The Wayne Gretzky analysis


Hockey boxscores have always included goals, assists, points, +/- and penalty minutes. But more recently, statistics such as shots, hits, time on ice (TOI) and number of shifts have been recorded as well. How much do these metrics add to our understanding of player performance? Well, hits are a rough, though reasonable proxy for a player’s physicality. Shots seem like a pretty obvious measure of offensive productivity (you can’t score if you don’t shoot). But what about TOI? The best players should be on the ice the most, but that doesn’t mean much if you aren’t winning your shifts. Perhaps there is an upper limit to how long someone can stay on the ice? Players that are in better shape, who are more economical in their energy expenditure, or are just physiological freaks should be able to stay on the ice longer and would have more opportunity to succeed.

“Anchor” defensemen are likely to log more time than forwards. This year Dan Boyle leads the league with over 26 minute per game. In the 1990’s elite defensemen like Chris Chelios and Ray Bourque averaged over 30 minutes a game. Forwards cannot log nearly as much time, but Kovalchuk leads the league this year at just over 22 minutes per game. His 32 points and –26 rating are an example of why time on the ice doesn’t necessarily equal productivity, offensively or defensively. On the other hand, points leader Daniel Sedin logs a tidy 18 minutes per game, with 69 points and a +22 rating.

TOI has been recorded for quite some time, but records are not readily available. has TOI statistics going back to the 1998-199 season. Which is too bad, because it would be really interesting to see where some of the games great players in history sit. I have always wondered about the case of Wayne Gretzky. I watched many games live between the Oilers and Flames in the 80’s and remembered that Gretzky always looked like he could stay on the ice forever. He was always in control of his body and spent energy in spurts, with little wasted skating motion. It also seemed like Wayne could recover more quickly than other players allowing him to return to the ice faster and that in turn created match-up problems. So the statistic that could shed some light on this notion would be TOI.

Wayne Gretzky

So, being a complete geek, I grabbed two game tapes of Gretzky and recorded his TOI. Did Wayne have some special energy saving technique or freaky physiological mutation? Well, the game tape should help answer those questions. The games were game 5 from the 1984 Stanley cup finals between Edmonton and New York and game 7 of the western conference finals between Los Angeles and Toronto. For comparison, I have listed the top point scorer in the playoffs over the last decade. Did Wayne log more TOI or shifts than a typical teams top playoff performer?

Table 1. Historical time on ice and number of shifts for leading playoff scorers.

Name Series/Game TOI Shifts Shift Length
Danny Briere Flyers-Hawks 2010 19:37 26.1 0:45
Evgeni Malkin Penguins-Wings 2009 20:57 22.4 0:56
Henrik Zetterberg Wings-Penguins 2008 22:35 28.6 0:47
Daniel Alfredsson Senators-Ducks 2007 23:19 29.2 0:47
Eric Staal Hurricanes-Oilers 2006 19:47 26.3 0:45
Brad Richards Lightning-Flames 2004 23:28 29.1 0:48
Jamie Langenbrunner Devils_Wild 2003 17:33 25.0 0:42
Peter Forsberg (Wings-Hurricanes) 2002 18:09 27.5 0:39
Joe Sakic Avalanche-Devils 2001 21:32 34.1 0:37
Brett Hull Stars-Devils 2000 19:59 25.7 0:46
Peter Forsberg (Stars-Devils) 1999 21:39 30.0 0:43
Steve Yzerman Wings-Capitals 1998 22:41 28.0 0:48
Wayne Gretzky Kings-Leafs Conf. Finals Game 7, 1993 23:54 26 0:55
Wayne Gretzky Oilers-Islanders Stanley Cup Game 5, 1984 23:00 25 0:55

As it turns out, Wayne did not log some huge number of minutes. His TOI is higher than modern day players, but only by a couple of minutes. Given that this is based only on two games for Gretzky, it is hard to say that he was logging a lot more time than your “average” star player. It would also be interesting to note how much ice time players of Wayne’s era typically logged. In the 1993 game against the Leafs, Doug Gilmour logged more ice time than Wayne. So, again, Gretzky’s TOI didn’t seem to be out of the norm.  Interestingly, in both games, Wayne logged the most time and scored almost all his points in the first half of each game.


OK, one last little bit of information. It’s always hard to compare players between eras, and almost impossible to do so between sports. However, not many people follow hockey that closely, and fewer still can appreciate just how singular Wayne Gretzky’s records are. So, I calculated Wayne’s equivalent scoring from the other major sports. This is a purely statistical analysis, so you’ll have to debate other differences yourself. Regardless, it provides a quick way to help talk with a non-hockey sports fan.

Table 2. Wayne Gretzky’s equivalent scoring based on 2010 season statistics.

Sports Scoring metric
MLB 26.2 wins
NBA 38.3 points
NFL 6760 yards passing

How would Gretzky have looked as a football player? We might just find out: Trevor Gretzky Football

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