Alex Ovechkin’s leave of absence does little to change his chase of Gretzky [Updated]

Capitals’ playoff hopes dwindle, but he’ll still be the NHL’s greatest goal scorer soon

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Alex Ovechkin is still getting that goals record, just a bit later now.
Alex Ovechkin is still getting that goals record, just a bit later now.
Photo: AP

Alex Ovechkin has transcended hockey since he entered the league officially in 2005. He had to wait an extra year because of that pesky canceled season after he was drafted the year prior. He also missed three months due to another lockout in 2012. Not to mention the coronavirus pandemic disrupting the 2020 season. Without those three lapses in time spent off the ice instead of scoring, there might not be a goal chase right now. Wayne Gretzky might be No. 2 on the NHL’s all-time goals scored list if Ovechkin had the near-two seasons of games lost in that trio of sabbaticals.

As news disseminated about the Washington Capitals’ captain taking a leave of absence from the team to tend to the health of a family member, torpedoing the team’s chances of retaining the final Eastern Conference playoff spot as the stretch run of the hockey season commences, the reaction was quite classy. No one complained that Ovie was abandoning his team or the chase of one of the sports’ greatest records. Ovechkin will stay 82 goals shy of Gretzky for the foreseeable future, as Washington head coach Peter Laviolette said there’s no timetable for The Great Eight’s return.


Ovechkin prioritizing his family is nothing new. Last year, as Russia’s brutal, needless war against Ukraine broke out, he was tasked with toeing the line of keeping his family safe, while not showing an outright denial of Vladimir Putin and disavowing the war. That thin line was a gerrymandered place to be as the highest-profile Russian athlete in America, and possibly of any sport. Yet, he’s stayed popular despite few outside Russia supporting the invasion. He’ll be 38 this September and even with the news that he won’t suit up for the Capitals anytime soon, any doubt creeping in that he’ll eventually be the game’s greatest goal scorer shouldn’t.

Updated Wednesday, Feb. 15: On Wednesday, Ovechkin announced his father, Mikhail, passed away in Moscow at 71. The elder Ovechkin frequently attended Capitals games over the years, but his appearances were more sporadic since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.


‘When,’ not ‘if’

The talk of if Gretzky’s record will be broken had shifted in tone this season to when it will be shattered. Even if Ovechkin scores 30 goals each of the next three seasons, he gets it. And that’s a moderate goal total for him, even if he’ll enter his fifth decade on Earth during the chase. In 54 games played this season, he’s already netted 32. Breaking 50 wasn’t out of the question before this sabbatical. A healthy Ovechkin still has one of the best slap shots in the game. How many goaltenders have tried and failed to stop that one-timer from just above the left faceoff circle?

Washington being Ovechkin-less does torpedo the team’s playoff chances, but won’t completely eliminate them. The Capitals have had multiple integral players hurt at once for most of this season. Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson were out for a majority of this season, T.J. Oshie recently returned from injured reserve, and John Carlson is out indefinitely after taking a slap shot to the face. Ovechkin is by far the biggest loss of the bunch. His presence alone accounts for so much of an opposing team’s game plan. Now, that’s one giant worry the rest of the league doesn’t have.

Wishing Ovechkin well with whatever health situation is serious enough to where he’d leave hockey behind for a while is a given. With how much he’s shown to love the game, and how much Washington’s fans adore him, says all you need to know about the severity of this circumstance. And good on Ovechkin for not relying on others to handle whatever is going on just because he’s this big, all-important athlete. And whenever he returns, he knows he’ll be welcomed back into the Capitals’ organization just as he left it, as the organization’s GOAT.