Wayne Gretzky’s goal record: How Ovechkin is tracking and what’s ahead for Matthews

Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin has only Wayne Gretzky to catch on the NHL's all-time goal list, but with a career-low scoring pace in the 2023-2024 season, experts debate whether Ovechkin still has what it takes to catch the Great One.

The first time we broached the topic of toppling Wayne Gretzky’s seemingly untouchable record of 894 career goals on this website it was October of 2017, after Alex Ovechkin had started his age 32 season with eight goals in four games. At that time, Ovechkin had 566 career goals, still 329 short of Gretzky’s record. Ovechkin was also coming off a “down year” in which he scored just 33 times — a great total for most, but a noticeable dip for someone regarded as the game’s best goal scorer at the time.

It was still pretty early to start drawing a line from Ovechkin to Gretzky’s all-time goals record, but with a bounce back 49-goal season in 2017-18, Ovechkin quashed any talk of decline and put himself back on the road to the record. He still needed to have a couple more 50-goal seasons to stay on a favourable track, but entering this season it seemed close to a sure thing that he’d pass Gretzky some time before the end of this current contract that runs through the 2025-26 season.

Now at age 38 and on a middling Capitals team clinging to the playoff race with a minus-28 goal differential, Ovechkin is on pace for the lowest full-season goal total of his career. For the longest time this season it seemed like the bottom had completely fallen out of Ovechkin, who had just eight goals through 48 games. He’s still shooting plenty, tied for 21st in the league with 188 shots on goal, but that 3.5 shots per game average is a far fall from how prolific Ovechkin used to be — he averaged 4.15 shots per game over the previous three seasons and, in his prime, could average another shot or more per game higher than that.

But the thing about goal scorers, especially those capable of tracking down a Gretzky record, era adjusted or not, is that when they do score they often score in bunches. Ovechkin recently went on a run of scoring eight goals in eight games, which increased his pace to a 24-goal season. Not the best for Ovechkin historically, but actually, exactly the pace he’ll need over three years to approach Gretzky.

When that age 32 season we referenced had just begun, Ovechkin needed to average a 36.4 goal pace through his age 40 season to eclipse Gretzky and then, from 2017-18 through 2022-23, Ovechkin scored 50 goals twice and averaged a 44-goal pace over that six-year span, even accounting for the fact the 2019-20 season was cut short due to COVID and the 2020-21 season was shortened to 56 games (Ovechkin played in just 45 of them).

Entering this season, his age 38 year, Ovechkin was just 72 goals behind Gretzky, meaning he now needed to average only 24 goals per season for three years to tie The Great One. It seemed inevitable that Ovechkin would pass Gretzky because, coming off a 44-goal season, he really hadn’t shown any sign the cliff was near. Now that he has, some are wondering if his chase for the record is at risk.

At this rate, it’s less of a sure thing Ovechkin will grab the record at age 40, but he is still tracking to make it a heck of an interesting race to the end of his contract. But if he’s going to do it, he can’t slow down any more than he has in 2023-24.





Alex Ovechkin



24 per season

When does Auston Matthews enter this conversation?

Amazingly, there is another historical goal scorer to monitor.

With 52 goals in 56 games this season, Matthews is on pace to do something Ovechkin never did and become the first player to score 70-plus goals in a season since the early-1990s. More than that, he’s even pacing better than Ovechkin was at the same point in his career.

Currently, Matthews is on pace for 75 goals in 2023-24 and if he gets there he’ll finish his eighth season in the league with 374 goals. If he also plays all the remaining games for Toronto, Matthews would hit that total through 562 regular season games for a .665 goals per game average. For this exercise, let’s even assume Matthews slows a little and finishes 2023-24 with 70 goals. Here’s how he would compare with Ovechkin through each player’s first eight seasons:





Alex Ovechkin




*Auston Matthews




*assuming 70 goals in 81 games played this season

Matthews is all that’s hot right now on the goal scoring scene, as head and shoulders ahead of the rest of the pack as Ovechkin was in his heyday. He’s already just 70 goals away from Mats Sundin’s all-time goal scoring record for Maple Leafs players, which he could surpass as soon as next season.

When Matthews scored his 350th career goal last week he became the sixth-fastest to that total in league history, and got there 46 games quicker than Ovechkin.

It’s a great start for Matthews, to be sure.

As mentioned, the first time we even wrote about the possibility that Ovechkin could one day track down Gretzky, the Capitals star was 32 years old and at the start of his 13th NHL season — and many thought even that was too early. Matthews is still just 26 and in his eighth NHL season.

If he hits 70 goals this season, Matthews would still be 525 short of Gretzky and require a 37-goal pace per season for another 14 years. Chasing down this record is a marathon and you’ll notice that none of the other players who got to 350 career goals faster than Matthews finished within even 150 goals of Gretzky’s record. A lot needs to go just right.

So, yeah, we’re still early to put Matthews on the Gretzky path. The first real touchpoint might still be five years away, when we can directly compare Matthews and Ovechkin through 13 seasons each. For Matthews to get to the same goal-scoring level Ovechkin was at after Year 13, he’d still need to average roughly 47.6 goals per season for the next five years.

If he does that — and he very well could — then we can start opening up the conversation to include Matthews, who would still have a mountain of work ahead.

It takes remarkable consistency and durability to topple this record, which brings us to what will be one of the biggest factors when considering Matthews’ career outlook.

The health factor

Beyond the raw skill needed to score at this historic pace, anyone chasing down Gretzky’s goal record also needs to have some luck with their health. This is where Matthews does not compare favourably to Ovechkin at this stage of his career.

Through Ovechkin’s first eight NHL seasons he missed just 21 games and in his entire career to this point has missed just 59 games. Matthews, comparatively, has already missed 56 games to this point in his career. A big reason why Ovechkin has been able to put himself in position to track down Gretzky is that he’s been remarkably healthy. We wouldn’t call Matthews injury prone, but it is a factor to keep in mind here.

Of course, Matthews could potentially have one baked-in advantage.

Remember that while Ovechkin scored 52 goals in his rookie season, he actually would have been eligible to join the league in 2004-05, the season that was cancelled due to the owners’ lockout. He was also robbed of nearly half a season in 2012-13 when a lockout shortened that season to 48 games.

Who knows what work stoppages, if any, might impact Matthews’ career. But there is the possibility he could have an extra season-and-a-half to work with that Ovechkin never did.

But that is a conversation to revisit maybe five years down the line.

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