Ah yes, the age-old Greatest NHL Player of All Time argument. Walk into any pub or watering hole in Canada and get ready to hear a couple regulars engaging in lively debate on the topic. We all know the usual suspects: there’s Wayne Gretzky, the consensus choice as best ever; there’s Gordie Howe, your father’s choice, probably, far too ingrained in hockey lore to engender strong opposition; there’s Bobby Orr, the progressive fan’s choice, without the list-topping career stats but who’s play revolutionized his position and the sport. You’ll even hear support for legends like Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard, Jean Beliveau, or Bobby Hull. But I’m here to tell you the right answer isn’t any of the above. The NHL’s true GOAT is none other than “The Magnificent One” Mario Lemieux.
The case starts here: Lemieux’s 1.883 points per game has him second on the NHL’s all-time list, just .038 behind Gretzky in first and .386 clear of Mike Bossy in third. That puts him and Gretzky on a different plane of offensive efficiency than anyone else. But the argument isn’t that Mario is second-best of all time, it’s that he’s number one. For that, we need some circumstantial evidence to close to statistical gap between him and Wayne.
Consider that Gretzky played the entirety of his prime in the scoring-inflated 1980’s and early 90’s. There’s no doubt that Lemieux, who began his Pittsburgh Penguins career in 1984-85, benefited from that same offense-friendly era, but more of his career bled into the dead-puck era of the late ‘90’s and early 2000’s. Over Wayne’s entire 20-year NHL career, the league’s goals-per-game average was a whopping 3.498. Over Mario’s 17-year career, the goals-per-game average was a not insignificantly less 3.482. That places Lemieux’s career in a slightly more difficult context than Gretzky’s, making his dazzling offensive numbers just a tad more impressive. In fact, according to the Edmonton Oilers SB Nation site coppernblue.com, Lemieux’s 1.66 era-adjusted points per game is first all-time.
Sure, Gretzky has the 4-2 edge in Stanley Cups, but he played on perhaps the most talent-laden team ever with 1980’s Oilers. That Edmonton roster, even aside from Gretzky, was so good they still won a Stanley Cup in 1990 after Gretzky departed for the Los Angeles Kings. Lemieux’s 90’s Penguins team was excellent, but his supporting cast paled in comparison to Gretzky’s with the Oilers.
Throw in the fact that Lemieux returned from Hodgkins’ lymphoma in 1992-93 to win the Hart Trophy for league MVP, scoring an astounding 160 points in just 60 games, and I feel comfortable slotting Lemieux over Gretzky on NHL’s greatest-player-of-all-time list.
As far as the other major players go, Howe’s longevity and consistent productivity are still unparalleled, but he never approached the heights of Lemieux’s offensive brilliance. The only other candidate that gives me pause is Orr. The numbers he put up for a defenseman, like when he scored 139 points (including 102 assists!) in 1970-71, are otherworldly, and the fact that he ranks top-five in all-time points per game as a blueliner is a testament to his historically unique talents. But his career was short lived, only lasting 10 years, and he didn’t have any more postseason success with the Boston Bruins than Lemieux did with the Penguins, winning the same two Stanley Cups.
Lemieux combines the offensive efficiency of Gretzky, the jaw-dropping talent of Orr, while having enough longevity to ward off Howe as well. It’s for this combination of factors that I’m naming Mario Lemieux as the greatest NHL player of all time.
Still not convinced? Watch this highlight video and tell me you’ve ever seen someone be better at hockey than this guy.