Behind the Numbers is a weekly series where NHL.com examines both player and team trends with an emphasis being placed on advanced statistics. This week we look at Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin and what it would take for him to tie or surpass Wayne Gretzky as the NHL's all-time leading goal-scorer.
Ovechkin leads the NHL with 29 goals through 33 games. While leading the NHL in goals is nothing new for Ovechkin, who has won the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy as the League's top goal-scorer seven times in his first 13 NHL seasons, what's noteworthy is that he's doing it at age 33. The last time a player 33 or older led the NHL in goals was in 1974-75, when center Phil Esposito of the Boston Bruins scored 61. New York Rangers forward Jaromir Jagr scored 54 goals in 2005-06, when he was 33, but finished second behind San Jose Sharks forward Jonathan Cheechoo, who had 56.
Age doesn't seem like much of a factor for Ovechkin, who is on pace for an NHL career-high 72 goals in 82 games. If Ovechkin continues to score at his current pace or even at his NHL career average (.61 goals per game), he would surpass forwards Dave Andreychuk (640; 14th on the NHL's all-time list) and Brendan Shanahan (656; 13th) this season.
If Ovechkin continues to produce over multiple seasons, he could potentially challenge Wayne Gretzky, whose 894 goals in 1,487 games (.60 goals per game) are the most in NHL history. Ovechkin has 636 through 1,036 games and would need 258 goals, an average of 36 for the next seven seasons, to tie Gretzky.
To better predict the likelihood of this happening, let's say Ovechkin matches his goals-per-game output from 2012-13 (.66), the last time he averaged at least 20:53 of ice time per game and had a shooting percentage of at least 14.5. In this scenario, he'd finish this season with 54 goals in 82 games, giving him 661 goals in 1,085 games.
He would need an additional 233 goals, or an average of 33 goals during the next seven seasons, to tie Gretzky. Much of that depends on how long Ovechkin will play in the NHL. His contract has two years remaining; after that, he could become an unrestricted free agent.
While there is a general correlation to scoring fewer goals as a player ages, it's not out of the realm of possibility that an elite forward can continue to produce 30-plus goal seasons in the later stages of his career.
Video: Ovechkin earns two hattys, shootout winner and GWG
Ovechkin has seemingly gotten better with age after a goal-scoring "lull" from 2010-11 to 2011-12 where he averaged 35 goals, compared with an average of 47 goals in the five seasons prior to this one (excluding the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season). Steve Yzerman of the Detroit Red Wings scored 35 goals at age 34 and is ninth on the all-time list with 692. Esposito scored 42 goals with the Rangers in 1978-79 when he was 36 and is sixth on the list with 717. Shanahan had 40 goals for the Red Wings at the age of 37; he sits two spots ahead of Ovechkin on the list with 656 goals. Brett Hull (Red Wings) had 37 goals when he was 38 and is fourth all-time (741), behind Jagr (766), Gordie Howe (801) and Gretzky.
If Ovechkin replicates similar seasons to the aforementioned skaters, here's a potential breakdown of how he could overtake Gretzky for the top spot:
2018-19 (age 33): 54 goals
2019-20 (34): 35
2020-21 (35): 35
2021-22 (36): 42
2022-23 (37): 40
2023-24 (38): 37
2024-25 (39): 27
2025-26 (40): 20
The above scenario (after this season) would total 236 goals, putting Ovechkin first on the all-time goal-scoring list with 897. It's impossible to predict how long he'll play, but durability-wise, Ovechkin has played in 97 percent (1,036 of 1,065) of available games since entering the NHL in 2005-06. While sustainability is a difficult trend to predict, Ovechkin is already among the all-time greats and has a realistic shot at becoming the most prolific goal-scorer in NHL history.