Can Alex Ovechkin still break Wayne Gretzky’s goal-scoring record?

NHL

Alex Ovechkin would prefer not to talk about breaking Wayne Gretzky‘s NHL career goal-scoring record.

He’ll gladly talk about his cars, like his G-wagons and his Bentley coupe. Or the best high-end sushi joints on the road. He’ll happily indulge you about fashion: “Dolce, Dolce, Dolce,” he said, cataloguing his shirt, pants and shoes during an interview.

But the Gretzky record …

“I don’t even think about it right now, to be honest. It’s a long way away. And it’s a hard way. Whatever happens, happens,” the Washington Capitals star told ESPN. “You watch TV. You listen to the radio. You talk to your friends. Stuff comes up in conversations. But, realistically, it’s kind of far away.”

Well, not that far away. Ovechkin, 36, has 730 goals in 1,197 games. Gretzky had 894 goals in 1,487 games before The Great One retired in 1999.

“He’s in range,” said Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, once Ovechkin’s archrival but now part of a treaty of mutual admiration as the NHL’s elder superstars.

Crosby and Ovechkin saw each other recently in Chicago at the players’ preseason media tour.

“I told him that I hope he does it. I’d like to see him get it. It would be awesome,” Crosby said. “I just hope that all the goals he gets, as he’s trying to [break it], are against another team.”

Hockey Hall of Famer Mark Messier, who watched Gretzky score the majority of his goals while they were teammates with the Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s, is another believer.

“He’s definitely got a chance. It would be a remarkable record to break, if he does it,” he said. “He clearly wants to break it, having signed that contract.”

Ovechkin inked a five-year, $47.5 million contract extension with the Capitals in the offseason. “I spent all my NHL career in D.C. It’s my second home. I could end my career in the same place that it started,” he said.

Ovechkin has achieved everything an NHL player could hope to accomplish in a career. He has won three Hart trophies as league MVP. He was rookie of the year in 2005-06. He has one scoring title and led the league in goals nine times. He finally won the Stanley Cup in 2018, capturing playoff MVP honors before a cathartic, hazy, weekslong celebration that saw him making snow angels in a Washington, D.C., public fountain.

Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan admits Ovechkin’s pursuit of Gretzky’s record gives him motivation that other stars in his situation might not still possess at Ovechkin’s age.

“There’s a different energy about him now. The Cup thing was great for him. But I sense an engagement with him. He’s fired up to do what he can do. Wherever it ends up, he’s going to do his best,” MacLellan said.

But will his best be good enough to catch Gretzky? Given how time is running out — and given how much time was already taken from Ovechkin?


State of the chase

The date was Oct. 5, 2005. The Washington Capitals were hosting the Columbus Blue Jackets. At 7:21 of the second period, Alex Ovechkin scored his first NHL goal. He’d score his second just 4:30 later. Jeff Halpern, a sixth-year NHL pro and the team’s captain, assisted on both.

“That was a really dead time in Washington. The crowds would come and go — better on weekends, better against certain rivals. The joke was that we should throw the black curtain up over the empty seats in the upper deck, because it was so dead,” said Halpern, now an assistant coach with the Tampa Bay Lightning. “But one of the things you started to notice was that when Ovi would touch the puck, the building would start buzzing. You could see it right away. And he still fills the building with that energy years later.”

He scored a few more goals after that debut, and enters his 17th NHL season with 730 of them for his career, within a reasonable distance of Gretzky’s record of 894.

If Ovechkin maintains his career average of 0.61 goals per game, he would need 271 games to score another 165 goals and overtake Gretzky. With that pace, he would break the record during the 2024-25 season, the fourth year of his new contract.

But let’s say Ovechkin’s goals-per-game average takes a dip as he enters his twilight years. If he averages 0.50 goals per game — keeping in mind he averaged 0.53 goals per game last season — then he would need 330 games to break the record. At the earliest, that would be the 2025-26 season, which is the last year of his new contract.

If that average dropped even further to 0.40 goals per game — which would have still placed him in the top 30 goal scorers last season — then it would take Ovechkin 413 games to set the record, sometime in the 2026-27 season, around age 41 and after his current contract is over.

That’s not the plan, of course.

“I don’t know if he comes out and says it, but he wanted a five-year term for a reason, you know?” MacLellan said, with a laugh.

Somewhere in the NHL multiverse, there’s an Alex Ovechkin that didn’t need to keep scoring into his 40s to pass Gretzky. The road to the goal-scoring record is littered with ‘what ifs’ along the route. What if Mike Bossy of the New York Islanders (573 goals, 752 games) and Mario Lemieux of the Pittsburgh Penguins (690 goals, 915 games) were healthier? What if Jaromir Jagr (766 goals, 1,733 games) hadn’t lost time to work stoppages and a three-year sabbatical in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League? What if Lemieux, Jagr, Brett Hull (741 goals, 1,269 games) and even Gretzky himself hadn’t played during the offensive wasteland that were the “Trap Years” in the 1990s?

For Halpern, the ‘what if’ for Ovechkin concerns the time he lost to two work stoppages and the last two pandemic-impacted seasons.

“The COVID seasons hurt him. The two lockouts have hurt him. He definitely would have played with us [in 2004-05]. He was good enough as an 18-year-old,” Halpern said.

What would have happened if Ovechkin’s rookie campaign was in 2004-05 instead of the following season? According to ESPN Stats & Information projections, Ovechkin would have added 50 more goals added to his total, assuming he would have scored to his career goals-per-game average of 0.61 and played a full 82 games.

What about the 2012-13 lockout, which cost him 34 games? Assuming that Ovechkin scored at the 0.67 goals-per-game clip he had during that truncated season, that’s another 22 goals.

Ovechkin lost 51 games during the last two pandemic-impacted seasons. If he scored to his 2019-20 goals per game average of 0.71 in the 14 games he missed when the regular season was paused in March, Ovechkin adds nine more tallies to his total. If the 2020-21 season was a full 82 games and Ovechkin played the 37 games that were taken from him, he adds another 19 goals to his total, assuming a 0.53 goals-per-game average.

What if Alex Ovechkin had another 100 goals added to his total?

What if instead of 165, he needed just 65?

“You just can’t even think about the math on that,” Halpern said. “The Gretzky records were from another era. The 90s were the ‘Dead Puck Era.’ The goals were all down. I wouldn’t have thought anyone could have come close to breaking it now.”

Especially Ovechkin, he said. Given the way he plays, Halpern didn’t believe he’d have the longevity to get this close.

“I would have thought that Ovi would have hit a wall at some point, because he was a football player. And when you look at a football player in their 30s … like, watching Jerome Bettis trying to walk down the stairs in the morning? I thought that would be Ovi at this point, because he ran through guys for 82 games a year,” said Halpern.

“Well, he proved me wrong for sure.”


‘Russian Machine’

Despite being one of his generation’s top goal-scorers, Steven Stamkos never realistically thought he could break Gretzky’s record himself.

But a guy can dream.

“I remember I scored my 200th goal, and Tampa was handing out these T-shirts that said I was the fourth youngest player to 200 goals. That was the first time I had ever seen my name next to Gretzky’s,” said Stamkos, entering his 14th season with the Lightning. “There are certainly times when I thought about if I could have stayed healthy — especially during those peak, prime years of my career — that I’d be a hell of a lot closer to Ovechkin’s numbers. But it is what it is.”

For a while, it looked like Stamkos would be the player to challenge Ovechkin for their generation’s goal-scoring supremacy. For players with at least 500 appearances since Ovechkin’s rookie season, Stamkos is second to the Capitals star in goals-per-game average (0.52).

The problem is that Ovechkin has scored 730 in 1,197 games, while Stamkos has scored 439 goals in just 841 games.

“Obviously, we know he’s the best goal-scorer of our generation, by a mile. He’s played in a lot of games, which has resulted in a lot of goals. If he can continue that, then I think he has a shot. It’s going to be tough. But I wouldn’t put it past him,” Stamkos said.

“The thing that impresses me the most is just his durability. I think I’m just jealous of that.”

Ovechkin’s durability — summarized by the slogan “Russian Machine Never Breaks” — is an undeniable facet of his goal-scoring dominance. He’s played a full season five times. He’s missed three or fewer games in 12 of his 16 seasons. Since entering the league in 2005, only four players have appeared in more games than Ovechkin.

“I think genetics are involved. I think some people are strong as an ox when they’re little, and some people aren’t,” said Capitals defenseman John Carlson.

“It’s his natural strength and power. He gets through things. He can take checks. He can take hits,” MacLellan said. “He can withstand all of the physical stuff that’s within the game without being injured, you know?”

The Capitals’ GM rapped his knuckles on his wooden desk, twice, to avoid a jinx.

“He’s played through some stuff, too. He doesn’t take games off to feel like he’s 100%, like some players do. He’s played with some pretty serious stuff. But you can see when he’s playing hurt that he’s doing what he needs to do in order to score goals and help the team win,” he said.

Carlson has played his entire career with Ovechkin. He has seen that durability firsthand. He has also seen Ovechkin avoid the kinds of catastrophic injuries that have felled other players through the years.

“It’s not like he hasn’t had bruises and bumps. But luck is a huge thing in this game. Sometimes you get hurt on a play that happens 5,000 other times,” Carlson said.

Stamkos can attest. Like in 2013, when he slid into a goal post in Boston, broke his tibia and missed 45 games.

“That’s why I always admired Ovi. Because of his ability to be out there a lot,” Stamkos said.

So instead of this generation’s greatest goal-scorer, perhaps Stamkos goes down as its greatest “what if?” The Mike Bossy to Ovechkin’s Gretzky, to put it in 1980s terms.

“There are, for sure, ‘what ifs’ in every athlete’s career. It’s worked out, and you’re just thankful for the opportunity. But there are definitely times where you’re sitting there and think, ‘If I didn’t get that injury, where would I be? Would I be over 500 goals right now?’ But that’s life, right?” Stamkos said.


What the stars say

Stamkos thinks Ovechkin can catch Gretzky. “I think he’s got as good a chance as anyone,” he said. “I know that’s a funny way to look at it.”

Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche hopes Ovechkin keeps up the scoring pace.

“It would be great for the game, to have that buzz around the league,” he said. “I hope he gets close at least.”

Gets close? Was there a bit of Canadian pride coming out here, when it came to the sanctity of a Gretzky record?

“Oh, no,” he said, with a laugh. “I love Ovi. And I think he can do it, for sure.”

Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks has scored the seventh-most goals (404) since Ovechkin entered the NHL. He’s a little more skeptical, noticeably sighing when asked if Ovechkin can still set the record.

“If I had to say so, I’d say yes. But I just feel like his shot’s so good and he’s got some good playmakers around him that can get him the puck. Plus, he’s still so deadly on the power play. I think he’ll get it done,” Kane said.

The Blackhawks star is famous for his ability to score in a variety of ways. Ovechkin is more predictable in his approach on the majority of his goals.

“He kind of has his spot over there, right? Off that left circle. It’s not like anyone’s found a way to stop that yet, and he’s been in the league for how long?” Kane said. “It doesn’t sound like anyone’s going to suddenly start stopping him now.”

Especially when Ovechkin just keeps shooting. Along with his durability, Ovechkin’s shot generation has defined him during his career. He has 5,727 shots on goal since his NHL career began in 2005-06. The next highest shot producer during Ovechkin’s career is Eric Staal, who has played in 15 more games and yet has produced 1,956 fewer shots on goal than Ovechkin.

“It depends on what position you’re in. Sometimes you’re thinking, ‘I shouldn’t take the shot,'” said Ovechkin.

But in those moments, he just shoots. He said goaltenders are attuned to waiting for an offensive player to take a moment, settle the puck on a pass and then shoot.

“I love to shoot. If I have a chance to shoot the puck, I will,” he said.

For Crosby, that’s what makes Ovechkin’s pursuit of Gretzky a plausible one. He doesn’t rely on speed or fancy moves on breakaways to score. He relies on that shot.

“The guy can score from anywhere inside the blue line,” Crosby said.

Maybe in his old age, Ovechkin will just stand in front of net and let the pucks bounce in. Become the next Patric Hornqvist or something.

Crosby laughs, knowingly. “Yeah, it doesn’t matter how you score them. Just that you score them.”

Like Crosby would feed Hornqvist when the two were on the Penguins, Ovechkin has had his share of helpers, too.

“He needs to find his spots where to shoot from. Which is why for [Ovechkin], who he’s playing with is really important. You need a creative playmaking center that really helps him out. If you didn’t have the guy, he’d be standing around all game waiting for the puck,” MacClellan said.

“Fortunately for him, Nick Backstrom and [Evgeny Kuznetsov] understand him, know where he’s going to be and they find him. For Nick, it’s the perfect match: He would rather pass, Ovechkin would rather shoot and he understands how [Ovechkin] plays. He’ll do things without looking,” the GM added.

Halpern had experience as Ovechkin’s linemate, too.

Well, briefly.


‘I can’t play with this guy’

Halpern remembers watching Ovechkin at the IIHF world championships in 2004, knowing that the Capitals were going to make him their franchise player. “He had a couple of big hits, but watching him skating, it wasn’t like I was watching Mike Modano or Joe Sakic or the goal-scorers that I idolized,” he said.

Then they met for the first time as teammates in 2005. “He was wearing cutoff jeans. His shirt was way too tight,” Halpern recalled. “I remember there was a preseason game against the Philadelphia Flyers when he scored against them and then winked at their bench as he skated by. And we’re all thinking, ‘This kid is going to get us beat up.'”

Before their first game together, Halpern remembered Ovechkin giving him and center Dainius Zubrus some directives.

“He told us that on the power play, if he’s in the middle, just get him the puck. He’s like, in broken English, ‘I’m a big guy. I can shake some people off.’ Now, we had some big defensemen in the league back then. Players like Derian Hatcher, for example. Ovi was big, but he wasn’t one of those guys,” Halpern said. “It wasn’t until that first game against Columbus that we realized how tough he was: On his first shift, he ran through a defender and, like, broke the glass. He was such a force when he started moving. He was trying to hurt people, with and without the puck.”

Halpern had four points in his first two games of the season. By his 23rd game, he had 16 points. But just a few weeks into the season, he jumped off the Ovechkin scoring train.

“I laugh about it, but my kids and wife want to punch me when I tell it. I went to coach Glen Hanlon, and I said, ‘I can’t play with this guy. He’s all over the ice. I don’t know where he is, and it’s not the way I play.’ The next game Chris Clark was on that line with Ovechkin, while I was playing with Brian Willsie and Matt Pettinger. Two very good players and exceptional people — who are not Alex Ovechkin. So that was a mistake.”

There’s only one Alex Ovechkin, much like there was only one Wayne Gretzky. Legendary benchmarks are reserved for singular talents. And when those records are broken, the moment transcends the sport to become something of global significance, from the rinks in North America all the way to the streets of Moscow where Ovechkin grew up.

“I think it’s going to be big. Not just back home, but I think it’s going be big all over the place,” Ovechkin said.

He catches himself thinking too far ahead. Ovechkin rhythmically lowers his hands a few times, like he’s calming the expectations of the entire hockey world, including his own.

“But again, realistically: Let’s wait.”

Additional research by Bryan Beasley of ESPN Stats & Information.

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