Wayne Gretzky is called, "The Great One" and is regarded as the best to ever play the game for a reason. He amassed a ridiculous 2,857 points (894 goals and 1,963 assists) over his 20 season career in the NHL. Something that will undoubtedly never occur again. To even argue that reaching and surpassing Gretzky's career totals in the modern era is a waste of time.
But during Gretzky's career from 1978-1999, the game was a whole different animal, and even with Gretzky's accomplishments, Pittsburgh Penguins Center Sidney Crosby and Washington Capitals Left Winger Alexander Ovechkin may be the two best players to ever play the game.
Even by recording four seasons of 200 or more points, including three consecutive seasons from 1983-1986, Gretzky was doing so in an NHL that didn't feature the type of goalies we watch on a daily basis in the current NHL.
We'll never see another 200 point season. In fact, a player reaching 130 points in itself is a once in a decade thing in the modern NHL.
But back to goalies...
The goaltenders of Gretzky's time didn't have the bulky (but necessary) protective gear today's goalies wear. The picture to the left of Roberto Romano who played for the Penguins in the 1980's is a perfect example of how small the padding, and the goaltenders were during Gretzky's days in the NHL.
As technology has developed and the gear has gotten better, the need for such padding has become necessary. Players have harder shots with sticks that flex that offer a whip that adds possibly a few miles per hour to their shots. Players shooting, stick handling, and passing have increased over the years making the work goalies have to do that much harder.
The modern goaltender also tends to be much larger in stature while being all the more athletic than their counterparts of the past.
The goal sizes haven't changed and as is seen by the above picture compared to the picture to the right of Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, it's obvious just by standing in a goaltender stance, Fleury takes up far more of the net then Romano.
This piece by Neil Paine of FiveThirtyEight.com explains why Gretzky "had it easy" by explaining goaltender save percentages rising steadily and game strategies making scoring harder.
Watching Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby both reach 900 career points in their 10th seasons and at the ages of 30 or younger is an unbelievable feat that should be recognized with more praise.
In their own right, both players were also slowed by terrible coaches at one point or another. It could rightfully be argued that both Crosby and Ovechkin could have even more points than they currently do.
In a league where scoring is down due to a multitude of factors, when two greats are scoring at will and at rates likely to never be seen again, it begs the question what could Crosby and Ovechkin accomplish if they played during Gretzky's time, and vice versa.
Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin are the two single greatest players to ever play the game of hockey based on skill. There will never be another player (let alone two at the same time) like these two phenoms in our lifetime.