When Alex Ovechkin signed a five-year deal last summer to remain in Washington for presumably the remainder of his NHL career, part of the reasoning for his contract was the chance to catch Wayne Gretzky’s mark of 894 career goals.
“Well, you never know,” Ovechkin said last summer. “I’m gonna try my best. That’s why I wanna play five more years: To have a chance to catch the Great One, why not? If I’m gonna be second, you know it’s a pretty good number as well.”
And in the 2021-22 season, Ovechkin showed he can still score at an elite rate, even at 36 years old. He passed Marcel Dionne, Brett Hull and Jaromir Jagr on the all-time goals list with his 50-goal campaign (which was good for fourth in the league) and catapulted himself to third all-time with 780 career goals and four years remaining on his contract.
But with four years left on his contract, and perhaps a maximum of 328 NHL games left, how much more likely is he to pass Gretzky than he was a year ago?
Compared to this time last year, he’s in better shape. And he's given himself a chance to make things, relatively, easy on himself down the stretch of his career.
In order to reach 895 goals and become the NHL’s top goal-scorer, he needed to average 33 goals per season over the entirety of his five-year contract as of last summer. With his 50-goal season, though, he bought himself some wiggle room.
At 780 goals, Ovechkin needs 115 goals to pass Gretzky. Over four seasons, that averages out to 28.75 goals per season — a mark Ovechkin has hit in all but one of his 17 NHL seasons. The lone blemish came in the 45-game pandemic shortened season in 2021, when he scored 24 goals.
With a strong outing in the first year of his deal, he’s put himself in a position where, if he scores 50 goals again, or even approaches the number, the conversation will eventually switch to “when” he’ll pass Gretzky, not “if.”
But even Ovechkin isn’t immune from Father Time, as the odds that the soon-to-be 37 year old Russian forward continues to score 50 goals per season as he nears his 40s remain unlikely. In fact, for Ovechkin to pass Gretzky, he’ll need to score at a rate unheard of for his age.
Just two players in NHL history (John Bucyk and Brendan Shanahan) have scored 40 or more goals in their age 37 seasons. For comparison, Gretzky scored 23 goals and Gordie Howe scored 29 in their age 37 seasons — though Howe scored 44 goals as a 40 year old..
And while Ovechkin is good enough to cover it up, he’s still not the player he was in his 20s.
In Ovechkin’s 17 NHL seasons, he’s averaged 4.76 shots per game, per Hockey Reference. He hasn’t hit that mark since the 2015-16 season.
Of the 10 seasons where Ovechkin posted his highest shot totals per night, all 10 came when he was 30 or younger. His six seasons from 31 years old and onward rank in the bottom seven of his career in terms of shots per game, with the lone exception being his 26-year-old season in 2011-12 when the team played “Hunter Hockey,” a more defensive style of game.
Still, Ovechkin scored last season on 15% of his shots taken, the third best mark of his career. Ironically, three of his most efficient scoring seasons have come in the last four years. For any normal player this age, that would be a sign that a drop-off is near. Of course, Ovechkin is no normal player.
Even without Ovechkin generating the shots he once did, and even if his scoring chances decrease as he ages, 115 goals is certainly an attainable feat for the generation’s top goal-scorer.
In addition, he should join some elite company on the way to Gretzky.
With a 30-goal season in 2022-23, he’d tie Mike Gartner for the most 30 goal seasons in NHL history. If Ovechkin scores 40, he’ll hold the milestone for the most 40-goal seasons in league history. If Ovechkin scores 50, he’ll be the only player in NHL history to record double-digit 50-goal seasons.
Ovechkin is also just 20 goals away from 800 all-time, 21 away from tying Gordie Howe’s total of 801 and 22 away from moving into sole possession of second place on the all-time scoring list. If Ovechkin keeps his pace from last season, there’s a shot he’s got second place locked up before the season is half over.
But even then, the eyes of the hockey world will be on 894 and the chase for Gretzky.
The numbers to know now are 28.75, the average he needs in the final four years of his deal, and 115, the total number he needs to pass Gretzky. It’s a chase that will grip the sports world, and Year 2 of his new contract is just as pivotal as Year 1 in terms of giving himself a better chance of eclipsing Gretzky.
Should Ovechkin score 45 goals, he'd be at 825 by the end of the 2022-23 season. That'd leave him with just 70 goals to score to pass Gretzky, and just 23.33 goals per season to average. As he gets older, making it easier on himself in the future by scoring in the present is paramount.
No matter which ways it's divided, though, compared to this time last year, and perhaps every summer before this one, catching Gretzky looks more possible than ever.