One of the most annoying debates on hockey threads these days is: 'Who was the best player of all time?' The reason it's so annoying is the blatant Homerisms used by the fans in order to claim that their hero is the best. Like, 'Lemieux was better than Gretzky, because Gretzky had Mark Messier. Who did Lemieux have?' Jaromir Jagr, anyone? Sure, Jagr came later in Lemieux's career, but even when Lemieux had Jagr, he was regularly getting outscored by Gretzky. There's only one way to fairly make this argument. It's time to look at numbers.
Goals, Assists, Points: The Great One, The Great One, The Great One. 894 goals, 1,963 assists, 2,857 points. All NHL records. In fact, Gretzky had more assists than Lemieux had total points (1,723). That statement alone is pretty damaging to Lemieux's case. Of course, this is exactly the point where Mario's supporters get angry and say, 'Gretzky played more games! Of course he scored more points!' True, Mario only played 915 NHL games because of injury while Gretzky played 1,487.
Points per Game: Guess what... Gretzky! Lemieux supporters swear up and down that Mario averaged over 2 points per game for his career and Gretzky didn't. Well, they're half right. Gretzky did NOT average 2 points per game. Then again, neither did Lemieux. Mario's 1.88 points per game is amazing, but not quite as amazing as Gretzky's 1.92. So even if Mario Lemieux had played as many games as Gretzky, he would not have had the same point totals. Then comes, 'Um, hello? Cancer!?' True, Lemieux battled cancer and still played.
Durability: Mario Lemieux. With all his back troubles and cancer, the fact that he was still tops in the league year after year shows just how awesome he was. However, you still have to look at the points per games played and Gretzky edged him out, anyways.
Records: I'm not going to list every record Gretzky owns, because it's too many. However, the main ones, most goals, assists and points ever and most goals, assists and points in one season all belong to Gretzky. He had four seasons where he scored over 200 points. Lemieux had none.
It seems clear to me that, unless you're just a blind Lemieux homer, Wayne Gretzky was the best hockey player of all time. By far. But what about the best player now? Well, let's take a look:
While no one agrees on the actual best player, most agree on the finalists: Sidney Crosby, Pavel Datsyuk, Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin. Of course, Pavel is the oldest so everyone will say that in the end, the other three will over take him in total points and accomplishments. Very possible. However, we're determining the best player NOW. So let's take a look at the different stats that will tell us who the best player is:
Goals, Assists, Points: Ovie, Malkin, Malkin. Surely, Ovechkin is the better goal scorer of the four, and Malkin is a better passer, but he also has better teammates to pass to. Then again, Ovie plays Left Wing. Wingers are not typically setup guys. They shoot. He shoots a lot, actually. Of the 4, Ovechkin has the lowest shooting percentage at 10.6%. Crosby has the highest at 13.9% and Datsyuk was second at 12.9%. Sadly, Pavel's shooting percentage doesn't get mentioned because by this point, the fact that he had the fewest total points between the 4, he tends to be left out of the discussion. I recently read an article written by a Flyers fan who was trying to make the same case that I am now. He had an interesting stat that goes along the lines of the points per game we used to decide the best player ever. TOI (Time On Ice). He writes:
Ovechkin lead all NHL forwards with an average ice time of 23 minutes per game.
Malkin was second in this category with 22:31 minutes per game.
Crosby ranked third in the league with 21:56 minutes per game.
Pavel Datsyuk ranked 46th in the league amongst forwards at 19:12 minutes per game. In fact, teammate Henrik Zetterberg ranked higher at 32nd in the league with an average of 19:52 minutes per game.
What all this means is, if Datsyuk were to see the same amount of TOI that Malkin had, his points would likely go from 97 to 111 based on his points per game. That would move him from 4th to 2nd in total points. If he played the same minutes as Ovechkin, it would be even higher. I hate to use "what if's", though, so let's take a look at their defensive abilities. Since it's a big patch of ice, I think it matters who is better by his own net.
Now, I have actually had to explain +/- to a few Penguins fans before, even though they claimed to be huge hockey fans way before Crosby and Malkin ever came into the league. Just in case there's someone out there that is unfamiliar with the stat, it's meant to show how often a player is on the ice when scored against vs how often they are on the ice when they score. Power Play goals don't count, but shorthanded goals do. Crosby was +3, which means that when he is on the ice at even strength, the apposing team is just as likely to score as his team is. Ovechkin was +8 so not much better. Malkin is the better 2-way forward between him and Crosby at +17, but Pavel Datsyuk takes the cake at +34. When he's on the ice, he can shutdown your best player and still be a threat to score.
Finally, a lot of people dislike that Datsyuk keeps winning the Lady Byng Trophy for 'gentlemanly play'. This doesn't mean he isn't physical, it just means he doesn't commit penalties as often as most players. He only had 22 penalty minutes (while playing defensively against his opponents best player), while the next lowest of the four finalists was Ovechkin with 72.
There is no doubt that Pavel Datsyuk is the best hockey player in the world right now. Think of it this way: A student gets an A+ in math, but a C in Science, C- in English and a D in History. Another student gets an A- in all his classes. Who's the better student?