Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals is off to the hottest start of his NHL career with eight goals through his first four games.
The goal-scoring binge has introduced the possibility of reaching milestones believed to once be out of reach. Could the forward match his personal high of 65 goals in a season and, if the surge continues, could it be the boost Ovechkin needs to approach Wayne Gretzky's record of 894 NHL goals?
Ovechkin has scored at least 50 goals on five occasions since then, but has yet to top 56. His eight-goal start might be just the advantage he needs to duplicate his feat from a decade ago. That season, Ovechkin had two goals in his first four games.
Ovechkin, the League's leading goal-scorer this season by three, is the fifth player in the NHL expansion era (since 1967-68) to score eight goals in his team's first four games of a season.
To reach 65 goals this season, Ovechkin needs to score 57 goals in the remaining 78 games. He has done this several times in his NHL career; the most recent in regular-season games between April 5, 2013 and March 20, 2014.
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Ovechkin has averaged 47.93 goals during any selected stretch of 78 regular-season games, from a minimum of 29 to a maximum of 65. Based on standard deviation of 9.29 goals, there is a 17.6 percent chance that randomly selecting any 78 games from his career would include at least 57 goals, which is a little better than one in six.
Given that Ovechkin is 32 years old, his odds of scoring 57 goals in 78 games are probably lower than that estimate. It's commonly accepted that goal-scoring rates start to drop around the age-31 season. Since 1975-76, the only player to score 50 goals in a season at age 32 or older is Jaromir Jagr, who, at 33, scored 54 goals in 82 games for the New York Rangers in 2005-06. Since then, Jagr, now with the Calgary Flames, hasn't scored more than 30 in a season.
On average, a forward's goal-scoring rate falls by 11.4 percent going from age 31 to 32, due to a combination of declining speed and decreasing ice time, especially on the top lines or on the power play.
Every individual player is different, and Ovechkin could be one of those players who will decline at a slower rate and/or at a more advanced age. Last season, he scored 33 goals in 82 games, a season-to-season decline of 34 percent. However, that was his first decline greater than 4 percent since the 2010-11 season, when he went from 50 goals to 32.
If he does beat the odds and scores 65 goals this season, that puts Ovechkin back in the conversation about equaling Gretzky's 894 goals. A 65-goal season would bring Ovechkin to 623, which is within 271 of Gretzky.
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There is historical precedent for scoring at least 271 goals in the latter stages of a career. Gordie Howe scored 332 goals in his 11 NHL seasons from his age-33 season before his retirement in 1980. Johnny Bucyk scored 299 in the 10 seasons after his age-32 season.
At Ovechkin's current rate of 0.61 goals per game, he would need to play another 443 games to score 271 more goals after this season. That would encompass 82 games per season from 2018-19 through 2022-23, and then the first 33 games of the 2023-24 season, at which point he'd be 38 years old.
Statistically, the biggest variable in determining if Ovechkin can catch Gretzky is at what rate Ovechkin's scoring will decline as he ages. If it's at the average NHL forward rate of decline is 11.4 percent per season, then there's virtually no chance Ovechkin can catch Gretzky.
However, if his goal-scoring declines by 8.0 percent per season, he could theoretically catch Gretzky; assuming he stays healthy and remains active at age 40.
There are two primary components to goal scoring: shot volume and shooting percentage. Though the latter can go up and down long enough to reach 65 goals in a single season, expect Ovechkin's shooting percentage to return toward his career average of 12.4 percent, even as he advances in age.
The key statistic to watch during the chase will be shot volume. Ovechkin's challenge will be to increase his shooting rate from an NHL career-low 3.8 shots per game in 2016-17 back to his average of 4.9 shots per game, and to maintain that level without significant decline throughout his 30s. If he achieves that, Gretzky's record could be within reach.
There are always outside factors at play, such as the possibility of a major injury, a trade, or even a dramatic change in League-wide scoring levels.
Without any of these significant factors, Ovechkin could have as much as a 1-in-6 chance of scoring 65 goals this season, which would make catching Gretzky's record a possibility.