Alex Ovechkin became the 20th player to score 600 NHL goals when he scored twice in the Washington Capitals' 3-2 overtime win against the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday. He is the first Russia-born player to reach that mark.
Wayne Gretzky scored 894 goals, the most in the NHL. At Ovechkin's rate of 0.61 goals per game, he would require 485 games to catch Gretzky, which is almost six 82-game seasons.
When comparing the scoring totals of each player, it's important to consider that Gretzky played during a higher-scoring era. If we could transport Ovechkin back in time so he could start his NHL career in 1979-80, like Gretzky, then Ovechkin's total already could be ahead of Gretzky's after his 13th NHL season, and not far behind his record.
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To simulate this time-travel scenario, I stepped through Ovechkin's career and divided his goal totals each season by the NHL average goal-scoring rate and then multiplied it by the League average in the corresponding season in Gretzky's career. I also made a slight adjustment based on a season being 80 games in Gretzky's era, not 82 as it is today (or 48 in 2012-13).
To take the most significant example, consider each player's third season. Gretzky set the single-season NHL record with 92 goals in 80 games in 1981-82, and Ovechkin scored 65 goals in 82 games in 2007-08, the most scored by a player since 1995-96.
Who would have the higher scoring totals if he had played in the same season?
In 1981-82, players combined for 6,741 goals in 28,467 games, an average of 0.237 goals per game. In 2007-08, roughly the same number of goals were scored, 6,691, but because there were 30 teams instead of 21, they were scored in a far greater number of games, 44,266, for an average of 0.151 goals per game.
Video: Reflecting on Alex Ovechkin following goal No. 600
To determine how many goals Ovechkin might have scored if he had played his third season against Gretzky in 1981-82, I divided 0.237 by 0.151 and multiplied that by the 65 goals he scored in 2007-08. After adjusting for the slightly shorter season, Ovechkin would have scored an estimated 99 goals in 80 games in 1981-82, seven more than Gretzky's 92.
If we go back to 1967-68, repeat these calculations, and shift the start of every player's career to 1979-80, then Ovechkin's 99 goals are the most of any player. Second place goes to Brett Hull, whose 86 goals with the St. Louis Blues in 1990-91 works out to 98 in the Gretzky era. Steven Stamkos ranks second to Ovechkin among active NHL players; his 60 goals in 2011-12 would have been 85 in the high-scoring 1980s.
Repeating this exercise for Ovechkin's NHL career, he would have scored 844 goals in 1,000 games if he had made his debut in 1979-80. (Ovechkin's games played are adjusted for 80-game seasons and include 80 games rather than 48 in 2012-13). That's 95 goals more than Gretzky after 1991-92, his 13th season, with 749 in 999 games. Ovechkin would need 50 adjusted goals to catch Gretzky's record of 894, which is the equivalent of 39.8 goals in the modern day.
Even if he passed Gretzky, Ovechkin would not be in first place all-time. Had he started his career in 1979-80, Jaromir Jagr would have scored 909 goals in 1,664 games, which is 15 more than Gretzky's record of 894. For Ovechkin to pass Jagr, he would need 65 adjusted goals, which is the equivalent of 51.7 actual goals.
Video: Ovechkin on 600th career goal with the Capitals
Since 1967-68, Ovechkin would rank fifth, behind Jagr, Gretzky, Brett Hull, who would have scored 863 adjusted goals in 1,256 games, and Teemu Selanne with 860 goals in 1,483 games.
There are obvious limitations to this approach, because there are many factors that influence a scoring totals beyond the average number of goals players scored per game. In the 1980s there were fewer teams (21), different equipment, variations in the rules, differences in the average number of power plays per game, the absence of an NHL salary cap, and less parity between teams. Though it's impossible to calculate an exact figure, there's no question Ovechkin would be closer to Gretzky's 894 if he had played in that era.
Ovechkin's 600 goals in his era qualifies him as one of the most accomplished goal-scorers of all time and leaves him not far removed from the top spot.