FanPost

Re-Visiting: The greatest NHL goal-scorer of all time

Let's think back to December 22nd, 2019. The world was quite different, in fact, very different.
No pandemic, the Leafs had way less Game 7 losses than they do nowadays, and I had not started University yet. Three years are a long time after all...

I also had just published a writeup on Alex Ovechkin and Mario Lemieux, in which I argued why either of them was a better goal-scorer than Wayne Gretzky over their careers. Now, three years ago, nobody actually thought Ovechkin would come close to Gretzky's record, or at least I didn‘t. But he was still widely regarded as the best pure goal scorer of his generation at least. Well, just like many other things have changed since then, so has the perception of Ovechkin.

A look back

So, what exactly was the situation on December 22nd, 2019? Ovechkin had 679 goals, and at the pace he was scoring over his last few seasons then, and a supposed "normal" regression curve, Ovechkin would've been just shy of third all time after his last contract had expired. We now know that Ovechkin signed a 5 year, 47,5-million-dollar contract with the Washington Capitals for the 2021/2022 season, which means he will play until the 2025/26 season at the minimum. In 2019, I predicted Ovechkin would score at his goal pace until the new contract was signed, would score 93 goals over two seasons, and then sign another contract for two or three years, his production would slow down because he turns 36, and finish just behind Gretzky's all time goal record.

Since then, the NHL had to not play games for half a season, a bunch of other stuff happened, Ovechkin signed a much bigger contract than I had expected, and among everything, has not slowed down in production whatsoever. Now, he has obviously scored less goals than I thought he would, courtesy of the world.

Nontheless, lets have a look at where we stand right now, on February 22nd, 2022.

Where we are at

Ovechkin right now sits on 761 goals. That is a whole five goals off Jaromir Jagr's 766 for third all time. Ovechkin, this season, has played 50 games and scored 31 goals. He is on pace for 51 goals this season, which would put him at 781 goals all time, comfortably in third. Its basically a given he will score 6 more goals this season, given the world does not implode again, or a cataclysmic injury (I really, really don't want to jinx it, please stay healthy!). These are the easy numbers.

Now we come the fun part of this piece: looking into my crystal ball and predicting the future, with the help of a little bit of maths!

Predictions!

In his last full season, Ovechkin scored at a 0.7 goals per game pace. This season, he is scoring at a 0.62 gpg pace. At age 36. Inhumane numbers. A wizard, an Avenger, Superman, call him what you will.
As you know, or maybe you don't off the top of your head, Wayne Gretzky's all-time record stands at 894 goals.
That is a 133-goal difference from Ovechkin's 761 right now and would be 113 goals off his projected goals at the end of the season. He is also under contract for four seasons after this one. That means he would have to score 29 goals per season to beat Gretzky's record. That is not just entirely plausible but looks to me like it's the more likely outcome of the two! Now that is exciting, and we will witness history at some point in the next 4 years.

The only question that remains, is when?
Assuming Ovechkin finishes the season with 49 goals, because I am still not convinced he will score 50 again, he would sit on 779 goals, 115 off the top spot.
Let's also assume, that due to injuries or the occasional all star game absence, he only plays 80 out of the possible 82 games next season, which is his average games played over the last three full seasons he has played. Lets also say he scores at roughly a 0.6 gpg pace, which, as a reminder, is what he is doing this season, and worse than what he was doing in 2019/20, the last full NHL season he and everyone else has played.

That would mean he scored 48 goals in 2022/23, which would put him at 827 goals all-time, safely in second place, overtaking Brett Hull around game 45 of next season.
This would also mean that he needed to score 67 goals in his remaining 3 seasons, at the ages of 38, 39 and 40, respectively. That would mean he needed to score 23 goals a season over those seasons to beat Gretzky's record.
We could now go on and make predictions about those three seasons as well and see how an aging curve would affect his scoring, but honestly, I don't think aging curves apply to Alex Ovechkin anymore. Of course, he will regress eventually, but I don't think that's coming next season, and even if he drops off and does not score close to 50 goals again but hangs around 30 to 35 in his last few seasons after this coming one, and maybe has a really bad one in there where he scores about 15 to 20, he still beats the record!

Now let that sink in. Alexander Ovechkin will be the leading NHL all-time goal scorer. Does that settle the debate of whether he is the best at it? Well, no, not really, Mario Lemieux, at the end of all this, still out-paces him in gpg over their primes, as I wrote in my article three years ago. But it will still be history, and one hell of an accomplishment for the great 8.

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