Obviously it would be impossible to tell who the better goal scorer is because Ovechkin didn’t play in the 80’s and Gretzky doesn’t play now. But it’s fun to think about because Ovechkin and Gretzky are two of the greatest goal scorers in league history. It’s important to remember throughout this article that I’m only referring to goals scored and not points or assists.
It’s very much a fact that goalies have gotten better over time when you look at the league average in save% and Goals Against Average for each NHL season since these stats were recorded. Pads are bigger, strategies are polished and the overall skill-set of today’s NHL net-minders are at an all-time high. So if we use this difference to compare Ovechkin’s and Gretzky’s top goal scoring seasons, will it give us some sort of a comparison? Yes it will, but the amount of emphasis you place on this comparison is completely up to you.
While I don’t have the stats for goalies save% against each player and each player only, I do have the league average for save% that has been recorded for each season since the NHL started recording this stat in 1983-84. Gretzky scored his career high in goals  in 1981-82, before the league started tracking save%, so I’ll use his next best season [1983-84] when he scored 87 goals.
At the end of the 1983-84 season, the league average in save% for all goalies, was .873%. Gretzky scored 87 goals that season (5 goals short of his career high.) At the league average in save%, that means he would have scored 87 goals on 685 shots. If Gretzky were to take that many shots against the league average in save% of .909%, which is what it was in 2007-08 when Ovehkin scored his career high in goals , he would have scored 62 goals which would be three shy of Ovechkin. Close but Ovechkin has a slightly better total.
Using the same formula, let’s see what it tells us about how many goals Ovechkin would perhaps have scored if he played in the NHL in 1983-84. Once again, at the end of the 2007-08 season, the league average in save% for all goalies was .909%. Ovechkin scored 65 goals that season. At the league average in save%, that means he would have scored 65 goals on 714 shots. If Ovechkin were to take that many shots against the league average in save percentage of .873% in 1983-84, he would have scored 91 goals which would be four more goals then Gretzky scored. Once again Ovechkin would have a slightly better total but in Gretzky/Ovechkin standards, these goal differences are a matter of only a game or two.
Using this formula, The Great One and The Great 8 compare close to the same when it comes to their goal scoring abilities. I don’t know why, but this came as a bit of a surprise for me. I understand it’s not the perfect comparison but an interesting one. Obviously we’ll never know because Gretzky will never square off against today’s NHL goalies. But we can’t help but wonder and as Gretzky stated his self, he can’t help but wonder either:
“Mike Bossy and Brett Hull were probably the two purest goal scorers I ever saw in my career and I got excited to play against them because I wanted to see, ‘Do I belong on the same sheet of ice as they are on?'” Gretzky, 52, told NHL.com Tuesday from his annual fantasy camp. “That’s why I would have loved to compete against a guy like Zdeno Chara, go head-to-head against Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin.” (Source NHL.com)
“That’s competition and that’s what it is all about,” Gretzky said. “I would relish that opportunity, but unfortunately it’s not going to happen. I would need Doc Brown from ‘Back to the Future.” (Source NHL.com)
By Zach Hart
http://www.hockey-reference.com/leagues/stats.html, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wayne_Gretzky, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Ovechkin, http://www.nhl.com/ice/blogpost.htm?id=13491