At the end of the 1998-99 season, the NHL watched as The Great One, Wayne Gretzky, hung up his skates. His 2,857 career points dwarf all other players throughout history, with Jaromir Jagr sitting almost a full 1,000 points behind him for second all-time. Now, 20 years later, Washington Capitals forward and captain Alex Ovechkin might be the only player capable of matching Gretzky’s goal total.
Gretzky retired as the league’s all-time leader in basically all major categories at the age of 38. Best known for his perfect on-ice vision and playmaking ability, his 1,963 assists alone are enough to lead the whole league in career points. That’s before counting any of his 894 goals, also more than anyone else. While his points record will likely stand for the next lifetime, his goal total appears within reach for Ovechkin.
Alex Ovechkin Chasing Gretzky’s Goal Record
The fact that we can even think about having this discussion is a major feather in Ovechkin’s cap. Anytime people try comparing players to Gretzky, a laugh or eye roll is usually the response you’d get, and rightfully so. Gretzky distanced himself so far above every other player that has ever played the game. It is freakish to even conceive someone being able to match his numbers. That is especially true in the modern NHL. Goaltenders are bigger and better and scoring happens far less.
But “freakish” is also the best way to describe Ovechkin’s ability to score goals. His 636 career goals already have him ranked 15th all-time. He’s also even the only active player in the top 50. With 29 goals through 32 games so far this season, he is on pace to easily reach 50. Maybe even mid 60’s or more. This puts him within reach of 12th all-time this season alone, where Luc Robitaille currently sits with 668.
Comparing Paces – Gretzky vs. Ovechkin
Ovechkin turned 33 this year. The year Gretzky turned 33, he entered the season with 765 goals. Ovi entered this season with 607, so obviously, there’s a significant disadvantage there. That gap comes from the enormous years Gretzky posted in the first half of his career that simply cannot be achieved anymore.
Ovechkin’s highest output, 65 goals, came in his third year in the league (2007-08). He hasn’t reached 60 since then but is on pace to do so this season. By contrast, Gretzky broke 60 in five different seasons, including his unbelievable 92-goal year in 1981-82. Also counted in those five is an 87-goal campaign, plus two others north of 70. Those booming totals add up to the difference we see between the two heading into their mid-30’s.
Why We Can’t Count Ovi Out
As mentioned earlier, Ovechkin’s currently on pace for 74 goals. This would shatter his previous personal best, but would also be nearly double the goals Gretzky scored in any given season through his 30’s. In fact, in his own 33-year-old season, Gretzky scored just 38 goals. He never broke 30 again after that.
On the other hand, Ovechkin’s hot hand has yet to show signs of cooling. Since the season he turned 30 (2014-15), Ovi has accumulated 161 goals. That is across just three-and-a-half years and includes the first 33 games this season. In that exact same time frame (from the year he turned 30 through game 32 of the 1993-94 season), Gretzky scored only 101 goals. Ovechkin already has the edge in durability, it appears.
Great Eight Chasing The Great One
Let’s continue the side-by-side timeline comparison from above into the future now. We currently sit entering game 33 in the season Ovechkin turned 33 years old in. If we look over at Gretzky, that same moment in time corresponds to December 20th, 1993 (a game he scored twice in to help the Los Angeles Kings defeat the Calgary Flames). From that moment on in his career, Gretzky only scored another 116 total goals in his last five-and-a-half seasons before retiring at 38. He played nearly every game in that time frame too, so the production slip can’t be blamed on injuries. It is just simply one of the effects of ageing, and it seemed to significantly affect Gretzky’s goal-scoring ability in his 30’s.
Of the 894 NHL goals Gretzky scored, a whopping 87.1% came before he was Ovechkin’s current age. By contrast, for Ovi to have that same figure when he retires, he’d only need 94 more goals. The guy on pace for 70 this year probably has a few more career goals left in him than 94.
Because Ovechkin’s production has stayed consistent over the last decade, its crazy to think Ovi will have a similar skew in his career numbers. Plus, if Ovechkin winds up maintaining his production rate as he has, it’ll also probably extend his career well beyond the age we saw Gretzky call it quits. It would be shocking to see Ovechkin phase out entirely in the next five seasons, so he’ll probably have a few more years of runway to help him catch Gretzky too.
Ovechkin Creating a Legacy
He’s already scoring way more than Gretzky did at this age. And he did enough for the first half of his career to actually be within the range of The Great One. The fact he’s not slowing yet means he’ll probably last longer in the league than Gretzky did, too. Higher goal totals for more years is the exact combination that Ovechkin will need to get there, and it looks like everything’s pointing in that direction.
With a Stanley Cup Championship in his hardware collection now too, Ovechkin is cementing himself among history’s best. He’s won the Maurice Richard Trophy, awarded to the player with the most goals each season, seven times. The next closest recipients have only won that award twice. Oh, and he’s won it five times in the last six years, proving his production was, and still is, at the very top of the league. He could retire tomorrow and enter the Hockey Hall of Fame. But he won’t, because he’s one of those guys who has an unlimited drive for success and winning. Watching him score consistently above and around the 50-goal mark almost every year in his career has been baffling, especially in today’s NHL. He’s arguably already one of, if not the, best pure goal scorer in history.
Just 258 goals to go. Expect to see history broken in 5-7 years, with Ovechkin replacing Gretzky as the undisputed greatest goal scorer in NHL history.