemieux saw 30 years ago.
In the 1986-87 season, goalies gave up an average of about 3.5 goals per game and not one had a save percentage higher than .889.
In the season just completed, three goalies gave up three goals per game and one had a save percentage under .900.
If Gretzky in his prime showed up in the NHL in 2017, he’d be in for a big surprise.
And he’d be the third-best player in the league.