Chasing Gretzky III: A Man Amongst Boys

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. Alex Ovechkin, the greatest scorer of his generation, appears to be the only person with a realistic shot at breaking the record.

Ovechkin was coming off the greatest stretch of his career last month, so understandably he cooled off a little bit. After going five straight games without lighting the lamp, Ovi finally scored in consecutive games against the Montreal Canadiens and the New Jersey Devils to notch his 699th and 700th career goals. Since finally breaking through the 700 threshold on Feb. 22, Ovi currently sits at 705 career goals.

Entering the final month of the regular season, Ovechkin is nearing 50 goals for the ninth time in his career. With 47 goals on the season, he is currently second in the league behind Boston’s David Pastrnak, who has 48. Although we’re keeping track of his crawl up the all-time marks, it is interesting to see how he compares to others across the league this season.

Top 10 goal scorers on the season as of Mar. 8

1. David Pastrnak – 48 (23 years old)

2. Alex Ovechkin – 47 (34 years old)

3. Auston Matthews – 46 (22 years old)

4. Leon Draisaitl – 43 (24 years old)

5. Mika Zibanejad – 39 (26 years old)

T-6. Sebastian Aho – 36 (22 years old)

T-6. Kyle Connor – 36 (23 years old)

T-8. Jack Eichel – 35 (23 years old)

T-8. Nathan MacKinnon – 35 (24 years old)

10. Nikita Kucherov – 33 (26 years old)

Of the top 10 goal scorers so far this season, Ovi is the only one above the age of 26, and all except for Zibanejad and Kucherov are under 25. Even as the game gets younger, Ovechkin persists. The next-highest scorer over the age of 30 is 31-year-old Max Pacioretty of Vegas (t-12th with 32 goals). Patrick Kane of Chicago (also 31) is right behind with 31 goals this season.

The next highest goal scorer who’s at least 34 years old is the Bruins’ Patrice Bergeron, who is t-15th with 30 goals on the year. For someone still well behind Gretzky’s goal-scoring pace, a game that ages well will be crucial to breaking the record, and at age 34, Ovi is passing that test.

As I touched upon last time, Gretzky’s goal-scoring slowed down tremendously by his age 32 season. After scoring 38 goals in his age 33 season, Gretzky never topped 25 goals in a single season again. Ovechkin scored 51 goals in his age 33 season, and is on pace for 56 at 34 years old. It will be avoiding a massive drop-off that allows him to catch up with the Great One.

Looking at the rest of the season, there are 14 games left. The Capitals are barely leading the Metropolitan division, and will need to heat up entering the playoffs. Eight of the 14 games will be against teams currently outside the playoff picture, including the league-worst Detroit Red Wings and dysfunctional Buffalo Sabres twice each. That should be good news for the team as a whole, but also for Ovi’s scoring chances.

This season, the Capitals have played the remaining 12 teams in the schedule a combined 21 times. In those 21 games, Ovechkin scored 21 goals. Combine the team’s urgency to turn things around with Ovi’s efficiency against the remaining teams, and it should be expected that he surge through the end of the season.

If he can reach 50 goals quickly, it would not surprise me if he ended the 2019-20 regular season sniffing 60. While games against Detroit and Buffalo provide golden opportunities for scoring, upcoming games against playoff-caliber teams such as Edmonton, Pittsburgh and St. Louis could require Ovi to put the team on his back and power through for even more goals.

Zibanejad’s five-goal game against the Caps on Mar. 5 overshadowed Ovi’s two goals, which inched him even closer to Mike Gartner’s 708. If Ovi can carry on this year’s scoring rate against the final slate of opponents, and score 14 goals in 14 games, he will finish the season two goals ahead of Phil Esposito with 719 goals and sole possession of sixth on the all-time list.

If that were to occur, and Ovechkin managed to score exactly 50 goals next year in his age 35 season, the 2020-21 season would end with Ovi at 769 career goals, enough for three ahead of Jaromir Jagr for third on the all-time list.

Frankly, finishing the season with 14 goals in 14 games appears less realistic than notching 50 goals next season at age 35, but we’ve seen Ovi do more amazing things. Regardless of how the numbers shake out, there is a real possibility that Ovechkin will have only Gordie Howe and Gretzky to beat just over a year from now.

There is a long way to go until then, but as the final month of the regular season is upon us, root for Ovechkin to kick it into overdrive as the Caps gear up for another Stanley Cup run.

(Cover Photo Credits: Pastrnak – NHL.com; Ovechkin – Nick Wass/AP; Matthews – NHLPA.com)

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