It is, has and will continue to be one of the most pressing questions when it comes to goal-scoring in the NHL: will anyone ever break Wayne Gretzky’s record 894 goals?
If anyone is going to do so, of course, it appears it will be Alex Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals superstar who has made his living lighting the lamp since he broke onto the big-league scene following the NHL’s lost season. Ovechkin’s pursuit of the record has been a hot topic since early in the high-scoring winger’s career, and while chatter of shattering Gretzky’s mark died down briefly during a two-season, ahem, “slump” in which ‘The Great Eight’ was only able to crack the 30-goal plateau instead of continuing to pile up 50-goal campaigns, the debate has been reignited in recent years. Chalk that up to Ovechkin winning four of the past five goal-scoring crowns and seemingly well on his way to his ninth Rocket Richard Trophy as he’s scored an eye-popping 29 goals in 32 games this season.
Ovechkin is still a long way off, though. Even if he hits the 60-goal mark this season, a feat he is more than on pace to accomplish, he will still be more than 200 goals shy of Gretzky’s record and inching ever closer to what should be the twilight of a remarkable career. Already 33, Ovechkin has two more seasons, plus the remainder of the current campaign, remaining on his contract. So, even if he were to put up another pair of 50-goal seasons, he’d still be upwards of 100 goals short of Gretzky’s all-time goal-scoring mark. Still, it’s a pursuit that has become worth watching, and the record is one that has potential to fall, even if it’s only an outside chance.
However, on the 25th anniversary of Ray Bourque scoring his 300th career goal, one can’t help but wonder: if Gretzky’s record is or was considered almost impossible to break, with Ovechkin the only real threat we’ve seen in decades, what does that make Bourque’s blueliner-best 410 goals?
In order to put Bourque’s numbers into context, consider that he is the only defenseman in NHL history score 400 goals, one of only five to score at least 300 goals and one of 20 with 200 goals. Bourque only scored fewer than 17 goals in four of his 22 seasons in the NHL, and he either reached or exceeded the 20-goal plateau nine times, tying him with Denis Potvin for the most 20-goal seasons of any defenseman in NHL history. Additionally, Bourque had one 30-goal season to his name, making him one of only nine defensemen to do so. Mike Green was the last defenseman to reach the plateau, and that was in 2008-09, nearly a decade ago. Beyond that, Bourque scored .25 goals per game, the fourth-best rate among all defenders in NHL history with at least 500 games played.
That should highlight how exceedingly rare it was and continues to be for a defenseman to score the way Bourque did, even during the high-flying 1980s. So, can anyone ever catch the Bruins legend?
Well, in order to take a stab at that, we need to first look at the list of highest-scoring active defensemen. As it stands, there is not a single active defenseman with at least 200 goals on his resume. There are, however, 11 with at least 100 tallies: Green, Zdeno Chara, Shea Weber, Brent Burns, Dustin Byfuglien, Dion Phaneuf, Erik Karlsson, Mark Giordano, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Drew Doughty and Kris Letang. Meanwhile, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, P.K. Subban and Keith Yandle are all within 10 goals of the century mark.
Of that group, though, the list with a realistic shot at achieving anything much greater than 200 goals is thin. Chara is on the back nine of his career and heading into the clubhouse, while Phaneuf, Seabrook, Keith have each played more than 1,000 games and are well short of Bourque’s mark. No way they last long enough to even sniff 200 goals, let alone 400. Weber is nearing 900 games and inching closer to his 34th birthday, and among those defenders, all but Karlsson, Doughty and Ekman-Larsson are in their 30s. And even still, there are strikes against all three when it comes to pursuing Bourque’s mark.
Doughty plays for a low-scoring team in Los Angeles, and a Kings team that is about to go through a rebuild, however minor that may be. There’s little hope he’s going to have the kind of high-scoring seasons, at least not consecutively, that would put him in position to reach Bourque. Karlsson is slightly younger, but he’s on pace for consecutive seasons below 10 goals. That all but buries his chances. And Ekman-Larsson, who has two 20-goal years, is younger yet, but he is on pace to fall short of reaching the 15-goal mark for a third consecutive season. That won’t do.
But if Bourque’s competition won’t come from the top active crop of defensemen, is there another young defender, one with a long career ahead, that could realistically challenge? There are a few that have a shot at becoming the highest scoring of their generation, to be sure, particularly Matt Dumba, Zach Werenski, Aaron Ekblad and Thomas Chabot.
The case for each is fairly simple: they’ve scored consistently and put up big goals-per-game numbers with potential for an uptick in production as they enter their primes. Dumba, for instance, has scored 56 goals in his 342-game career, but he seems to really be finding his goal-scoring touch in recent years. His total has risen in consecutive seasons and he’s on pace for a 25-goal season. It could be the start of a big run. And much the same goes for Werenski and Ekblad. The former has maintained a .17 goals per game rate across 188 NHL contests, with seasons of 11 and 16 goals as a rookie and freshman. With so much room for growth, he could be a consistent 20-goal guy if offense stays up in the NHL. Meanwhile, the latter has four-straight double-digit goal seasons and is on pace to score a career-best 18 goals this campaign. That would bring him to 71 in his career with potential for his best years to still be ahead of him.
The newcomer to the group is Chabot, who has flourished in Ottawa this season and has already destroyed his rookie season totals. His 10 goals in 35 games put him on pace to score 20 goals as a freshman, and his flair for offense appears to be something special. Count for an uptick in offensive production and Chabot, who is still 21, has upside that could see him become one of the best blueline goal scorers in recent memory.
Does any of that equate to passing Bourque, though? Almost certainly not.
A modern defender reaching the 300-goal plateau, let alone the 400-goal mark, is unfathomable and dare we say impossible (at least without drastic changes to the way the game is played). Last season’s trio of top goal-scoring defensemen, Dougie Hamilton, Ivan Provorov and Victor Hedman, managed just 17 goals. That was often Bourque’s low bar. It also should be taken into account that on only 19 occasions in the post-lockout era has a defenseman scored more than 20 goals in a season, and for anyone to come even close to matching Bourque’s record, they would need to have a 20-year career in which they averaged at least 20 goals, not just flirted with the total from time-to-time.
This is to say that while Gretzky’s record appears to have a realistic challenger, one who could conceivably knock the ‘Great One’ off of the NHL’s goal-scoring mountaintop, in Ovechkin, the same can’t be said for Bourque. And unless the game miraculously opens up again like it did in the 1980s or the second coming of a free-wheeling, game-changing defenseman such as Bobby Orr comes along, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that Bourque’s blueline-best 410-goal record could be one that stands longer — far longer — than Gretzky’s.