Saturday, December 1, 2012

Rookie Wayne Gretzky; The 15th Best Centre in NHL

Check out what I found in this old hockey magazine (Sports Special Hockey, Spring 1980). It was published in the fall of 1979, just as Wayne Gretzky was beginning his NHL career after a season in the WHA. Conventional wisdom was that "The Kid" would have a difficult time adjusting to the rigors of the best league in the world.

The Centreman rating chart from this magazine was probably fairly indicative of how many in the hockey world felt about the 18 year-old wunderkind.
Very interesting rating system they came up with. I have no issue with Trottier being rated the NHL's best Centreman in the fall of 1979. Sittler, Dionne and Bobby Clarke in the top five work for me too...Ulf Nilsson ranked third though? Sure he'd scored 66 points in 59 games of his first NHL season the year prior after four straight years over 114 points in the WHA, but ranked higher than Dionne?

The rankings give perfect 5.0's to Nilsson in Passing, Stick-handling, Back-Checking and Skating. He scored lowest (3.5) at Durabilty and Corner play, both are apt. Trottier's lowest rank was a 4.0 in the Big Play category, a score which would surely be raised soon after as Trotts had yet to garner six Stanley Cup victories before he retired.

As for Gretz, he is scored no higher than 3.5 in any category (He got that in Passing, Stick-handling, Skating and Power Play) and was given a mere 2.5 in Durability and Strength in Front. I'm not sure how one rates the durability of an 18 year-old who has yet to play an NHL game, and in the end this would prove to be one of his strong suits.

Gretzky would soon start to make a mockery of these rankings as he would sit fifth in league scoring by the halfway point of the 1979/80 season. After 40 games Gretzky had notched an impressive 60 points, still 30 behind the amazing year Marcel Dionne was having. By the end of the season, Gretzky had made up the difference with 77 points in his final 39 games. Another guy to come into his own in the second half was fellow WHA grad, Hartford's Mike Rogers who didn't even make the top 15 centres in th chart above. Rogers would crank out 65 points in his final 40 games and finished fifth in NHL scoring proving the 'experts' wrong.

In the end, the chart proved to be nothing more than pre-season frivolity as guys who didn't even get ranked (Bernie Federko, Kent Nilsson, Pierre Larouche) out-performed most of the guys on the list. Gil Perreault was inexplicably ranked 12th among centres in the pre-season chart only to finish fourth in NHL points with 106. However, nobody was more slighted than Gretzky, who would go on proving critics wrong for 20 years.

Although, I belive it was the year after that Toronto writer Dick Beddoes said Gretzky would be no more than the fourth line centre on the late 1947/48 Leaf squad. This team featured Hall of Famers Syl Apps, Max Bentley and Teeder Kennedy down the middle. Maybe Dick had a point...however, that debate is for another time.

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