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Even in the '80s, you could count on 87

| Sunday, Dec. 12, 2010

"I believe Sidney could have gotten 200 points in the '80s." — Wayne Gretzky

Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux belong in the same sentence. That much we know. But does Penguins captain Sidney Crosby merit a spot on that line?

The curmudgeons among us, the kind who declare Christmas a fraud, scoff at the question.

"Impossible to compare athletes across eras," they snap. "Shouldn't even try."

They're wrong.

We'll compare any athletes we like, thank you, and move deftly across generations. We need only an ounce of willingness, some considered opinions and a dash of creative imagination.

And a time machine, of course.

Luckily, I found one at the same ancient-history flea market that was selling Pirates playoff pennants. It was modeled on the famous "flux capacitor" from "Back to the Future," and that fit my needs perfectly.

The mid-80s are precisely where I intended to send Sidney Crosby.

The idea took root during a recent Penguins telecast, when play-by-play man Paul Steigerwald suggested that Crosby -- who carried a 17-game point streak into Saturday's game at Buffalo and was on pace for 71 goals -- could have put up Lemieux- and Gretzky-like numbers had he played in the 1980s.

Whoa. That is a serious statement. Not that Crosby wouldn't have been a star in any era. His career points-per-game mark of 1.387 ranks fifth in NHL history behind Gretzky (1.921), Lemieux (1.883), Mike Bossy (1.497) and Bobby Orr (1.393).

But if we're talking 66 and 99, then we're probably talking 200. As in, 200 points.

Gretzky reached the magical mark four times, the only man in history to get there. Lemieux hit 199 in 1988-89 and somehow managed 160 in 60 games in 1992-93. Only two men since then have come within 33 points of 160, and their names were Gretzky and Lemieux (who popped in 161 a few seasons later).

So, that's the question we're dealing with: Could Crosby have made a run at 200 points?

My first stop was Crosby's locker stall Thursday, the morning after he tortured the Toronto Maple Leafs by nearly posting his third hat trick in six games.

Everything seemed set. Sid would grow a mullet -- sure beats his mustache -- and fire up a game of "Donkey Kong" before sliding into the time machine as Duran Duran played in the background.

One problem: He didn't want to go.

Much as I tried, Crosby understandably was reluctant to return to 1985 and project his point total. He did, however, consider the variables in comparing eras. His eyes lit up when he spoke of the scant padding worn by '80s goaltenders and the idea of penalty killers standing in place like bubble-hockey figurines.

And what about the workout factor• If most players trained at all in the offseason 25 years ago, it was with 12-ounce curls at their summer cottages. Imagine dropping the maniacally conditioned Crosby into a game in 1985. He'd buzz around defensemen like a popcorn kernel circling a stick of butter in a frying pan.

There were defensemen back then who couldn't skate. Everybody skates nowadays. Everybody scouts like crazy, too. Coaches watch more video than Bill Belichick and concoct evil defensive systems designed to neutralize stars and minimize scoring.

On the other hand, star players were targeted differently in the old days, subjected to "shadowing," which was akin to having a checker climb inside your uniform. By the early 1990s, Lemieux routinely was hooked, held and used like a towboat all night long.

"That's true," said Gilles Meloche, the Penguins' goaltending coach and a longtime NHL player. "But Sid's so strong, he would have gotten away from the checkers. He'd have a few more bumps and bruises at the end of the night, but with how we scout on video and how teams are structured, that makes up twice as much for the holding and hooking."

This could work both ways, too. Lemieux and Gretzky might find the modern game very much to their liking. Imagine the devastation the pterodactyl-like Lemieux would create if he were swooping around in today's two-hand-touch NHL, especially if he could combine the natural skills of his prime with the workout dedication of his final few seasons.

And no red line• He'd be banned.

Crosby can barely comprehend what it must have been like watching Lemieux ring up 199 points, never mind Gretzky amassing an NHL-record 215 in an 80-game schedule in 1985-86.

"I can't even begin to think what that looks like over the course of the season," Crosby said, laughing. "Like, I can't even begin to think about myself watching every game, seeing what that would be like and just getting used to it. Because that's exactly what would happen: You would just get used to somebody having two- to three-point nights. It's unbelievable to think that's the way it was."

I pointed out that people are beginning to get used to Crosby scoring multiple points each night, seeing as he had 35 in the previous 17 games.

"At some point, it may not be like that," he said. "As long as it keeps going like this, it's great. But to do that over 82 games, it's hard to even imagine that. For people who would have seen that era, that time, I think they're pretty lucky and probably look back with astonishment."

The time machine would have been fun, but Crosby's reluctance hardly killed the mission. We simply moved on and solicited more of those considered opinions.

USA Today's Kevin Allen ranks among the finest hockey writers in North America, and he needed less than a millisecond to ponder the question: Would Crosby have approached 200 points in the '80s?

"No doubt about it," Allen said. "The game was wide open, the systems weren't as air-tight and you didn't have as many polished defensive players. Sid would have blown by some of the defensemen. With his vision and skating and skill, there's no doubt he would have been up there with Wayne and Mario."

Crosby would have achieved his success differently, of course. Gretzky and Lemieux liked to slow the game to whatever pace they chose and pick apart the defense. Crosby plays at 900 mph, but he also generates much of his offense on the forecheck, using a historically fast first step to fetch loose pucks and a tree-trunk lower body to keep them.

Remember, too, that Gretzky and Lemieux at various times had Hall of Fame talent working on their wings. Crosby doesn't have that advantage.

Another factor that could have worked against Crosby is his propensity for playing all 200 feet. We won't label Lemieux and Gretzky cherry pickers; let's just say they often finished games with a strange red residue on their gloves.

New-age statistical evidence backs Crosby as well. formulates adjusted point totals across eras to account for "schedule lengths, roster sizes and scoring environments." It has adjusted Gretzky's 215-point season to 170, for example, and his 205-point season in 1983-84 to 163. It projects Crosby with 148 adjusted points and 78 adjusted goals this season.

So, we are talking about similar neighborhoods.

My final task was to find a checker to put in the time machine and ask him to try to shut down Crosby 25 years ago. Penguins assistant general manager Tom Fitzgerald seemed like a fine choice, as he used to torment star players.

Time machine, Tom?

"I don't need to go into one," he said, "because I played against Sid in his first professional hockey game."

Sure enough, Crosby and the Penguins were in Wilkes-Barre in 2005, opening the preseason against the Boston Bruins.

"I was the opposing center, and he nearly broke my wrist on the faceoff, snapping the puck to his defenseman," Fitzgerald recalled. "He just took off after that, and I was like, 'wow.' Kind of like when he took that pass the other night with his feet (against New Jersey). I actually said 'wow' before he made the pass and we scored."

Gretzky fielded the same question as everyone else, and, through a third party, responded this way: "I believe Sidney could have gotten 200 points in the '80s."

Of course, we're having this conversation on the assumption that nobody will approach 200 points again.

Crosby's only 23. Use your imagination.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2-6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 "The Fan." His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be reached at .

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