When you think of the great goal-scorers in N.H.L. history, you think first of Wayne Gretzky. Names like Gordie Howe and Jaromir Jagr might come to mind, too.
Alex Ovechkin? A true superstar, a sure Hall of Famer, but of course not at the level of the Great One.
Or is he?
Ovechkin has been steadily climbing the N.H.L.’s career goal-scoring list and now ranks sixth with 730. He trails only Gretzky, the leader with 894; Howe; Jagr; Brett Hull and Marcel Dionne. Yes, Gretzky’s mark, long thought to be unassailable, is actually creeping into Ovechkin’s sights.
Can Ovechkin put himself at the top of the chart before his career ends?
How much longer will he play?
At 36, Ovechkin is in the twilight of his career. But, comparing him to the players near him on the list, it would seem he could well have several years still 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 N.H.L. into his age 45 season and Howe played to age 52.
Ovechkin also just signed a five-year deal with the Capitals, the only N.H.L. team he has played for. There’s no guarantee he plays all those years, but it certainly shows that he plans to try.
Injuries have not had much of an effect on Ovechkin’s career, and he might reasonably be expected to keep playing close to 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 violated Covid protocols. On the other hand, the rate of injury does certainly increase in one’s late 30s.
How many goals can he produce?
Ovechkin has always scored goals, leading the league nine times in his 16-year career, including as recently as 2019-20. Typically, he scored at a rate of between 0.7 and 0.8 goals a game. In last year’s somewhat shortened season, that figure slipped to 0.5, still a healthy rate.
Will that number bounce back over the next few seasons, or deteriorate further?
While he continued to record assists at a prodigious rate, Gretzky’s own goal rate started slipping in his early 30s, as did Hull’s. So far Ovechkin has defied that trend. Gretzky final time leading the league in scoring came at 26 and Hull’s at 27. Ovechkin was the league leader at 32, 33 and 34.
What does he say?
Ovechkin is aware of the record. “Maybe it happens, maybe not,” he told ESPN this summer. “One step at a time.” In late 2020, before signing the five-year contract, he told Russian Television International that he wanted to play for two to five more seasons with the Capitals.
What’s the best estimate of his future?
From here, there will have to be some guesswork. Despite his five-year contract, let’s be cautious and put Ovechkin down to play only four more seasons, and not to put in a protracted career like Jagr or Howe.
Although he might be expected to increase his 0.5 goals per game rate of last season, let’s be conservative and say he maintains it for two seasons, then posts 0.4 and 0.3 rates for his final two seasons. In terms of injuries, even an ironman like Ovechkin would presumably miss some time in his late 30s and early 40s. Let’s say he plays an average of 70 games of the 82-game season. Given that he has barely ever missed a game in his career, this seems reasonable, to say the least.
OK, now do the math.
Using these figures, Ovechkin will score 35, 35, 28 and 21 goals over the next four seasons. From a player who scored 49, 51 and 48 over his last three full seasons in an 82-game format, these numbers look eminently doable.
Those conservative estimates would give him 119 more goals in his career, bringing him to 849. That would make him second on the career list.
If his career plays out exactly as we have speculated, he would be 45 goals short of Gretzky. But if he came that close, might he not be tempted to extend his career just a little with the record in sight, especially with another year left on his contract? And what if he played 80 games a season instead of 70, or if he returned his scoring rate back to 0.6 or so? It’s not hard to create a realistic scenario in which the record becomes his.
So could he be as great as Gretzky?
Even if Ovechkin lands the record, no one will say that he is as great as the Great One. If nothing else, Gretzky tallied 1,963 assists, a seemingly unbreakable record as he is more than 700 assists clear of second place. Ovechkin, whose job has always been primarily to score, stands tied for 97th on the assist list with 590.
Gretzky won nine Hart Trophies as the league’s most valuable player to Ovechkin’s three and was part of four Stanley Cup-winning teams to Ovechkin’s one. Gretzky also had 46 goals in the World Hockey Association at the beginning of his career that don’t count toward his N.H.L. total.
Whether he makes the top of the goals-scoring chart or not, Ovechkin’s longevity and uncanny nose for the goal continues to push him farther up into the rarefied air of the hockey pantheon.