Alex Ovechkin matched Pavel Bure in games played over the weekend, and the two Russians are just three goals apart. Who was better over 702 games?
Don’t you love it when a perfect comparison delivers itself to you on a plate?
Credit to a Reddit user named ‘Nuppa Nuppa’ for pointing this out. Alex Ovechkin played his 702nd career game this past Saturday in Toronto. In doing so, he equalled Pavel Bure’s total. So arguably the two greatest pure goal scorers of the last 25 years sat at precisely the same sample size before Ovie reached 703 games Tuesday. Lo and behold, they were just three goals apart.
Bure: 702 games, 437 goals, 779 points
Ovechkin: 702 games, 434 goals, 835 points
Those numbers leap off the page, get down on their knees and beg us to ask: who is better? ‘The Russian Rocket’ or ‘Alexander the GR8’?
Let’s break it down.
WHO HAS BETTER CAREER ACCOLADES?
Pavel Bure is a Hall of Famer, but Alex Ovechkin should make it, too, so there’s no discernible edge for Bure. It’s all ‘Ovie’ here.
Bure and Ovechkin each won the Calder Trophy as a rookie. Bure led the NHL in goals three times in his 12 seasons. He lost double-digit games to injury in half those campaigns. The two times he played every game in a year, he led the league in goals. Bure was a first-team all-star once and a second-team all-star twice.
Ovechkin has led the league in goals four times in his nine full seasons, missing double-digit games only once. He has an Art Ross Trophy as the league’s overall scoring champion. He’s a three-time Hart Trophy winner as league MVP. He’s a three-time Ted Lindsay/Lester B. Pearson Award winner as MVP as voted by the players. He’s a seven-time first-team All-Star, including each of his first six seasons in the league. He’s a two-time second-team all-star. He cracked the first and second teams in 2012-13, one at right wing and one at left wing.
Ovechkin is the most decorated player of his own era, by a wide margin, especially at the forward position. He has a clear edge on Bure. The question is, however, if we’ll look back in 10 or 20 years and decide Bure had tougher competition. Bure played in the same era as Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Teemu Selanne, each of whom beat him out for a major individual award at one time or another. Did Ovie have inferior competition? It’s too early to know. But he does share an era with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Steven Stamkos, each of whom is on a Hall of Fame trajectory, so Ovechkin may one day stack up to Bure in that regard, too.
WHO PRODUCED MORE RELATIVE TO THE ERA IN WHICH HE PLAYED?
Here’s a juicy category. Whose goal-scoring feats were more impressive based on the league’s offense – impacted by goaltending quality, the obstruction crackdown and so forth – during his era? Interestingly, each player’s 702 games have included ‘Live Puck’ days and ‘Dead Puck’ days. Goals still piled up in the early 1990s, when Bure first burst onto the scene, but he toiled in the worst of the Dead Puck era during later half of his career. Offense spiked in ‘The New NHL’ when Ovechkin broke into the league, but it’s back at a premium now.
Using quanthockey.com’s yearly data, compiling the goals per game during each of Bure’s 12 seasons produces an average of 5.906. Ovechkin’s nine completed seasons: 5.545. Multiply Ovechkin’s 434 goals by the goals per game average of Bure’s era, then divide by his own era’s average and you get an adjusted goal total of 462:
(My math, if you really want to know: 434/5.545 = x/5.906; 5.545x = 2563.204; x = 2563.204/5.545; x = 462.2)
Hockey Reference’s own adjusted goal criteria boost Ovie’s goal total to 531, with Bure’s spiking to 463.
It’s not an exact science, but Bure played in a more offensive era, so Ovechkin’s virtually identical goal production is arguably more impressive. That said, Bure hit his number battling through devastating knee problems, whereas Ovie’s body has largely held up.
WHO HAS A STRONGER PLAYOFF HISTORY?
Bure had 35 goals and 70 points in 64 playoff games, including a massive 1993-94 run in which he had 16 goals – 13 at even strength – and 31 points in 24 games. Ovechkin has been productive, too, with 31 goals and 61 points in 58 games. League-wide offense in the post-season during Ovie’s era is actually close to what it was in Bure’s best playoff seasons, so the adjustment doesn’t apply as much. Bure was the more legendary crunch-time guy.
WHO HAS A MORE VERSATILE SKILL SET?
This debate is the most subjective by far. Ovechkin’s defensive struggles are well documented, but there were no advanced stats in Bure’s era, so we can’t track his two-way ability by how he impacted possession. It’s too bad, as we’ve seen plenty of players with the ability to rag the puck yield strong defensive stats. For what it’s worth, Ovechkin is the only one to receive Selke Trophy votes. From 2007-08 to 2009-10, he finished 29th, 50th and 28th on the ballot. Ha! Based on reputation and the simple eye test, Bure was considered no stronger defensively than Ovechkin, and Bure had similar clashes with coaches over backchecking, being selfish with the puck and so on.
In the offensive zone, again, it’s subjective, but our eyes paint Bure as a better improviser, equally deadly with a deke as he was with a shot. Better playmaker, too. In all honesty, I’m just setting up an excuse to show Bure and Ovie highilght videos back to back.
Bure’s greatest hits:
Ovie’s greatest hits:
WHO PEAKED HIGHER?
Who was more mind-bogglingly amazing at the peak of his powers? And, yes, I am implying Ovechkin’s peak is in the rearview mirror. Ovie’s best two sniping seasons came at age 22 and 23, when he potted 65 and 56 goals, respectively. Bure’s consecutive 60-goal efforts came at age 21 and 22. Hockey Reference adjusts Ovie’s best season to 71 goals, and Bure’s to 65. Again, it looks like Ovechkin has the slight edge, but Bure’s 58- and 59-goal seasons in 1999-2000 and 2000-01 deserve special mention. At this point he’d been through multiple serious knee surgeries, and he flirted with 60 goals during the NHL’s worst scoring drought of the modern era. Bure had 14 goals more than the second-place sniper in 1999-2000. Ovechkin’s biggest margin was 13, during the 65-goal campaign. Ovechkin’s accolades imply he boomed bigger, but Bure came awfully close.
The blow-by-blow look at the amazing Russians’ careers points to Ovechkin as the superior player, especially considering he has plenty of hockey to go. But am I crazy for feeling more loyal to Bure’s breathtaking skills? Must be my nostalgia talking.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin