Going Gray While Lighting the Lamp: A Look at Goal Production at an Advanced Age and Alex Ovechkin’s Chances of Catching Gretzky

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At the age of 34, Washington Capitals Captain Alex Ovechkin already has over 40 goals for the 2019-20 season (currently on hiatus) and has already scored the 700th career goal of his NHL career.  The question has been discussed whether Ovechkin can pass the NHL’s all-time great, Wayne Gretzky, in career goals. Gretzky’s record of 894 is comparable to Babe Ruth’s career home record in baseball before it was surpassed by Hank Aaron.Ovechkin has exceeded 60 goals just once in his career, during his third season (2007-08), though has generally, reached 40-55 goals over a long period of time. This season, he reached the 700-goal plateau prior to his 35th birthday, something only Gretzky had accomplished. At the time the 2019-20 season paused due to the coronavirus pandemic, Ovechkin had already scored 48 goals, the highest goal total for a 34-year old. Last season, he recorded the second-best, all-time total for a 33-year old with 51 goals, second only to Jaromir Jagr, and the third-best total for a 32-year old, behind only Phil Esposito and Bobby Hull.

The question is … how long can Ovechkin maintain his seasons of reaching and/or exceeding 40-50 goals?  If the 2019-20 regular season is ever resumed, there is a good chance that the Caps’ captain could top 50 goals,which would tie Mike Gartner for seventh place on the All-Time Goals Scored list with 708.

Goal Scoring at Age 35

In sports, but in this regard, hockey, as a player passes from their mid-to-late 30’s, goal production begins to go down.  Among 35-year olds in NHL history, the highest goal total by a player was 51, accomplished by Johnny Bucyk In 1970-71.  There have been two other players who scored 40 goals, Teemu Selanne (2005-06) and Daniel Alfredsson (2007-08).  There is a total of 19 players who scored at least 30 goals at age 35.

Rk Name Birth Year Pos Season GP G A P
1 CA Johnny Bucyk 1935 F 1970‑71 78 51 65 116
2 FI Teemu Selänne 1970 F 2005‑06 80 40 50 90
2 SE Daniel Alfredsson 1972 F 2007‑08 70 40 49 89
4 CA Phil Esposito 1942 F 1977‑78 79 38 43 81
5 CA Jean Ratelle 1940 F 1975‑76 80 36 69 105
5 CA Mark Messier 1961 F 1996‑97 71 36 48 84
5 CA Jim Pappin 1939 F 1974‑75 71 36 27 63
8 CA Mario Lemieux 1965 F 2000‑01 43 35 41 76
8 CZ Václav Nedomanský 1944 F 1979‑80 79 35 39 74
10 CA Norm Ullman 1935 F 1970‑71 73 34 51 85
11 US Joe Mullen 1957 F 1992‑93 72 33 37 70
11 CA Maurice Richard 1921 F 1956‑57 63 33 29 62
13 CA Martin St. Louis 1975 F 2010‑11 82 31 68 99
14 CA Frank Mahovlich 1938 F 1973‑74 71 31 49 80
14 CA Rod Brind’Amour 1970 F 2005‑06 78 31 39 70
14 CA Geoff Courtnall 1962 F 1997‑98 79 31 31 62
17 CA Kenny Wharram 1933 F 1968‑69 76 30 39 69
17 RU Sergei Makarov 1958 F 1993‑94 80 30 38 68
17 CA Vic Hadfield 1940 F 1975‑76 76 30 35 65

Goal Scoring at Age 36 and 37

Among 36-year old players, three scored 40 or more goals: Teemu Selanne (48), Phil Esposito (42), and Brendan Shanahan (40).  17 players in all scored at least 30 goals at age 36, while 34 tot players scored at least 25 goals.

Rk Name Birth Year Pos Season GP G A P
1 FI Teemu Selänne 1970 F 2006‑07 82 48 46 94
2 CA Phil Esposito 1942 F 1978‑79 80 42 36 78
3 CA Brendan Shanahan 1969 F 2005‑06 82 40 41 81
4 US Brett Hull 1964 F 2000‑01 79 39 40 79
5 US Joe Mullen 1957 F 1993‑94 84 38 32 70
6 US Bill Guerin 1970 F 2006‑07 77 36 20 56
7 CA Mike Gartner 1959 F 1995‑96 82 35 19 54
8 CA Dino Ciccarelli 1960 F 1996‑97 77 35 25 60
9 CA Jean Ratelle 1940 F 1976‑77 78 33 61 94
9 CA Bill Cook 1895 F 1931‑32 48 33 14 47
11 CA Joe Sakic 1969 F 2005‑06 82 32 55 87
11 CA Johnny Bucyk 1935 F 1971‑72 78 32 51 83
11 SE Mats Sundin 1971 F 2007‑08 74 32 46 78
14 CA Bob Nevin 1938 F 1974‑75 80 31 41 72
14 CA Marcel Dionne 1951 F 1987‑88 67 31 34 65
14 CA Jean Beliveau 1931 F 1967‑68 59 31 37 68
17 CA Jarome Iginla 1977 F 2013‑14 78 30 31 61

For 37-year old players, just one player has ever scored 40 goals, that being Bucyk with 40.  Five other players scored at least 30: Joe Sakic, Phil Esposito, Jean Beliveau, Mike Gartner, and Brett Hull.  18 players in all scored at least 25.

Rk Name Birth Year Pos Season GP G A P
1 CA Johnny Bucyk 1935 F 1972‑73 78 40 53 93
2 CA Joe Sakic 1969 F 2006‑07 82 36 64 100
3 CA Phil Esposito 1942 F 1979‑80 80 34 44 78
4 CA Jean Beliveau 1931 F 1968‑69 69 33 49 82
5 CA Mike Gartner 1959 F 1996‑97 82 32 31 63
6 US Brett Hull 1964 F 2001‑02 82 30 33 63
7 CA Jarome Iginla 1977 F 2014‑15 82 29 30 59
7 CA Gordie Howe 1928 F 1965‑66 70 29 46 75
7 US Mike Knuble 1972 F 2009‑10 69 29 24 53
7 CA Brendan Shanahan 1969 F 2006‑07 67 29 33 62
11 CA Mark Recchi 1968 F 2005‑06 83 28 36 64
11 CA Gary Roberts 1966 F 2003‑04 72 28 20 48
11 CA Mario Lemieux 1965 F 2002‑03 67 28 63 91
11 CA Bill Cook 1895 F 1932‑33 48 28 22 50
15 CA Patrick Marleau 1979 F 2016‑17 82 27 19 46
16 CA Dean Prentice 1932 F 1969‑70 75 26 25 51
16 SK Marian Hossa 1979 F 2016‑17 73 26 19 45
18 CA Jean Ratelle 1940 F 1977‑78 80 25 59 84

Goal Scoring at Age 38 and Beyond

The drop off in goal production is generally greater at age 38.  No player has topped 40 goals and just three have topped 30 goals: Hull, Bucyk, and Martin St. Louis. 15 other players topped 20 goals.

Rk Name Birth Year Pos Season GP G A P
1 US Brett Hull 1964 F 2002‑03 82 37 39 76
2 CA Johnny Bucyk 1935 F 1973‑74 76 31 44 75
3 CA Martin St. Louis 1975 F 2013‑14 81 30 39 69
4 CA Patrick Marleau 1979 F 2017‑18 82 27 20 47
5 CA Ron Francis 1963 F 2001‑02 80 27 50 77
5 CA Jean Ratelle 1940 F 1978‑79 80 27 45 72
5 FI Teemu Selänne 1970 F 2008‑09 65 27 27 54
8 CA Gordie Howe 1928 F 1966‑67 69 25 40 65
9 CA Mark Recchi 1968 F 2006‑07 82 24 44 68
9 US Mike Knuble 1972 F 2010‑11 79 24 16 40
11 CA Brendan Shanahan 1969 F 2007‑08 73 23 23 46
12 CA Jarome Iginla 1977 F 2015‑16 82 22 25 47
13 CA Norm Ullman 1935 F 1973‑74 78 22 47 69
14 CA Dave Andreychuk 1963 F 2001‑02 82 21 17 38
14 US Bill Guerin 1970 F 2008‑09 78 21 27 48
14 CA Alex Delvecchio 1932 F 1970‑71 77 21 34 55
14 CA Dean Prentice 1932 F 1970‑71 69 21 17 38
18 CA Don Marshall 1932 F 1970‑71 62 20 29 49

At age 39, Gordie Howe was the only player to top 30 goals, with 39.  There were 17 others who scored 20 or more.

Rk Name Birth Year Pos Season GP G A P
1 CA Gordie Howe 1928 F 1967‑68 74 39 43 82
2 CA Johnny Bucyk 1935 F 1974‑75 78 29 52 81
3 CA Shane Doan 1976 F 2015‑16 72 28 19 47
3 CA Jean Ratelle 1940 F 1979‑80 67 28 45 73
5 SE Daniel Alfredsson 1972 F 2011‑12 75 27 32 59
5 FI Teemu Selänne 1970 F 2009‑10 54 27 21 48
7 CA Joe Nieuwendyk 1966 F 2005‑06 65 26 30 56
8 US Brett Hull 1964 F 2003‑04 81 25 43 68
8 CA Jean Beliveau 1931 F 1970‑71 70 25 51 76
10 CA Mark Messier 1961 F 2000‑01 82 24 43 67
10 CA Ray Whitney 1972 F 2011‑12 82 24 53 77
12 CA Ron Francis 1963 F 2002‑03 82 22 35 57
13 US Bill Guerin 1970 F 2009‑10 78 21 24 45
14 CA Martin St. Louis 1975 F 2014‑15 74 21 31 52
14 CA Bill Cook 1895 F 1934‑35 48 21 15 36
16 CA Alex Delvecchio 1932 F 1971‑72 75 20 45 65
16 CA Dave Andreychuk 1963 F 2002‑03 72 20 14 34
16 CA Dean Prentice 1932 F 1971‑72 71 20 27 47

When reaching age 40, Howe scored 40 goals, Bucyk had 36, and Selanne had 31.  Only four other players scored at least 20 goals.

Rk Name Born Pos Season GP G A P
1 CA Gordie Howe 1928 F 1968‑69 76 44 59 103
2 CA Johnny Bucyk 1935 F 1975‑76 77 36 47 83
3 FI Teemu Selänne 1970 F 2010‑11 73 31 49 80
4 CA Dean Prentice 1932 F 1972‑73 73 26 16 42
5 CA Mark Recchi 1968 F 2008‑09 80 23 38 61
6 CA Dave Andreychuk 1963 F 2003‑04 82 21 18 39
7 CA Gary Roberts 1966 F 2006‑07 69 20 22 42

The drop off is even greater after age 40.  At age 41, Howe had 31 goals, while only three other players topped 20 goals: Selanne (26), Jagr (24), and Bucyk (20).

Rk Name Birth Year Pos Season GP G A P
1 CA Gordie Howe 1928 F 1969‑70 76 31 40 71
2 FI Teemu Selänne 1970 F 2011‑12 82 26 40 66
3 CZ Jaromír Jágr 1972 F 2013‑14 82 24 43 67
4 CA Johnny Bucyk 1935 F 1976‑77 49 20 23 43

Howe scored 23 goals as a 42-year old, the only player at that age to top 20.  At age 43, Jagr had 27 goals, but no other player of that age has had more than 10.  Jagr holds the record for goals at age 44 with 16.

Potential Productivity for Age 35-36

The two most critical seasons for Ovrcbkin’a hopes of topping 894 goals will be the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons (his age 35 and 36 seasons), because player productivity, as a whole, diminishes greatly after that age. The greatest producers of goals during the age 35-36 range were Teemu Selanne, Johnny Bucyk, and Phil Esposito.  Selanne’s goal totals for his age 35 and age 36 seasons were 40 and 48, a total of 88 goals; Bucyk’s goal totals were 51 and 32, a total of 83 goals; Esposito’s goal totals for his age 35 and age 36 seasons were 38 and 42 for a total of 80 goals. Even assuming that the 2019-20 does not resume and that Ovechkin ends up with 706 goals for the 2019-20 season, if he can match the productivity of Selanne, Bucyk, and Esposito for the next two years and scores at least 80 goals, he would be close to 790 goals after the 2021-22 season.  It is probably not an unreasonable assumption that Ovechkin could match the productivity of Selanne, Bucyk, and Esposito over the two-year period of being age 35-36.  At age 34, Bucyk had 31 goals, then jumped to 51 goals at age 35, and had 32 goals at age 36.  Bucyk is unusual in that he was better at scoring goals after his 30th birthday than before and had never topped 30 goals until he was 32.  Selanne did not even play his age 34 season due to the NHL lockout.  Esposito had 34 goals on the year when he was 34 and improved by four goals at age 35.

Player Career Total Before 35 35 36 35-36 Total 35+
Teemu Selanne 694 606 40 48 88 88
Johnny Bucyk 556 473 51 32 83 83
Phil Esposito 717 637 38 42 80 80
Joe Mullen 502 431 33 38 71 71
Brendan Shanahan 656 587 40 29 69 69
Jean Ratelle 491 427 31 33 64 64
Daniel Alfredsson 444 380 40 24 64 64
Brett Hull 741 678 24 39 63 63
Bill Cook 228 165 30 33 63 63
Marcel Dionne 731 672 28 31 59 59
Mats Sundin 564 505 27 32 59 59
Mark Messier 694 636 36 22 58 58
Dino Ciccarelli 608 551 22 35 57 57
Norm Ullman 490 433 34 23 57 57
Rod Brind’mour 452 395 31 26 57 57
Martin St Louis 391 335 31 25 56 56
Mike Knuble 278 222 29 27 56 56
Gordie Howe 801 746 26 29 55 55
Steve Thomas 421 367 28 26 54 54
Keith Tkachuk 538 486 27 25 52 52

Potential Productivity for Age 37-39

It would probably not be as reasonable to expect Ovechkin to be a 50-goal scorer at age 37 and older, given the fact that only two players in NHL history have even scored 40 or more goals after their 37th birthday; (Bucyk, who scored 40 at age 37, and Howe, who scored 44 at age 40). The highest goal producers during the age range 37-39 were Bucyk with 100, Brett Hull with 92, Howe with 83, Jean Ratelle with 80, Jean Beliveau with 77, and Ron Francis (75).  Several others were in the 60-70 goal range including Selanne (66), Mark Recchi (66), Jarome Iglinla (65), Gary Roberts (62), Daniel Alfredsson (61), and Dave Andreychuk (61).  Assuming Ovechkin has 790 goals going into the 2022-23 season (his age 37 season), if he can match the productivity of Bucyk throughout the 2022-23 through 2024-25 seasons, he would have 890 and be close to Gretzky even before turning 40. If he matches the productivity of Howe from ages 35-37 and scores 80 goals during that timeframe, he would have 880 career goals and could be close to Gretzky’s total.  If he gets at least 70, he’d be at 870.  If he gets at least 60 goals during that three-year timeframe, he’d be at 860 career goals.

Player Career Total Before 35 37 38 39 37-39 Total 35+ Total 37+
Johnny Bucyk 556 456 40 31 29 100 100 100
Brett Hull 741 649 30 37 25 92 92 92
Gordie Howe 801 718 29 25 29 83 83 83
Jean Ratelle 491 411 25 27 28 80 80 80
Jean Beliveau 507 430 33 19 25 77 77 77
Ron Francis 549 474 15 27 33 75 75 75
Patrick Marleau 559 489 27 27 16 70 70 70
Martin St Louis 391 323 17 30 21 68 68 68
Dean Prentice 391 324 26 21 20 67 67 67
Teemu Selanne 694 628 12 27 27 66 66 66
Mark Recchi 577 511 28 24 14 66 66 66
Jarome Iginla 625 560 29 22 14 65 65 65
Bill Guerin 429 364 23 21 21 65 65 65
Shane Doane 402 337 23 14 28 65 65 65
Gary Roberts 438 376 28 14 20 62 62 62
Ray Whitney 385 323 21 17 24 62 62 62
Bill Cook 228 166 28 13 21 62 62 62
Dave Andreychuk 640 579 20 21 20 61 61 61
Daniel Alfredsson 444 383 20 14 27 61 61 61

Potential Productivity for Age 40 and Beyond

In the history of the NHL, only seven players even topped 20 goals when they were 40-years old. Among those, just three topped 30 goals: Howe with 44, Bucyk with 36 and Selanne with 31.  For career totals, only two players have scored more than 100 goals after turning 40 (Howe with 113 and Jagr with 101).  Both continued playing until age 44 or older. Selanne had 78 goals after turning 40 and he played until he was 43. Bucyk had 61 goals at age 40 or older and played until the age of 42.

If Ovechkin starts the season with 870 goals, to be relatively conservative, and keeps pace with Howe, Bucyk, and Selanne, and scores 30 goals in his age 40 season, he would reach 900 goals and top Gretzky during the 2025-26 season.  If he fell short at age 40, he would probably need to continue past his 41st birthday to top Gretzky.

Player Career Total Before 35 40 41 42 43 44+ 40+ Total 35+
Gordie Howe 801 688 44 31 23 15 113 113
Jaromir Jagr 766 665 16 24 17 27 17 101 101
Teemu Selanne 694 616 31 26 12 9 78 78
Johnny Bucyk 556 495 36 20 5 61 61
Mark Recchi 577 522 23 18 14 55 55
Norm Ullman 490 443 31 16 47 47
Mark Messier 694 651 7 18 18 43 43
Daniel Alfredsson 444 416 10 18 28 28
Dave Andreychuk 640 613 21 6 27 27
Gary Roberts 438 411 13 7 3 4 27 27
Nicklas Lidstrom 264 237 16 11 27 27

Most Productive Careers at Advanced Age

Assuming Ovechkin ends the 2019-20 season with 706 goals, he would need 189 more goals in his career to exceed Gretzky’s total of 894.  In the history of the NHL, three players have exceeded 189 goals for the portion of their career that cane after their 35th birthday: Howe (251), Bucyk (244), and Selanne (232).  Howe generally scored between 25-30 goals after turning 35, with one season of 44 goals, at age 40.  He also had seasons of topping 30 goals at age 41 and 42.  Bucyk played in the NHL until he was 42 and topped 30 goals every year from age 35 through 40, with one exception in which he had 29 goals. He scored 219 goals between the ages of 35-40 and retired at age 42.  Selanne played in the NHL until he was 43.  He had two high production years at age 35 and 36 in which he topped 40 goals.  Except for his age 37 season, in 2007-08 when he had just 12 goals, he typically scored between 26-31 goals per year from the time he was 38 until the time he was 41.

Player 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44+ 40+ 35-40 Tot 35+
Gordie Howe 26 29 29 25 29 44 31 23 15 113 182 251
Johnny Bucyk 51 32 40 31 29 36 20 5 61 219 244
Teemu Selanne 40 48 12 27 27 31 26 12 9 78 185 232
Brett Hull 24 39 30 37 25 0 155 155
Mark Messier 36 22 13 17 24 7 18 18 43 119 155
Jean Ratelle 31 33 25 27 28 11 11 155 155
Norm Ullman 34 23 20 22 9 31 16 47 139 155
Daniel Alfredsson 40 24 20 14 27 10 18 28 135 153
Mark Recchi 26 28 24 14 23 18 14 55 115 147
Jaromir Jagr 25 19 16 24 17 27 17 101 60 145

Other players who were productive after turning 35 were Hull, Jagr, and Mark Messier. Hull had 155 goals after turning 35, but retired after his age 39 season. Jagr had 145 goals butleft the NHL after age 35 and did not return until he was 39.  He ended up retiring at age 45.  Had he not taken a three-year break from the NHL, he could have topped 200 goals between age 35 and age 40. Messier had 155 goals and played until he was 42.  He had 36 goals at age 35 but never again topped 20 goals.  Mark Recchi had 147 goals and played until he was 42 and lost his age 36 season to the NHL lockout. He scored at least 20 goals per season up to and including his age 38 season. Dave Andreychuk scored 123 goals from age 35 on, playing until he was 42. He typically scored 20 goals per year up to and including his age 40 season.  He missed his age 41 season due to the lockout. Phil Esposito scored 121 goals from age 35 until the end of his career.  After topping 30 goals in both his age 35, 36, and age 37 seasons, he dropped to just eight goals at age 38 and then retired.

Conclusion

Ovechkin can break Gretzky’s goal scoring record, provided he can stay healthy, match the late career productivity of players such as Howe, Bucyk, and Selanne, and play until he’s 40-years old.  Caps fans know from experience to never bet against The Great 8.

Further Reading
Former Capitals’ Head Coach Barry Trotz: “If I Was A Betting Man, I Would Bet On [Alex Ovechkin] Breaking That Goal-scoring Record. In My Mind, There’s No Doubt He’s Going To Do It.”
“See You At 800”: Wayne Gretzky Congratulates Alex Ovechkin on Reaching 700 Goals
Tracking Gr8ness: The Path To 895 Goals For Alex Ovechkin

Statistics obtained from NHL.com, Hockey Reference, and Quanthockey websites

About Diane Doyle

Been a Caps fan since November 1975 when attending a game with my then boyfriend and now husband.
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