Mario Lemieux Tops Wayne Gretzky As NHL’s Greatest


I’m just going to say it: Mario Lemieux was the greatest player ever to skate on NHL ice. He was better than Wayne Gretzky and, thus, better than all others.

Now before the vehement discord commences, please allow me to explain.

First I’ll state I have no personal player preference here. I grew up in the 1980’s a Hartford Whalers fan. In fact, the (Gretzky-less) Edmonton Oilers did me a favor by wresting a Stanley Cup away from the rival Boston Bruins, while Lemieux’s Pittsburgh Penguins stole our franchise in the persons of Ron Francis and Ulf Samuelsson.

Be that as it may, things are what they are. And all signs in this debate point to Super Mario.

Were this decision based strictly on statistics, there would of course be no discussion. Gretzky totaled 2,857 career points while Lemieux notched 1,723. However those totals are provided without context.

Now, let’s add some.

Gretzky played 572 more NHL games than did Lemieux, who missed significant time battling debilitating back issues and, far more importantly, fighting the cancer he was diagnosed with at age 27.

Also thanks to Oilers’ GM Glen Sather, almost from the outset of his career Gretzky was playing on an absurdly stacked squad. By his second NHL season his teammates included future NHL Hall of Famers Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey and Grant Fuhr. Not to mention Kevin Lowe, who may get in at some point, too.

Further, while Gretzky never won a Stanley Cup after leaving Edmonton in 1988, Messier, Kurri, Anderson, Coffey, Fuhr and Lowe all won additional Cups either with other teams, or with the Oilers after Gretzky had departed for Los Angeles.

A shorter way to make that point is, while Gretzky was unquestionably a spectacular player, for a good portion of his career he was surrounded by several other spectacular players; all of whom won without him. He cannot say the same.

By contrast Lemieux was drafted by the last-place Penguins, who were in that position for a reason.

What do I mean? Well, let’s focus on the rosters both played on during their first five years in the NHL. Gretzky and Lemieux were the leading scorers for their respective teams in each of those years, but let’s look at the teammates who finished just below them in descending order of points scored:

Edmonton Oilers’ leading scorers after Gretzky- 1980: Kurri, Messier. 1981 Anderson, Coffey, Messier Kurri. 1982: Messier, Anderson, Kurri, Coffey. 1983: Coffey, Kurri, Messier, Anderson. 1984: Kurri, Coffey, Mike Krushelnyski, Anderson, Messier…Are you starting to notice a pattern there?

By comparison:

Pittsburgh Penguins’ leading scorers after Lemieux- 1984: Warren Young, Doug Shedden, Mike Bullard, Wayne Babych. 1985: Bullard, Moe Mantha, Shedden, Terry Ruskowski. 1986: Dan Quinn, Randy Cunneyworth, Craig Simpson, Ruskowski. 1987: Quinn, Cunneyworth, Coffey, Doug Bodger. (Note: Coffey and Bodger were both defensemen). 1988: Rob Brown, Coffey, Quinn and Bob Errey.

Now please read those names again while remembering that Jaromir Jagr wasn’t drafted until 1990, and Francis and Samuelsson weren’t acquired until the March trade deadline in 1991.

Mario Lemieux ranks 8th all-time in NHL scoring despite being the only player in the Top 30 to play fewer than 1,000 games.

He’s only 164 points shy of the 3rd place slot held by the legendary Gordie Howe, despite playing in 852 fewer games than Mr. Hockey. To put that into perspective, the number of fewer NHL games Lemieux played than Howe was very close to the number of games Lemieux played in his entire career (915).

I never saw Rocket Richard or his brother, Henri. I hardly remember Bobby Orr as a player at all. And by the time Bobby Hull joined Gordie Howe here in Hartford for the last 16 games of his NHL career, the Golden Jet was a shadow of his former self. But as Gretzky is universally considered better than everyone who came previous, I really only need him to make this comparison.

Now, about the eye test. When I was young and growing up on hockey, those two were the dominant players of my Generation X. And over the thousands of hockey games I’ve watched from then till now, no one was a better offensive player than Lemieux. No one. Gretzky missed on breakaways all the time; to my recollection I never saw Lemieux miss one (Though obviously he must have).

To this very day Mario Lemieux is the only NHL player to, in one single game, score short-handed, even-strength, on an empty net, on a power play and via penalty shot; all the possible ways one can score a goal in hockey.

Mario Lemieux was a magician to the extent that he could make David Copperfield blush.

With the puck, the angles he could either score or pass from were at times nearly impossible to believe, even after watching replays. The moves he displayed on the ice with regularity were at worst amazing, and at best, ridiculous. And at one point in his prime he was doing all this while trying to stave off Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

Today, we can certainly appreciate the dominating offensive skills of a Sydney Crosby or an Alex Ovechkin. But as great as they are, they’re simply not in the same league.

How good was Lemieux? In the 1988-1989 season, (again, before Jagr and Francis) he notched a mind-numbing 199 points…with the next highest Penguins scorers being Brown, Coffey, Quinn and Errey.

That’s 199 points. In 76 games. With Rob Brown and Bob Errey.

I mean, come on.

Even when rooting against his Penguins, all you could do was sit back and appreciate a talent of that magnitude. And realize that we had never before seen an offensive player so gifted as Mario Lemieux unquestionably was. And that we may never see one so skilled again.

The offense rests.

(Stats per, and