For the majority of Alex Ovechkin’s career, Wayne Gretzky’s tally of 894 goals has seemed like a far-off unachievable goal. And, depending on how quickly Ovechkin’s goal-scoring falls off and the contract he signs, those thoughts about the record might be right.
The unique part, however, is that it’s not totally ridiculous to question whether Ovechkin can do it.
Ovechkin has 730 career goals and is currently sixth all-time. He’s a certainty to overtake Marcel Dionne’s spot in fifth (731) and Brett Hull’s fourth (741), but how far he can climb has been a topic of conversation in Washington for years. Now without a contract for the time being, Ovechkin’s future is unclear — in more ways than just his pursuit of hockey’s all-time goal record.
But his next contract, one that both he and Capitals management have said repeatedly they want to get done, could speak to what he’ll have to do to reach Gretzky’s record, and how interested he may be in such a record.
"You still have chances, man,” Ovechkin said of the record after the season ended. “You just have to go out there and do your thing and maybe it's happen, maybe not, but how I said, one step at a time."
With 164 goals to go to tie Gretzky’s mark, Ovechkin would need to play at least four more seasons in the NHL to break the record. That is, unless he can average a shade over 54 goals for those three seasons — a mark he’s reached just twice in his career.
So if Ovechkin’s next contract is three years or less, and he says that he won’t play longer than that in the NHL, reaching Gretzky’s record is out the window. But second place (Gordie Howe’s 801) is certainly in play over the next two seasons. Ovechkin is just 71 goals off of Howe’s mark and could reach that in two seasons, let alone three considering his current pace.
Should Ovechkin sign a multi-year contract with the Capitals this offseason, overtaking Dionne, Hull and Jaromir Jagr (unless there is a steep dropoff) over the course of the contract are near certainties and Howe’s mark is extremely likely.
Reaching the top of that list carries a special place in history, not just because of how unattainable the record seemed to be, but because the greatest player in the sport’s history has it. Yet if Ovechkin were to get there, he’d need to keep his scoring levels up for the next handful of seasons.
If Ovechkin signs a four year extension with the Capitals, he will need to average 41.25 goals per season to hit 895 career goals. While that seems like a breeze for the most talented goal-scorer of this generation, he’s set to be 36-years-old at the start of the 2021-22 regular season. Meaning, under this hypothetical four-year deal, he’d end the contract at the age of 39.
Ovechkin, of course, is not just any player in his mid-30s.
In the 2019-20 regular season, he scored 0.71 goals per game, tied for the second-best mark of his entire career. The season was obviously cut short due to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but before it was, Ovechkin was scoring like he was in his 20s.
Should Ovechkin sign a five-year extension with the Capitals, he’d need 33 goals per season — a task that seems relatively accomplishable for Ovechkin in the 2021-22 season, but one that could be increasingly difficult as time wears on.
What also can’t be counted out is a hypothetical where Ovechkin nears Gretzky’s record and sits with a goal total he can reach, like 880, or whatever the total is where Ovechkin feels it's worth his while to keep playing. Should he experience a Jagr-esque career and play well into his 40s, the odds he becomes hockey’s goal-scoring king only increases.
But his next contract should be the first indicator.
While there's still a long climb for Ovechkin to reach the mountaintop of hockey’s goalscoring, considering the era he played in, there’s absolutely a case to be made he’s already the best goal scorer of all-time.
Adjusted statistics are a measure of how many goals a player could have been projected to score with all factors the same: An 82-game schedule, league average of six goals per game, etc. On that list Ovechkin is third all-time with 835 adjusted goals, behind Jagr (841) and Howe (925). Both of those players played 24 and 26 years, respectively, in the NHL. Ovechkin has played just 16.
Still, that’s no consolation for fans that want to see Ovechkin break The Great One’s record. But despite lost games due to quirky suspensions (skipping All-Star Games), lockouts and a global pandemic, Ovechkin is still in play to reach 895 career goals in his career. What his next deal in Washington looks like should tell a lot about his willingness to go for it, and even if it’s possible.
But the fact that it’s still a question is a testament to just how uniquely great of a player Ovechkin has been.