Phil Esposito knows a thing or two about scoring goals. He’s one of the best of all-time at it. During his 18-year NHL career, he scored 717 career goals which ranks sixth in NHL history...for now. Alex Ovechkin is two goals away from joining Esposito as a member of the 700-goal club and could end up passing him by the end of the season.
Esposito may be from a different era, but he still knows a great goal-scorer when he sees one.
“Well, let me put it this way,” Esposito said. “I don’t give a [expletive] what era it would be. Alex Ovechkin would be still scoring goals, in any era, anywhere.”
A lot of goal-scorers have come and gone without finding nearly the same amount of success as Ovechkin. We all know how great a shot he has, but Esposito recognizes the other qualities that he believes sets Ovechkin apart.
“His positioning and his ability to put the puck on the net all the time,” Esposito said. “If you go back in history through all the guys who scored 700, they usually hit the net a lot. I think that Alex is one of those guys who puts it on the net and puts the onus on the goaltender.”
“To me, it didn’t matter how hard I shot the puck, it’s where I put it,” he added. “If I put it in a location going 50 mph, the goalie couldn’t move his feet fast enough to stop it. … Ovechkin can hit those spots when he has that extra second. But if he doesn’t have that extra second, he makes sure he gets it on the net and that’s the key to scoring goals. Putting it on the net.”
One of the most impressive aspects of Ovechkin’s goal-scoring prowess is that it is coming in an era in which it has become incredibly difficult to score. Esposito noted, “Never underestimate the people who are blocking the shots nowadays, as compared to my day.”
“The way the game is played nowadays and the way the guys get in the [shooting] lanes, and they block shots, sometimes you’ve got to pass it,” Esposito said. “Man, I’d venture to say that without the blocked shots and everything else, like the way it was in the ‘70s, Alex would get more than 550 shots on net. And probably score 75 to 80 goals.”
As Ovechkin’s career has continued, his remarkable ability to stay healthy has become as much of a reason for him climbing the all-time goals list as his goals are. Despite all the talent around the league, no other player in the NHL has even reached 600 goals. Ovechkin's durability becomes all the more impressive with every passing year.
“He’s a monster and he’s very strong,” Esposito said. “Secondly, he’s played with some pain, I’ll guarantee that. And that’s another thing, he plays with the pain. He doesn’t complain about it. He’ll go out and he’ll play.”
Ovechkin has already carved a place for himself in history among the greatest goal-scorers of all-time. That’s not in doubt. But as he sits ever so close to reaching 700 at the age of 34, the answer now on everyone’s mind is can he keep it up?
While 34 is old for most hockey players, age does not seem to be much of a factor for Ovechkin who is one of just three players with 40 goals this season. Considering the rate at which Ovechkin has continued to score, this has led some to wonder if Wayne Gretzky’s record of 894 goals could be in play.
For many reaching 700 will be the last great milestone of their career, but for Ovechkin, it could just be the unofficial proclamation that he is coming for Gretzky’s record.
But if he is going to beat the record, Esposito thinks he is going to need help.
“Stay with the Washington Capitals,” Esposito said. “Stay with a good team. Trust me, I went through that. When I was traded from Boston to [the New York Rangers], New York was a bad team and I certainly didn’t score like I did in Boston, which was a great team. You don’t do it alone in the NHL. You don’t. You’d better have good teammates with you if you’re going to be a good scorer.”
Ovechkin has certainly had that in his time in Washington and will continue to have it after Nicklas Backstrom signed a new five-year deal to stay with the team.
And Ovechkin is going to need all the help he can get to reach Gretzky’s record which was long thought to be untouchable.
Until he does, however, as great as he may be, he won’t be the greatest at least according to Esposito.
“I’m not going to say he’s the best of all time,” Esposito said. “Wayne is. Wayne’s No. 1. It’s simple. When I retired, I was No. 2, [Gordie Howe] was the best. And so until you beat the best, you’re not the best. Period.”
Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports. Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Capitals and Wizards games easily from your device.
MORE CAPITALS NEWS: