Alex Ovechkin continues to build his resume as the greatest goal scorer of all-time.
Adjusted for era, that may already be true, but the 34-year-old Russian is far from a fading star. After another hat trick on Thursday night, the 25th of his career, Ovechkin sits third in the NHL with 31 goals in 48 games. That’s an average of .645 goals per game — or roughly a 53-goal pace.
The trio of markers also landed the Washington Capitals winger at 689 goals for his career. That’s one back of Mario Lemieux for 10th all-time. Ovechkin is expected to play Saturday’s game against the New York Islanders and serve his one-game suspension for missing the All-Star Game against Montreal on Jan. 27, so he could eclipse ‘Le Magnifique’ as early as this weekend.
“It’s great. He’s one of my idols when I’m growing up,” Ovechkin said of being one goal behind Lemieux. “I get lucky. I have a time to play against him, was on the ice with him a couple times. Those names, they’re legends and to be close to those guys, it’s pretty impressive.”
For every great name Ovechkin passes on the all-time goal list, the question around whether or not he can also topple Wayne Gretzky’s all-time record of 894 will be magnified. After Lemieux, Ovechkin could soon also pass Steve Yzerman (692) and Mark Messier (694).
Ovechkin’s goal-scoring ability has been the driving force in getting here, but he’s also been remarkably healthy and consistent. He has reached 30 goals every season of his career, even including a lockout-shortened 48-game season in 2012-13, and hasn’t missed more than four games in a season since 2009-10 when he missed a career-high 10 games. Had he not had his rookie reason wiped out by the 2004-05 lockout, his chances at reaching Gretzky would be even greater.
But let’s just pause for a moment and again consider what kind of road is ahead of Ovechkin if he’s to get to 895 career goals. For argument’s sake, let’s say Ovechkin slows his pace this season (and that seems unlikely) to finish with 44 goals. That would leave him at 702 heading into his age 35 season and mean he would need to average 38.6 goals a season over the next five years to surpass Gretzky. That’s a big ask for any ageing player, even a generation’s best sniper, but it’s less daunting when you consider he’s finished with fewer goals than that in a full season only once in his career.
So if Ovechkin wraps up this season with 44 goals, this is one mock up of a goal pace he’d need to attain to pass Gretzky at age 39:
“If you want to continue to play good in this league, because the game has changed the goalies have changed, you have to continue to work and continue to get better,” Ovechkin said Thursday night. “Without your teammates, without trust from your coaching staff, it’s not possible. I’m lucky I’m here and I have one more year.”
The interesting wrinkle of all this is that Ovechkin’s 13-year contract expires at the end of next season and, at this rate and within a rising salary cap, we have to wonder if he’ll come out of it as the league’s highest-paid player at age 36. If he were to sign through his age 39 season, that deal would expire at the same time as Nicklas Backstrom’s new contract signed this week, as well as Evgeny Kuznetsov and TJ Oshie. And, perhaps, if an injury hits or his goal pace slows, he can look at the landscape at that time and decide whether or not to return at age 40 to chase down Gretzky.
Hearing Ovechkin talk about it, he’s not likely to be one who limps across the finish line though.
“The most important thing is (to be) healthy. If you’re healthy, you can still play the game the way you want to play,” Ovechkin said on 31 Thoughts: The Podcast back in September. “Of course (the record) matters, but like I said, I’m not going to score 300 goals in two years. It’s going to take five or six years. I have to be healthy enough to do that.”
With each passing season and incredible performance, it’s starting to look more likely he does it than not.