Records, even the unbelievable ones, are all meant to be broken.
On Feb. 22, Washington Capitals winger Alexander Ovechkin took one more step toward a record many thought was unbreakable. In a 3 – 2 loss to the New Jersey Devils, Ovechkin became just the eighth player in NHL history to score 700 goals in a career.
Ovechkin is now 194 goals from reaching hockey legend Wayne Gretzky’s career record of 894 goals.
Now, often in sports, accompanying the achievement of any great milestone is the discussion of a player’s overall place in history. There is debate as to whether Ovechkin deserves a place as one of hockey’s rarified few, but the numbers tell a very clear story.
Ovechkin is the most offensively-productive player of our generation and will go down as the greatest and most consistent scorer of all time.
Ovechkin is unquestionably scoring goals at a historic pace. He entered the league in the 2005 – 2006 season and immediately demonstrated his scoring prowess, tallying 52 goals and 54 assists in 81 games in his rookie campaign. Over his 14-year career, he has scored more than 50 goals in a season eight times. His 701 career goals leads all active NHL players — 140 more than San Jose Sharks center Patrick Marleau, who entered the league eight years before Ovechkin. His 0.611 goals per game is 16% higher than any active player.
Statistically, Ovechkin is the most prolific scorer of our generation. Period.
This begs the question, however: how does he stack up against the one they call “The Great One?” Wayne Gretzky is widely regarded as the greatest hockey player of all time. He holds the career marks for goals (894), assists (1963), and points (2857). While Ovechkin will never approach Gretzky’s marks for assists or points (it’s likely that no one ever will), he is on pace to surpass Gretzky for the most goals in NHL history.
Gretzky averaged 0.601 goals a game over his 20 year career — .01 of a goal per game behind Ovechkin. From there, the equation is simple: if Ovechkin is able to play another 330 games, or about four seasons, at the same level he is now, the record is his.
This mark is even more impressive than Gretzky’s given the relative conditions of the league. During Gretzky’s career, the average NHL team scored about 3.50 goals per game, compared to 2.85 goals per game during Ovechkin’s career. Not only is Ovechkin on pace to become a more effective scorer than Gretzky himself, but he did it in a league that was less inclined toward offensive production, making him undoubtedly the greatest scorer in NHL history.
Some criticize Ovechkin because this game is often focused on scoring goals. The perception surrounding the Russian superstar is that the way he plays the game is akin to a sniper — striking with extreme precision and power, but having a diminished impact on the overall flow of the game. The numbers, however, tell a different story. While his 570 career assists ranks tenth among active players — over 500 behind Sharks legend Joe Thornton — it is still a ridiculous number given his position. Ovechkin plays on the wing, which means when a team is transitioning into the offensive zone, it is rare that he controls the puck. Most offensive development flows through the center, which is why the nine active leaders in assists ahead of Ovechkin are all centers.
He receives criticism for his lack of skill as a playmaker, and yet he is also the most effective playmaker in the 21st century from the wing.
Ovechkin isn’t just a scorer. He’s an offensive machine. He ranks third among active players in offensive production per game with 1.108 points per game, just barely behind Penguins greats Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Over his career, he averaged a remarkable 85 points per season, breaking the 100 point barrier four times. Offensive production leads to wins, and Ovechkin has led his Capitals to three President’s Cups and the 2017 – 2018 Stanley Cup title.
Ovechkin performs at a high level, and the success of his team reflects the importance of this contribution.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Ovechkin’s career is his unbreakable consistency. He hasn’t played less than 72 games in any season since he entered the league, demonstrating a remarkable toughness. While he entered the NHL in the same season as Malkin and Crosby, he’s played 200 more games than each of them because of his toughness and aversion to injury. He has scored within 13 goals of his per season average every season during his career. By contrast, in Gretzky’s 20 year career, he averaged 62 goals per season in his prime seven years, but only 20 goals per season in the other 13.
Statistically, it is inevitable that Ovechkin will go down as one of the greatest hockey players of all time. He has the opportunity to become the most prolific goal scorer ever.
Despite the numbers, there are still those who doubt his place in history. Ovechkin may break Gretzky’s record, he may not. Some may consider Ovechkin a legend, some may not. Even Gretzky had doubters during his time as the greatest ever. Just like we will never see another Gretzky, we will never see another Ovechkin.
The best thing to do is sit back and appreciate the greatest talent of our generation before it is gone.
Scott Lowery is a senior studying mathematics and economics.