Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals are set to visit Edmonton for their annual game at Rogers Centre with the Oilers tomorrow. Ovechkin, as usual, is chugging along and putting the puck in the back of the net with ease. He’s scored seven goals through 11 games, putting him on pace to eclipse the 50-goal plateau yet again this season.
Now in his 15th season in the league, Ovechkin sits 13th all-time in goals with 665. After passing the likes of Brendan Shanahan, Jarome Iginla, and Joe Sakic last tear, we’re going to see him leapfrog a bunch more legendary names this season. Four more goals and he’ll pass Luc Robitaille for 12th all-time. 20 more and he’ll pass Teemu Selanne. 26 more and he’ll pass Mario Lemieux, bringing him into the top-10 in all-time goals. 28 more and he’ll pass Steve Yzerman. 30 more and he’ll pass Mark Messier.
With just 35 more goals this season, Ovechkin will become the eighth player ever to reach the 700-goal plateau. After that, the sights will be set on passing Mike Gartner, who scored 708 goals, Phil Esposito, who scored 717, Marcel Dionne, who scored 731, Brett Hull, who scored 741, and Jaromir Jagr, who scored 766. If Ovechkin reaches 50 goals this year, he’ll finish 2019-20 in the neighbourhood of 708 goals. Another 50 goals in 2020-21, and he’s caught up with everyone other than Jagr, Gordie Howe, and, of course, the greatest all-time, Wayne Gretzky.
I think it’s pretty clear that barring injury or an earlier-than-expected retirement from the NHL, Ovechkin will become the third-ever player to reach 800 goals. He needs 135 more goals to reach that plateau and he’s been consistently averaging 50 goals-per-season since the last lockout. The only anomaly was a 33-goal season back in 2016-17.
The more interesting question then comes whether or not Ovechkin can do the unthinkable and break Gretzky’s all-time goal record of 894.
Gretzky’s trophy case and list of records is insane. Many of them will most certainly never be broken unless the NHL goes ahead and makes a dramatic rule change, like playing at four-on-four or removing offsides in an attempt to greatly improve scoring. Nobody is going to score 216 points in a season. Nobody is going to score 50 goals in 38 games. Nobody is going to 48 points in a single playoff run. Nobody is going to reach 2,858 points.
Somebody might score 895 goals. That player is Alex Ovechkin.
Ovechkin is a unique case. Beyond boasting such a dynamic goal-scoring ability, he also came into the league at a time in which scoring, for a few years, was greatly increased. After the 2004-05 NHL lockout, the league sought to bring itself out of the dead-puck era by cutting down on clutching and grabbing in the defensize zone, removing two-line pass, and handing out more power play opportunities. Those rule changes, which coincided with the beginning of Ovechkin’s career, allowed him to reach 269 career goals before the age of 25.
Ovechkin keeps scoring. The quest to reach 50 goals for the 9th time, and tie Bossy and Gretzky, is off to a good start for the Great Eight. #NHL
— Jason Gregor (@JasonGregor) October 3, 2019
Ovechkin has been an incredible pillar of consistency throughout his career. He’s reached the 50-goal plateau in eight of his 14 career seasons so far. One of the years he didn’t was a lockout year in which he scored 32 goals in 48 games. One of them he scored 49 goals and another he scored 46. The only real blip on the radar was back-to-back seasons in which he scored 32 and 38 goals, which is still a pretty impressive blip.
So, what’s it going to take for Ovechkin to score 895 goals and break Gretzky’s record? He needs 230 more goals, which is a pretty big ask for a player who’s currently 34 years old. Hitting 50 goals again, as I mentioned earlier, would bring him to 708 on his career. Another 50 in 2020-21, his age 35 season, and he’ll be at 758 goals.
After that, his contract comes to an end and we have no idea if he’ll keep playing in the NHL or not. Maybe he goes home and finishes off his career in the KHL. This is a possibility, especially if NHL players aren’t allowed at the 2020 Winter Olympics. Ovechkin has never won a Gold Medal and you have to think he might prioritize that, given the fact he’s won his Stanley Cup. But let’s say for the sake of this thought experiment that he does decide to ride it out in the NHL, sticking around with the Caps. What can we expect from an age 35+ Ovechkin?
When he entered the league, we saw a lot of this:
As he’s gotten older, we’re seeing a lot less reckless abandon and power-forward style play, and a lot more of this:
A lot of Ovechkin’s goals are scored either on the power play or once the Capitals are set up in the offensive zone. The team has really built their offence around his shot, cycling around, giving him time to find open space, and feeding him the puck for his classic one-timer. This is something that nobody has been able to defend because if you cheat and cover him one-on-one, you’re leaving one of Washington’s other quality forwards, like T.J. Oshie, open around the net. Another key is that Nicklas Backstrom is so good at getting Ovechkin the puck that he can consistently get these shots away.
Backstrom is set to become a free agent at the end of this season and may or may not be back. I would guess that the Caps manage to keep him around, instead of letting Braden Holtby walk this summer, meaning the support group of Oshie, Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and John Carlson remains intact for the foreseeable future.
Okay, so he’s hypothetically at 758 goals after the 2020-21 season. He heads into 2021-22 with the Capitals at the age of 36 needing 137 goals to pass Gretzky. If he can average about 35 goals for four seasons, the record gets passed. Again, that’s a huge ask. It involves maintaining a 50-goal pace for this season and next, sticking around in the NHL at 35+, and continuing to score at a high clip until his age 39 season. It also involves the Capitals aging well and continuing to operate at a level similar to where they are right now.
The most realistic way for it to go down would be 50 goals this year and next, 40 in 2021-22 and 2022-23, and 30 in 2023-24 and 2024-25.
The key really is health and desire. Ovechkin has carved out a niche in the league that should allow him to score at a high level longer than most other players do given that most of his game comes down to his elite shot. He could have an aging arc akin to guys like Joe Thornton and Jaromir Jagr, who were more oriented around size and strength than speed. But does he want to play into his late 30s? Will be able to? Who knows.
I’m certainly not going to say it’s anywhere near likely, but it’s possible that Ovechkin manages to do the impossible and break one of Gretzky’s many unbreakable records.