Is Gretzky’s record still in Ovechkin’s sights after another 30-goal year?

Alex Ovechkin joined an exclusive club by blasting home 30 goals for the 12th-consecutive campaign, but does he still have a shot at Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goal-scoring mark?

Alex Ovechkin joined Wayne Gretzky and Mike Gartner in the league’s history books Saturday night. When the Capitals captain snapped home his 30th goal of the season — fittingly, a power play goal from the left circle — it marked the 12th-straight 30-goal campaign of Ovechkin’s career, making him the third player to ever to accomplish such a feat.

Reaching the milestone is yet another feather in Ovechkin’s cap as the greatest goal scorer of this generation and all the more reason to consider him one of the greatest pure snipers the league has ever seen. His 30th goal was the 555th of his career, putting him one back of tying John Bucyk for 26th all-time and only five back of 560 career goals, which would match Guy Lafleur and put Ovechkin into the top 25 all-time goal scorers.

Ovechkin reaching such heights is a given, though. He’s going to crack the top 25, and with eight games left in his season, he could realistically even achieve that before the season is up. And once that mark falls, Ovechkin will slowly but surely work his way into the top 20, into the top 15 and almost assuredly into the top 10 before the time his career is through. The more intriguing chase, however, is the one that’s less certain: Gretzky’s all-time mark.

For some, the idea of Ovechkin matching Gretzky’s 894 goals will seem absurd. It’s a record Gretzky has held since March 23, 1994, when he notched goal No. 802, and a mark he built upon with each subsequent goal thereafter. That the record has stood for more than two decades points out how tough it is to even approach, and with the downturn in goal scoring since Gretzky’s heyday, it’s no wonder some believe it will stand the test of time.

It makes sense, too. The 339-goal gap between Ovechkin and Gretzky is a solid career’s worth of goals. In fact, only 152 players in league history have scored more than that over the duration of their entire career, only 13 of whom are active today. For Ovechkin, though, that once seemed like nothing. After all, he had 269 goals in the first 396 games of his career. But time isn’t on Ovechkin’s side. He has four years remaining on his contract and, based on average goal totals alone, one would say Ovechkin is in tough. 

Put it this way: in order to surpass Gretzky, Ovechkin would need to average 37-plus goals over the next nine campaigns. If he wants to get to 895 quicker, he’d need 42 per season over the next eight years or 48-plus over the next seven.

However, while some may point to this season as proof Ovechkin can’t keep up that kind of pace, it’d be premature to assume the 2016-17 campaign, with Ovechkin on pace for a mid-30s goal total, is indicative of what’s coming down the pike. We’ve seen this before with Ovechkin, and he’s given us no reason to believe he can’t bounce back in style. 

During both the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons, there were questions about Ovechkin’s ability to maintain his goal pace. He had his worst goal scoring season in 2010-11, posting 32 goals, and followed it up with an only marginally better 38-goal campaign in 2011-12. Those seasons alone could have been enough to derail Ovechkin’s chase altogether. After all, Ovechkin had gone from averaging nearly 54 goals per season over his career to struggling to hit the 40-goal mark. But the lockout-shortened season in 2012-13 sparked Ovechkin. He scored 32 goals in 48 games — a full-season pace of 54 goals — and from 2013-14 to 2015-16, Ovechkin potted 50-plus goals each season, tallying 154 in 238 games. His goals per game rate of .64 over that stretch was only slightly lower than the .67 pace Ovechkin had been scoring at during his first five years in the league. 

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Consider that during Ovechkin’s down years, he saw a few notable decreases. The first was in ice time. During his best years — the 65- and 56-goal campaigns — he was averaging 23 minutes per game. When he started to slide down to the mid-30-goal range, Ovechkin’s ice time was the lowest it had ever been and in 2011-12 he fell below 20 minutes for the first time in his career. Paired with that was a drop in shots on goal, for obvious reasons. Less ice time equals less opportunity. That brings us to this season.

In 2016-17, Ovechkin has seen similar decreases. His ice time dropped below 19 minutes for the first time in his career and there’s no guarantee he’ll hit 300 shots this season. That would mark the first full season in his career he’s failed to hit 300. The reason for the decrease in ice time, and shots as a result of that, could be numerous. One hesitates to mention age, as Ovechkin is only 31, but there’s a matter of style of play, depth of talent and the pursuit of a Stanley Cup. Ovechkin playing less now could be ice time management by coach Barry Trotz, with the idea being that Ovechkin can take heavier minutes when it matters most in the post-season. Washington also needs to rely far less on Ovechkin with Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams and a host of others up front.

Ovechkin’s situation could change in a hurry, though. The Capitals are almost assuredly going to have a less star-studded attack next season, which opens the door for greater ice time and a heavier reliance on Ovechkin. None of this is to mention that Ovechkin is likely to see his shooting percentage increase from its current 10.4 percent rate back closer to his career average of 12.3 percent. That means a 33-goal season this year could be a 40-plus year in 2017-18. And if that’s the case, Ovechkin will have significantly chipped away at Gretzky’s lead, knocking it below 300.

However, all of this may only be to say that Ovechkin stands a chance at making things interesting without actually surpassing Gretzky.

Time usually isn’t kind to even the best scorers. Ovechkin scoring 40 goals per season over the next four seasons? That sounds realistic. Continuing that into his late 30s, though, would be all the more difficult. And none of this is to mention that in order for Ovechkin to become the top all-time goal scorer, we have to make the assumption he continues his NHL career up until he’s in his late-30s or early-40s. While there’s nothing to suggest he’s going to bid farewell to the NHL anytime soon, Ovechkin has four years remaining on his contract and who knows how things will shake out in the next several seasons or how long he intends on sticking around in the NHL. Even if he doesn’t leave the league until he’s 40 on the nose, he may still be one or two seasons away from reaching the all-time mark.

Early in his career, Ovechkin looked like the greatest challenger Gretzky has had in decades for the all-time goal scoring crown. And while he still remains arguably the greatest pure goal scorer the league has ever seen, it seems increasingly likely that Ovechkin will finish his career shy of Gretzky’s mark.

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