Time to select card #9 in The Ultimate Hockey Card Set. A couple of weeks ago I sold off some David Krejci cards, and I used the money to pick up two new cards for the collection that I've had my eye on for some time now. The first was Steven Stamkos' Young Guns rookie. You'll see the other one at the end of this post...
Choosing card #9 was not difficult at all, there were really no cards that even came close to topping the winner. There are a few #9's in my collection that are at least worthy of showing though...
The 1990-91 O-Pee-Chee Premier set is definitely a classic. I hope to include a card from this set one day, but today is not that day!
Richard Brodeur's card from the 2008-09 Upper Deck Legends Masterpieces set is pretty sweet as well. That Canucks jersey is fantastic.
This was plucked a while back in what was definitely one of my most successful quarter box raids to date. Emile was a significant figure in the Whalers organization for years.
Card #9 in the 1977-78 Topps/O-Pee-Chee Glossy insert set has a pretty good shot of Rick MacLeish...
One of the most collected sets of my youth, 1991-92 Upper Deck, features an Eric Lindros card at #9. I always liked the Canada Cup subset from this set, most of the big names from the era were included, and so were some up-and-coming stars like Lindros and Selanne.
Marcel Dionne is #9 in the 1981-82 Topps set. A great player but not the most exciting looking card, and that's coming from someone who loves the 81-82 set.
That brings us to our winner, the other card that I picked up with my David Krejci loot...
This one has been on my "white whale" list for quite some time. Completing the entire run of 80s Topps sets has been a major collecting goal for a while now, and Lemieux's rookie was the biggest obstacle of the entire decade in terms of book value. It felt great to cross this one off the want list.
Mario was always one of my absolute favorite non-Whalers. His 1992-93 season alone was one of the most remarkable sports stories of my lifetime. After a crazy start to the season that at one point included twelve straight games with a goal, it looked like Lemieux might be able to make a run at Gretzky's records for goals and points in a season. In mid January, fans were shocked by the announcement that he had been diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma. At the absolute pinnacle of his career, when he had mastered the game and was playing at an elite level every single night, he was sidelined by a terrible illness. He missed over 2 months of play, yet returned on the same day as his final radiation treatment, and had a goal and an assist! He led his Penguins to 17 straight victories to finish the season and a #1 playoff seed. Despite playing in only 60 games he still won the scoring race with 69 goals, 91 assists, and 160 points. How could you not root for this guy?
You could make the argument (and I wouldn't disagree with you) that Lemieux is the most prolific scorer in hockey history. He's 7th all-time in points, and 9th all-time in goals. Look at this list of the top 12 goal scorers of all-time though:
#11 (tie) - Jaromir Jagr - 656 goals in 1,297 games played (as of this post).
#11 (soon to be #12) - Brendan Shanahan - 656 goals in 1,524 games played.
#10 - Luc Robitaille - 668 goals in 1,431 games played.
#9 - Mario Lemieux - 690 goals in 915 games played.
#8 - Steve Yzerman - 692 goals in 1,514 games played.
#7 - Mark Messier - 694 goals in 1,756 games played.
#6 - Mike Gartner - 708 goals in 1,432 games played.
#5 - Phil Esposito - 717 goals in 1,282 games played.
#4 - Marcel Dionne - 731 in 1,348 games played.
#3 - Brett Hull - 741 goals in 1,269 games played.
#2 - Gordie Howe - 801 goals in 1,767 games played.
#1 - Wayne Gretzky - 894 goals in 1,487 games played.
So, if you set Lemieux aside and look at the other 11 players on this list, the least amount of games played by any of them is Brett Hull's 1,269. Even that is 354 games more than Lemieux was able to play in. Guys like Messier and Gordie Howe...Lemieux could practically play an entire second career before approaching their total games played numbers!
I decided to take a look at the 8 guys ahead of Lemieux in career goals. I broke down how many more career goals they had than Lemieux, how many more career games they played than Lemieux, and how long it may have taken Mario to catch up to their goal totals had he remained healthy:
#8 - Steve Yzerman - 2 more goals, 599 more career games - at his career average pace, it would have taken Lemieux just 3 games to surpass Yzerman. No question at all that injury kept him out of the 8 spot...
#7 - Mark Messier - 4 more goals, 841 more career games - so, if Lemieux had gone on to play as many career games as Messier, he would only have had to net 4 goals in the next 10 1/2 seasons or so to surpass Mark! No question that he was a more prolific scorer than Messier.
#6 - Mike Gartner - 18 more goals, 517 more career games - Again, no question. At his career pace Lemieux would have needed just 24 more games to net 18 goals. Gartner played 517 more games than Lemieux. Enough said.
#5 - Phil Esposito - 27 more goals, 367 more career games - Getting tougher but still falls in Lemieux's favor. At his career pace we'd be talking less than 40 games for Lemieux to make up the 27-goal difference. Phil played the equivalent of nearly 5 full seasons more than Lemieux.
#4 - Marcel Dionne - 41 more goals, 433 more career games - Again looking at career goals-per-game Lemieux may have surpassed Dionne had he played just 56 games more than he did in his career. At this point I'm thinking Lemieux is at least the #4 best pure scorer of all-time.
#3 - Brett Hull - 51 more goals, 354 more career games - Here's where it starts getting tricky. Hull had 51 more goals than Lemieux, a significant number for sure. Here's the thing though...in 1992-93 Mario had 69 goals. In 1995-96 he had 69 goals. The two seasons in between? He sat one out completely and in the other played just 22 games (and scored 17 goals). Even if you assume that he would have scored only 35 goals in each of those two seasons if healthy (an insanely low estimate given these would have been his peak years, as evidenced by the two 69-goal bookmark seasons I referenced), that still would have been enough to surpass Hull's career numbers.
#2 - Gordie Howe - 111 more goals, 852 more career games - If you use Lemieux's career average of .75 goals per game played (Howe's is actually .45 goals/game), it would have taken him around 148 games to score 111 goals in theory. Let's take those two lost seasons I just referenced when comparing Brett Hull a moment ago. If we assume he would have netted 45 goals in each of those seasons, still a potentially low estimate in my opinion, that would have been an extra 73 total. At that point you'd be looking at a deficit of less than 40 goals, and Howe would still have over 700 career games in hand. Mario may have made up the difference had he played the full 1990-91 season alone (he scored 19 goals that year despite appearing in just 26 games). Sorry but I think Lemieux was a more effective goal scorer than Howe, the numbers don't lie. There, I said it.
#1 - Wayne Gretzky - 204 more goals, 572 more career games - Okay here is where it gets incredibly difficult. I know Gretzky played 572 games more than Lemieux, but 204 goals is a whole lot of scoring. Let's have some fun playing with hypotheticals...
We'll say that Lemieux really did have the same types of seasons in 1993-94 and 1994-95 that he had in the years prior to and following. If he scored an average of even 55 goals those two years (14 less than he scored the seasons before and after this two-season stretch) that would give him 93 more in total (since he did score 17 in 1993-94), leaving him around 110 shy of Gretzky. If you factor in the two months that he missed in his amazing 1992-93 season, based on the rate he was scoring that year, that's another 25 goals missed, which would put him about 85 shy of Wayne. In 1990-91 he scored 19 times despite appearing in just 26 games. Had he played out the season at that pace, he would have scored just shy of 40 more goals, at which point he'd be less than 50 goals from surpassing Gretzky's total. Factor in Lemieux missing the 1997-98, 1998-99, and 1999-2000 seasons entirely and it's totally conceivable that he could have surpassed the Great One. You can only imagine how many he may have tallied during those three lost seasons given that he scored 50 just before that and then 35 in just 43 games in his first season back in 2000-01.
At his career pace of .75 goals/game Mario would in theory have needed 272 more games to surpass Gretzky's goal total. You could make the argument that this stat is skewed by some of the monster years he enjoyed. Well, then let's take a look at the three seasons before his first retirement in 1997. The lowest goals/game he registered during any those three campaigns was a .66 goals/game. Even if he appeared in just 70 games a season for those three lost years, and scored at that pace, that would give him an additional 140 goals. I know this sounds absolutely crazy, but had things gone differently for Lemieux it's not out of the realm of possibility that he could have been the only player in history to tally 1,000 career goals!
All said and done, Mario missed 513 career games due to injury. Obviously the illnesses, back injuries and other issues prevented us from ever finding out for sure, but it is interesting to consider whether or not Lemieux could have potentially passed Wayne Gretzky as the league's all-time leading scorer. No matter what he's easily one of the top three offensive players of all-time as far as I'm concerned. It definitely makes for an interesting debate at least. I'd love to hear any thoughts? Are you in agreement or have I given Lemieux way too much praise here?
The Ultimate Hockey Card Set, which now stands at 11 cards and counting, can be viewed here.
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