Thirty years ago today, Wayne Gretzky officially became the greatest scorer in the history of the NHL.
Throughout the early part of his career, it became obvious that Gretzky, who had led the league in scoring in each of first eight seasons, eclipsed the 200-point plateau four times and had redefined what it meant to be a superstar in the NHL, would one day surpass Gordie Howe on the league’s all-time scoring list. And on Oct. 15, 1989, ‘The Great One’ unseated his boyhood hero, in a contest, fittingly, that pitted his Los Angeles Kings against his former club, the Edmonton Oilers.
Entering the game with 1,849 points, one shy of Howe’s all-time mark, Gretzky matched ‘Mr. Hockey’ atop the league’s all-time scoring list with an assist on a first-period goal by Bernie Nicholls. But throughout the rest of the game, Gretzky chased the record to no avail. In fact, with time winding down and the Kings trailing by one, it seemed as though he would leave the game without the record-breaking point. Of course, that wasn’t the case. With less than one minute left in regulation, Gretzky deposited a wraparound past Oilers keeper Bill Ranford to tie the game and give him sole possession of the NHL scoring record, a moment that was met with a raucous ovation from the Edmonton crowd and a ceremony to celebrate Gretzky’s achievement.
In true Gretzky fashion, though, he wasn’t done there. In overtime, Gretzky started putting daylight between he and Howe atop the list by scoring the game-winning goal mere minutes into the extra frame. The rest, as they say, is history, and before his career was through, Gretzky would go on to record another 1,005 points before he hung up the skates, putting a veritable chasm between himself and the rest of the field.
Coincidentally, the 30-year anniversary of Gretzky overtaking Howe also means that Gretzky has now been atop the all-time list for as many seasons as his idol. Howe surpassed Maurice Richard on the all-time list during the 1958-59 season and remained in first place on through to the aforementioned 1988-89 campaign. That’s a 30-year run atop the league’s all-time points list. However, unlike Howe, Gretzky doesn’t face the prospect of losing the all-time mark anytime soon – or possibly ever.
Consider that in the three decades since Gretzky overtook Howe, and in the two decades years since Gretzky’s retirement, no player has moved to within 900 points on the all-time scoring list. Jaromir Jagr is the closest at 1,921 points, but take a second to think about what that means. Not even the guy who suited up in 24 NHL seasons and played until his age 45 season was able to crack 2,000 points, let alone come close to matching Gretzky.
With that in mind, it’s safe to say that barring some completely unforeseen change in the way the game is played, Gretzky’s record will be among the few that weren’t made to be broken. But that doesn’t mean others can’t accomplish one of Gretzky’s feats: surpassing Howe on the all-time scoring list. Gretzky, Jagr and Mark Messer (1,887 points) have all done so. But who’s next to join that exclusive club?
Here’s a look at five active NHLers who have a shot at passing Howe before they hang up the skates:
Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
Alex Ovechkin doesn’t appear on this list because he’s two years older than his Penguins rival and hasn’t had a 100-point campaign in a decade, but Crosby still has a legitimate shot at chasing down Howe’s mark and moving into the same territory as Messier and Jagr. The biggest hurdles for Crosby are health and longevity. At present, he has 1,226 points (and counting) and entered the current campaign with 1,216 points to his name. Thus, the challenge for Crosby entering this season was another 634 points before he hangs up the skates.
Already, as noted, he’s knocked 10 points off of that total and his 100-point output last season was proof positive that he can continue to flirt with the century mark for at least another few seasons. If that’s the case and Crosby rattles off, say, another three 100-point campaigns, he’ll have trimmed the total down to 334 points as he enters his mid-30s. From there, it’s a race against time. To then surpass Howe’s total, Crosby would need another four seasons at an average of 84 points.
It’s not a given that Crosby moves past Howe, but it’s difficult to count him out.
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks
Before he entered into his prime, Kane would have been considered an incredibly long shot to reach Howe’s point total, but his performance over the past four seasons has changed the equation. Since the start of the 2015-16 season, Kane has averaged 95 points per campaign and while it’s still incredibly early, he’s back on pace for another 100-point campaign. If he accomplishes that this season, he’ll move past the 1,000-point plateau during a campaign in which he celebrates his 31st birthday.
Much like Crosby, the potential roadblock for Kane is the amount of tread left on the tires. As he enters into his 30s, the clock is ticking. But, for the sake of argument, let’s say he plays through his age 40 season. That gives him 10 campaigns, including the current season, across which he needs a total of 912 points or 91.2 points per season.
It’s a tall task, but if Kane can get ahead of the game with a few more 100-point campaigns before he starts to slow down, he can mitigate the impact his eventual statistical decline has on his pursuit of Howe’s total. Truth be told, though, it’s far less likely Kane reaches the mark than Crosby.
Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning
Kucherov has arguably been the fastest rising scoring star the league has seen in recent years. Since the 2016-17 campaign, which he entered coming off of 65- and 66-point seasons, Kucherov has accumulated a whopping 319 points in 241 games, including back-to-back 100-point campaigns that were highlighted by a league-best 128 points last season. And Kucherov is showing no signs of slowing down.
The challenge for Kucherov, however, is that he’s got a lot of ground to make up. In fact, entering this season, he sat 1,388 points away from Howe’s mark. We shouldn’t overlook how quickly Kucherov could erase that deficit, though. Say he continues to score as he has across the past three seasons for another six campaigns, which would take him through his prime and into his early 30s. That would be roughly 108 points per season – 648 total points – and would bring him to 1,110 points and put Kucherov, who will then be entering his age 32 season, 740 points shy of Howe’s mark ahead. If we assume Kucherov plays until his age 40 season, he would need to average 83 points across his remaining campaigns to surpass Howe.
Doable? Maybe. More likely, though, is that Kucherov challenges Alex Ovechkin for the highest scoring Russian in NHL history.
Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
Chances are that if we were to throw together this list a few seasons ago, MacKinnon wouldn’t have been on it. Funny how a couple MVP-caliber campaigns can change the conversation, though. Over the past two seasons, MacKinnon has registered 196 points in 156 games and is starting to work his way into career point-per-game territory. (His eight points in five games to start 2019-20 has him up to 410 points in 461 career games.)
More than just outsized offensive totals in recent seasons, though, what MacKinnon has on his side is time. He got his start in the NHL at 18 and he only just celebrated his 24th birthday in September. So, if we assume as we have for the others on this list that MacKinnon plays until he’s 40, he has another 17 (!) campaigns in him and his average over the coming seasons needs to be in the 85-point range. That’s not out of the realm of possibility, particularly if he keeps piling up the points now, which will cut into what he needs to net in the later stages of his career if he’s still chasing down Howe.
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
Despite missing 41 games since breaking into the league in 2015-16, McDavid ranks third in NHL scoring, his 384 points a mere one point back of Kane and two points behind Kucherov. Looking at it another way, though, McDavid’s points per game rate of 1.31 puts is a full tenth of a point better than Kucherov’s second-best total. No player has been more prolific than Edmonton’s phenom. And that’s why, despite entering the season 1,478 points away from Howe’s mark, McDavid might be the player on this list with the best shot at actually surpassing it.
Assume, as we have for the others, that McDavid plays until his age 40 campaign. That’s another 18 campaigns. He would then need an average of 82 points per season over the remainder of his career, which seems a laughable total for McDavid. And do the math on the next several seasons. If he puts up in the range of 100 points per season in each of the next six seasons, he’ll eclipse the 1,000-point plateau by the time he’s a 28-year-old. That means he’d only need 850 points across the next dozen years, which is 70 points per season. Better yet, he’ll enter that 70-point-per season range when he’s still in the thick of his prime.
There’s always the ever-present risk of injury hindering McDavid’s chase, but with the offensive numbers he’s put up already and the runway ahead of him, if there’s any player in the league right now with a shot at matching and surpassing Howe on the all-time scoring list, it’s McDavid.
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