The best sports debates come from made-up scenarios.
After the Penguins big win this past week, you’ve probably heard something like “Sidney Crosby is now among the all-time greats.” That praise is obviously deserved. Crosby has 1,027 points in 782 games, not to mention the fact he has now captained the Pittsburgh Penguins to three Stanley Cups.
But here’s another thing I’ve heard: “How does Sidney Crosby compare to Mario Lemieux?”
With the exception of the 2005-06 season, which was Crosby’s first in the NHL and Lemieux’s last, the two players didn’t play in the league at the same time so it kind of makes it hard to compare them, doesn’t it?
And this is when we get to the most important word in this debate: era.
Hockey is a constantly-evolving sport. We talk now about the need for more goals, but in 2005-06 scoring exploded. Before then, it was the “Dead Puck Era,” when nobody scored. In the 1980s people scored like they were shooting at a soccer net.
One thing we can’t do is throw Sidney Crosby in a time machine to see just how much havoc he would wreak in the ’80s. One thing we can do however is look at something called era adjusted stats.
HockeyReference.com is a site that tracks a crazy amount of statistics for decades and decades including adjusted goals, adjusted assists, and adjusted points.
Basically, you look at how many goals used to be scored in a certain era and give it weight. For example, scoring 40 goals in 1987 was much easier to do then that it is today.
For a specific example, let’s look at Crosby and Lemieux.
In 1991-92, Lemieux scored 44 goals and captained the Penguins to their second straight Stanley Cup. In 2016-17, Sidney Crosby also scored 44 goals and captained the Penguins to their second straight Cup.
In 1991-92, the league-average for goals-for and goals-against was 278. This past season, the league-average for goals-for and goals-against was 227. That means teams 25 years ago, on average, would score and allow 51 more goals per season than teams do today. In other words, goals just weren’t worth as much back then. Yes, one goal still counted as one goal, but goals were easier to score in 1992 than they are today.
If we adjust for the era that they played in, Lemieux’s 44 goals are reduced to 39. Crosby’s 44 goals are increased to 49, or 10 more than Lemieux had when comparing season-to-season.
Here’s a full look at Crosby’s year-by-year stats, adjusted for era:
Stats via hockey-reference.com
So obviously this means Sidney Crosby is better, right? He scores a lot of goals and points in an era where it’s very hard to score goals and points. Surely, the era adjusted stats will favour Crosby, right?
Crosby’s best season for production was his sophomore year of 2006-07 when he scored 36 goals with 84 assists for 120 points. Adjusted for era that works out to 38 goals with 84 assists and 122 points, a difference of just two more goals and two more points. Remember, offence was a little higher 10 years ago than it is today.
Crosby’s best goal-scoring season was in 2009-10 when he scored 51 goals. Era adjusted, that’s 56 goals.
Then there’s Mario Lemieux.
Lemieux’s best season was in 1988-89 when he scored an absurd 85 goals, 114 assists, and 199 points. I was seven months-old when that season began. Seeing things like “85 goals” and “199 points” looks alien to me. I can barely wrap my head around it. Then again, that was back in the crazy 1980s. Once we adjust for era, it’s probably not that impressive, right?
But even when we adjust for era, Lemieux still scored an adjusted 71 goals with 94 assists for 165 points that season. He pulled that off in three fewer games than Crosby played in his best season.
Here’s a look at Lemieux’s era adjusted stats up until his first retirement in 1997:
Stats via hockey-reference.com
If we compare Lemieux’s highest-scoring season (1988-89) to Crosby’s highest-scoring season (2006-07) and adjust for era, Lemieux scored 33 more goals than Crosby, 10 more assists, and 43 more points.
Crosby’s highest era-adjusted point total was 122 points. Even adjusting for era, Lemieux beat that mark five times. The first time he did it (1987-88) Lemieux was 22 and the last time he did it (1996-97) he was 31. It’s not hard to argue that Sidney Crosby has been the world’s most dominant hockey player over the past 12 seasons. If you’ve ever seen him in person or on TV, you’ve seen him torture defenders and goalies for over a decade.
Now imagine a player five inches taller, 30 pounds heavier, and with numbers like the ones I just showed you. Even in an era where goals seemed to grow on trees, Lemieux was a redwood in a forrest of saplings. Stepping away from individual seasons, Lemieux’s career vs. Crosby’s to date is also interesting.
Lemieux finished with 1,723 points while Crosby has scored 1,027, a current gap of 696. Adjusting for era however, Lemieux goes down to 1,540 points while Crosby goes up to 1,143 points, a gap of 397. Adjusting for era instead of taking each players’ actual point totals closes the gap between Lemieux and Crosby by 299 points.
Crosby will be 30 when next season begins (yes, you’re getting old). Will he score 696 more points in his career to catch Lemieux? Maybe, but it’s not a safe bet. How about this then: Will Crosby score 397 more era adjusted points to catch Lemieux? That seems much more realistic.
Most incredible of all to me, and this has nothing to do with adjusting for era, is to think of all the time Crosby has missed due to injury. Crosby has played in 782 regular season games but has missed over 200 due to injury or lockout. Despite all that, Crosby is still just 133 games away from catching Lemieux in that category. That’s less than two full seasons.
Lemieux played in fewer than 30 games in a season five times. He played in 80 or more games zero times. For as much as Crosby has had to battle injuries throughout his career, Lemieux faced even more health obstacles, most notably Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1993.
Make no mistake: Sidney Crosby is a future Hockey Hall of Famer and there is a great argument to be made that by the time he retires, he’ll also be a Top 10 or even Top 5 player in NHL history.
But as of today, according to the numbers, Mario Lemieux is still on another planet.