Can Ovechkin Break Gretzky’s NHL Goals Record?
The NHL goal record shouldn’t be in anyone’s reach. Wayne Gretzky set the mark of 894 in a goals-happy era, 93 goals past the previous leader. In subsequent, decidedly less offensive times, no player has mounted a realistic run at the Great One’s career total.
Yet, heading into the 2019-20 season, here sits 33-year-old Alex Ovechkin, 13th among players with the most NHL goals, simply needing to do for another five seasons what he’s done for his first 14 to take Gretzky’s mark.
Can Ovechkin do it?
He certainly wants to do it. At least, that was his point of view as he put the finishing touches last season on a 51-goal effort that made him the first 33-year-old to lead the NHL in goals since Phil Esposito in 1975, and more importantly left him 236 shy of Gretzky for the most goals in NHL history.
Past As Prelude
So far, Ovechkin has averaged 47 goals per season over his 14-year NHL career. That’s better than Gretzky’s average of 42.2 over 20 seasons. To reach a record-breaking 895 goals by age 38, Gretzky’s age at retirement, Ovechkin would need to average 47.4 goals per season; to reach it in 20 seasons, the same number Gretzky played in the NHL, his pace could slow to 39.5.
Gretzky’s goals-per-season totals dipped precipitously over the arc of his career. He led the NHL in goals five times, the last at age 26, and averaged just 24 goals per season from ages 30 to 38. This is not to say he was ineffective or unhealthy — Gretzky played fewer than 70 games in a season just three times, one of those in the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season, and led the league in assists 14 times in a 15-season span, last at age 33.
By comparison, Ovechkin is much more goals-centric than Gretzky. He has led the league in goals a record eight times and shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. In four seasons since turning 30, he has averaged 45.8 goals. Like Gretzky, he’s been healthy — his only season with fewer than 70 games came with the 2012-13 lockout. Unlike Gretzky, he’s not liable to pass up a shot for an assist; Ovechkin has never led the league in assists.
Greater Than the Great One, Regardless?
Even if he doesn’t pass Gretzky for the NHL goals record, Ovechkin can still make a decent argument as being the greatest goal-scorer ever. He has eight seasons with the most goals in the NHL, one better than the previous mark set by Bobby Hull. And there’s the era in which Ovechkin is doing his scoring.
Consider that, for the first 14 years of Gretzky’s career, NHL teams never averaged worse than 3.46 goals per game, and eight times the average was at least 3.71. Ovechkin has never played in a season in which the average was better than 3.08, and eight times it was 2.78 or lower.
Who Will Pay Him?
One variable that is out of Ovechkin’s control is his contract situation. His current deal, the first $100 million deal in NHL history, runs through 2020-21. He earns $10 million per season, which in 2018-19 made him the eighth-highest paid player in the league.
Assuming he’s not going to want to take a pay cut, a then-35-year-old free agent would be looking for a $30 million to $50 million deal to take him into what figures to be record-breaking territory, the 38- to 40-years-old range. That’s a large wager for any GM to place on a player of that age — even one as great as Ovechkin.
Don’t Bet Against Him
When Ovechkin stumbled to 33 goals in 2016-17, his conditioning was questioned. He came back the next season to win a goals title with 49 and lead the Capitals to a Stanley Cup. With a shortened break before 2018-19, he came back leaner still and scored 51 goals.
Now, for the first time, he’ll enter a season as the oldest player on the Caps. At his team’s 2019 media day, that fact was brought to his attention.
Which has always been about scoring goals. Put Gretzky on notice.