Everyone has different things that they think about during different parts of the year. Around Thanksgiving, some people think about tryptophan, some people think about football and I think about my wedding last year. Along the same lines, I’ve found that different people think of different things during the week between Christmas and New Years. Some people focus on returning crappy gifts, some people are looking forward to a night of permanent liver damage on New Years Eve and other people are just excited that they decided to take the week off from work. Me, well—I’m a little different than everyone else.
Without fail, every year between Christmas and New Years, I think about Wayne Gretzky’s 50 goals in 39 games record. Maybe it’s because Northlands Coliseum had “Seasons Greetings” painted all over the ice and maybe it’s because I have a clinical hockey obsession. Regardless, this is the time that I think back to just how amazing that mark is and I wonder if anyone is ever going to get close to it in my lifetime. Or ever for that matter.
He scored 4 goals in game #38 against the Boston Bruins, then another 5 in game #39 against the Philadelphia Flyers. Hell, I can’t imagine anyone scoring 9 goals in TWO games nowadays. Maybe the NHL should let him show up at the Winter Classic just so he can reminisce how he OWNED both of those teams 28 years ago. The announcer has a great line after he scores the goal, “He has 50 goals before anyone else has 30!” It was so unexpected that he reached the milestone that night that his father wasn’t even in attendance.
The reason that it’s even MORE amazing is that he did it in only his 3rd season in the NHL. His 1981-82 season with the Edmonton Oilers is one of awe and filled with lore—50 goals in 39 games; 61 goals in 50 games; 92 goals on the season. And if goal scoring isn’t your thing, he added 120 assists for a total of 212 points. This just in: Wayne Gretzky was really good.
Whenever I think back to the amazing record, my thoughts invariably switch to the present-day NHL. During the 1990s and the neutral-zone trap, I didn’t expect anyone to score 50 goals over the course of the entire season. But now that the NHL has realized that obstruction is a bad thing, we’ve been seeing the scoring totals increase. Be that as it may, last season only saw ONE player in the NHL score more than 46 goals. So is there really any greater chance now then there was in the 90s?
Look around the league and tell me who you think would even remotely have a chance? To put it in perspective, let’s take a look at how many goals per game Gretzky was scoring in his record setting season. Gretzky’s start in 1981 had him scoring at a 1.28 goals per game pace. As the games got tighter towards the end of the season and the wear of a full NHL season wore on #99, his goal scoring average took a bit of a predictable dip. He ended up finishing that season with 1.15 goals per game.
Last season, Alexander Ovechkin was head and shoulders the best goal scorer in the entire league. Ovechkin had 10 more goals than anyone else last season—and he played fewer games than the other league leaders. The only competition to his 56 goals in 79 games last season was his 65 goals in 82 games in 2007-08. When it comes to goal scoring, it’s Ovechkin and everyone else. But when you break it down and look at his goals per game, you see JUST how far he is away from some of those records. A.O. scored his 56 goals last season at an average of .71 goals per game. The year before that, he scored his 65 goals at a pace of .79 goals per game.
Stop and think about that for a minute. Ovechkin’s 65 goals in a season was the best season in the NHL since Mario Lemieux scored 69 goals in 1995-96. Pavel Bure scored 60 twice in his career, but never reached Ovechkin’s total. Jaromir Jagr scored 62 in a season when he was playing next to Mario in Pittsburgh, but that was the best he was able to accomplish. And even with how great Ovechkin’s season was—he was only on pace to score about 40 goals in 50 games. He wasn’t even CLOSE to 50 goals in 50 games—and Gretzky scored 50 in 39.
In the 4 seasons since the lockout, only seven players have managed to even hit the 50 goal plateau. If your name wasn’t Alexander Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Jarome Iginla, Vinny Lecavalier, Dany Heatley, Jonathan Cheechoo or Jaromir Jagr, then you don’t know what its like to score 50 since the lockout. And it’s supposed to be EASIER now! The year BEFORE the lockout, Rick Nash, Iginla and Kovalchuk all tied for the league lead with a feeble 41 goals for the entire season.
Look around the league and look at the best goal scorers. Aside from Ovechkin, who would even be able to challenge the 50 goals in 50 games benchmark? Marian Gaborik is having a fantastic year—but I’m not sure that he is a good enough PURE goal scorer to ever threaten the mark (besides, he would have to remain HEALTHY for 50 games). Toronto Maple Leaf fans would like to think that Phil Kessel is the type of sniper that could do it—but he needs to score 50 in a season before I’ll think about him scoring 50 in 50; let alone 50 in 39. Ilya Kovalchuk can put the puck in the net with the best in the world. Can you imagine if he had better line mates and some dangerous talent around him?
Something that gets lost in the mix when talking about Gretzky’s great goal totals in 1981-82 is the talent that he had around him. Of course, teams would try to focus on #99—but he played on a team that featured the likes of Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Glenn Anderson and Jari Kurri. Not only could they put the puck in the net themselves, but they would draw attention away from The Great One allowing him lanes towards the net.
No one ever thought that anyone could score goals like Gretzky did, so I would never say never. But Gretzky’s 50 goals in 39 games are SO far beyond the scope of the guys playing today, I don’t see anyone ever coming close. Until goalie pads go back to a reasonable size, maybe 50 in 50 is a realistic goal. Maybe people could shoot for that first. Baby steps.
What do you think?? Do you think anyone will ever score 50 goals in 39 games again?