(Usual disclaimer that this is galaxies away from the biggest concern of the time. We’re just the class clowns trying to make everyone laugh...or not cry. I aim for just north of crying.)
Alex Ovechkin is the greatest goal scorer in NHL history. This is pretty much agreed, given weights for different eras, by a host of experts and yahoos alike. Given how good goalies are now, instead of the bewildered clowns and possibly less-than-sober and wayward punters they were in the age of Gretzky (note: they were not sober), and how much more advanced defensive systems are in the NHL, the fact that Ovechkin piles up 50 goals season after season makes him the throne-sitter...wait, that doesn’t sound right. Whatever, you get it.
Seriously, watch Gretzky highlights from the early ’80s and how goalies attempted to make saves through some strange combination of tai chi and involuntary spasms and wonder how every game wasn’t 28-25.
It was only this year, as Ovechkin passed the 700-goal mark, that the discussion of whether he could pass Gretzky at 894 as the all-time leader became something you heard regularly. Sure, fans whispered about it in years past, but the usual caveats of, “Well, he’ll get old at some point…” would pop up.
Except Ovechkin hasn’t gotten old. He was on pace for another 57-58 goals this season at the age of 34. How many other players have scored over 50 goals at 34 or older in the NHL’s history? One. Goddamn one. Johnny Bucyk for the Bruins in 1970-’71. That’s it, and he managed 51, which Ovechkin certainly would have blown by, and still might depending on what the NHL can make up. Howe never did it. Neither did Gretzky.
It’s been a given that Ovechkin will break 800 in his career, be the only third-player to do so, and catch Howe on the list for second all-time. Even that achievment would send the nation of Canada into an existential crisis (which I assume just means Tim Hortons plays “Sundown” by Gordon Lightfoot on loop and sign me the fuck up). If Ovechkin were to catch Gretzky however, and their national game’s most hallowed record was owned by a Russian player, we could see all of the Don Cherry and Brian Burke types go Heaven’s Gate in an Ontario cottage (sign me the fuck up for that and we’ll even lend you Mike Milbury and Jeremy Roenick in a sign of true diplomacy and a new age for our nations).
The question is, with yet another season in limbo and possibly shortened, how much quicker would we be seeing Ovechkin take those records down? Are those lost games going to cost him the top spot?
First, the time he’s missed. Ovechkin lost what should have been his rookie season when the entire 2004-’05 season was wiped out due to Bettman Lockout II (yes, it was his second of three, with the ’94-’95 stoppage being his “Bleach” or “Gish,” just for the hardcore fans). Ovechkin lost another 34 games due to Bettman Lockout III (the Donald Fehr-Bettman supergroup “Mellon Collie”) in 2012-’13. And he could lose 14 games here, depending on if the NHL just goes straight to the playoffs, if it can return at all, as has been discussed.
That’s 130 games that Ovechkin didn’t or won’t get to play through no fault of his own — injury, suspension, hangover, international dispute, etc. If we just simply apply Ovechkin’s career goal-per-game rate, that’s an additional 79 goals Ovie would have, giving him 785 at the moment. That would put him just 109 behind Gretzky, which even at age 35 next campaign, would take him no more than two-and-a-half seasons to topple. Maybe even in less than two if he were to really put the blinders on with that to chase.
If the NHL season was to get banged, Ovechkin will enter his age-35 season 188 goals behind. Asking Ovie to amass four more 50-goal seasons past the age of 34 — and again, it had only been done once before this — is a lot. There had only been 12 40-goal seasons for players 34 and above, including Ovechkin’s this year. Now you’re talking about five, six, seven seasons for Ovechkin to haul in The Great One, when he’ll be 40 and beyond.
On the downside, Ovie has needed a shooting-percentage spike the past two seasons to get over 50 goals, firing at 15.1 percent and 15.4 percent marks, which are nearly three points above his career mark of 12.7 percent. On the upside, Ovie has seen his shots per game rise this year from last, as he’s always been the best volume-shooter in the history of the game. Still, he’s below the heights of his five-shots-per-game days, and still lagging behind his career 4.88 per game (4.57 this year after 4.17 last year).
Still, and it’s amazing to even write this, if Ovie were to maintain merely his career rates of 4.88 shots per game and 12.7 shooting percentage, he would still average 51 goals per season going forward. That would take him just under four seasons to catch Gretzky. Had he not lost all these games, he would do it in just over two. It’s just a question of when the decline from those averages hits, if they ever do, as Ovie is already doing things we would have thought he couldn’t. He’ll have to tack on the goals he should have been scoring at 19 while he’s 36 or 37 or 38, but if anyone can...
Bet against him at your own peril, but certainly the fates have made it harder on him.