Chasing Gretzky: The Gr8 Quest

By: Joe Pohoryles

In 1999, the greatest player to ever grace the ice hung up his skates. At 38 years old, after over 20 years of dominance, Wayne Gretzky retired with 61 NHL records, and he still holds or shares those records today.

One of those records is for most career goals. Gretzky finished with 894 goals, 93 more than the next highest person on the list, Gordie Howe. It appeared this record – like many of his others – would be unbreakable.

Yet in the year 2020, a potential challenger for the record slowly creeps up the leaderboard, inching closer and closer to what initially seemed impossible. Sitting tied for the 11th-most goals all-time, Alex Ovechkin, the greatest scorer of his generation, appears to be the only person with a realistic shot at breaking the record.

It is by no means a certainty. At age 34, with exactly 210 goals needed to tie the all-time record, a lot needs to fall into place. Just one major injury could put the record out of reach. Injuries can never be predicted, but the Russian Machine will have to, well, remain a machine to make breaking the record a possibility.

Ovechkin himself has claimed he will not continue to play just to catch the record, though he did joke that he’d instantly retire if he were to ever break the record. In true Ovi fashion, it seems that when he feels he is done, he will be done. Some Capitals’ insiders have even speculated he may return to Russia to play in the KHL before the record can be reached, perhaps as early as the expiration of his contract in 2021.

Nevertheless, the chase for the record is alive and well, and I will return on the eighth of every month during the NHL season to check in on his progress. (I know this first installment is being posted on the ninth, but whatever, I couldn’t wait until February. Sue me.)

In this first edition, I’m going to break down his current pace to try and gauge how much time he would need to break the record under the best-case scenario. In the future, more analysis will be done in addition to what you will see here, but to officially start this journey, I am just going to lay out what is already known and work from there.

The top 10 goal scorers in NHL history

  1. Wayne Gretzky – 894 (1,487 Games Played)
  2. Gordie Howe – 801 (1,767 GP)
  3. Jaromir Jagr – 766 (1,733 GP)
  4. Brett Hull – 741 (1,269 GP)
  5. Marcel Dionne – 731 (1,348 GP)
  6. Phil Esposito – 717 (1,282 GP)
  7. Mike Gartner – 708 (1,432 GP)
  8. Mark Messier – 694 (1,756 GP)
  9. Steve Yzerman – 692 (1,514 GP)
  10. Mario Lemieux – 690 (915 GP)

Alex Ovechkin (as of Jan. 9, 2020) – 684 (1,129 GP)

Top 5 career goals per game rates (among the players listed:)

  1. Mario Lemieux – 0.754 Goals Per Game 
  2. Alex Ovechkin – 0.606 GPG 
  3. Wayne Gretzky – 0.601 GPG
  4. Brett Hull – 0.584 GPG
  5. Phil Esposito – 0.559 GPG

This means Ovi, across his career, has been scoring at a rate near-identical to Gretzky himself. He is on pace to have 901 goals by the time he plays as many games as Gretzky did, good enough for the record. This does not mean much on its own, as his overall goal scoring rate is sure to go down as he ages, but it tells us that based on career averages alone, it’s certainly within the realm of possibility.

Assuming Ovi plays every game the rest of the season, minus the one he will be suspended for due to missing the All Star Game, he has 36 games left this season. Through 45 games, he has scored 26 goals. This puts him on pace for 46-47 goals by season’s end. 

Maybe he’ll go on one final tear by the end of the year to reach 50 in one season yet again, but either way he should at least be close. If we go conservative with a total of 46, that would make his career total 704 by the end of the season, giving him sole possession of eighth-most all-time. He would also be just four goals behind a name he’ll soon be joining in the rafters of Capital One Arena, Mike Gartner.

Ovi’s GPG through 45 games in 2019-20: 0.578

Ovi’s GPG in the last five full seasons (2015-2019): 0.583 (236 goals in 405 games)

As you can see, his scoring rate is slowly declining, as the last five years are down from his overall career average, and this season’s is slightly lower than that. The man is 34 years old, so to even be scoring this much at his age is a feat of its own, but it will not get him the record any quicker.

If we project his career total to be 704 by season’s end, and he manages to continue scoring at the rate he has been for the past five full seasons, which appears impossible, but should at least provide a best-case scenario, then:

Goals needed to break record: 191

Ovi’s GPG: 0.583

Games needed to score 191 goals: ~328

Number of seasons: 4 full 82-game seasons

Coincidentally enough, if Ovi enters the 2020-21 season with the projected 704 career goals, continues to score at the rate he had been from 2015-2019, and never misses a game, he’d be projected to break Gretzky’s record on the final regular season game of the 2023-24 season, which in this scenario would be his 1,493rd game, six more than Gretzky ever played.

This, of course, won’t happen. For starters, he will not play all 82 games for the next four seasons, even if he doesn’t get suspended for missing the All Star Game. His goal scoring rate will not remain where it has been for the past five years, and he may not even have 704 goals by the end of the season. It just won’t come together that perfectly.

By the end of the 2023-2024 season, he will be 38 years old. He will not have the record by then, but he should certainly be able to play beyond that age, at least if he wants to. As this series goes along, I will try to find better ways to make projections, and follow his progression as he climbs the ladder.

For now, we have our best-case scenario, and the math that proves it’s at least possible that by the end of the Great 8’s career, he will have the record for most career goals in NHL history.

(Cover Photo Credit: AP Photo/Alex Brandon; Flickr.com)

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