Capitals

As Ovechkin turns 36, Gretzky's record remains in reach

Capitals

Friday marks Alex Ovechkin's 36th birthday. The Capitals' captain will have only a few days to celebrate as training camp for his 17th NHL season begins next week.

Time flies. Ovechkin, who arrived in Washington in 2005 as a 20-year-old phenom,  has already cemented himself as one of the best players of all time, but this season will be the start of a new five-year contract that will likely close out his NHL career. The quest for Wayne Gretzky's goal record now begins in earnest.

"I try to not think about it," Ovechkin said of the record at the NHL/NHLPA Player Media Tour in Chicago on Thursday. "I try to go out there and play and try to do my best."

Ovechkin has 730 career goals. Gretzky's record is 894. In order to beat it, Ovechkin must average 33 goals per season over the five years of his new contract. The fact he has remained as lethal a scorer over the course of his career is already incredible, but each year brings with it the possibility that age may catch up to the Great 8.

Father Time, as they say, is undefeated.

The clock is also ticking because, while Ovechkin may not have said he intends to retire after his new five-year contract is up, he made it clear he is not interested in following former Capitals star Jaromir Jagr in playing late into his 40s.

When asked if he could envision himself playing until he's 50, Ovechkin said, "No, I'm not."

 

But if you think beating Gretzky in the next five years would require an almost unprecedented performance for Ovechkin to keep up the pace, well, that's actually not the case.

Ovechkin does not have to have the best season ever for a 36-year-old to score 33 goals this year. He doesn't even have to be in the top five.

According to Hockey Reference, the most goals scored by a player in a season at 36 years old is 48, scored by Teemu Selanne in the 2006-07 season.

Here's the top-10 list:

Selanne: 48 goals, 2006-07

Phil Esposito: 42 goals, 1978-79

Brett Hull: 39 goals, 2000-01

Joe Mullen: 38 goals, 1993-94

Bill Guerin: 36 goals, 2006-07

Mark Messier: 36 goals, 1996-97

Dino Ciccarelli: 35 goals, 1996-97

Mike Gartner: 35 goals, 1995-96

Jean Ratelle: 33 goals, 1976-77

John Bucyk: 32 goals, 1971-72

Joe Sakic: 32 goals, 2005-06

Mats Sundin: 32 goals, 2007-08

This list comes with both good news and bad news. The bad news is that in order for Ovechkin to stay on pace with Gretzky, he is going to have to have one of the 10 best seasons for a 36-year-old of all time.

The good news, however, is that hardly seems impossible for Ovechkin.

Ovechkin already has the most goals in a season at age 34 (48 goals in 2019-20) and the second-most goals at 33 (51 goals in 2018-19) and 32 (49 goals in 2017-18).

Though limited to only 24 goals in 2021 after missing a career-high 11 games, Ovechkin said that had a lot to do with the condensed season.

"It was a short season. It was lots of games," Ovechkin said. "All the things were happening because of that because sometimes your body doesn't recover well, and a little injury became difficult to recover."

The 2021-22 schedule is much closer to the normal schedule the players are used to with 82 games and a season stretching from October to April. The main obstacle will be the Olympics which will mean Ovechkin will have to travel across the world to Beijing for a two-week tournament in the middle of the regular season.

But, of course, there was no way Ovechkin was going to miss the opportunity to represent his country.

"I'm very excited," Ovechkin said. "It's a privilege to be in the Olympic Games, represent your country and play against the best players in the world and try to get a gold medal. Everybody has the same chances right now, so I hope we're going to be able to make history, so we'll see."

It's also important to remember that he needs 33 goals per season only if he scores exactly 33. That average goes down with every goal he scores beyond that.

For those curious, the most goals in a single season by age are:

37 years old: 40 by John Bucyk and Brendan Shanahan

38 years old: 37 by Brett Hull

39 years old: 39 by Gordie Howe

40 years old: 44 by Gordie Howe

Ovechkin is going to have a tall task ahead of him to catch Gretzky and it will require some of the best seasons ever by a player of his age each year for the rest of his career. But what he has done to this point is he has made the impossible no longer feel that way. Ovechkin doesn't have to beat out any of the records on that list unless he stumbles and dips below 33 goals one season.

 

Truly, the impossible record of 894 now seems entirely possible for Ovechkin to catch, but it has to start with a big year in 2021-22.