March 28, 2009

Who's Better? Mikita vs. Yzerman

Yesterday I referred to a Jim Mathieson piece where he was talking about some of hockey's all time great players as listed by The Hockey News over a decade ago.

One thing that really caught my attention was when Mathieson, with great authority, said
Yzerman was 78th the first time around. Sorry, but he's a better player than Stan Mikita, who was 17th. With four Cups, 1,755 points, and his leadership abilities, Stevie Y can take Mikita's No. 17 slot.
Mathieson is one of the most trusted journalists on the hockey scene over the last three decades. He has even been inducted into the media wing of the Hockey Hall of Fame, that's how good he is. When Mathieson talks, we should all take notes.

So for Mathieson to so assuredly annoint Steve Yzerman as a better player than Stan Mikita is quite something.

I have always held each in the highest of regards. I think it is brilliant to suggest that Yzerman and Mikita are great comparables.

Both are amongst the greatest centers of all time. They are offensive geniuses who were also known as grizzled warriors and leaders. They were noted for their complete games as well as their offensive brilliance and gutsy play.

Both players also had two distinct stages to their careers, too. Early in his career Yzerman was the offensive superstar. It was not until later that he became one of the greatest two-way players of all time. Mikita always was a complete player, excelling at every aspect of the game. Early in his Mikita was a voracious warrior who was greatly undisciplined, perhaps partly because as a smaller player he needed to do so to survive his early days in the Original Six NHL.

It is hard if not impossible, and almost always foolhardy, to compare players of different eras.

If I had to break down their games I would have to give Yzerman a distinct edge in terms of skating, goal scoring and one-on-one dangerousness. In his offensive heyday he was an explosive and instinctual scorer.

I would have to give Mikita the edge in terms of intelligence. I am certainly not questioning Yzerman's hockey brains, but Mikita's bread and butter was his on-ice intellect. He was an incredibly clever attacker and playmaker, always making those around him better. He was as slick and clever as they come

Judging by Mr. Mathieson's short comments, he's giving Yzerman the edge based on two arguments: He had more championships and more points.

Yzerman won four Stanley Cups while Mikita won just one. Championships rightfully should be part of the equation, and Yzerman was a big part in all four titles. But sometimes too much emphasis is put on Stanley Cups. It takes a whole team to win, not just one player. While it is true they probably should have been able to win another title, Mikita's Blackhawks just never seemed to have quite enough depth in an era of two notable Stanley Cup dynasties - the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens of the 1960s.

Yzerman also outdistances Mikita in the point race, 1755 regular season points compared to 1467. I think that is a bit of a weak argument, especially given Yzerman's advantage of playing in the significantly higher scoring 1980s. Mikita retired as the third highest scorer in NHL history. Yzerman, you could argue, was one of the three greatest offensive players of his time when you consider he played against Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr.

I'm really not trying to take anything away from Yzerman. We all saw how good he was, with all his natural talent and flare.

But I can sense that I am trying to defend Mikita, who was truly was one of the all time greats. Recent generations know him better for Wayne's World donuts rather than. He was the first hockey player ever to win three major individual awards in one season, and he did in two consecutive years, winning the Hart, Art Ross and Lady Byng trophies. Even more impressive - he did not play on the same line as Bobby Hull.

In my book there is no more complete or near perfect hockey player as Stan Mikita. Yzerman transformed himself into a similar player over the years.

Mikita may not have had the pure talent that Yzerman had, but he had the intelligence and the heart to make him Yzerman's equal.

So who was better? In all honesty, I can not name one over the other. To do so almost sells one undeservedly short.

So I will say this - if The Hockey News were to revise their top 50 list any time soon, Mikita should retain his #17 ranking. Yzerman, now with his full career behind him, would be significantly upgraded, to either #16 or #18.

While they played different stylistically, Yzerman and Mikita are near equals.


James Benesh said...

Hi Joe.

Stan Mikita is a significantly better player than Steve Yzerman. there is a large body of evidence to support this so I'll just cherrypick the best stuff:

1. Mikita was top-10 in the NHL in points 9 times, all of them in the top-4 (1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 3, 3, 3, 4) Yzerman has been top-10 six times (3, 3, 4, 7, 7, 10)

2. When breaking it down further, they are reasonably similar in goalscoring with Mikita still a tad more impressive (Mikita 2, 2, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, yzerman 2, 2, 3, 6, 6, 6)

3. Mikita owns Yzerman in playmaking. Yzerman's top-10 assist finishes: 3, 3, 7, 7, 10. Mikita's: 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 2, 2, 4, 5, 7, 8. basically, Mikita made the top-2 twice more than Yzerman even made the top-10.

4. Mikita was an excellent playoff performer his entire career. His playoff points-per game of 0.97 represents a 7% drop from his regular season numbers (perfectly acceptable considering scoring drops around 15%. Yzerman sees a drop of 19% in his playoff numbers.

5. Mikita's Hart voting record: 1, 1, 2, 4, 5. Yzerman's: 3, 4.

6. Mikita's postseason all-star teams: 6 1st, 2 2nd. Yzerman's: 1 1st.

7. Yzerman turned into a great all-around player as he got older. Mikita never had to turn into one - he always was one. He played Selke-caliber defense over the course of his whole career and his span of dominance was 9 seasons long. Yzerman started as an offensive whiz who was below-average defensively and when he started playing great defense he was just a 70-80 point player - not top-10 material anymore. His period of offensive dominance was just 6 seasons long.

Of course there is also the competition factor. Yzerman had Gretzky and Lemieux to contend with so it would be more fair to him to pretend those two didn't exist and then look at Yzerman's results. This affects points 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6.

1. Yzerman's points finishes without Wayne & Mario: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 10. Edge still to Mikita.

2. Yzerman's goalscoring finishes without Mario & Wayne: 2, 2, 2, 5, 5, 6. Edge still to Mikita.

3. Yzerman's assist finishes without Mario & Wayne: 1, 1, 6, 6, 9, 10. Edge still to Mikita.

5. Yzerman's Hart record without Mario & Wayne: 1, 2, 5. Edge still to Mikita.

6. Yzerman's All-star teams without Mario & Wayne: 1 1st, 2 2nd. Edge still to Mikita.

Of course, Beliveau isn't far off from Lemieux so we could remove him too, to make this fair to Mikita, but we wouldn't really need to do that to demonstrate what is painfully clear.

The reporter in question is suffering from possibly three afflictions: 1) Modern player bias, 2) Career totals bias, or 3) cup-countingitis. All are seriously debilitating diseases in the field of objective hockey history analysis.

Joe, you even do Mikita a slight disservice by suggesting it to be that close. Mikita should be a good 20-30 spots ahead of Yzerman on any good list. THN even has it wrong whey place him 17th - He is better than Lafleur (who was only really good for six seasons, but MAN was he good) and significantly better than Messier (who I love, but will readily acknowledge is badly overrated - cases can be made for Sakic and Yzerman over him easily, only if you really value the six cups and the playoff career totals does it makes sense to have him ahead of them)

Anyway, Joe, I'm rambling now. Keep up the good work.

Dan said...

I have to say I think Mikita was better by a fair margin but I won't support my argument being as how James beat me to it lol. Still an interesting read as always, keep up the great work Joe.

Greg G. said...

Hi Joe
Well Joe, what can I say that James Benesh didn't say. Wow James, you did your homework! I could not agree more with James and would like to add a few things. First let me say that Steve Yzerman was a great player in the NHL, no doubt, but in Stan Mikita's era Stan was the top player in the NHL for more than a couple seasons. Stan competed against the greatest players of the brutal "Original Six" NHL. This is not a fair comparison to Yzerman.
Mikita had a teamate who without question was the greatest left wing in the history of hockey in one Robert Marvin "Bobby" Hull and beat out this great teamate winning Hart trophies and Art Ross scoring championships more than once, not to take anything from Bobby who was at the time the greatest goal scorer in the NHL.
Stan went up against players like Jean Beliveau, Norm Ullman, Alex Delvecchio, Phil Esposito, Henri Richard, Dave Keon, Bob Pulford just to name a few and excelled at a playing weight of around 155lbs. This at a time when 20 goals in the NHL was the benchmark like hitting 300 in baseball.
Stan also didn't have the games number one enforcer on his line like Yzerman had with Bob Probert. As a matter of fact Stan had to take care of his own scraps much of his early years just to survive the old school clutch and grab and intimidate NHL.
To be honest I believe that Stan should be in the top 10 greatest players not 17th on the all time list.
I refer all arguments to James because he has it covered. No, Stan Mikita was the greatest center iceman to play in the NHL until Wayne Gretzky showed up and with all due respect to Steve Yzerman he was not as good a player as Stan. In his prime, Stan Mikta stood out above the entire crowd of great NHL players of his era. We didn't call "Stosh" the ""Little Magician" for nothing, he was the man at center ice! One of the smartest hockey players ever to play the game.
One more thing I would like to add about Stan. Having met Stan, on top of all of his success, he is a great guy and a wonderful person and my idol growing up and my all time favorite hockey player!

Greg G said...

The more I read what this Matheson says about Mikita and him saying Yzerman should have his spot on the all time list really irks me. I am going to be nice and say the more I read what this guy has said, convinces me he doesn't know what he is talking about. To degrade Stan Mikita one of the greatest players in the history of the NHL is absurd! He probably never sawe Stan play!

Joe Pelletier said...

ha ha! There is quite the convincing support for Stan Mikita here.

Honestly, that was my first opinion too when I decided to write the piece.

But I immediately found myself over-defending Mikita, a road I wasn't sure if I should go down. A large reason for that is I do hold Mathieson in the highest of regards. He knows more than I do, so who am I to argue against him. I was guilty of being intimidated by his stature, I guess.

One other thing - I almost think Yzerman is being disserviced now. Both were amazing hockey players, and I still do not think that there is a lot of room between the two of them.

Part of it is time, of course. Yzerman is fresh in everyone's mind, and through tv we saw his greatness all the time. Not everyone saw Mikita.

Part of it is legacy. Yzerman is the face of the Red Wings franchise in the post-Gordie Howe era. Mikita, as good as he was, was second banana to Bobby Hull in stature.

Part of it is championships. Yzerman won 4. Mikita's Blackhawks probably should won at least one more than the one they did.


Greg G said...

Joe; Don't degrade yourself. It is obvious to me you are an astute historian of hockey and I disagree that you should feel inferior to Matheison. I agree that this article and the subsequent feedback is probably doing Yzerman a disservice, but we all agree he was a great player just not as good as Stan Mikita. I also agree with Stan being second banana to Bobby Hull. That is a fact, no argument. Hull was the most dynamic player in the NHL at the time and it's best goal scorer! Stan was a crafty playmaker first, and finesse, brains, his biggest assets. Hull was a power house! The "Golden Boy" of the Blackhawks and had the most infectious smile and gregarious personality to go with it. Bobby was the whole package, a marketers dream was Bobby. Just a little story: I used to hang out and wait after the games by the dressing room door and Stan was so quick coming out of the dressing room if you blinked you would miss him. Bobby on the other hand would almost always be the last player that would come up out of the dressing room. The door attendant would open the door and Bobby would stand their with that great smile and everyone would give him a hand! It was great, and we let him know how much we appreciated his play. However Stan has the numbers (not the goals Bobby had) and trophies and scoring championships, just was not the type player Bobby was.
I have said this many times Bobby is the greatest left wing ever to play hockey period and that's my story and I'm sticking to it. Yes, even better than Alex Ovechkin who would have to do what he is doing a long time to be considered in Bobby's class. He also better work on his slap shot because Hull had the greatest Howitzer in the the history of the NHL!
Yes, I'm rambling now myself. I think both Mikita and Yzerman were great players but no merit to Matheison's claim that Yzerman is better. I'll take Stan Mikita every time!

Anonymous said...

Hi Joe, first of all great blog.

I'm really happy this comparison was done. These are two players who need more attention. Especially Mikita, who is to be, quietly hockey's most underrated great.

I will agree with the sentiments that Mikita is better than Yzerman. I consider Mikita to be in the top 10 of players too, and the 4th best center of all time, close to Beliveau.

However, I will put up a case for Yzerman here, who I consider not much further down, in the top 15. He is in a tier of centers after the Beliveau/Mikita tier, along with (I'd even say at the top of): Messier, Morenz, Esposito, and maybe Sakic and Trottier.

Now obviously, the case that Mikita was a lot more dominant with respect to statistical finishes and awards voting than Yzerman is clear cut. However, I think just by going that way is almost as shortsighted as going the way of counting career stats and raw point totals along with Stanley Cups.

The fact is, with all the great players that Mikita competed against at his peak, it could be said that he won his awards in a transitional period with Beliveau at the decline and Esposito on the rise.

Yzerman of course, had to match up against a guy called Gretzky, who was not at his best but still better at that point than any center sans Lemieux, and Lemieux at his best during the late 1980's and early 1990's. Add to that the other great scoring talents of Hawerchuk, Denis Savard, Messier, Coffey, Brett Hull, Oates, Lafontaine.

Then there are the many more players who were not as consistent but still put up a handful of great seasons like Turgeon, Selanne, Mogilny, Nichols, Gilmour, early Jagr etc...

With all due respect to the players of the NHL at any other era, I feel that the time Yzerman at his best had the highest quality top end offensive competition. This to me, is able to explain away a lot of the disparity in scoring placements and awards voting. We know that Yzerman could have really challenged (and he did) for the Hart in 1988 before the knee injury and in 1989 he was the favorite in March before the team went on somewhat of a skid and only finished at .500.

Does it make sense that Yzerman was only 7th in Hart voting in 1990 with the season he had? He was certainly on par with Messier and Bourque and I would say better than Hull that year. Yet once again, team considerations played a huge role.

After all, Mikita has what is seemingly a slightly more impressive resume than Bobby Hull with his 4 scoring titles, 2 Hart trophies, and his retroactive Conn Smythe, but I don't think Mikita is better than Hull (though they are very close, #5 and #7 on my list, due to Mikita's defensive play).

On the question of Defense, I do think it is unfair to say that Yzerman was below average or even just average defensively in his scoring peak. I know a lot is made about his transformation during the Bowman years, but from watching Yzerman play, I always got the impression that he went from one of the best offensively and good defensively to good offensively and great defensively, and the change in his play went on how he played the team system and his priorities.

Yzerman was taught to play Defense in juniors very well. He was used by all his early coaches from Polano to Demers on the penalty kill, with Demers double shifting Yzerman on the top line to score and a checking line to prevent goals.

You have statements like Bob McCammon in Vancouver praising Yzerman's well rounded play back in his 155 point season after a 34 minute performance where Yzerman had to kill 47 minutes of Detroit penalties (St. Petersburg Times - Thursday, March 16, 1989).

You had Paul Maurice mention how just the perception and circumstances had changed on how Yzerman was viewed:

"I think he was always a complete player it's just that the circumstances have changed," says Carolina coach Paul Maurice. "Steve Yzerman's emergence as a total player has been seen by the media as a change in his game but I think it's more a case of moving forward. The Detroit Red Wings got to the point where they don't have to rely on him for his offense every night. He's always been a complete player but the team was not as good over the years and had to rely on him every night to provide offense. The Detroit Red Wings have the supporting cast and while Steve Yzerman is a great offensive player, he is also a great defensive player." (http://www.steviey.net/archives90s.htm)

Mike Keenan attests to more of the same:

Keenan disputed the popular theory that Yzerman is a much better all-around player now than he was then.

"I wouldn't say he's a different player," Keenan said. "I see a player who's always been an excellent player and a threat. I see a player playing on a better team than he had in the past."

Larionov remembers how Yzerman checked him in the 1985 World Championships:

Yzerman was always capable of playing defensive hockey, said Igor Larionov, a 37-year-old center from Russia. Larionov recalled playing for the Soviet Union in the world championships of 1985, when Yzerman took a role on Team Canada's checking line. In the medal round, against the famous KLM line, Yzerman held Larionov off the score sheet as Canada won, 3-1.

It is also the way I feel. While Yzerman was not at the Mikita level of two way play, for all their fancy stickhandling (Mikita has gotta be one of the best) both these guys were good defensive players to say the least, even when they were at their offensive best.

Anonymous said...

...And I forgot to mention Marcel Dionne when speaking of all those great centers. Certainly on a level with Yzerman and company, he did the best he could for his team and did splendidly for Canada. When the Kings went to the second round of the playoffs, Dionne scored 18 goals and 32 points in 28 games.

Had he gotten the opportunity to play on a team better suited for the playoffs it could have done wonders for his perception (like it did for Butch Goring).

Anonymous said...

your post says yzerman won 4 rings, but that is wrong. unless you are counting his '08 ring as part of red wing management, yzerman has 3.

i agree mikita was better.

Jesse said...

when it comes to players it's always those things that can't be measured. In the Yzerman vs. Mikita debate what's missing is that Steve Yzerman is one of the greatest Captains in NHL history, boasting an impressive three cups and that all important Gold Medal in 02'.

If I had to win one game, sure I think Mikita would be the obvious choice. If i had to start the playoffs and win the Stanley cup, it's Yzerman no question.

Kevin said...

I agree with James on this one and on any comparison post 6 team league. All you have to do is look at P. Esposito's point totals after expansion in 1967. Can u say watered down....o ya. I can't see how you can compare the two...apples to oranges

Anonymous said...

Who cares? The fact is they're both great and for their own reasons. One as great as the other in their respective era's. Yzerman is my hero. I must choose him. One more thing, as a player, Yzerman won three cups. Not four like the article says.