A Review Of Past Goal-Scoring “Graybeards”, And What It Could Mean For Alex Ovechkin And His March To Pass Wayne Gretzky


Alex Ovechkin, 36, has scored 780 goals during his NHL career, with 50 of those goals goals coming just last season. We recently examined Ovechkin’s scoring rates and goals per game rates in order to project a probable point in which he will pass Wayne Gretzky for the all-time goals record, but how common is scoring goals for a player in his late 30’s?

Ovechkin’s 50 goals at the age of 36 broke the previous record of 48, held by Teemu Selanne at age 36. It will be tough for Ovechkin to reach the 50-goal threshold again, considering no NHL player 37 years of age or older has ever reached that plateau, but we know never to bet against him.

So far in NHL history, only two players aged 37 and older have reached the 40-goal threshold: Gordie Howe with 44 goals at age 40 and John Bucyk with 40 at age 37. In fact, there have been only thirteen occasions where a player past his 37th birthday scored at least 30 goals, with the highest total coming from Gordie Howe, who scored 44 goals at age 40. Both Howe and John Bucyk exceeded the 30-goal threshold three times after turning 37 and both came close to the mark one other time.

To pass Gretzky, Ovechkin will need to average between 28 and 29 goals over the next four seasons. However, history has shown that goal-scoring for most NHL players drops off significantly from age 37 to age 38. Just six players have scored more than 30 goals at age 37 while just three have scored more than 30 goals at age 38.

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.  Five other players scored at least 30: Joe Sakic, Phil Esposito, Jean Beliveau, Mike Gartner, and Brett Hull.

18 more players scored at least 25. Given that Ovechkin scored 50 at age 36, it is not out of the question that he could score 40 goals during the 2022-23 season to match Bucyk’s record for that age. This would give him 820 career goals which would leave him 74 goals shy of Gretzky’s record.

Goal Scoring at Age 38

No player has topped 40 goals as a 38-year old and just three have topped 30 goals: Brett Hull, Johnny Bucyk, and Martin St. Louis. 15 other players topped 20 goals, including Brendan Shanahan, Teemu Selanne, and Gordie Howe.

The players compiling the highest two-year totals between the ages of 37 and 38 were Johnny Bucyk with 71 goals, Brendan Shanahan with 69, and Brett Hull with 67. If Ovechkin can match the two-year productivity of those players during the next two seasons (2022-23 and 2023-24), he would have 847 goals and be 48 goals away from passing Gretzky.

Photo: NHL

Goal Scoring at Age 39

At age 39, Gordie Howe is the only player to top 30 goals, scoring 39 goals. 17 other players scored 20 or more, including Bucyk, Selanne, and Hull.

The players compiling the highest three-year, goal-scoring totals between the ages of 37 and 39 were Johnny Bucyk with 100 goals, Gordie Howe with 93, Brett Hull, and Brendan Shanahan with 92.

If Ovechkin can match the three-year productivity of those players from 2022-23 through 2024-25, he would have between 870 and 880 goals. Among those players, Shanahan only scored six goals during his age 39 season and decided to retire.

Photo: NHL Hall of Fame

Goal Scoring at Age 40

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

The players compiling the highest four-year goal-scoring totals between the ages of 37 and 40 were Johnny Bucyk with 137 goals and Gordie Howe with 136 goals. After that, there was Brendan Shanahan with 98 goals and Teemu Selanne with 97 goals.

If Ovechkin can match the cumulative productivity of Hull and Bucyk from age 37 through age 40 over the next four seasons, he would have 916 goals which would be more than enough 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.

Photo: Jae C. Hong/AP

Conclusion

Based on how players in the past have performed, Ovechkin can produce the requisite number of goals at a relatively advanced age. Granted, it requires keeping up with the highest late-life goal producers (Johnny Bucyk and Gordie Howe) as well as avoiding any serious, long-term injuries.

But with improved training and conditioning methods since the 1970s, when Bucyk was active, it should be possible for someone else to keep pace up with his late-career productivity. Ovechkin will also need the NHL to avoid any lockout-shortened or canceled seasons, nor any setbacks to schedules affected by events such as pandemics or wars.

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

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

Further Reading

The Road To 895: How Alex Ovechkin Will Break Wayne Gretzky’s Record By 2026
Aging Like A Fine, Goal-Scoring Wine: The Most Productive NHL Players Past Age 35 And What That Could Mean For Alex Ovechkin
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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