If one is asked the question, “Who is the greatest goal scorer of all time?” the easy answer is to simply look at the stats and see which player has the most career goals. Wayne Gretzky had 894 goals, 93 more than his next closest competitor (Gordie Howe) so he must be the best sniper in NHL history. Well, while anyone arguing on Gretzky’s behalf would certainly have a strong argument, career stats don’t tell the whole story.

One key factor to consider is the era a player played in. Gretzky piled up the bulk of those goals in the 1980s, the most free-wheeling, wide open decade in hockey history. It is hard to imagine he would have scored that many if he’d been in the prime of his career between 1994 and 2004 for instance. As I look back at the greatest goal scorers in NHL history I will try and take this into account and judge accordingly.

So who are the men on the short list for title of the NHL’s all time greatest goal scorer? Read on as I introduce the candidates:

Wayne Gretzky

Gretzky is considered by most hockey fans and so-called experts as the greatest playmaker the game has ever seen. His on-ice vision and his ability to saucer tape to tape passes to teammates helped him set a myriad of assist records that will very probably never be broken. Though he was known predominantly as a passer and not a “pure” goal scorer some would dispute the assertion he is the greatest goal scorer of all time, however, since he is the NHL’s all time leading regular season goal scorer with 894 career goals and all time leading playoff goal scorer with 122 it would be a huge oversight to keep “The Great One” off the list.

The career goal scoring stats alone provide a compelling argument, but Gretzky also had many single season accomplishments that help his case:

50 goals in 39 games - Gretzky himself refers to this particular feat as his most untouchable record. In 1981-82 Gretzky stunned the hockey world when he not only beat Rocket Richard’s and Mike Bossy’s shared mark of 50 goals in 50 games, but completely annihilated it. On December 30th, 1981 Gretzky notched five goals against the Philadelphia Flyers to hit the 50 in 39 mark, serving notice to the hockey world that the NHL record book was going to take a beating in the years to come.

92 goals in a single season - After notching 50 in 39 late in 1981, Gretzky was apparently satisfied enough with his accomplishment and just coasted through the rest of the season. In his final 41 games he managed a meager 42 goals, finishing with an NHL record 92 that year. He was on a pace for a 100 goal season at one point. What happened Wayne? 

Eight straight 50 goal seasons - That magical 92 goal season marked the third consecutive time that Gretzky had eclipsed the 50 goal mark. He was just getting started. He would rack up eight straight seasons with 50 or more goals, including four straight years with 70 or more before an injury in the 1987-88 season would hold him to a mere 40.

There is more I could add, but you get the picture. Yes, Gretzky was a legendary playmaker, but he was also a pretty damn good goal scorer as well. But was he the greatest of all time?

Mike Bossy

Above, I mentioned that Gretzky was not known as a “pure” goal scorer. Well, no one could dispute that moniker when analyzing the career of Mike Bossy. As deadly a sniper as the game has ever seen, Bossy gave goalies fits with his quick release and his deadly accuracy. In many cases just the blink of an eye had passed in the time it took him to receive a pass and put it in the back of the net. Yes, his career was short (just 752 career regular season games over 10 seasons), but he made the most of that time, scoring an incredible 573 career goals and helping the mighty Islanders capture four Stanley Cups. Here are some of the goal scoring highlights of his career:

50 goals in 50 games

Though it was eclipsed a year later by Gretzky’s amazing 50 goals in 39 games, in 1980-81 Bossy made history when he became the first player in over three decades, and only the second player ever, to hit the 50 in 50 mark. Maurice Richard’s standard had stood untouched since the 1944-45 season before Bossy managed to equal the mark.

Nine straight 50 goal seasons

Yes, Gretzky’s streak of eight straight 50 goal campaigns was an amazing achievement, but it wasn’t an NHL record. Bossy holds that distinction with nine straight 50+ seasons, including five years where he topped the 60 goal mark. He very likely would have kept the streak alive for several more seasons if he had not been hobbled my a chronically bad back, forcing him to hang up the skates after a truncated 10th season in the league.

Highest goals per game percentage in NHL history

If those first two facts didn’t convince you of Bossy’s potential claim as the greatest goal scorer of all time, then this telling fact should get your attention. No one in the history of the league averaged more goals per game during the regular season than Mike Bossy. His .762 goals per game average makes him number one in that category. Some might argue that his shortened career helped him achieve that mark, but on the flip side if he’d enjoyed a 20 year career he might also have finished as the NHL’s all time leading goal scorer.

Mario Lemieux

In my opinion no other player had as much skill with the puck than Mario Lemieux did. At times it seemed like he was a man playing against kids and his size, his reach and his incredible stick-handling skills made it all but impossible for opposing defenders to relieve him of the puck. Even Hall of Fame defensemen like Ray Bourque were made to look silly by the Magnificent One.

Lemieux’s ridiculous skill resulted in plenty of chances to put the puck in the net, and when he got in close in most cases the goalie was just as helpless as the defenders in front of him had been. With a deft flick of his wrists Mario would roof the puck before the goalie could even flinch. He was just as deadly if he opted to deke, and few goalies could follow his dazzling stick-handling in close, even if Mario had two defenders draped over his back.

Yes, Mario could beat a goalie just about any way he chose, and it is little wonder he put up the incredible numbers he did. Here are some of his goal-scoring credentials to chew on:

50 goals in 50 or less games three times

Officially, the 50 in 50 club is limited to those players who’ve scored 50 goals in their team’s first 50 (or fewer) games of the season. Lemieux does belong to this exclusive club, having scored 50 in his team’s first 46 (he played in 44 of them) games in the 1988-89 season. However, due to ongoing injury woes Lemieux would miss games in each and every season of his NHL career. However, despite dealing with chronic back pain as well as a battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma Mario managed to continue to score at a prolific rate. In 1992-93 and again in 1995-96 Mario scored 50 in his first 50 games of the season.

85 goals in a single season

Only three players in NHL history have ever scored 80 or more goals in a single season, and Mario is one of them. The same season he scored 50 in 46 he topped the 80 goal mark for the year, finishing with a whopping 85 snipes. He also missed four games due to injury. If not for that he likely would have surpassed both Brett Hull’s 86 and Wayne Gretzky’s 87 to own the second highest single season total in NHL history.

Highest goals-per-game average in NHL history (regular season + playoffs)

Had he not returned to the game in 2000-01 following a three and a half year retirement Mario Lemieux, and not Mike Bossy, would currently hold the highest goals-per-game average in league history. However, because he did come back and saw his numbers dwindle season by season as he continued to play until age 40, his regular season average slipped below that of Mike Bossy. However, if you take regular season and playoffs into account, Mario’s .750 goals-per-game average is higher than anyone else to ever play the game.

Maurice “The Rocket” Richard

Though some might point to Joe Malone or Howie Morenz as the NHL’s first great goal scorer, in my mind it is Maurice Richard that was the league’s first true superstar sniper. Richard was a man possessed when he crossed the offensive blueline, and defenders and goalies alike quailed from the look of fiery determination in his eyes as he bulled his way towards the goal. Here are just a few of the reasons why Rocket Richard deserves consideration as the greatest NHL goal scorer of all time:

The first player to score 500 goals in a career

On October 19, 1957 Rocket Richard scored the 500th goal of his legendary career. He achieved the feat in just his 863rd game, becoming the first player in NHL history to reach the mark. The feat wouldn’t be matched for another 5 seasons, when Gordie Howe hit the mark (after 1,045 games). Since Richard set that bar only 40 other players have joined the club in more than 50 years of NHL hockey that’s been played since. Richard finished with 544 career goals, a mark that puts him at #1 on the all time list of Montreal Canadiens’ goal scorers.

First player to score 50 goals in a single season

When it comes to goal scoring today, there is something magical about the number 50. Joining the 50 goal club is a mark of extreme honor among goal scorers in the NHL today. However, if not for the original accomplishment of Richard back in the 1944-45 season, 50 goals might be just an arbitrary number. Back then teams only played 50 regular season games, and the notion of someone actually averaging a goal a game for entire season seemed ludicrous. However, those naysayers didn’t take the skill and determination of Richard into account. He hit the mark, and it stood untouched for 36 years before Mike Bossy finally equaled it.

In my mind the four men listed above are the greatest goal scorers in NHL history. So which one ekes out the award as the best goal scorer of all time?

Verdict: Mario Lemieux

Lemieux was pure artistry on the ice and he could beat a goalie a hundred different ways. Yes, he wasn’t able to match Gretzky’s single season or career stats, however, if he’d had the benefit of good health through his prime I’m positive at least some of those goal-scoring records, if not all of them would be his. Compelling arguments can be made for the other three men on the list, but in my mind Mario the Magnificent is the greatest sniper of all time.

Honorable Mention

Though the four men listed above are the greatest snipers to pick up a stick (in my opinion) the four below certainly aren’t far behind them, and other hockey fans will certainly argue they deserve more than just an honorable mention. Here are a few of the best “also-rans”.

Gordie Howe - Hard to ignore the incredible consistency of Mr. Hockey. Up until Gretzky came along Howe’s 801 goals was the highest career total, and he still stands second to this day.

Bobby Hull - With his incredible skating speed and blistering slap shot “The Golden Jet” was a nightmare for goalies. He hit the 50 goal mark five times in his career and finished with 610 NHL goals, a total that would have been significantly higher if he hadn’t spent several years in the WHA during his 30s.

Brett Hull - He had goal scoring in his DNA, and he was obviously paying attention when his father was torching goalies with his wicked slap shot. Brett Hull twice hit 50 in 50, scored 86 goals in a single season (the third highest total ever), and finished with 741 career tallies.

Phil Esposito - Though the bulk of his goals might have had a bit of an odor to them, no one can deny this “garbage man” had a nose for the net. Espo stood the NHL record book on its ear when he set an NHL record with 76 goals in a single season. He scored 60+ goals on four occasions and finished his Hall of Fame career with 717.