When we think of the great goal scorers in NHL history, we first think of Wayne Gretzky. Names like Gordie Howe and Jaromir Jagr might also come to mind.
Alex Ovechkine? A real superstar, a Hall of Famer for sure, but of course not at the level of the Great One.
Where is he?
Ovechkin has steadily climbed the NHL’s career scoring list and now ranks sixth at 730. He follows only Gretzky, the point guard at 894; Howe; Jagr; Brett Hull and Marcel Dionne. Yes, Gretzky’s mark, long considered unassailable, is actually slipping into Ovechkin’s sights.
Will Ovechkin be able to place himself at the top of the table before the end of his career?
How much longer will he play?
At 36, Ovechkin is at the twilight of his career. But, comparing him to players close to him on the roster, it looks like he might have several more years in him.
Gretzky and Dionne retired at 38, and Hull at 39 (not counting a five-game cameo at 41 in 2005-6). That would give Ovechkin at least a few more years. And that doesn’t even include the outliers: Jagr played in the NHL until he was 45 and Howe played until he was 52.
Ovechkin also just signed a five-year deal with the Capitals, the only NHL team he’s played for. There’s no guarantee he’s been playing all of these years, but it certainly shows that he intends to give it a try.
Injuries haven’t had much of an effect on Ovechkin’s career, and it is reasonable to expect him to continue playing for almost full seasons. Until last season, he played virtually every regular season game for his team. He played 45 of the Capitals’ 56 games last season, missing some time with a leg injury and four games because he broke Covid protocols. On the other hand, the injury rate certainly increases in your late thirties.
How many goals can he produce?
Ovechkin has always scored goals, leading the league nine times in his 16-year career, including in 2019-20. Typically, he has scored between 0.7 and 0.8 goals per game. In last year’s somewhat curtailed season, that number slipped to 0.5, a still healthy rate.
Will that number rebound over the next few seasons or deteriorate further?
As he continued to register assists at an astounding rate, Gretzky’s goal rate began to decline in his early 30s, as did Hull’s. So far, Ovechkin has defied this trend. Gretzky’s last league-leading time in scoring came at 26 and Hull at 27. Ovechkin led the league at 32, 33 and 34.
What is he saying?
Ovechkin is aware of the matter. “Maybe it happens, maybe not,” he told ESPN this summer. “One step after another.” At the end of 2020, before signing the five-year contract, he told Russian Television International he wanted to play two to five more seasons with the Capitals.
What is the best estimate of his future?
From there, there will have to be some guesswork. Despite his five-year contract, let’s be careful and reduce Ovechkin to playing just four more seasons, not an extended career like Jagr or Howe.
While we can expect him to increase his 0.5 goals per game rate from last season, let’s be cautious and say he keeps it going for two seasons, then posts rates of 0.4 and 0.3 for his last two seasons. In terms of injuries, even an ironman like Ovechkin would likely miss some time in his late 30s and early 40s. Let’s say he averages 70 games over an 82 game season. Considering he’s hardly ever missed a game in his career, that seems reasonable to say the least.
OK, now do the math.
Using those numbers, Ovechkin will score 35, 35, 28 and 21 goals over the next four seasons. From a player who has scored 49, 51 and 48 in his last three full seasons in an 82-game format, those numbers seem entirely doable.
Those conservative estimates would give him 119 more goals in his career, bringing him to 849. That would put him second on the career list.
If his career goes exactly as we have assumed, he would be missing 45 Gretzky goals. But if he got close to it, wouldn’t he be tempted to extend his career a little with the record in sight, especially since he still has a year left on his contract? What if he played 80 games per season instead of 70, or reduced his score rate to around 0.6? It’s not difficult to create a realistic scenario in which the record becomes your own.
So could he be as tall as Gretzky?
Even if Ovechkin takes the record, no one is going to say he’s as tall as the Great. At the very least, Gretzky had 1,963 assists, a seemingly unbreakable record as he’s over 700 assists ahead of second place. Ovechkin, whose job has always been primarily scoring, is tied for 97th on the assists list at 590.
Gretzky won nine Hart Trophies as the league’s MVP versus three for Ovechkin and was part of four Stanley Cup-winning teams against Ovechkin. Gretzky also scored 46 goals in the World Hockey Association early in his career that did not count towards his NHL total.
Whether he tops the goal standings or not, Ovechkin’s longevity and odd nose for the goal continue to push him further into the thin air of the hockey hall of fame.