There are few things in life these days that are a given. What we do know is that the sun will rise and set every day, and that Alex Ovechkin will score goals. It's pretty wild to think that we've now been watching him terrorize goalies at a dangerously consistent pace for nearly 14 years. Even in his down years, scoring in the low 30-goal range, he still finished top 15 in the NHL in goals. He's led the league in scoring a record-tying seven times and as the reigning champ, the Rocket Richard Trophy has kept its place on his mantle for five of the last six years.
Now 33 years old, he's coming off the first Stanley Cup victory of his illustrious career. After seeing his legendary celebrations with the Cup, many joked that he would suffer a disastrous championship hangover this season and fail to be his normal dominant, goal-scoring self. Well, with a bit over a third of the Washington Capitals' season in the books, Ovechkin is sitting back on his throne in first place for the league lead in goals, having scored 25 through 30 games. If he's showing zero signs of regression this late in his career after an offseason full of booze, celebrations, and newly-acquired dad duties, I think it's time to seriously consider that Ovechkin may finish his career as the league's all-time leading goal scorer.
At the time of this writing, Ovechkin's sitting at 632 career goals. He's the active goals leader and is already 15th all time in NHL history. Ovi is projected to finish with 68 goals (his career high is 65) if he were keep up this current pace of scoring just under a goal per game. Let's be realistic, though, and project that he comes back down to Earth a bit and finishes with a modest 55, which would put him at 662 for his career going into next season. This would catapult him ahead of Brendan Shanahan into 13th place, putting the top ten within striking distance for the 2019-20 campaign. That would also leave Ovechkin 232 goals shy of Wayne Gretzky's once seemingly untouchable record of 894.
It's impossible to predict what Ovechkin's durability at the tail-end of his career will be like, but so far there's zero reason to believe that he can't play until he's at least 40. Aside from having one of the most devastating shots in the league, part of the reason for his dominance over the years is that he's in incredible shape, missing just 29 games throughout his career. He's never suffered any serious injuries that would cause him lingering pain in his late 30s. He's averaging nearly 21 minutes of ice time per game this season, which is the highest amount he's seen since 2010-11. Comparable to Jaromir Jagr, who somehow played in the NHL until the age of 45, Ovechkin's career may be far from coming to an end.
Let's just say Ovechkin decides to retire at the age of 40. That means he'll have seven seasons left after this one ends. In those seven seasons he'll have to average 33 goals to claim the title from Gretzky. His career average up until now has been 49 goals per year. In the two worst seasons of his career he scored 32 and 33 goals, and also scored 32 goals in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. If Ovechkin has a few more 40-plus-goal seasons in him and plays past the age 40 (both, if not likely, are certainly possible at this point), he'll be close to catching down Gretzky. Plus, with his booming shot from his wheelhouse at the top of the circle on the power-play he shouldn't have a problem putting pucks in the net later on in his career if his speed and physicality drops off. An average of 33 goals isn't out of the question, especially if he pads his totals in the next few years before the inevitable regression of Father Time shows up.
The 33-Year-Old Dropoff
Some of the greatest goal scorers in NHL history saw a considerable dip in their scoring rates beyond the age of 33. Gretzky had a ludicrous 0.712 goal per game average over his first 15 seasons, scoring 801 goals in 1125 games. He then scored just 91 goals, or 0.251 per game, in the final 362 games he played in after turning 33. Jagr played a whopping 706 games in the NHL after turning 33 and still managed to pop in 229 goals. While that's good for a 0.324 goal per game average, it's a significant drop off from his 0.522 average beforehand.
Only three players in NHL history have had a 50-goal season over the age of 33: Bobby Hull, John Bucyk, and Jagr. Additionally, only 20 players have been able to put up even a 40-goal season over the age of 33. Teemu Selanne managed 48 at the age of 36, and Mark Messier piled up 47 at the age of 35. Ovechkin has scored fewer than 40 goals only three times in his career and it doesn't look like this season will be his fourth. Despite the game getting faster and the players getting more skilled, Ovechkin has been able to prove that he can keep up as he enters his mid-30s.
Fourteen players currently separate Ovechkin from Gretzky. All of them have been inducted into the Hall of Fame except for Jagr, who has been a virtual lock since his early years in the league but just refused to hang up his skates. By the end of this season, Ovechkin should pass Dave Andreychuk and Shanahan, and potentially Luc Robitaille if he's able to keep up his current pace and finish the year with at least 62. Next season Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman, Messier, and Mike Gartner will all be in his crosshairs, which means that we could see a 35-year-old Ovechkin in the seventh spot by the 2020-21 season. He'll then have to pass Phil Esposito, Marcel Dionne, Brett Hull, Jagr, and Gordie Howe. With Howe cemented in second place with 801 goals, Ovechkin should have no problem at least grabbing the runner-up position by the end of his career. Considering the fact that he has played up to 734 fewer games than those ahead of him, it's truly a testament to what we've been witnessing over the last 14 years.
When it's all said and done, whether he reaches Gretzky or not, it's pretty safe to say that Ovechkin will go down as the greatest goal scorer in the history of the NHL. Gretzky's numbers are straight out of a video game, and the majority of his records will never be touched. It is important to note, though, that during The Great One's career the league average save percentage was 0.886 with an average of 3.5 goals per game. During Ovechkin's career so far, the league average save percentage has been 0.910 with an average of 2.82 goals per game. With era-adjusted goal scoring taken into account, Ovechkin currently sits behind only Gretzky, Jagr, and Howe. Thankfully for Ovechkin, the record books don't take era adjustments into account.
With an obvious decline in scoring between the two eras and a significant improvement in goaltenders, it's absolutely ridiculous that Ovi could even sniff Gretzky's goal-scoring record. Nobody has scored at a more consistent rate than Ovechkin has since entering the league, and he's showing us so far this season that he isn't planning on stopping any time soon. One thing—besides a devastating injury—that is completely out of his control and could spoil his bid for the all-time title is an impending lockout, which may take place as early as the 2020-21 season with the current CBA set to expire before the 2022-23 campaign. Lockouts are a terrible time for everybody involved, so let's hope that they can come to an agreement before then.
In the meantime, let's enjoy watching Ovechkin's greatness while it lasts.