Let’s start today with a topic I’ve been interested in for years, that of the possibility of Alex Ovechkin one day becoming the all-time leader in goals scored. For a long time that seemed like an unrealistic target because while Wayne Gretzky scored 894 goals in large part by overwhelming the league in his prime with 437 goals in 473 contests from 1981-82 through 1986-87, Ovechkin would need to get there through longevity.
Ovechkin will never come close to the single-season feats of Gretzky, but while The Great One quieted in his 30s, thus far, Ovechkin has not. From the age of 34 onwards, Gretzky never scored more than 25 goals in a single season. Ovechkin, who turned 34-years-old in September, scored his 35th goal of 2019-20 Wednesday night. With that goal, Ovechkin also surpassed Steve Yzerman’s career goal total. Ovechkin now has 693 career goals, which is good for ninth place in the all-time list and puts him 201 goals away from Gretzky.
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Compared to how far Ovechkin has had to go thus far, 201 goals don’t seem unrealistic, but that’s a lot to ask of a player who is marching deeper and deeper into his 30s. It’s not unheard of for a player to continue to find the back of the net well into their 30s, but it is rare. There are only 11 examples of a player scoring at least 40 goals in season at the age of 34 or older. Ovechkin is in striking distances of becoming the 12th. As you might suspect though, it gets considerably rarer the older players get. Only five players ever scored at least 40 goals at the age of 36 or older (Teemu Selanne, Gordie Howe, Phil Eposito, John Bucyk, and Brendan Shanahan) and no one has ever scored 50 goals that late into their career. Only one player, Howe, has ever even reached the 40-goal milestone beyond the age of 37.
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So the level of longevity that Ovechkin would need to maintain to score another 201 goals borders on the unheard of. The other big factor is of course how long Ovechkin wants to continue his career. How important would it be to him to best Gretzky? Would he be willing to play into his 40s if that’s what it took? Would he be open to potentially pass on the opportunity to end his career back home in the KHL in anything other than a symbolic way? Those are questions only he can answer, but we might get some insight into his thinking fairly soon. His 13-year contract with the Capitals expires in 2020-21, so the first opportunity to re-sign him will come this summer. The Capitals are extremely likely to be able to re-sign him, so the question is: How long of a contract does Ovechkin want? If he is looking for a three-year deal, for example, that could be an indication that he’s hedging his bets in terms of how long he’ll remain in the NHL. If he wants, say, a five-year deal, that also sends a signal. Of course, the length of the contract doesn’t guarantee anything. Pavel Datsyuk decided to leave the Detroit Red Wings for the KHL while he was still under contract with Detroit. That doesn’t mean Ovechkin would follow the same path, but it does illustrate that the length of a contract doesn’t set anything in stone.
In the meantime though, Ovechkin remains one of the greatest goal scorers in the NHL even at the age of 34 and he’ll continue to chip away at the gap between him and Gretzky.
Moving on from Ovechkin, the Coyotes suffered a 4-2 loss to Anaheim last night, which extended their slump to six defeats in the span of seven games. Antti Raanta has looked particularly bad during that stretch with a 5.59 GAA and .833 save percentage in three starts. Adin Hill has held his own by comparison when he’s gotten the nod with a 2.55 GAA and .907 save percentage, but he still has a 1-2-1 record over that span. Darcy Kuemper (lower body) should be back soon and once he is, the Coyotes will have a top-tier goaltender between the pipes.
The Coyotes’ offense has left something to be desired too though and that aspect of their struggle can’t be explained away by injury. In 2018-19, the Coyotes were one of the best defensive teams in the league, but one of the worst offensively and the result was that they missed the playoffs. Arizona tried to correct that deficiency over the summer by acquiring Phil Kessel, but he’s underwhelmed in his first season with the Coyotes, scoring 11 goals and 31 points in 52 games. The Coyotes tried again by acquiring Taylor Hall and so far that’s gone better with Hall scoring seven goals and 15 points in 17 contests. However, even with Hall’s success, Arizona has been limited to 15 goals over their last seven games. It’s hard to win many games when your offense is providing you with that narrow of a margin for error. The silver lining is that Arizona is still in a playoff spot with a 26-21-5 record, but if their offense doesn’t get going, that may change.
Finally, let’s briefly tough on the Buffalo Sabres, whose playoff hopes are looking distant at this point. It’s not a foregone conclusion that they’ll miss the playoffs, but they’re 10 points out of a Wild Card spot with 32 games left, so the situation is grim. Buffalo got off to a 9-2-1 start too before collapsing. That’s painful on its own, but if nothing changes, this will be their ninth straight season without a playoff berth. Over that span, the Sabres have tried six different head coaches from Lindy Ruff to the current Ralph Krueger. The Sabres have also completely been remade. When they last made the playoffs, Ryan Miller was their goaltender, Tyler Myers was the most promising youngster on the team, and their offense was led by Thomas Vanek, Drew Stafford, and Jason Pominville. None of those players are still with Buffalo.
The current Sabres are a young team, so there is hope for the future. The core of Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Victor Olofsson, and Rasmus Dahlin is nothing to sneeze at and they have more youngsters in the system who might eventually take on significant roles. However, when the Sabres first drafted Eichel, they likely didn’t anticipate that he wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to play in a single playoff game through five seasons. It’s fair to say that this rebuild hasn’t gone as envisioned.