In six seasons, Sidney Crosby has drawn a lot of comparisons. Now that he's been away from the game for almost a full calendar year, the void that's been left has led to a number of questions.
How does Crosby stack up against the greatest of all time?
For the sake of perspective, what follows is a look at the first six seasons of the great careers of Crosby and Wayne Gretzky. We'll evaluate those six seasons on five levels.
1. Production: How much did they add to their teams on the ice?
2. Departure: How much did their teams miss them?
3. Off-Ice Appeal: Did they transcend the game to non-hockey fans?
4. Rivalry: Was there someone, or something, that pushed them to greatness?
5. Winning: How much did they win, as an individual and with their teams?
Crosby has had a very good career so far, but this reflection back places his numbers into a context with the greatest player to ever put on skates.
Sorry, Crosby fans, but this one isn't close.
Gretzky: 429 goals, 693 assists, 1,122 points, 48 game-winning goals
Crosby: 215 goals, 357 assists, 572 points, 25 game-winning goals
Not only did Gretzky almost double Crosby's production in his first six NHL seasons, but he led the NHL in points in each of his first six campaigns. The Great One came out of the gate flying and didn't look back.
Certainly it's almost impossible to compare the scoring standards of the early 1980s with the NHL since the lockout, but the critical statistic is the league-leading totals for Gretzky. Again, Gretzky was undeniably the best in the game; Crosby has some company at the top.
Gretzky played in 80 games (a full regular season) in five of his first six regular seasons. His durability, and the fact that players were on the Edmonton roster specifically to protect him, was one of the reasons he was able to pile up such incredible numbers.
In his first six seasons, Crosby hasn't been on the ice as consistently. Crosby has missed 80 games—almost a full season—because of injuries in his first six years in the league. It wasn't until Gretzky left Edmonton for Los Angeles that there was truly a void left by 99.
The NHL has relied heavily on Crosby in a lot of their marketing. In the cover story for the fall 2011 issue of The Fourth Period Magazine, a number of notable and influential people in the hockey community speak to the importance of Crosby to the game. From Bill Daly to Bob Nicholson, everyone agreed that Crosby had a great deal of weight and expectations placed on him as the first No. 1 draft pick coming out of the lockout.
But nothing compares to Gretzky.
The Great One was the face of hockey to the world and was seen as such an important figure in the game that his move to LA has been credited with the increase in California-born players coming into the league today. Gretzky was the first super-celebrity in hockey as cable television exploded in the 1980s, and he embraced the spotlight like few are able to.
This goes to Crosby, but almost by default.
During Gretzky's first six years in the league, the New York Islanders won four Stanley Cups. But there wasn't a player in the league that scored like Gretzky did. He was peerless.
Crosby came into a league that had a No. 1 overall pick, Alexander Ovechkin, that hadn't played a game yet because of the lockout. The two battled for the Calder Trophy that season and have been intimately involved in the career of the other ever since. Their rivalry is, in many ways, the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird rivalry the NHL needed coming out of the lost season.
This goes to Gretzky, and, again, it isn't very close.
In his first six NHL seasons, Crosby has obviously won one Stanley Cup championship. In Gretzky's first six seasons, the Oilers won just two.
However, there is one other distinction we can draw: Gretzky won one Conn Smythe Trophy (1985) in those two titles. Evgeni Malkin won the Conn Smythe when Pittsburgh won the Cup.
Beyond winning Stanley Cups, there are other awards that the two have won in their first six seasons.
Crosby has won the Hart Memorial Trophy once so far. He has also won the Art Ross and Rocket Richard Trophies, as well as the Ted Lindsay Award once each through his first six seasons.
In Gretzky's first six seasons, The Great One was awarded the Hart Memorial Trophy on six occasions. He won the Ted Lindsay Award four times, the Art Ross Trophy five times and the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy once. In total, Gretzky won 17 individual awards in his first six NHL seasons, a remarkable total that likely won't ever be duplicated.