Alex Ovechkin has made it to 500 (and 501) career goals in the NHL after 801 games at the age of 30. The only four NHL players to make it to 500 career goals in fewer games were Brett Hull, Mike Bossy, Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky; the latter three did it at a younger age.
Two more recent comparables who scored their 500th goal in the same season that they turned 31 were Steve Yzerman who scored his at an age of 30.69 years, and Jaromir Jagr who was 30.96 years old. Ovechkin is 30.31 years old.
As we discussed earlier this season, Ovechkin is already arguably the greatest goal scorer ever when we adjust for the scoring era he is playing in. But the more interesting question down the line is: will he be able to catch Gretzky’s all-time goal record? It is an amazingly daunting task, particularly when one considers that Gretzky racked up most of his goals in the free-wheeling 1980s, generating more than 75 per cent of his goals before the end of 1989-90.
We can make an effort to project where Ovechkin is likely to end up on the career goals list by examining the production trajectory of past greats. If we look at how the top 10 goal scorers in NHL history – plus Mike Bossy – produced over time, we can get an idea of how much of their production occurs in any given season during their career.
This graph shows the cumulative percentage of each scorer's career goal total produced as they age. By looking at the results (black line) for the group over time we can see that by age 30 the average scorer has already produced 70 per cent of their career goal total. Yet we know that Ovechkin is well above average in a few regards with respect to this group.
We know that Ovechkin's peak average goal scoring rate is the second-highest in NHL history when adjusted for era. We also know that his average goals per game scoring rate has remained amazingly consistent and very high relative to the other players in this sample. While his goal scoring peaked at the age of 24 in a fairly typical fashion, he has sustained a career goals per game played rate over 0.60 beyond the age of 30, which only Gretzky, Bossy, Lemieux, Esposito and Hull were able to do.
Ovechkin has also remained remarkably durable and healthy, which has him in good standing relative to the likes of Lemieux, Gretzky and Yzerman who all suffered significant health issues as their careers progressed.
Assuming his conditioning lasts, and he continues playing in the NHL - unlike Jagr who took a hiatus overseas in the KHL, or Howe who left the NHL to play in the WHA - Ovechkin's career will likely take him beyond age 38 and could even last until 42 or 43 years of age if he wants. If we ballpark him at 80 games per year through the age of 40, that would suggest he likely has another roughly 840 or so games left in his career.
By using the average gap between the sample of top scorers' career distribution in games played and goals scored, we can come up with a very rough estimate of how many goals he is likely to produce as he ages through 40.
Wayne Gretzky scored 894 goals in his NHL career, with the majority coming in an era where his shooting percentage of over 20 per cent wasn't considered absurd. Ovechkin, based on much of what we've seen in his career to date and assuming he remains injury free, is on track to score around 30 fewer goals by the age of 40.
This in an era where goals are amazingly hard to come by - Ovechkin currently has a career 12.4 shooting percentage. This really should drive home how exceedingly rare a talent like Ovechkin is and how amazingly lucky we are to be on hand to see his record setting performances night to night.
I can't help but think that if Ovechkin is that close to Gretzky's record at age 40 he will push on until he matches or exceeds it, but that decision is still a decade away. Here's hoping Ovechkin keeps shooting pucks at the net as often as possible, and that he gets the praise and recognition to go along with what an amazingly productive player he has been over his career.
Congrats on 500 Alex, only 394 left to pass The Great One.