The Torch 🔥: Forwards (Part 2)

If you didn’t catch yesterday’s series opener, check out Part 1. It features a background on the approach and some ground rules, walking us from the NHL’s founding season through 1981.

🔥 1982-88: Wayne Gretzky

Uniquely pumping The Great One’s tires is a difficult exercise at this point. No hockey player or their statistical prowess has ever been more celebrated. Rightfully so. I’ve already called his PPS Card the greatest ever created, citing his career as the equivalent of about 2.4 HHOF careers.

So, let’s find something new to talk about for Gretzky! How’s this?

From ages 20 through 30, the worst adjusted point pace Gretzky scored at was 127 per 82 games. That’s after severely penalizing his output for the offensive environment of the day. His best adjusted pace? 75/102/176 in 1983-84. Gretzky would spend seven straight years as the NHL’s best forward, eventually running into the only player ever in his class.

🔥 1989-94, 1996-97, 2001-03: Mario Lemieux

The famous “Gretzky to Lemieux” pass to win the 1987 Canada Cup would prove prophetic, the symbolic (and inevitable) torch of hockey’s #1 forward passing shortly after. Mario’s High Noon card says it all — Lemieux never stopped being #1.

Snagging Gretzky’s crown at age 23, he would hold onto it through multiple retirements, illness, and injury, only coughing it up at 37 by not playing enough games to qualify. In all, Lemieux holds the belt for 15 years(!!), temporarily parting with it only in the four seasons he didn’t play a single game.

🔥 1995: Eric Lindros

With Mario sitting out the lockout-shortened season, The Next One arrived with a bang. A 6-foot-4, 240-pound hulk, Lindros scored at an Adjusted Pace of 52/74/126 in 1994-95, earning the Hart and Pearson Trophies. Baptized into controversy from day one of his junior career, only debilitating brain injuries could hold The Big E back.

🔥 1998, 2000: Jaromir Jagr

If there was any doubt about Jagr’s ability to thrive without Lemieux, such critics were abruptly put to rest. In the four full seasons that Mario sat out, here is the celebrated Czech star’s extraordinary body of work:

  • 1994-95: Adjusted Pace = 55/66/121. Ross. Hart runner-up.
  • 1997-98: Adjusted Pace = 43/82/125. Ross. Hart runner-up.
  • 1998-99: Adjusted Pace = 52/95/147. Ross. Hart. Pearson.
  • 1999-00: Adjusted Pace = 60/77/137. Ross. Hart runner-up. Pearson.

🔥 1999: Teemu Selanne

While Selanne is best known for his 76-goal debut, he had four future seasons that equaled or bettered that year’s point output when adjusting for era. Starring with friend Paul Kariya on the Disney-owned Mighty Ducks, The Finnish Flash earned his second and third NHL goal-scoring titles. In the four seasons from 1995-96 to 1998-99, Selanne produced at an incredible Adjusted Pace of 55/62/117.

🔥 2004, 2006: Peter Forsberg

As a pace-based metric, the High Noon system doesn’t penalize missed time, so long as you play half the schedule in the preceding three seasons. Frequently injured or playing through pain, Forsberg thrives when we measure his production on a per-game basis. What a talent.

🔥 2007: Dany Heatley

Surprise! Heatley slips onto our list of #1 forwards. Equipped with a fresh start in Ottawa, the German-born forward found the following gear after the lockout:

  • 2005-06: 5th in goals (50), 4th in points (103)
  • 2006-07: 2nd in goals (50), 4th in points (105)

It’s perhaps a small technicality that two future generational stars did not yet qualify yet, having debuted in 2005-06. Regardless, one of the PPS system’s nuggets I’ve held back to date is that, wait for it, Heatley is a Qualified HHOF player. Comfortably, in fact. With a standard of 235, Heater is at 254. While he has zero HHOF momentum in real life, his career wedges somewhere between HHOFers Pat Lafontaine (266) and Cam Neely (245). Heatley is the only player on this list that isn’t already in the HHOF or that will easily sail in after retirement. A steamy conversation for another day!

🔥 2008-10: Alex Ovechkin
🔥 2011-15: Sidney Crosby

Ovechkin and Crosby have been inextricably linked since their highly-hyped autumn 2005 inaugurations. Perfect contrasts in origin, playing style, and demeanour, this TV series is in its 18th season and still elicits eyeballs and heated debates.

Let’s have a look at their High Noon forward rankings, head-to-head of course:

While Crosby wins league MVP in 2006-07, the pair’s second season, they aren’t qualified for High Noon until completing three years. By this point, Ovechkin has the edge, finishing 1st, 1st, 2nd in MVP voting in seasons 3-5. This stretch includes his 72 adjusted goal masterpiece (the second-best in NHL history). Ovechkin — two years Crosby’s senior — peaks from age 22-24, which are his three years as the #1 forward in the NHL.

Now, Ovechkin was far from done being a great player. It’s just that Crosby soon finds an unprecedented, sustained gear that permanently shifts the rivalry in his favour. The gear, incredibly, comes before, during, and after career-altering head and neck injuries that sideline Sid for 101 games and leave his future in jeopardy. At the time, every bump Crosby took left the league on pins and needles, fearing each hit could be his last. Yet, over those three dominant partial seasons, Crosby’s Adjusted Pace was a mind-bending 48/96/144. Yes, 96 assists(!) per 82 games in a neutral scoring environment. From seasons 6 through 14 — the balance of the time the duo are both among the NHL’s top 10 forwards — Crosby outpaces Ovechkin.

As a result, Crosby carries the torch for five straight years. That Crosby is #1 for five years to Ovechkin’s three is not the key takeaway, however. Seven other forwards have done that. What separates Sid from Ovie are his 10 consecutive seasons as a top-3 forward. Post-expansion, only Gretzky (12 years) stays at the pinnacle of the sport this long (Lemieux’s missed 1994-95 ends his streak at eight). While this hardly settles the all-time Ovechkin vs. Crosby debate, the High Noon methodology shows Crosby as the better player for nine of the 12 years the two were both top-10 forwards. This also omits Crosby 3-to-1 Cup edge, and 3-0 best-on-best international title edges, for those that weigh team success heavily.

Off the ice, Ovechkin’s impressive pursuit of a goals record once thought to be unbreakable dominates the headlines. Yet, the elephant in the dressing room is his stunning silence on his friend Vladimir Putin’s ongoing war and genocide in Ukraine. Ovie defenders will tell you “he’s just a hockey player” and that there could be repercussions from any public stance he takes. Well, yes, that’s the point. Ovechkin is perhaps Russia’s most famous citizen. He’s The Beatles. He’s Tiger Woods. He’s Beyoncé. He’s chasing down hockey’s most hallowed record and yields incredible influence in his propagandist home country. The slightest public comment or pulse on the matter could prove a social tipping point. Yet, he’s a proud Putin activist, his Instagram photo remaining an image of the two. Reverence to the same man burning an innocent country to the ground in plain sight.

Ovechkin is highly likely to end up on the right side of goal-scoring history, yet his support of Putin continues to leave him on the wrong side of the history that really matters. Whatever modest platform I’ve found, I’ve felt this needed to be said.

🔥 2016-17: Patrick Kane

Getting back to hockey, many forget the short period of time where it wasn’t Crosby or Ovechkin atop the sport, but Patrick Kane. Fresh off a 106-point sweep of the Hart, Ross and Pearson Trophies in 2015-16, Kane narrowly edges Crosby in the rankings for two years. Ironically, this was the same period where the playoff landscape shifted, Chicago’s stock as a powerhouse falling as Pittsburgh earned back-to-back Cups.

🔥 2018: Evgeni Malkin

The forgotten all-time great hiding in plain sight, Geno finally gets the spotlight. It’s not when you might expect, either. At the end of the 2017-18 season, Malkin was six years removed from his second scoring title, and hadn’t played 70 games in a season since. With adjusted paces of 46 goals and 102 points over three years, he was signature Malkin — quietly productive. Reputationally and production-wise, this was far from Peak Geno. But he gets a well-deserved year with the torch.

🔥 2019: Nikita Kucherov

How good was Kucherov in 2018-19? His 128 points remain the most in the salary cap era!

The electric Tampa winger has been a top-five player in the NHL on five occasions. He’s also coming off a stretch of a stunning 93 playoff points in 71 games en route to a three-peat of Stanley Cup Final appearances. Kucherov finds his way to #1 for a season before a new Oiler sensation redefined what was possible.

🔥 2020-22: Connor McDavid

Enter McDavid, a new species of physical talent. With the various COVID-interrupted seasons clouding the numbers, let’s given #97’s career to date a quick peek.

  • 2015-16: Adjusted PTS Pace = 98. Misses half the season. Calder finalist.
  • 2016-17: Adjusted PTS Pace = 110. MVP. Ross. Pearson.
  • 2017-18: Adjusted PTS Pace = 110. Ross. Pearson.
  • 2018-19: Adjusted PTS Pace = 122. MVP finalist.
  • 2019-20: Adjusted PTS Pace = 125. 5th-place in MVP vote.
  • 2020-21: Adjusted PTS Pace = 158. MVP. Ross. Pearson.
  • 2021-22: Adjusted PTS Pace = 122. MVP runner-up. Ross.
  • 2022-23: Adjusted PTS Pace = 149 (to date). 1st in goals. Running away with PTS lead.

Charles Darwin himself would blush at this type of rapid evolution. Given the three-year rolling average of High Noon, McDavid is virtually assured of a fourth year at #1. Plus, his recent dominance is money in the bank for the next two years of rankings. For the time being, he seems to have kept teammate Leon Draisaitl and reigning MVP Auston Matthews at bay. Is there anyone else?

The question becomes how long he can keep the torch. Esposito and Gretzky have the forward record at seven consecutive, while Lemieux has the overall record of 11 years with the belt. 2023 will represent McDavid’s sixth season in the top-2. Can he match Crosby’s ten consecutive years as a top-3 forward? There are exciting times ahead for how historically great McDavid can become. Reminder: he only turns 26 in January… 🤯

Quick Notes:

* All statistics and PPS scores are through the 2021-22 season.
Eras, Adjusted Pace data, High Noon, PPS System, High Noon & PPS Player Cards from Adjusted Hockey;
All other data from

6 thoughts on “The Torch 🔥: Forwards (Part 2)”

  1. As much as I love Sid, would he not be able to be ranked #1 in 2013 since he only played in 99 out of a possible 212 games between 2010-13? Keep up the great work, by the way!

    1. Thanks for the kind words, and good eye! It’s more a technicality that he qualifies… Sid played 36 games in the lockout shortened 48 game schedule, equivalent to 62 adjusted games.

      1. I really appreciate the input and the technicality, for what it’s worth. It’s hard to digest that the three best years of his career were interrupted by two concussions, a fractured neck, broken jaw, and a lockout, so it’s nice to see one of the greatest three-year peaks ever receiving its just recognition.

  2. Hi Paul, I hope you are doing well, and thank you for all you do! I was just wondering if I could possibly get your perspective on this critique I just read of the roster-size adjustment. Whilst I don’t necessarily agree with the author’s solution(s), he seems to make some very valid points in regards to how the adjustment for roster-size to eighteen skaters creates a huge imbalance amongst the eras preceding the 1982-83 season. I was curious as to if you agreed with his stance or not, and would you do anything to modify the adjustment.

    1. Hi Ashton, thanks for the thoughtful comments. I think it’s a terrific article with a lot of sensible takes. The roster size adjustment is much too simple as constructed, and in seasons where it changes it overstates the proxy for ice time in a way that wouldn’t align smoothly with a player’s change in usage.

      That said, while the author’s solutions are undoubtedly better and in the right direction, they create other issues as they acknowledge. I’ve accepted the H-Ref roster adjustments are a simple but flawed attempt of recognizing available ice time but are better than not including them. Given nearly all public interest and my content leans post-expansion and generally more present day — where there are no roster size adjustments — it’s a rabbit hole I haven’t gone down myself!

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