EDMONTON — They told Wayne Gretzky it couldn’t be done, too. And then they gave up telling him anything.
Whether it was 92 goals, 215 points or scoring 50 in 39 games, Gretzky did what was thought to be impossible. Slowly but spectacularly, he taught us to reshape our definitions of what could and could not be accomplished in a National Hockey League season.
So, as we prepare to follow Connor McDavid’s quest for 100 points in a 56-game season — something many believed could not be done — we should be cautious when we say things like, “Well, how’s he going to average over two points per game in his final 11 games?”
Or, “C’mon. How many different players have averaged the 1.79 points-per-game needed to register 100 points in 56 games?”
The answer: Nine players have done it on 25 different occasions, including Gretzky 11 times, Mario Lemieux six times, and Phil Esposito twice.
Can McDavid join that group over the next 11 games?
“It wouldn’t surprise me if he gets more than 100 points,” Gretzky said this week. “Just to show people he’s capable of doing it.”
Sadly, there will be no travelling media circus following McDavid around the North Division over Edmonton’s final 11 games, the way they did when Gretzky was chasing down a record. The stories that live on from the time Esposito was following the Oilers as Gretzky chased down his record of 76 goals in a season were legendary, and Gordie Howe spent some time on the road as Gretzky annihilated his single-season points records as well.
McDavid’s chase will be limited to must-see TV and a nightly board on Sportsnet Central, as the hockey world follows his progress right down to the final point.
“It’s more stressful than people think, because you know the whole world is watching,” said Gretzky, one of the very few who can speak from experience. “But the other side of it is, that’s what motivates you.
“It pushes you. When you’re in the limelight, and you’re always being watched, you want to show people what you can do,” Gretzky said. “He’s taken the city on, the team on, and quite frankly a big part of the league on his shoulders. Obviously Connor is watched every single shift, every period, every game.”
When this shortened season began, the two questions Canadian fans were asking were: Can McDavid reach 100 points, and can Auston Matthews score 50? Matthews’ injury derailed his quest, and the Montreal Canadiens did their best to torch McDavid’s hand.
But just when you thought Montreal had split the atom, holding McDavid to a mere two assists and no goals in their first five meetings, McDavid busted out with a pair of three-point games against Montreal last week.
“I was watching the game the other night, and they showed how the Habs were a team he struggled against,” Gretzky said. “That’s just part of the game. I had teams I struggled against. And he ended up with six points in two games.
“Those are the kind of things that motivates great players. It pushes you internally to show people that you CAN do it.”
So what do we need to know, as McDavid hits the home stretch on what would be his fourth career 100-point campaign — double the amount of 100-point seasons since 2016-17 than any other NHL player (Leon Draisaitl and Nikita Kucherov have had two each)?
Well, in 45 games McDavid already has more points than anyone had in the 48-game shortened season of 1994-95. But it’s really points-per-game that provides the best comparison. Like we said, he’s currently at 1.71 points per game — the highest production in McDavid’s career — and needs 1.79 to have 100 in 56.
So, with the help of Sportsnet Stats, we tried to characterize that level of production historically, among players who played over 40 games in a season:
• Among players with 40-plus games in a season, 1.79 points per game would be the highest since 1995-96 when Mario Lemieux had 2.30 points per game (161 points in 70 games played), and Jaromir Jagr had 1.82 points per game (149 in 82 games played). It would be the highest by an Oilers player since 1987-88, when Gretzky had 2.33 points per game (149 points in 64 games played).
• 29 times in NHL history a player has recorded 100-plus points through the first 56 team games of a season. Most recently, it was in 1995-96, when both Lemieux (116) and Jaromir Jagr (104) did so.
• The most points through the first 56 team games of a season in NHL history is 153 by Gretzky in 1983-84 and 1984-85.
“What he’s doing is once in a generation, and what he’s doing today is a lot tougher than I did,” Gretzky said. “Although I’m proud of what I accomplished, all the things we did, these players today are coached differently, the equipment is better, they’re coached different.
“It’s tougher to play. I’m the first guy to tell you that.”
Then Gretzky said something that made our memory ping, bringing back a voice every Edmonton Oilers fan has heard as they watched the Gretzky years fade into obscurity, and a team that has accomplished less than little in the past 30 seasons.
“What he’s doing,” Gretzky warned, “I hope all the fans in Edmonton are really enjoying, really appreciating, watching this player. I hope people just sit back and realize that is really unique. Something we may never see again. He does things that I have never seen any other player ever do.
“It’s once in a lifetime.”
Or twice, if you’re lucky.