"I think the hockey has been so good, and the players have been getting so good," Gretzky told NHL.com Thursday morning from the Bellagio, where he is hosting his 10th annual Fantasy Camp. "When you can have 20 teams that can legitimately say they have a chance to win, some tougher than others, that's great. I think the hockey is very good right now."
Gretzky, though, keeps an especially watchful eye on four teams in particular. Yes, they are the four teams he played for in his illustrious career.
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Gretzky remains good friends with Blues President John Davidson, so he said he's always hopeful and curious about how they're doing. And because of his relationship with Rangers GM and President Glen Sather, as well as his special ties to New York, the city where he last played, Gretzky has a great deal of interest in the Rangers.
"Those four teams I keep an eye on and pull for," he said.
So, what does he think about the Oilers, Kings, Blues and Rangers this season? Well, read on …
Praising patience in Edmonton
Gretzky said he believes the Oilers are rebuilding the right way and that Tom Renney is the right man for the job. He said through conversations he's had with Lowe, his former teammate in Edmonton, there is concern the fans won't be as patient as the front office, but, "you have to stay the course.
"Obviously they'd like to have a few more wins this year, but they're on the right path to getting stronger and better and more talented each year," Gretzky said.
The Oilers now, with young stars such as Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Sam Gagner, remind Gretzky of his early days with the franchise.
"I think that they made a conscious decision a couple of years ago to say this is how we're going to go, sort of take the blueprint from '79, so to speak, when we drafted Messier, Coffey, Anderson, Kurri, Lowe, Fuhr and Andy Moog," Gretzky said. "They decided to surround them with some older guys who are professionals and work hard, play hard and a very unselfish, but they're going to let those kids playing important minutes -- power play, penalty kill, last minute -- and deal with the growing pains.
"Those kids are still 19, 20, and 21, and in this day and age, the game is better, players are better, and it's harder to win. They're very patient. It's going to take them some time, but they're making baby steps, getting better each and every year."
He said Renney is the perfect guy for the job because he has the patience and will to let the young players develop.
"He understands they're going to make mistakes, and that it does none of those kids any good to be sitting in the press box or on the third or fourth line," Gretzky said. "He's given them quality minutes. He's a tremendous teacher and student of the game, and they're only going to get better. He's definitely the right guy."
Regarding Nugent-Hopkins' recent shoulder injuries, Gretzky said they're likely a combination of the 18-year-old former No. 1 pick needing to mature physically, but also being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"He's such a deceiving player with his turning and his hockey awareness, but the game is harder now and it's physically demanding for these guys to play 82 games at a high level with the speed of the game and the size of the players," Gretzky said. "It's difficult."
Oh so close in L.A.
Since he lives in the Los Angeles area, Gretzky said he watches a lot of Kings' games.
"They're very close," he said. "They have a very good team."
GAA: 1.89 | SVP: 0.935
They are, after all, last in the NHL in scoring at 2.11 goals-per-game.
"They need a Luc Robitaille, a Bernie Nichols, a guy that can just score goals when everybody is tired, who can get that lucky, fluky goal through a battle in front of the net and it goes off your butt," Gretzky said. "Yeah, they need that, and Dean knows that. Obviously it's no secret, but all in all their team plays with a lot of grit and they play hard every night. Even when they lose, it's 1-0 or 2-1. They play hard each game, so with that and the past two years of playoff experience, that's going to help them a lot going into the playoffs this year."
What's also going to help -- or rather, who is also going to help -- is goalie Jonathan Quick. Gretzky said the Kings' All-Star netminder belongs in the same class as guys like Henrik Lundqvist and Pekka Rinne.
"He's been outstanding," Gretzky said of Quick, who is third in the League in goals-against average (1.89) and save percentage (.935). "You can't win a Stanley Cup unless you have a top-flight goaltender and he's a top-flight guy right now, proving that each and every night. He's been as good as anybody."
Marveling at Hitchcock's work in St. Louis
Having worked with Ken Hitchcock at various times with Team Canada, Gretzky said he can't think of anybody in hockey "that eats, lives, sleeps and thinks about hockey as much or more" than the current Blues coach.
Gretzky wasn't sure the Blues would have as massive of a turnaround as they've had since Hitchcock took over for Davis Payne in early November, but he was certain that the 60-year-old coach would have an impact.
"You knew that he's too good of a hockey coach and has too good of a hockey mind," Gretzky said. "I'm not trying to compare anybody to Scotty Bowman, but you see guys like Scotty and Glen Sather and Toe Blake, guys that have won, Ken is just like them. He lives and dies with the game, and thinks each and every day about how he can make his team better, any strategy he can implement to make them a better squad."
"He was part of two gold medals for Team Canada, he's coached in World Championships and coached a Stanley Cup team, but Gordie Howe once told me you never stop learning about the game," Gretzky said. "Ken feels the same way. He's always learning about the game and about players and people, and to a man the players in St. Louis will tell you that he has really turned that franchise around. He's taken them to another level and they've been exceptional. They play hard and smart hockey, and they're going to be a contender in the playoffs because they play playoff hockey each and every night."
Confident in the Big Apple
Rangers coach John Tortorella uses the word swagger to describe the attitude and demeanor he wants from his players. Gretzky used words such as "charisma" and "strut" to describe the Rangers this season.
"They have everything going in the right direction now," Gretzky said of his former team, which is first in the Eastern Conference with 71 points. "They play hard and they play smart. They believe in themselves and each guy does his own job. They don't have guys that try to do what they're not supposed to do. On top of that, John is a tremendous coach."
Gretzky, though, praised his former coach, Sather, for showing patience with the Rangers' young core.
SOG: 137 | +/-: -2
Gretzky said Brad Richards, who has struggled of late and was recently demoted to the fourth line, has nonetheless proven to be a great signing for the Rangers "because he's a consummate pro that plays hard every night, is unselfish and has been a winner."
He added that Lundqvist has probably been the best goalie in the League through the first 50-60 games this season, and the Rangers toughness and hard work has given them a chance to win just about every game this season.
But it still all comes down to that swagger, that charisma, that strut.
"Whatever you want to call it, Glen has it and John has it, and you can see that it has gone into their team," Gretzky said. "They play with a great deal of pride and confidence. I think that was really evident in the Winter Classic. You could just see that they were not going to be denied winning that game."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl