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Behind The Numbers

Ovechkin has strong chance to break Gretzky's scoring record

Capitals forward on pace for 57 goals this season, doesn't appear to be slowing down, statistics show

by Rob Reese @NHLReese / Fantasy Editor

Each week, goes Behind the Numbers, using underlying statistics to identify trends, areas of improvement for teams and players, and predict what could happen in upcoming games. Today, looks deeper into the possibility that Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin could pass Wayne Gretzky's record for goals (894) in NHL history.

Wayne Gretzky scored his 700th NHL goal when he had a hat trick for the Los Angeles Kings in a 6-3 win against the New York Islanders on Jan. 3, 1991, 23 days shy of his 30th birthday.

Alex Ovechkin, who turned 34 this past September, became the eighth player in NHL history to reach the 700-goal milestone when he scored against the New Jersey Devils on Saturday.

Does that mean that Gretzky's NHL record of 894 goals is unreachable for Ovechkin? The numbers suggest that might not be the case.  

Video: Relive all of Alex Ovechkin's 700 NHL goals

Gretzky finished the 1990-91 season, his 12th in the League, with 41 goals in 78 games (.52 goals per game). It was the final season in his 20-year career in which he averaged more than .50 goals per game after averaging .79 goals per game through his first 11 seasons, the first nine of which he played with the Edmonton Oilers.

In the final 601 regular-season games of his career, Gretzky scored 192 goals (.32 g/gp).

Here's a look at how Gretzky finished his career after scoring No. 700:

Rest of 1990-91 (age 29): 16 goals in 39 games to end the season ( .41 g/gp)

1991-92 (age 30): 31 in 74 games (.42 g/gp)

1992-93 (age 31): 16 in 45 games (.36 g/gp)

1993-94 (age 32): 38 in 81 games (.47 g/gp)

1994-95 (age 33): 11 in 48 games (.23 g/gp)

1995-96 (age 34): 23 in 80 games (.29 g/gp)

1996-97 (age 35): 25 in 82 games (.30 g/gp)

1997-98 (age 36): 23 in 82 games (.28 g/gp)

1998-99 (age 37): nine in 70 games (.13 g/gp)

Video: Ovechkin discusses scoring 700 career goals

Ovechkin is on pace to score 57 goals in 81 games this season (he was suspended one game), which would be the second most in his 15 NHL seasons after he scored 65 as a 22-year-old in 2007-08.

In his first seven seasons, Ovechkin scored 339 goals in 553 games (.61 g/gp), and unlike Gretzky, who slowed down considerably after turning 30, Ovechkin has maintained his pace, scoring 361 goals in 591 games the past eight seasons (.61 g/gp).

Still, in the chase for 894, it would be wise to assume that Ovechkin's production will wane at some point, even though he is on pace to become the second player in NHL history to score at least 50 goals after turning 34, joining Johnny Bucyk, who scored 51 as a 35-year-old with the Boston Bruins in 1970-71.

But if Ovechkin does score 57 goals this season, he would sit at 715 heading into the 2020-21 season, 179 shy of tying Gretzky.

Here's a potential breakdown of how he could break the record:

Rest of 2019-20 (age 34): 15 goals in 21 games (.71 g/gp)

2020-21 (35): 50 in 82 games (.61 g/gp)

2021-22 (36): 45 in 82 games (.55 g/gp)

2022-23 (37): 42 in 82 games (.51 g/gp)

2023-24 (38): 35 in 82 games (.43 g/gp)

2024-25 (39): 30 in 82 games (.37 g/gp)

Video: Hats off to Alex Ovechkin for notching his 700th goal

This projection leaves plenty of wiggle room as it has him with 917 goals by the end of the 2024-25 season. Of course, this is all based on the assumption that Ovechkin, who can become an unrestricted free agent July 1, 2021, continues to play in the NHL.

However, Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said in December he's not worried about Ovechkin re-signing and finishing his career in Washington.

As such, it is not unreasonable to predict at least one more 50-goal season for Ovechkin. He had 14 goals in a seven-game span from Jan. 13 to Feb. 4, proof that his scoring touch shows few signs of diminishing.

It's also worth noting that goals per game in the NHL has increased steadily during the past five seasons, going from 2.71 in 2015-16 to 3.05 this season.

Having at least two 40-goal seasons following this one would greatly improve Ovechkin's chances of breaking Gretzky's record, and to prove it's not out of the realm of possibility, Phil Esposito scored 42 goals with the New York Rangers in 1978-79 as a 36-year-old, and Brendan Shanahan scored 40 for the Detroit Red Wings as a 37-year-old in 2005-06.

Tweet from @WayneGretzky: Congrats on 700 Alex, @ovi8! You���re truly one of the all-time greats. See you at 800 @NHL

As far as Ovechkin scoring at least 35 goals when he is 38 years old, Brett Hull had 37 with the Red Wings when he was 38 in 2002-03, and Gordie Howe scored 39 goals at 39 years old, 44 goals at 40, and 31 goals at 41.

But can Ovechkin play an additional five full seasons?

It's certainly possible considering the durability he has already exhibited throughout his career. Since entering the League at the start of the 2005-06 season, Ovechkin has played in 1,144 of a possible 1,175 regular-season games (97. 3 percent), which suggests a durability that could allow him to play past the next five seasons as he attempts to surpass what was once thought to be an untouchable record.

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