In my first post in this series, I took a look at how impressive Connor McDavid’s current season is in context to Oilers history. In today’s, I’ll give some context into how impressive it is in terms of NHL history.
First — if you didn’t read the last post, I’d encourage you to check it out. In it, I explain the simple statistic I’m using to adjudge the quality of various offensive seasons between different eras. Essentially, I’m taking the players raw points per game average and dividing that by the average NHL team’s per game offence in that season. It boils down to: what percentage of the average team’s offence would this player have gotten a point on?
McDavid was shown to be putting up the 14th best offensive season in Edmonton Oilers history (with 9 of those being Wayne Gretzky-related circus freaks). Where does he stack up for all NHL seasons played since WWII ended?
Turns out that McDavid is currently posting the 228th most impressive post-war season in NHL history. I’ve shown his local neighbourhood at the bottom — right now he’s nearly tied with Pete Mahovlich’s 1974-75 campaign with Montreal and Mark Messier’s 1995-96 NYR season as a 35 year old.
The most impressive NHL seasons by scoring rate? Mario Lemieux comfortably owns the top two. First, his 160 point in 60 game effort in 1992-93 — he missed 24 games and still won the scoring race by 12 points. Second, his 1995-96 campaign where he scored 161 points in 70 games, when the nearest non-Jagr player was Joe Sakic with 120 points.
Gretzky tops out at the third best season in NHL history, his 1983-84 campaign in which he missed 6 games but managed to post his second of 4 200 point seasons anyways (this season is also the highest raw points per game at 2.77 — imagine getting a two point game and having your scoring average drop). Gretzky and Lemieux jointly own 14 of the top 16 all-time scoring seasons
Of the 227 seasons more impressive than McDavid’s only 32 have come in the last 10 seasons.
Seven of the 32 seasons better than McDavid’s in the last decade have come from Sidney Crosby. Ovechkin and Malkin each have 4 seasons better than what McDavid is doing this year. It’s a select group of 16 of the best players the NHL has had to offer in recent years, including peak single seasons from players like Corey Perry and Claude Giroux.
Looking at this list, I had a feeling that McDavid’s season is a pretty weak Art Ross candidate in the grand scheme of things. To get a sense of this, I compiled a list of the leading points per game player in every season since WWII. The next table will be disgustingly long, but if you’ve made it this far you’re probably an NHL history nerd like me and want the straight crack. So here it is:
Something that strikes me about this list? Follow the years down through time — almost every season leader either plays on the best acclaimed team of their eras or one at least in the conversation. Multiple repeat season leaders almost singlehandedly telegraph ‘DYNASTY TEAM!!!’. This really does speak to the historical significance of having the league’s best player on your team, both in terms of team success but also notoriety — those players were who the rest of the league was simultaneously trying to emulate and target.
At this point Sidney is leading McDavid in points per game in 2016-17, but has been slowly slipping his lead. Even so, he’s only scoring 1.19 points per game. Only 7 seasons since the War have had a league leader in points per game lower than what Crosby is doing in 2016-17. On a relative basis by %ATO, only 9 season leaders have scored less percentage of the average team’s offence than Crosby this year. So how are recent league leaders trending versus league leaders of seasons past?
It seems league leaders ratcheted up their dominance relative to their peers steadily in the post-war NHL. The line slopes up clearly between 1945 and 1980. Then the Gretzky/Lemieux era hits for the next, oh 20 years, after which the trend line has retreated back almost to where it started when Max Bentley was seriously hot shit.
Remember, this isn’t absolute scoring — I’m adjusting for that era’s scoring level. Why has relative scoring dominance retreated so clearly? One hypothesis is that the post-2000 and pre-1967 leagues had more parity in competition — better consistent competition should do a better job at making sure one or two stars don’t rack up the numbers against expansion or joke teams. Another hypothesis is that more parity means more parity within teams — perhaps players on first lines are getting less ice-time relative to the superstars of the 1970s and 1980s (Esposito’s hilarious shot totals in the 70s make this one likely).
Whatever the cause, the superstars of today’s NHL are dominating the league at about the same level of the Howe/Beliveau 1950s. Crosby and Ovechkin were putting up seasons close to the Orr/Esposito 1970s, but now we’re closer the Todd Bertuzzi 2002 standard.
Looking at McDavid’s age and trajectory, I’d be shocked if he doesn’t start putting up seasons in the 50% range in terms of ATO. Over an 82-game season, a 50% ATO would equal about a 113 point season. To get up to 99/66 territory, you’re looking at needing 60% ATO — that’s more like a 135-point season. Seeing his talent and ambition, I wouldn’t bet against McDavid to get there — in today’s low-scoring NHL, however, it will be a tall order. But circus freaks come in cycles.