Famed Washington Capitals left wing Alexander Ovechkin has been zooming up the NHL’s all-time goal-scoring ranks lately. Going into the 2021-22 season, Ovechkin was sixth on the career goals list with 730, which trailed No. 5 Marcel Dionne by a goal and No. 4 Brett Hull by 11. Fast-forward four weeks, and Ovechkin has long since passed Dionne — recording Nos. 731 and 732 on opening night — and is now tied with Hull after scoring No. 741 earlier this week.
It’s clear that pursuing Wayne Gretzky’s all-time record of 894 goals — which once looked unbreakable but now seems surprisingly within reach — is near the top of Ovechkin’s remaining career to-do list, even if he doesn’t always want to talk about it. His opponents along the way, however, are not only his fellow NHL players, nearly half of whom are at least a decade younger than him, but also the very aging process itself. At age 36, there is no margin for error: The slightest decline could throw Ovechkin off the trajectory needed to catch the Great One.
In that sense, maybe the most impressive subplot of the NHL season so far has been the pace Ovechkin has set for himself early on. Rather than tailing off in his 17th NHL season, the Great Eight is playing some of the best hockey of his entire career. In 13 games, Ovechkin has tallied 11 goals and 11 assists, good for a points-per-game average of 1.69 — well above his previous career high of 1.51 from the 2009-10 season, when he was just 24 years old.
Of course, back then he sustained that average over a relatively full slate of 72 games. This year’s early sample is a lot smaller, so we still might reasonably expect Ovechkin’s rest-of-season rate to more resemble the 1.02 mark he averaged over the previous three seasons. But there’s no denying that Ovechkin’s first 12 games of this season — through his Hull-tying goal on Monday — were one of the best stretches of his career, and a level he has seldom played at since he was a much younger man:
And Ovechkin’s performance this year has extended beyond simply sniping goals and setting up teammates (sometimes unintentionally). After two straight years of Ovechkin being a minus player, the Capitals are +10 with him on the ice so far this season, excluding power-play goals. They’re also controlling play much more effectively during Ovechkin’s minutes. His even-strength Corsi percentage (or the share of on-ice shot attempts that went in his team’s favor) is 53.3 percent this year — the highest it’s been since the 2014-15 season and 4.2 percentage points higher than Washington’s Corsi without its best player in the game. According to Game Score per game relative to position average,1 Edmonton’s dynamic duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl (both of whom are a decade-plus younger than Ovi) are the only skaters who have contributed more to their team this season than Ovechkin:
Strong all-around play from your marquee star is great for winning hockey games, and the Caps should be fine in that department once goalies Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov pick up their play a bit and Washington straightens out its 0-4 record in overtime. But let’s be honest: We do also care about that Gretzky record. And Ovechkin has already taken some pressure off his future self in the all-time goal chase with his production so far this year.
If Ovechkin were going to play until at least age 41,2 he went into this season knowing he would need to score 164 more goals to tie Gretzky, or 27.3 per season from age 36 onward. After adjusting for league environment,3 only four players ever scored that many at those ages (and the career of Gordie Howe isn’t necessarily instructive for comparisons to modern players).
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But if Ovechkin stays healthy — let’s say he ends up playing 77 games, his average per 82 scheduled contests over the past three seasons — and produces at merely his previous goals-per-game pace from that span (0.63) over the rest of the season, he would finish this season with 781 goals — needing just 113 more, or 22.6 per season over the next five seasons, to tie the Great One. That’s something six players from history have done from age 37 onward, making his quest just a little less unlikely than it was only a month ago.
Ovechkin probably shouldn’t need to break Gretzky’s record to validate himself as the greatest pure scorer in NHL history. Using those same era-adjusted scoring stats, which bring down Gretzky’s numbers from the high-flying 1980s quite a bit, Ovechkin already has far more adjusted goals (911) than the Great One (758) did. (Don’t worry, Wayne: your overall stats remain the most ridiculous in history, and you still own the all-time adjusted points mark by a comfortable margin.) By that standard, Ovechkin would be closing in on Howe — whose 925 adjusted goals currently rank No. 1 — and likely passing him sometime this season.
But adjusted records are for nerds like me. The real glory is in the unadjusted numbers, and Ovechkin’s ageless performance so far this season has put Gretzky’s mark in more jeopardy than ever.
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