As it stands today, Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin sits 115 goals away from the top of the goal-scoring mountain of 895 goals to surpass Wayne Gretzky’s longstanding record of 894 career goals. While most in the hockey world never expected Gretzky’s goal-scoring record to ever be broken, Ovechkin’s age-defying performances in his early to mid-30s has shifted the conversation to more of a question of when Ovechkin breaks the record than if he will at all.
Despite missing out on a whole season due to the 2004-05 lockout that would have been Ovechkin’s rookie season, plus another lockout-shortened season in 2012-13 and pandemic-shortened 2019-20 and 2020-21 campaigns, Ovechkin sits a mere 20 goals away from hitting the 800-goal mark.
Only two players have ever surpassed 800 goals in the NHL: the previously mentioned Gretzky and Gordie Howe. It took Howe 1767 games at the NHL level to hit that 800-goal mark, where Ovechkin has only played 1274. In an era of the NHL where goaltending quality has increased exponentially, Ovechkin’s pure goalscoring production is historic.
In this post, I’ll take a look at some of Ovechkin’s historical production overall, as well as his most recent seasons to determine the pathway to breaking Gretzky’s goalscoring record. Statistics used in this post are courtesy of Hockey Reference.
Career Goal Scoring
Ovechkin took the league by storm in his rookie season in 2005-06, potting 52 goals and earning himself the Calder Trophy for most excellent performance by a rookie. That level of production, and the following 50 goal seasons, set the tone for the rest of Ovechkin’s career in Washington:
After averaging 53.8 goals per season through his first five seasons in the league, Ovechkin’s goal production hit a lull in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons. Many talking heads clamored that the league had figured Ovechkin out–he was a one-trick pony who could only score on the rush by skating down the left wing, cutting toward the middle of the ice, and using the defenseman as a screen. The lockout-shortened season in 2012-13 was Ovechkin’s launching pad back to elite goalscoring production, scoring 32 goals in only 48 games.
Since then, Ovechkin has only had one real dip in goalscoring: the 2016-17 season where he only potted 33 goals and shared the team goalscoring lead with TJ Oshie. The 2016-17 team might have just been the best roster the Capitals have ever skated. The roster around Ovechkin was so good that the weight of being the entire offense dropped, indicative of his 313 shots on goal in 82 games that season. For context, Ovechkin had 398 shots on goal in 79 games in 2015-16 and 395 in 81 games in 2014-15. His overall shots on goal volume dropped, and his shooting percentage of 10.5% was the second lowest in his career.
After that 2016-17 season, Ovechkin has hovered around the 50-goal mark, outside of the pandemic shortened 2020-21 season. Even in that season, 24 goals in 45 games would still be a 43.73 goal pace.
Since there has been some variance in season length and games played during the last five seasons of Ovechkin’s performances, it will be more useful to look at goals per game rates.
Historical Goals Per Game
Here’s how Ovechkin’s goals per game rates look throughout his career:
One thing to notice here is that despite Father Time being undefeated, Ovechkin’s goal scoring rates (outside of a few outliers) have remained remarkably consistent. His career average of .612 goals per game is very good–being able to maintain that over the course of a 17-year career (so far) is historic. His goals per game rate over the last three seasons is .63, and over his last five seasons, it’s .624.
Although Ovechkin’s goal per game production has been consistent through his career, at some point, there will be regression. Ovechkin will turn 37 prior to the 2022-23 season starting. There’s 17 years of wear on those tires. Let’s see a conservative path to Ovechkin reaching 895 goals by the end of his current contract and setting hockey history.
Pathway to 895 Projection
The methodology here for a conservative projection for Ovechkin breaking the record is that he’ll play in 75 games per season. Over the past five full NHL seasons, Ovechkin has played in 77, 81, 82, 82, and 79 games. He’s been historically rather healthy through his career, but those aches and pains take a lot longer to recover from at 37 and older than they did in his 20s.
The other piece of the methodology: the 2022-23 season will be the only season that he scores at a pace higher than .5 goals per game:
We’re dealing with rather round numbers in the goal category here. The most important thing is that since Ovechkin is only 115 goals away from the record, he only needs to average 28.75 goals per season to get there. With age regression as a fact, Ovechkin will see a drop in production at some point. Now, we’d all love to see Ovechkin continue to pot 40 goals a season over the next three seasons to break the record a year before his contract ends.
Realistically, Ovechkin needs to average a goals per game pace of .383 over the next four seasons to hit the 115 goals necessary to break Gretzky’s record. Based on historical and recent context, that certainly seems achievable. Ovechkin has never had a season where he had less than a 0.4 goals per game production. But the point here is that the projection is conservative, because age-induced regression hasn’t been a factor in Ovechkin’s goal scoring production in his career yet. We don’t know exactly when that’ll happen, but it’s important to account for the unknown in conservative projections.
Overall, it could feel like a near certainty to most folks that Ovechkin will end up passing Gretzky and be cemented as the most productive goal scorer in NHL history. With Ovechkin’s power play acumen and solid production during even-strength situations, the pathway is clear.
The pathway becomes even more clear if Ovechkin scores more than 40 goals in the 2022-23 season, which would give a lot more leeway in the last years of his current contract with the Capitals.
By Justin Trudel