The following article was originally published on January 11, 2019, on a previous iteration of The Intermission website, while on the Medium platform. Because this piece was (is still) a forecasting project and heavily reliant on up-to-date information and statistics, it’s only appropriate to provide a general update on Alex Ovechkin’s goal scoring progress to date. On March 15, 2021, Ovi scored his 717th career regular season goal, tying him with Phil Esposito for 6th all-time. When the original article was written, he was 15th on that list. What a difference two years can make in the skates of Alexander Ovechkin, the greatest goal scorer the universe has ever seen.
Looking forward, and using a very simply breakdown, Ovechkin’s career goal scoring pace is currently at 0.61 per game (717 goals in 1,176 games). To reach the all-time record of 895, he needs 178 goals. At current pace, it would take him approximately 292 games to reach that mark. If he were to average 73 games played over his next several seasons, it would take him 4 seasons to achieve the record. He’d be 39 years old. To compare, Jaromir Jagr is still playing at age 124. Ovi can totally do this!
* Though you’ve been briefed on his current status, you should still read the below article to digest all of the elements involved in projecting Ovi’s journey to becoming the greatest goal scorer ever.
On the evening June 7th, 2018, Alexander Ovechkin glided around the chiseled up ice of the T-Mobile Arena in humid Las Vegas, hoisting the NHL’s most coveted prize for the very first time. Though he had produced ungodly point and goal totals during his previous thirteen seasons, the Stanley Cup had always eluded him (and perhaps even more shockingly, it had somehow also eluded the storied Washington Capitals franchise since their inception in 1974). Ovechkin finally had his name etched into the side of Lord Stanley’s Cup and went on to conduct some of the wildest and most legendary post-championship shenanigans the world has ever seen.
This automatic Hall-of-Famer has now reached the middle of his second decade of professional hockey and at 33 years old, is still dominating a league that is now widely concentrated with more youthful 20-something year olds who bare more energetic wheels.
But does this youth movement even matter to Ovechkin? Hardly. If you needed any proof of his ongoing domination, you needn’t look further than his LEAGUE-LEADING 32 goals (in only 43 games played).
A further illustration of his continued goal scoring prowess is when, earlier in December, he posted back-to-back hat tricks in consecutive wins over the Red Wings and Hurricanes (which also happened to fuel a Capitals run which saw them reel off 12 wins over a 14-game stretch). Mostly because, well, he can.
That 30th goal that was scored recently set up a monumental feat that saw him tie Gordie Howe, Wayne Gretzky and Marcel Dionne (perhaps you’ve heard of these guys?) for the third most 30 goal seasons of all-time. The charming part of the achievement is seeing how far he can actually extend this impressive streak, as he still has plenty of career remaining to lengthen his list of accomplishments.
The overall goal numbers don’t lie. And other than the number of Stanley Cups that previously appeared next to his name, the numbers have never lied for Ovechkin. Though he’s now considered an “old man” competing in an increasingly younger man’s game, it’s still a legitimate statement to categorize Ovechkin as the most prolific, active goal scorer there can be found in the National Hockey League today.
But taking the narrative several steps further, can we arrive at the conclusion that Alexander Ovechkin is the universe’s greatest goal scorer… ever? Historic statistical evidence and future projections suggest just that.
Embedded deep within hockey’s illustrious lore, there is one statement that is truly undeniable: The sport of hockey will never see another character quite like Alexander Ovechkin. The goals, the celebrations, the consistent winning, the charisma, the leadership, the flare for the game, the body of work, the numbers, those signature yellow skate laces, the profoundly-embraced grey hair, the legendary contributions to the wildest Stanley Cup Championship “Celebration Tour” in the history of the planet earth. ALL of these characteristics embody the universal hockey treasure that is the man they call Alexander the Great. And at a time when the sport of hockey needed to be boosted off life support (citing the NHL lockout of 2004–05), Ovechkin arrived on the scene and breathed enigmatic life into the sport’s nightly grind.
But this article isn’t focused so much on how charismatic Ovechkin has been on the ice, or what the color choice of his skate laces is. It also isn’t about how drastic his approval rating might have increased with hockey fans after a summer-long, drunken championship universal tour and the Stanley Cup now by his side. The purpose of this particular piece is to simply speak the statistical language behind Ovechkin’s ability to put pucks in the back of nets and evaluate his case as being the greatest to EVER do it.
To truly get to the bottom of this intriguing debate, here’s the complete six-part breakdown.
A. Historical Goal Production
First, let us view the raw statistical data of the production Ovechkin has achieved up to this point in his career (through 1,046 career regular season games played). We also need to see who and what exactly he’s up against, so we’re also looking at the totals and averages of the fourteen guys that stand above him on the all-time goals list. At current state (as of January 11, 2018), Ovechkin comes in with the 15th highest goal total (639) in NHL history and has easily amassed the most of any active player (for reference, the ageless Patrick Marleau is a distant 94 goals behind him).
Here is the complete list of those players — all retired — that are currently ahead of him, along with their NHL regular season goal totals, their number of NHL seasons/games played and their goals per game averages:
Looking at the collection of games played among this insane list of greats, it’s impossible not to observe the one common theme: Longevity.
Another fascinating element here is how extremely tight the race is between Ovechkin’s 15th spot (which is only temporary) and Messier’s 8th spot. We’re talking about a total of 55 goals between the two slots. Based on his current goal-scoring pace, Ovi should actually surpass Messier and potentially get to 700 by the end of next season.
Speaking of a torrid pace, only Mario Lemieux (who’s played the least amount of games and had his career cut short in 2006 due to obvious medical reasons) averaged more goals on a per game basis than Ovechkin. But this fact also highlights the marginal difference in the number of seasons and games played up to this point by Ovechkin, in comparison to the other players on the list. At 33, he’s still approximately 7.5 seasons away from playing a full 21 seasons, which also by comparison, is the average number of seasons played by the other fourteen players (20.9). Assuming he plays 78 (77.5) games this year, he’s currently at exactly 55.1% (43 of 78) of the way through his 14th NHL season.
Do I personally think Ovi can and will play until he’s 40 years old? Hell yes I do! The guy has always proven to be a gamer. In averaging 77.5 games played per season (which does NOT include all of those playoff games), the guy is as durable a hockey player as the league has ever seen. It also happens to be an element of his game that he still doesn’t get quite enough credit for.
B. Projected Goal Output
There is zero doubt that the sport of hockey is firmly entrenched in the upper echelon of the most physically grueling. Over the long-term, injuries of every sort are going to take place (although it seems the NHL hasn’t quite caught on to the “load management” and “rest” schemes that the NBA has employed over the past few years, even if it ends up costing them a few dollars). However, and most notably, it’s the depreciation of a player’s skills and movement that coincides with those injures, is what’s most intriguing.
With that in mind, to forecast what kind of overall career numbers that Ovechkin might end his career with, we have to keep it simple, using the average games played and production that he’s established throughout his career so far. Here is the (cautionary) set of ground rules that we’re going to abide by to apply these future projections:
- We’re talking about REGULAR SEASON only. Naturally, playoff goals carry more weight, but won’t be used for this analysis. If you don’t see the words “regular season” within the context, just assume that’s the reference point.
- That Ovechkin finishes the latter part of his career with the identical goal-scoring pace (0.61 per game) that he has established thus far, over his first 13.5 NHL seasons.
- That Ovechkin plays all the way up until that 21st season (based on the above list and aforementioned 20.9-year average of the collection of players ahead of him).
- That Ovechkin plays the identical 77.5 games per regular season average (over the next seven seasons) that he has throughout his entire career.
* Keep in mind that the top row captures the respective scenario’s numbers, while the second row (blue), represents where he would end up for this overall career.
Here is what finishing out the current 2018–19 season would look like:
Based on that same pace for the rest of the current regular season over 78 games played (rounded up), Ovechkin would end up with a total of 53 goals for 2018–19 and a grand total of 660 career regular season goals at season’s end. It’s actually some pretty straightforward math.
Now, carrying the above logic all the way forward to the end of his NHL playing career, if Ovechkin were to play another seven seasons after 2018–19 (to reach 21 overall) and finished out his career with that identical goal-scoring pace, his final ungodly numbers would look something like this:
Wow, right? We’re left staring at an absolutely unfathomable total of 991 regular season career goals! And if he somehow gets to only ten goals shy, why not call for the full 1,000? In all seriousness, has any sports fan ever even considered the notion that anyone could potentially score 100 more goals than Wayne Gretzky?! Highly unlikely.
Even though he’s about to enter the latter — and eventually declining — part of his career, Ovechkin still has the opportunity and presumably the desire,to break what was once considered an all-time untouchable record.
It’s that deterioration of skills and health, and not the younger competition, that will present the ultimate challenge for Ovechkin to get close to this achievement. With that under heavy consideration, let’s toss some arbitrary deprecation factors into the mix of projections.
C. Projected Goal Output (including depreciation factors)
Not all NHL seasons are created equal, especially from a durability perspective. Ovechkin has essentially been the “LeBron James of the National Hockey League.” At present time, of a possible 1,109 regular season games, he’s played in 1,046 of them, which ends up being an utterly insane 94.3% “attendance rate.” For comparison sake, LeBron has played in 92.5% of his regular season games (1,177 of 1,272). For Ovi to sustain such exceptional durability numbers over the late stages of his career would figure to be near impossible.
Under this premise, let’s plot a few scenarios in which he either does not play with the same regularity (more games missed due to injury/rest) or carry the same goal-scoring pace (for this career) over the next seven seasons.
First, let’s forecast that Ovechkin plays at the same pace for the rest of his career, but plays one or even two less seasons (perhaps he decides to retire a year or two early?):
With this scenario, even cutting his career one or TWO regular seasons short of the average of the Top 14 scorers, he would still break the record for the most goals scored in NHL history with 944 (over 20 seasons) and 897 (over 19 seasons). Yes, that’s still more than Gretzky’s total of 894.
In a second scenario, let’s assume he plays until the end of his 21st season, but averages significantly fewer games per regular season (likely due to age, fatigue and potential chronic injuries over time). Picking a marginal number out of thin air, how about instead of averaging 77.5 games per regular season as he’s done, let’s project that he only plays in 60.0 games per regular season (a significant drop of 17.5 games per season):
Playing seven more seasons (after 2018–19) at only 60 games per, Ovechkin is again still able to capture the all-time record with 917 goals.
Having durability as less of a factor, the most realistic of the three scenarios is that although Ovechkin may continue to play until he’s 40 and be a semi-productive player, his goal-scoring abilities will diminish over time and a natural regression will eventually occur. Hey, it happens to the best of them. Simply, in the third scenario, let’s project that he will not be able to maintain a 0.61 goals per game pace through the twilight of his career. Instead, let’s randomly adjust his potential output down to a marginal 0.45 goals per game:
Even scoring less goals on a per game basis, he still reaches the all-time mark with 904 career regular season goals.
Finally, and what is more than likely to occur, is that all three of the above-mentioned scenarios overlap each other and take place in a simultaneous manner. He may not make it all the way to his 21st season, he’s certainly likely to play less games per regular season and his skills will no longer mirror that of the superstar player he once was or still is today. So let’s drop in some overlapping depreciated numbers for all three scenarios (keep in mind, these figures are simply arbitrary):
Playing only six more seasons instead of seven, at an average of 72 games per regular season instead of 77.5 and at a goal-scoring pace of 0.55 goals per game instead of 0.61, Ovechkin would still have a reasonable opportunity to break the all-time record. Accepting that there are plenty of major “ifs” along the way, this portion of Ovechkin’s legacy is there for the taking.
D. The Playoffs
Since I’ve detailed only the regular season when it comes to Ovechkin’s case as the goal scoring G.O.A.T., it’s worth briefly acknowledging his playoff goal scoring resume, which is clearly a smaller sample size, but naturally against stiffer game-to-game competition and on a bigger stage.
Because Ovechkin’s Washington Capital teams have been above league average for almost his entire career (they’ve made the postseason 10 out of 13 seasons, while he’s played in 121 total playoff games), he’s had an ample playoff sample size to be able to register some impressive goal scoring totals.
Some of the overall playoff metrics are comparable to that of his regular season numbers. After his Stanley Cup run last season, Ovechkin how currently sits tied for 28th on the all-time playoff goals list. To help support his ranking, it’s worth noting that of the guys ahead of him, he’s played in less playoff games than ALL but two: Bobby Hull (62 goals in 119 games) and Mario Lemieux (76 goals in 107 games). Of particular note is Lemieux’s absurd 0.71 playoff goals per game pace. He’ll surely rise up this list as his Capitals teams keep reaching the playoffs.
In terms of goal scoring pace, Ovechkin figures to fair even better. While his playoff pace is 0.50 goals per game (shy of his 0.61 regular season mark), he ranks 16th on the all-time playoff scoring list. But working in the opposite direction, he’s actually played in more playoff games than all but a handful of guys ahead of him (Brett Hull, Dino Ciccarelli, Jari Kurri, Gretzky, Maurice Richard and Mike Bossy).
Comparing the two directly, while the regular season and playoff measures don’t churn out to be identical, Ovechkin has still proved to be one of the league’s most dynamic goal scorers, and with plenty of opportunities to add to his scoring legacy as his Caps are currently built for many more future playoff appearances.
E. The Comparison of “Eras”
Similar to the gamut of professional sports, aligning one era next to another creates an almost impossible challenge. With significant changes to the game and style of play over the years, it’s basically become apples versus oranges. However, given what the historic generations of hockey have produced over time in terms of goal scoring, the “era debate” actually works in Ovechkin’s favor. Clearly, the NHL’s days of prolific goal scoring and lengthy lists of 100+ point scorers had already been washed out by zone trap defenses and bigger goaltender equipment by the time Ovi even entered the league.
Let’s refer to a hockey “era” as its own decade, starting with the “Gretzky and the Oilers Era” that was basically all of the 1980s. Ovechkin himself has participated in two of the decades (the 2000s and the 2010s). Here’s a couple of league-wide numbers to digest:
* Each of the lockout seasons (1994–95, 2004–05, 2012–13) have been removed as “incomplete” NHL seasons.
Total Goals Scored Per Game (Per Decade)
1980s: 3.83 (10 seasons)
1990s: 3.09 (10 seasons)
2000s: 2.80 (9 seasons)
2010s: 2.80 (9 seasons)
Number of 40+ Goal Scorers (Average Per Season, Per Decade)
1980s: 22.1 players per season
1990s: 15.2 players per season
2000s: 8.1 players per season
2010s: 4.3 players per season
Both of these statistics progressively saw significant decreases from decade to decade. From the 1980s into the 2010s and present day, the NHL has dropped by over an entire goal per game in league-wide scoring. Due to these small figures, the drop may appear to be insignificant, but going from 3.83 goals per game to 2.80 meant a decrease of literally thousands of goals. And also keep in mind that this phenomenon occurred while the league transitioned from less teams playing and less games being played in the 1980s/1990s before expansion really exploded.
In the illustration above, you can also see the steady decline in the highest total number of individual goals scored over each season. From the likes of Gretzky’s 92-goal season in 1981–82 (still absolutely INSANE!) all the way into the late 2000s where players were essentially considered immortal if they somehow managed to top the 50-goal mark. It’s clear that the art of goal scoring in the NHL and the style of play, drastically declined over each “era.”
The profound point to take away here is that goal scoring was at an all-time high in in the 1980s and for the majority of the 1990s. The scoring BOOM that occurred in these two decades ended up producing many of the NHL’s all-time goal leaders.
Translation: Ovechkin has been scoring goals in an era where defense and goaltending have not only changed, but have been prioritized to limit scoring as a whole. Even so, he’s led the league in goals eight times over his 14 years in the league. EIGHT! But can you even fathom if Ovechkin (or even his nemesis Sidney Crosby) had played in the same era as Gretzky, particularly in 1981–82, when Wayne dropped the 92! With Ovechkin’s modern-day skill set, would it be unreasonable to think he might have been able to reach 100 for a single season? Or even multiple seasons? It’s a frightening thought.
At the same time, this statistical snippet also doubles as the perfect example of why we can’t accurately compare eras across sports. It just doesn’t work anymore. Players were great in their respective eras for a variety of reasons. Over time, there have simply been too many rule tweaks and equipment advancements to be able to compare holistically. We can’t time warp Ovechkin back to 1980 and we can’t substitute Gretzky’s then-unrivaled skills into the game we see on the ice in 2019. The Goals Per Game measurement is far from a perfect, exact science, but it’s perhaps the most accurate way we can compare a player’s overall goal production, relative to the level of competition and style of play that he faces within his own “era.”
For Ovechkin’s case as the league’s greatest pure goal scorer, I’m leaning on the available data.
F. Final Verdict
Not a single person on the planet earth (myself included) could, would or should ever claim that Alexander Ovechkin is a better total hockey player than Wayne Gretzky. #99 simply had it ALL. Nor is Ovechkin even a more complete player than most of the guys ahead of him on that goal scoring list.
When we factor in all of the skills that comprise a true goal scorer… the hands, accuracy, touch, power, timing, precision, I believe it’s actually Mario Lemieux, not Gretzky, that is Ovechkin’s closest competition. Lemieux’s goal scoring pace (in both the regular season and playoffs) is the prominent element to highlight, in that he scored more goals in significantly fewer games than the majority of guys on the list. Much like Ovechkin in today’s modern era, Super Mario manipulated goaltenders like no one had ever seen at the time, including Gretzky. Seriously, hit the YouTube machine to watch a Mario Lemieux highlight package. He’s probably underrated at this point in time. The knock on Mario, and certainly not within in his control, is that he didn’t sustain that goal-scoring dominance for the same extended period of time as the others, including Ovechkin. With another 300–400 games under his belt, could Mario have surpassed Gretzky’s total? Of course. But ultimately, we’ll never know.
“As a pure, consistent, prolific goal-scoring machine, Alex Ovechkin is THE greatest the hockey universe has EVER witnessed at putting the puck behind opposing goaltenders. And that’s including Gretzky.”
Ovechkin’s body of work now consists of enough depth, that statistically, historically and even visually, his case can legitimately be made. If he continues to play at this level, or even remotely close, with this model of durability, he will not only reach the statistical pinnacle of the goal-scoring mountain, but he’ll be considered the greatest goal-scorer ever. And not just by myself, but by the majority of hockey fans. At a certain point, the numbers might be just too overwhelming for any haters to make a claim against him.
With the bevy of elite production and each ageless season Alexander Ovechkin churns out, no matter the competition, “when” he breaks the record seems more appropriate to consider than “if” he breaks it. The very same can be said about him finally capturing the Stanley Cup. He’s been so great for so long, that something eventually had to give. And it did.
If he does happen to glide to the regular season goals record just as he did that night on the Las Vegas ice, you’ll find me driving that bandwagon with a flashing sign on it that says “wowed and thoroughly impressed, but ultimately not surprised.” Ovi’s greatness has been around the whole time.