Aging Like A Fine, Goal-Scoring Wine: The Most Productive NHL Players Past Age 35 And What That Could Mean For Alex Ovechkin

Photo: Nick Wass/AP

Alex Ovechkin, who just turned 36-years old, has scored a total of 730 goals in his NHL career, which ranks sixth on the All-Time List. Last season, he scored 24 goals in a campaign that was shortened thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic and missed additional games due to a hamstring injury. The Capitals’ captain signed a five-year contract in July, with the hope that he can pass NHL great Wayne Gretzky in career goals during that time frame. He would need 166 goals during that time period to achieve that objective.

There is reason to believe that Ovechkin could have scored 40 goals in a full season last year, as his goal total for 2020-21 prorated over a full season would be nearly 43 goals.

Back in May 2020, NoVa Caps laid out a detailed list of players who had the highest goal totals from age 35 on up. This article will focus more on the highest performers from age 36 through 40, showing those who had the best totals from age 36, from age 36-37, from age 36-38,  from age 36-39, and from age 36-40.

Goal Scoring at Age 36

There are three 36-year old players who scored 40 or more goals: Teemu Selanne (48), Phil Esposito (42), and Brendan Shanahan (40).  17 players total have scored at least 30 goals at age 36, while a total of 34 players scored at least 25 goals.

This season will be a critical season for Ovechkin to score goals, as scoring 40 goals as a 36-year old is a rare feat. However, based on his past productivity, 40 goals is not outside the realm of possibility. Last season, he would have likely exceeded 40 goals had it been a full, 82-game season.

Photo: Jae C. Hong/AP

Goal Scoring at Age 37

There is just one 37-year old player in the history of the NHL who scored 40 goals, that being Johnny Bucyk with 40.  In addition, five other players scored at least 30: Joe Sakic, Phil Esposito, Jean Beliveau, Mike Gartner, and Brett Hull. A further 18 players scored at least 25; Bucyk holds the record for scoring as a 35-year old and scored 32 as a 36-year old.

The best scorers from ages 36 through 37 were Esposito with 76, Bucyk with 72, Hull and Shanahan both with 69, Sakic with 68, Gartner with 67, Norm Ullman with 65, Beliveau with 64, and Bill Cook with 61. Selanne only had 12 goals as a 37-year old, during an injury-plagued season, but his goal total between ages 36-37 was 60. Gordie Howe, while not among the leaders at either 36 or 37, had 58 goals. Jean Ratelle also had 58 goals between ages 36-37.

Photo: NHL

Goal Scoring at Age 38

No player has topped 40 goals as a 38-year old and just three have topped 30 goals. Those three, stand-alone players were Hull, Bucyk, and Martin St. Louis. 15 other players topped 20 goals, including Shanahan, Selanne, and Howe.

The best goal scoring totals from ages 36 through 38 were: Hull with 106 goals, Bucyk with 103, Shanahan with 92, Selanne with 87, Ratelle with 85, Howe, Esposito, and Beliveau with 83 goals, Shanahan with 82, Sakic and Jarome Iginla with 81, and Bill Guerin and Mike Knuble with 81.

Phil Esposito played only half his season’s games as a 38-year old, had just seven goals and then retired after the season. Mike Gartner scored 12 goals as a 38-year old and then retired. Sakic dropped off greatly at age 38, scoring just 13 goals and just two more goals for the remainder of his career after that.

In order to pass Gretzky, age 38 will be a critical year for Ovechkin to get at least 20 goals given that three high goal scorers through age 37, Esposito, Gartner, and Sakic flamed out.

Photo: NHL

Goal Scoring at Age 39

At age 39, Gordie Howe is the only player to top 30 goals, with 39. There were 17 others who scored 20 or more, which includes Bucyk, Selanne, and Hull.

The best production from ages 36 through 39 were: Bucyk with 132, Hull with 131, Selanne with 114, Jean Ratelle with 113, Howe with 112, Jean Beliveau with 108, and Bill Guerin with 101.

Shanahan only scored six goals in a partial season at age 39 and retired after the season. Sakic scored just two goals at age 39 and then retired; Iginla dropped to 14 goals at age 39.

Martin St. Louis, Jean Beliveau and Bill Guerin exceeded 20 goals as 39-year olds, but decided to retire after their age 39 seasons. Howe had a very strong uptick in productivity as a 39-year old, likely helped by the NHL expanding to six more teams.

Ovechkin would need a strong season with at least 20 goals in order to top Gretzky and also to play through age 40, which is his present plan.

Photo: The Hockey Hall of Fame

Goal Scoring at Age 40

At age 40, only seven players topped 20 goals, with just three topping 30 goals: Howe with 44, Bucyk with 36 and Selanne with 31.

The best production from ages 36-40 were: Bucyk with 168, Howe with 156, Selanne with 145, Hull with 131, and Ratelle with 124.

Hull was unable to play at age 40 due to the NHL lockout of 2004-05 but came back for five more games after the lockout, did not score in any of them, and retired. Ratelle’s goal scoring dropped to 12 at age 40 and he retired after that season.

A productive season at age 40 would be needed for Ovechkin to pass Gretzky.

After Age 40

Howe, Selanne, and Bucyk remained in the NHL after their 41st birthday. Howe played two more seasons after turning 40, scoring 31 goals and then 29 goals. He then played in the WHA for several seasons, before returning to the NHL for one final season and scoring 15 goals before finally hanging up the skates. Bucyk played until age 42, scoring 20 as a 41-year old and five goals as a 42-year old; Selanne played until he was 43.

While Ovechkin’s current contract extends only to his age 40 season, it would not be a surprise to see him return if his goal total is just short of 895, which would be the number to break Gretzky’s all-time record.

Conclusion

Based on how players in the past have performed, it is possible for Ovechkin to produce the requisite number of goals at a relatively advanced age. Granted, it requires keeping up with the highest late life goal producer (Johnny Bucyk) as well as avoiding any serious, long-term injury. But with improved training and conditioning methods since the 1970’s, when Bucyk was active, it should be possible for someone else to keep pace with his late career productivity.  Ovechkin will also need the NHL to avoid any lockout-shortened or cancelled seasons, nor any setbacks to schedules affected by events such as pandemics.

As far as goal scoring is concerned, Wayne Gretzky could be hockey’s equivalent of Babe Ruth while Alex Ovechkin could be hockey’s version of Hank Aaron.  Babe Ruth had record breaking years for home runs, hitting 59 and then 60 while Aaron never exceeded 50 home runs a year, but consistently hit 40 or more, including the year he was 39-years old.

By Diane Doyle

Related Reading
Capitals Re-sign Alex Ovechkin To Five-Year, $47.5 Million Contract
Going Gray While Lighting the Lamp: A Look at Goal Production at an Advanced Age and Alex Ovechkin’s Chances of Catching Gretzky
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”
Tracking Gr8ness: The Path To 895 Goals For Alex Ovechkin

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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