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Ovechkin moves into 20th on NHL's all-time goals list, but his climb has only begun

Alex Ovechkin's 578th goal put him into 20th place on the NHL's all-time goals list, and even if he slows up as his career winds down, he should be a lock for top-five in NHL history.

On Monday, when Alex Ovechkin scored his 20th goal of the season, a goal which put him on pace to claim yet another Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL’s top sniper, he carved out a small piece of history. The marker was the 578th of his career, a tally significant in that it officially moved him one ahead of Mark Recchi to claim sole possession of 20th on the league’s all-time goals list.

Ovechkin working his way into the top 20 of the league’s all-time goal-scorers has been a long time coming, of course. Since breaking into the league in 2005-06, he’s continuously been one of the game’s top scoring threats, a six-time goal-scoring champion and seven-time 50-goal scorer in an era when putting up such a total is remarkably rare. Ovechkin is the most gifted goal-scorer of his generation, a singular sniper who was destined to reach these heights.

The question now for Ovechkin, though, is the same as it has been for years: how high up the all-time list can he climb?

The belief early in his career, when it seemed he was a lock to flirt with 50-60 goals on a regular basis, was that Ovechkin would flirt with Wayne Gretzky’s record of 894 goals. In recent years, however, such suggestions have fallen by the wayside. That’s particularly the case with Ovechkin failing to score 40 goals in four of his past seven seasons, one of which was due to the lockout-shortened campaign. The reason, as outlined late last season, is that we’d need to see another nine 37-goal campaigns out of Ovechkin if he were to pass Gretzky. Try as he might to do so, Father Time is undefeated when it comes to slowing a player’s scoring ability and managing to put up 40-or-so goals per year for another decade is a near impossibility.

That doesn’t mean Ovechkin can’t climb up the all-time list rung by rung, however, and if he’s not going to reach top spot, there’s no reason he can’t get incredibly close. The biggest reason for that is that, while it may seem like Ovechkin has been at this forever, he’s actually inching closer to the 600-goal club much earlier than those who’ve come before him. Within reach of Ovechkin are players such as Jari Kurri, Dino Ciccarelli, Bobby Hull, Joe Sakic and Jarome Iginla, and the aforementioned players had longer careers — in some cases much longer — than Ovechkin. Hull took the fewest games to get into the 600 club, finishing his career with 610 goals in 1,063 games, but did so in an era when scoring was far easier than it is today. The others, including Kurri who played on the high-flying 1980s Edmonton Oilers, played anywhere 1,200 to 1,500-plus games while scoring between 601 and 625 goals.

So, based on the time he’s played and the way he’s scored over the course of his career, it’s not beyond reason to suggest that Ovechkin could be passing by the other scoring greats with hundreds of games to spare. That would put Ovechkin in a great position to continue to climb the list, and digging into the career numbers of the top 20 — including Recchi, whom Ovechkin passed — gives us an idea of where he could end up when all is said and done.

Combining the games played totals of the 20 top goal-scorers in NHL history and averaging out the length of their careers gives us a total of about 1,433 games played. For Ovechkin to reach that total, he would have to play another six seasons, which seems possible given the way he’s producing this season and that he has another three years remaining on his deal. But what, then, will he produce over the remaining seasons of his NHL career?

Well, the answer to that is literally impossible to know, but we can take a shot at it. Over the course of his career, Ovechkin has scored 0.61 goals per game (GPG), but a down year last season has brought his total from 2015-16 to present day down to 0.54 GPG. Chalk it up to age and wear and tear, if you will, and let’s assume that’s about the rate Ovechkin scores for the remainder of his career, or until he hits the top-20 average of 1,433 games. That would give Ovechkin another 261 goals over the next 484 games of his career, bringing him to a career total of 839 goals. That would put him in second all-time by a wide margin, 38 tallies ahead of Gordie Howe’s 801 goals.

Yes, it's not a perfect science, but it's certainly one way to look at Ovechkin’s scoring potential over the final years of his career. And even if Ovechkin’s average drops over the next several seasons as he enters his mid-to-late-30s and inches closer to retirement, he can still climb as high as second place. In fact, anything higher than 0.45 GPG over the next 484 games (which would bring him to 1,433 GP) of his career — which would work out to 223 goals — would put Ovechkin into second spot ahead of Howe. Dipping down to 0.40 GPG would put Ovechkin ahead of Jaromir Jagr for third. Falling all the way to 0.35 GPG would still put Ovechkin ahead of Brett Hull for fourth all-time.

Truly, it appears the only thing that will stop Ovechkin from climbing into the top 15, top 10 and all the way into the top five is how much gas he has left in the tank. Russian machine may never break, but eventually, at some point, it will have to retire and move on. By the looks of things, though, that won’t be happening until he ranks among the five most prolific goal-scorers in NHL history.

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