The long, endless summer is only halfway done. The Capitals last played a game on April 24 and will not play another one until Oct. 2.
But with free agency and the NHL Draft behind them now, the 2019-2020 roster is almost set and it won’t be long until players begin trickling back onto the ice in Arlington for informal workouts.
With that in mind, and given the roasting temperatures outside, for the next three weeks NBC Sports Washington will look at 20 burning questions facing the Capitals as they look to rebound from an early exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs, keep alive their Metropolitan Division title streak and get back to their championship form of 2018.
The list will look at potential individual milestones, roster questions, prospects who might help and star players with uncertain futures. We begin with Alex Ovechkin, for whom 50 goals is always the expectation. But how much longer can the captain keep this up?
Alex Ovechkin is already back running up mountains and pushing giant tires down tracks.
It’s become a summer training ritual documented on social media for Ovechkin, who has had more downtime than he would have liked in 2019. Instead of partying with the Stanley Cup well into July, he has already had plenty of vacation time with wife, Nastya, and son, Sergei, and his family all while plotting how to get the Stanley Cup back to Washington.
That extra time for rest and training is necessary with Ovechkin’s age-34 season approaching. His birthday is Sept. 17. It is his 15thNHL season. The question: Can Ovechkin defy the odds and make a run at yet another 50-goal season?
We’re getting close to the historical limit. Johnny Bucyk scored 50 goals at age 35 for the Boston Bruins in 1970-71. Jaromir Jagr turned 34 toward the back end (Feb. 15) of a 2005-06 season when he scored 54 goals for the New York Rangers.
But that’s the list Ovechkin is working with. Otherwise, we are in uncharted territory. He could pass Jagr by hitting 50 again during a season he will actually begin at age 34. He can’t yet catch Bucyk, who was 35 for the entirety of that 1970-71 season, to become the oldest 50-goal scorer in NHL history.
That honor – if it happens - would actually have to wait until 2021-22, which is a year Ovechkin is not even under contract. He has two years remaining on the 13-year deal he signed with the Capitals way back in 2008. We were all so much younger then.
But looking ahead, a 50-goal season at age 35 for Ovechkin would still fall short of Bucyk, who had a May birthday and was just a few weeks shy of his 36thbirthday when he scored 51 for Boston in 1971. Neither Bucyk nor Jagr even led the league in goals those years – something Ovechkin has done a record eight times.
Jagr’s 54 goals came in an offense-happy year after a lockout canceled the 2004-05 season. There were five 50-goal scorers that year alone. This entire decade since 2010 there have been five players total who have scored 50 goals, including Ovechkin. And he’s the only one to hit 50 more than once. He’s done it four times this decade and just missed a fifth when he hit 49 in 2017-18. So close.
"I’m sure he had some doubters out there that think it’s going to stop," Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamos said in March. "But [Ovechkin] just finds a way. He’s motivated. He loves to score goals."
Becoming the league’s oldest 50-goal scorer can wait a while. There’s a big contract negotiation that must take place before then. For now, there’s the small matter of catching Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy for most 50-goal seasons all time. They both have nine. Ovechkin has eight.
It wouldn’t shock anyone to see Ovechkin put together a few more 50-goal campaigns well into his 30s. Who would doubt him at this point? But expecting him to do it is another thing. Bodies age, injuries accrue, skills erode, speed diminishes.
Washington scored 274 goals last season. That was fifth in the NHL. It could probably withstand some erosion from Ovechkin, especially if its defensive play is better. The Capitals gave up 238 goals last season, which ranked 16th. The team made moves to improve its penalty kill and did its best to keep its scoring depth – though it remains to be seen if keeping Carl Hagelin and signing free agent Richard Panik was the right move while letting Brett Connolly walk and trading Andre Burakovsky.
But this team has for several years now relied on its offensive stars to help carry the freight. That quality up and down the lineup begins with Ovechkin and it’s why the Capitals always seem to out-produce the advanced metrics that peg them as a very good team, but not an elite one.
There is a Stanley Cup banner hanging at Capital One Arena that proves some teams just have a knack for playing better than the underlying numbers say that they should. History says Ovechkin should be done with 50 goals by now. Do you want to bet against him even at age 34?
There are other milestones ahead for Ovechkin even if he falls short of 50 this season. A 42-goal season would get him to the magical 700 mark. Only seven players have ever done that. On the way, he’d pass legends like Mario Lemieux (690), Steve Yzerman (692) and Mark Messier (694). A 50-goal season on the nose would tie Ovechkin with Hall-of-Famer Mike Gartner, who scored 397 of his 708 career goals with the Capitals.
If that happens then the Gretzky watch will begin in earnest. Gretzky’s record of 894 career goals still seems impossible to reach. But one more 50-goal season would pull Ovechkin to within 186 goals before age 35. Suddenly the implausible seems possible then.
“I don’t think it’s crazy. It’s going to be tough," said Stamkos who scored 60 goals in 2011-12 and is one of those five players with Ovechkin to top 50 this decade. "But the longevity he’s had in his career is pointing in his favor going forward. He’s always going to have that shot. I think there’s a chance. It’s going to be tough, but I do think there’s a chance for him to break it.”
The greatest goal scorer of his generation then could make a final assault on history. But it all starts with one more big year before the aging curve really kicks in. Does Ovechkin have another 50 in him?
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