Adjusting the NHL's Greatest Goal Scorers for Era: Goals Per Game

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Lydia Murray
pro players
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If you only have a few minutes to spare, here's what you should know:
Pure goals is not necessarily the best way to build a greatest goal-scorers list. There are other things to consider, such as games played and the era they played in.
By comparing an individual player's average goals per game to the average of the era they played in, you can get a better idea of how statistically impressive their numbers are.
When adjusting for individual and era goals per game, Mario Lemieux tops the list of greatest goals scorers.

Introduction and Method

It’s easy to say Wayne Gretzky is the greatest goal-scorer of all time. After all, he is number one on the NHL’s list, and until Alexander Ovechkin came along, few thought his record could be broken. That list, however, only accounts for total goals. There are other factors to consider when determining who the best goal scorer is. For one, goals per game could be viewed as a better marker than total goals, and the era a player competed in should also be considered. With these variables in mind, new lists can be created to compare goal scorers, not only looking at goals per game but also comparing an individual’s stats to a related one from their era.

Below you’ll find the game’s top NHL goal scorers (women’s hockey coming soon) analyzed not simply by total goals, but by individual goals per game compared to the league average in their era.

Only players in the top 25 of the NHL’s all-time goal-scoring list were considered for this list. Individual goals per game were calculated manually by dividing the total number of goals scored by games played per the record website. Individual seasons played were gathered from their individual NHL page. Next, the average goals scored per game in the era were manually calculated by averaging the total goals scored per game of all teams in the era. This data was found on Hockey Reference’s season summary pages. Lastly, the percentage of the player’s goals per game compared to the league average was calculated and players were ranked in reverse order. All stats for the 2022-23 season are as of before games started on March 8, 2023.

Alex Ovechkin
Photo from USA today Sports

#10 - #6

10. Mike Gartner (1979 to 1999): Last but not least is Mike Gartner. His 0.494 GPG accounted for 7.0% of his era’s 7.09 GPG average, which was narrowly beaten out by Ciccarelli. Gartner played for five teams in his career but spent the longest with the Washington Capitals. He is eighth on the all-time list. Like Ciccarelli, Gartner never won any major league awards, but he was perhaps the fastest skater and playmaker of his era, which made him nearly impossible for opponents to contain.

9. Dino Ciccarelli (1980 to 1999): Dino Ciccarelli, whose GPG rate is tied with Mike Gartner’s, is next on the list due to playing in a slightly lower-scoring era. There were 7.00 GPG scored in Ciccarelli’s era, and he scored at a 0.494 GPG rate, which is 7.1% of the average game rate. Ciccarelli jumped several places within this metric from 19th on the all-time scoring list. Playing at least 200 games fewer than many above him, Ciccarelli benefited from the switch from pure goals to GPG. Ciccarelli played for five teams over his career and spent the longest with the Minnesota North Stars. Despite being one of the best offensive players of his time, Ciccarelli never won any major league awards, largely thanks to playing at the same time as Wayne Gretzky.

8. Marcel Dionne (1971 to 1989): Next up is Marcel Dionne who, like Gretzky, played in a high-scoring era. Dionne fell two spots from his ranking on the NHL’s total goals list due to his era averaging 7.18 GPG. His 0.542 GPG accounted for 7.5% of that total. Dionne played for three teams during his career but spent the majority of it with the Los Angeles Kings.

7. Wayne Gretzky (1979 to 1999): Wayne Gretzky’s greatness is undeniable. He is the current all-time leading scorer and his 10 Art Ross and nine Hart Memorial trophies speak for themselves. Statistically, however, Gretzky, who played for four teams but was most successful with the Edmonton Oilers, played in an era where it was a lot easier to score goals. 7.00 goals were scored per game on average. His 0.602 GPG accounted for just 8.8% of that, which places him seventh on this list.

6. Phil Esposito (1963 to 1981): Phil Esposito’s 0.559 GPG accounted for 8.8% of his era’s 6.35 GPG rate. Esposito’s story, going from a true underdog to one of the NHL’s all-time greatest goal scorers is remarkable. He didn’t make a junior A team until he was 20, and yet, he was recently ranked as the ninth-best player of the modern era by The Athletic. The five-time Art Ross Trophy Winner played for three teams over his career but is best remembered for his time as a Boston Bruin.

Mike Bossy
Photo by B Bennett/Getty Images. A waist-up photo of Mike Bossy on the ice.

#5 - #1

5. Brett Hull (1986 to 2006): Brett Hull comes in just behind his father on this list, with a far less complicated legacy. Whether it was total goals scored, or in this era and GPG adjusted metric, Brett Hull remained fifth all-time. His 741 goals rank fifth on the standard record list, 0.583 GPG is fifth, and his scoring accounted for 9.3% of the game average rate, which is also fifth. In keeping with the theme of five, Hull played for five teams during his career but spent the majority of it with the St. Louis Blues. His goal-scoring abilities remain among the game’s greatest players by any measurement.

4. Bobby Hull (1957 to 1980): Bobby Hull was not a good man. It’s wrong to discuss his on-ice achievements without acknowledging that his alleged appalling off-ice behavior vastly overshadows them. With that in mind, it’s undeniable that Hull was one of the best goal-scorers the game has ever seen. His 0.574 GPG accounts for 9.7% of the game average in his era. Hull spent all but 27 games of his career with the Chicago Blackhawks. He was claimed by the Winnipeg Jets in the 1979 expansion draft before his final season, who later traded him to the Hartford Whalers, where he finished his career.

3. Mike Bossy (1977 to 1987): Based solely on goals, Mike Bossy, who spent the entirety of his career with the New York Islanders, ranks 22nd on the all-time list. When you calculate goals per game, however, he’s the all-time leader. It makes you wonder what could have been had chronic knee and back injuries not forced Bossy to retire far too early. The three-time Lady Byng winner led the league in goals twice during his 10 seasons. Bossy’s 0.762 GPG accounts for 10.1% of his era’s game average of 7.50 GPG, landing him third on this list.

2. Alex Ovechkin (2005-present): It shouldn’t surprise anyone to see Ovechkin on this list. If anything, it may come as a surprise that he isn’t number one. After all, it’s likely a matter of time before he breaks Gretzky’s record to become the NHL’s all-time leading goal scorer. Ovechkin’s career, which has been spent entirely with the Washington Capitals, has been nothing short of remarkable. His era features the lowest average GPG on this list, while he has the third highest GPG. NHL goalies have never been better, yet Ovechkin just keeps scoring. His 0.612 GPG accounts for 10.4% of the average game rate of 5.89 GPG.

1. Mario Lemieux (1984 to 1997 and 2000 to 2006): Far too often, Mario Lemieux’s greatness gets overshadowed by Wayne Gretzky. Considering much of their careers were spent playing against each other, it is somewhat understandable. Lemieux, however, deserves just as much attention as Gretzky. Solely focusing on total goals, Lemieux, who spent his entire career with the Pittsburgh Penguins, ranks 11th all-time, but rockets up to second when you calculate goals per game (GPG). Moreover, his 0.754 GPG accounted for a whopping 11.4% of the average game rate in his era. This is even more impressive considering that Lemieux battled back issues for much of his career and overcame Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1993. The Hockey Hall of Fame induction committee waived the three-year waiting period for Lemieux and he entered the hall in 1997. He is one of 10 players to get the waiting period waived.

Lemieux’s on-ice play is not all that he’s known for. In 1999, Lemieux became co-owner of the Penguins following the team’s 1998 bankruptcy filing. He then came out of retirement, making him the first player-owner in NHL history and the third player to come out of retirement after being inducted into the Hall of Fame. Despite lingering health issues, Lemieux played four more seasons (excluding the 2004-05 lockout year) before retiring for good midway through the 2005-06 season.

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