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December 5, 2016
LCS Top 100: No. 1
by Michael Menser Dell, Editor-in-Chief
Lemieux spent his first three years dazzling with his individual efforts, posting three straight 100-point seasons despite a supporting cast of Mike Bullard and not much else. Yet his critics pegged him as a floater, and rightfully so. With so little talent around him, Lemieux tended to shine one night and be invisible the next. He lacked a strong coach to guide him or fellow stars to push him in practice. Forget about winning. The Pens had posted five straight losing seasons before Lemieux arrived, and the best he could do was get them to within four games of 500 his first three years. On some nights, Lemieux, who was still smoking two packs a day, no doubt found it easier to drift along and get to the next city.
And then the Canada Cup happened.
Picture it. Montreal. August 1987. Team Canada -- boasting such names as Gretzky, Messier, Bourque, Coffey, Fuhr, Hawerchuk, and Goulet -- assembled to take on the world. For the first time in his young career, Lemieux got to skate with talented players on the game's brightest stage. Head coach Mike Keenan teamed Gretzky and Lemieux on the same line, allowing Lemieux to learn firsthand from the game's greatest star. Gretzky and his fellow Edmonton Oilers taught Lemieux what it took to be a champion. They showed him how to practice. They demanded consistent effort each and every shift. More importantly, they taught him how to win. And Lemieux proved an apt pupil.
If you've never seen the '87 Canada Cup, get thee to a nunnery. Or at least the nearest YouTubes machine. I've seen a lot of hockey in my life. Too much to be healthy, really. And the '87 Canada Cup Finals, a three-game set between the Canadians and Russians, is the best hockey I've witnessed. Each game was 6-5, with the first two ending in overtime. The Gretzky-Lemieux combination dominated the nine-game tournament. Gretzky finished with three goals and 21 points. Lemieux had 11 goals and 18 points. Lemieux buried two goals against the Czechs in the semifinals, scoring them less than two minutes apart against some guy named Hasek to help lift Canada into the Finals. He notched a hat trick in Game Two against the Soviets, including the winner in double-overtime, and then scored the winning goal in the waning moments of Game Three. Here are the highlights…
The Canada Cup was a clear turning point in not only Lemieux's career but also NHL history. Up until 1987, Gretzky was the undisputed champ. The Great One had claimed seven straight scoring titles and eight consecutive Hart Trophies. Gretzky was, without question, the best player in the world. And then Lemieux turned 22.
Give Gretzky credit. He showed Lemieux the way. Without his experiences at the Canada Cup, Lemieux never would have become the magnificent player we know and love. Gretzky even got him to quit smoking. Thanks, Wayne!
Lemieux returned from the Canada Cup a changed man. A more mature, intense fella took the ice in 1987-88, ringing up 70 goals and 168 points in 77 games to end Gretzky's Art Ross and Hart dominance. Thanks, Wayne!
In 1988-89, Lemieux continued his renaissance, capturing his second straight scoring title with a staggering 85 goals and 199 points in just 76 games. The Penguins made the playoffs for the first time in six seasons. Naturally, Lemieux won his second Hart and. . . not so fast, Honcho. Despite finishing 31 goals behind Lemieux in the scoring race, Gretzky still won the Hart Trophy. Why? No one's really sure. I blame the rap music.
Anyway, after flirting with 200 and tasting the playoffs for the first time, Lemieux seemed poised for another mind-boggling performance in 1989-90 only to have his health fail him. It would become a recurring theme. With his back ailing, Lemieux got off to an uncharacteristically slow start, bagging just five goals in his first 12 games. Sure, he had 20 points, but five goals?
Lemieux played through the pain and strung together a 46-game scoring streak. So what if he could barely walk and couldn't tie his own skates? Lemieux kept scoring. The streak finally came to an end on Valentine's Day against the New York Rangers when he simply couldn't take the pain any longer and had to leave midway through the second period.
Without Lemieux, the Penguins went 5-12-4 down the stretch, squandering a once-promising season. Yet they could have still made the playoffs with a victory over the Buffalo Sabres in the season finale. Even though he hadn't played in over a month, Lemieux dragged himself down to the Civic Arena and scored a goal and an assist to force the contest into overtime. Uwe Krupp slapped a point shot behind Tom Barrasso to ruin everything. Jerk. But it actually worked out for the best. By missing the playoffs, the Penguins were able to draft Jaromir Jagr. And the heroic effort in defeat only enhanced Lemieux's legend.
It's these three years, from 1987 to 1990, that should put any statistical comparisons between Lemieux and Gretzky to rest. See, the big trouble with using stats to compare the two is that, even though their careers overlapped, they really spanned two different eras.
Gretzky feasted during the high-flying early 1980s, stockpiling ridiculous point totals while playing with absurdly talented teammates. When Lemieux finally had talent around him in Pittsburgh, which didn't happen until 1991, Gretzky was out of Edmonton and approaching the end of his career. Gretzky had stacked teams early. Lemieux had stacked teams late. Granted, Lemieux's prime team years, from 1991 to 1993, came in an era when it was more difficult to score goals. But forget about that for a minute.
From 1987 to 1990, Lemieux and Gretzky had a level playing field. At 22, Lemieux was still building to his prime. Gretzky, at 27, was smack in the middle of his prime. Gretzky had a huge advantage in teammates in 1987-88, since it was his final year in Edmonton, but injuries held him to just 64 games. Gretzky's trade to Los Angeles closed the talent gap in terms of supporting casts. Lemieux also had the health problems in 1989-90, hindering his production the same way Gretzky's injuries no doubt slowed him in '87-88. All in all, pretty even, no? The important thing is they were both competing against the same defenses and the same goaltenders under the same league conditions.
Over those three seasons, Gretzky appeared in 215 games and scored 134 goals and 459 points, good for a 0.62 goals-per-game average and a truly impressive 2.13 points-per-game mark. Over the same three years, Lemieux played 212 games, scoring 220 goals and 490 points, or 1.04 goals per game and 2.31 points per game.
I have yet to hear someone explain why that's not a fair comparison. Talk of Gretzky being past his prime is nonsense. He was 27, 28, and 29. That is his prime. And after 1990, there is no comparison. Lemieux wins going away.
From 1991 until 1994, when he turned 34 and enjoyed the last big season of his career, Gretzky produced 0.45 goals and 1.72 points per game. Still spectacular numbers. But during those same four seasons, Lemieux scored 0.87 goals and 2.17 points per game. And he did it while recovering from cancer and dealing with constant back pain.
Any statistical advantage Gretzky enjoys comes courtesy of playing on a loaded team in the easiest era to score goals in NHL history. Lemieux scored at Gretzky's same pace in an era when it was more difficult to score. Those are facts, not opinions.
Getting back to the narrative, Lemieux underwent back surgery in the summer of 1990 and then had to combat a serious infection. He was bedridden for weeks and didn't return to action until late January, registering three assists against the Nordiques in his first game. He ended the year with 19 goals and 45 points in 26 contests to carry the Penguins back to the postseason. With his health improved, Lemieux elevated his game to new heights, scoring 16 goals and 44 points in 23 playoff games to win the Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe.
The Penguins repeated as champs the following year, with Lemieux fighting through a broken hand to post 16 goals and 34 points in just 15 games to take his second Conn Smythe.
Lemieux's best regular season came in 1992-93. Despite being diagnosed with cancer and receiving radiation treatments during the season, Lemieux still won the scoring title, going for 69 goals and 160 points in just 60 games. On the evening of his final radiation treatment, Lemieux flew to Philadelphia and scored a goal against the Flyers. He was a mission man down the stretch, recording back-to-back four-goal games, ringing up a five-goal game, and carrying the Penguins to a 17-game winning streak. He closed the season with 30 goals and 56 points over the final 20 games.
Lemieux's ongoing health problems would force him to miss most of 1993-94 and all of the lockout-shortened 1995 campaign. He returned in 1996 to score 161 points. He potted 50 goals and 122 points to win the 1997 scoring title before deciding to retire due to his bad back, fatigue, and a general distaste for the game's declining style of play. He'd remain retired for three and a half years, during which time he bought the Penguins, only to return to the ice in 2001 at the age of 35. He wasn't exactly rusty either, bagging 35 goals and 76 points in 43 games.
More health problems plagued Lemieux for his remaining four seasons, but he kept lacing them up to sell tickets and to keep the team afloat, even hanging around through the lockout to help Sidney Crosby adjust to life in the NHL.
Even though he lost more than six full seasons of his career due to injury and retirements, Lemieux ended with 690 goals and 1,723 points in 915 games. Had he been healthy, he'd own all the scoring records. As it is, Lemieux still has two Stanley Cups, two Conn Smythes, three Hart Trophies, and six scoring titles.
Health is the only black mark on Lemieux's resume. And it's not like he was brittle or wouldn't play through pain. He missed time due to an arthritic back and cancer. Not exactly his fault.
When healthy, Lemieux could do it all. Everyone always tries to compare Lemieux to Gretzky, but there is no comparison. Lemieux did everything Gretzky did except in a much larger frame. Lemieux was 6-4, 235 pounds. End of discussion.
Name one thing Gretzky can do better than Lemieux. Pass? Not really. I have no problem calling Gretzky the best playmaker ever, but Lemieux is second at worst. And Lemieux was the vastly superior goal-scorer. He had a much heavier shot and could score in more ways, due mostly to his size and reach. Gretzky could never carry defenders to the net. Gretzky couldn't split the defense. Gretzky struggled on breakaways. Lemieux was the best one-on-one player the game has ever seen. Lemieux was also a great leader and had a knack for scoring huge goals in pretty spectacular fashion.
And even though he was ripped for being soft defensively early in his career, Lemieux became the best defensive player in hockey during Pittsburgh's Cup runs. His reach and anticipation made him a stalwart on five-on-three kills. If you want to see a man amongst boys, watch games from the 1992 postseason. Lemieux dominated all three zones. Right, Ray Bourque?
Line up every player in perfect health and at the peak of his abilities, and Lemieux is my choice. He's a physical mismatch for Gretzky. It's not even fair, really. Gretzky can challenge Lemieux's skill but not his size.
Gordie Howe would be a tougher decision. At least Howe was a punishing physical specimen. But Howe can't match Lemieux's skill. And Lemieux being a center tips things in his favor.
The only legit argument is for Orr. Lemieux would still enjoy a decided size advantage, but at least Orr could approach Lemieux in terms of talent. And Orr's skating could help neutralize Lemieux's size and reach.
Lemieux and Orr are unique. Gretzky, for all his greatness, needed help. He was a maestro who required an orchestra to play his best music. Gretzky's brilliant passing wouldn't mean a damn thing if he didn't have teammates to finish the plays. Lemieux and Orr were one-man bands. You could drop either on any team in any era and he would dominate because of his physical gifts.
So if we're playing that mythical pick-up game, I could see Howe and Gretzky getting consideration. I might even waver on Orr. But in the end, I'll take Lemieux.
And I'll win.