There’s an old joke that if someone asks a National Hockey League trivia question, the answer is most likely going to be Wayne Gretzky. Arguably the greatest player of all-time, Gretzky held 40 records when he retired in 1999 after 20 seasons, with one of his most notable records his 894 career regular season goals, a benchmark that still stands almost two decades later. That goal record could soon be passed by another league great, as Washington Capitals captain Alexander Ovechkin is creeping up on Gretzky – but does No. 8 actually have a legitimate shot?
Without even looking at the stats, you’re probably inclined to think there’s no chance he gets close. Ovechkin, 34, is on the back-end of his career and most trends point to his scoring decreasing significantly in the next couple of season. As of Sunday, Ovechkin has 672 career regular season goals, putting him just 222 behind Gretzky.
Ovechkin is still playing at an elite level as one of the league’s best players, however, and the three-time Hart Trophy winner is on pace to pot 52 goals this season, based on 14 goals through the first 22 games of the campaign. It would be the most goals for Ovechkin since he scored 56 during the 2008-09 season but there’s no way he can keep that pace for several more seasons, so exactly how many does he need?
Let’s just say he hits that marker of 52 goals this season, which is legitimately possible barring some sort of injury. If he plays for another five seasons, finishing his career at 39-years-old, Ovechkin would need 37 goals a season, which doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility, given that the Russian native has never scored less than 32 over the course of a full campaign. The 50 goal streak has to end soon, history would dictate, since it’s rare that a player over the age of 30 pots 50 in a season. Only one player ever has scored 50 goals when 35-years-old in league history, it was Johnny Bucyk who had 51 goals with the Boston Bruins in the 1970-71 season. But Ovechkin is a special breed, one of the league’s all-time greats, and while 37 is doable, it just seems incredibly unlikely when he hits 38 or 39-years-old.
Ovechkin’s numbers are going to subside, though who knows exactly how much. But he has been surrounded by a lot of talent, as the Capitals are perhaps the league’s best team thus far this season, and that could prove important down the road for an older Ovechkin to continue netting pucks. One thing on Ovechkin’s side is his ability to stay healthy.
Since being selected first overall in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, Ovechkin has consistently been compared to his superstar counterpart, Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins. While Crosby has enjoyed more success in the form of Stanley Cups, he’s battled a wealth of injuries and it could prove a shorter career lifespan. Ovechkin has only missed significant time once, when an injury forced him to sit out for 34 games back in 2012-2013. On top of that, Ovechkin takes great care of his body.
During the beginning of his career, he’d hit basically any player in the opposing colors, like a bowling ball out on the ice. Now, in his twilight years as a professional hockey player, Ovechkin is clearly more selective with his hitting, throwing his body around only when he needs to do so. His ability to remain healthy could be a huge advantage and allow a player that loves the game to continue to play at a high level well beyond the age of 40, much like Jaromir Jagr, who was on an NHL roster up until the age of 45.
A lot of things have to go right for Ovechkin to snatch one of Gretzky’s most notable records, like staying healthy and remaining somewhat consistent from a production standpoint. It’s pretty unlikely to happen but it’s still completely feasible at this point and a topic worth discussing as Ovechkin begins to stare down retirement.