It’s going to be a long while, maybe a couple of years, before people will attend a Washington Capitals game with the words, “maybe tonight” on their tongues. That phrase, of course, will refer to the quest of the “Great Eight,” Alexander Ovechkin, to become the greatest goal scorer of all time in the NHL. Yes, and you already know this: goal number 895 will make him greater than Gretzky, at least at putting pucks in the net.
It hardly seems a year or two ago that we were watching for Ovi’s 500th, a goal he scored in mid-January 2016. At that time, it was the closest in feeling I had come to the wait for 500 of the great Frank Mahovlich, a feat I witnessed, from the comfort of my Montreal living room, as a child. More have scored that number of goals since, but Ovechkin’s 500th was special somehow, though I don’t think it had occurred to too many people at the time that he would threaten Gretzky’s number.
Now here we are. In the time between the “Big M” (Mahovlich) and now, many players have surpassed 500, 600, and even 700 goals. There are now 20 players with 600 or more, eight who have at least 700, and only three with an “eight” in front of their total. Gordie Howe has 801. Ovechkin has 827, and Gretzky finished with 894.
At his current pace, which is an average of about 45 goals a year over the past several seasons, Ovechkin is likely to be in the 870 range by the end of this season, though note that he’s not quite on pace this year, with five goals over the first 20 games. Let’s hope that the loss of Nicklas Backstrom doesn’t continue to linger as a problem, if indeed the loss of his long-time line mate and cereal commercial buddy is what has caused his slowed production.
People have noted that one problem he’s dealing with right now is a super low shooting percentage. Could that be attributed to not having his familiar passer? Or is this just one of those “return-to-mean” things that will reverse (and see him go on a tear when it does)?
So if he picks it up and scores another 40 in the next 62 games, then keeps on the same pace next season, he’d be at the record’s doorstep somewhere around Feb. 1, 2025. That’s a rough calculation. I’m sure someone else has a more precise rendering out there somewhere.
Aside from the question of when Ovechkin will get 895 comes another query: how many more will he get past that? You’ve got to think, no matter how long the record takes to break, and no matter how his body holds up to that point, 900 would be a reasonable number to want.
I’d like to say that at that point, the total would be unapproachable, but that’s what we thought about Gretzky’s goal total. Nothing is impossible. But it’s not going to happen in this generation, which is why watching Ovechkin carefully is so important.
Currently playing career goals leaders, btw, are Crosby with 564 and Stamkos with 524. They are the only two exceeding 500 goals. Next are Malkin, Pavelski, Eric Staal, and Patrick Kane, the only ones at 450-plus. True enough, scoring has been in decline of late, though not anymore, with players having figured out how to put the puck up and over netminders’ shoulders and whiz it past their heads into the net.
Ovechkin plays with the same aggressive posture, the same square-shouldered stance he always had, gliding at people on the forecheck, squaring up his body so he can hit you no matter what side you turn to to try to escape him, menacing. He skates with the same chopping half-steps, the familiar one-legged push with the right foot while gliding on the left, a missile seeking its target, a bomb ready to go off.
But his habits are those of a superstar. He drifts all over the ice, lurking around the top of the defensive zone until the puck finds him. He breaks out up the left wing before cutting across the neutral zone on the diagonal, waiting for a feed. These aren’t criticisms, just observations. At the moment, he has enough cultural capital saved up, and a patient enough coach, for him to play like this, following his own agenda. He’s confident that the puck will find him. He knows what to do with it when it does. Will that last as his goal production falls off, if indeed it keeps on doing that?
How old will he play to if the goals start coming in dribs and drabs? How much patience will it take to keep him in the lineup? What if the record never happens? There’s no guarantee. Doesn’t matter. It means Gretzky keeps his crown, but this generation of fans still got to see a player score more than all but one person, ever, and exceed his peers by 200 and 300 goals. Pretty amazing.