At age 36, Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin continues to elevate his game as he chases down Wayne Gretzky’s all-time NHL goals record. Right now, he sits 144 red lights away from passing No. 99’s all-time record of 894.
On Wednesday, The Score released a rather… interesting take on Ovechkin’s goal-scoring legacy. It said that if Ovechkin does catch Gretzky, it should be credited to Ovechkin’s “massive edge” in overtime winners.
Hold on — Let’s break this down for a second.
Ovechkin has a total of 24 regular-season overtime goals. In his monumental career, Gretzky had just two. To be clear, both played in the OT era (overtime, while the rules have changed through the years, came about in 1983). So yes, Ovechkin has 22 more OT tallies — but in no way does that discredit his total or any record he may come to break.
And ultimately, if No. 8 does surpass Gretzky, there shouldn’t be any “ifs, ands or buts” about it, let alone any asterisks next to his name.
First off, there’s a discrepancy between both players on multiple levels. Gretzky has 73 shorthanded goals in his career, while Ovechkin only has five (Ovi is not a penalty killer). With Gretzky skating more minutes on the PK, there’s a major difference in goals there, ones that Ovechkin hasn’t had the opportunity to rack up on as many occasions.
Then, we can take into account empty-net goals. Gretzky has the most in NHL history with 56, and right behind him is Ovechkin with 42. That right there is a 14-goal difference.
Now when it comes to power-play strikes, Ovechkin, thanks to a trade-mark shot from the office and other tools in his arsenal, sits at 274 power-play goals, tied with Dave Andreychuk for the most in the Show. Gretzky had 204 PPGs, so that’s a 70-goal difference between them.
Looking at the math when it comes to OT winners, special teams goals and empty-netters, Ovechkin holds a 10-goal advantage over Gretzky. That’s not a “massive edge,” by any means, and ultimately, OT winners don’t make much of a difference.
Oh, and Ovechkin has also seen two lockouts and two seasons shortened amid a global pandemic.
And, stats aside, there needs to be credit for Ovechkin’s form that makes the best goal-scorer in the history of the Show.
He has an absolutely lethal shot and outstanding vision. The 6-foot-3, 238-pound winger can use his size to his advantage and still maintain an impressive level of speed and unleash a wicked snapshot or one-timer with accuracy. His style is much different from Gretzky, who again, was more of a passer. He still had a great shot, but it wasn’t the part of his game that he was known for.
Again, this is not meant to discredit No. 99 – Gretzky was known for his scoring but was also more of a playmaker and pass-first kind of player. He holds a share of 61 records in NHL history and is the all-time points leader, and would still be if he didn’t have any goals at all thanks to his assist totals. He is among the greatest — and is arguably the greatest — to ever play in the NHL.
Unlike Gretzky, Ovechkin is mainly a sniper — albeit, he is still a dangerous, underrated passer. But in the end, they’re two different players.
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And, beyond the scoresheet, let’s look at the changing game as a whole. Back when Gretzky was playing, the goaltending style was much different. There were a lot of “stand-up netminders,” and the gear was smaller. In fact, goalies used to wear pads made of leather and stuffed with deer and horse hair. So when water and moisture accumulated in the pads from the ice, it would weigh it down, and goaltending became much more difficult as a result.
Even Gretzky mentioned in a 2003 Globe & Mail article that the goalie gear was “so big.” Of course, regulations have made it so that pads can only be certain sizes now, but that being said, it’s still significantly larger and better-built equipment than it was in the past. The material is also much stronger, more durable and of course, waterproof, made of hydrophobic synthetic leather and other grade-A material.
“When the quality of the equipment — forget the size; the quality — came up, it allowed the goalie to go down and take care of the bottom of the net where the majority of the shots were going in,” former goalie steve McKichan told The Edmonton Journal.
This is perhaps why we’ve seen a rise in save percentage among goalies over time, as highlighted in this graphic from FiveThirtyEight. Also, there’s the ever-changing speed and youth of the game to take into consideration as well.
Even back in 1985-86, there were 24 players with at least 40 goals, and in 1987-88, 29 players with at least 40 goals. Since the 2012-13 lockout, 40+ goal scorers have been a rarity, with the most in a season being 13 back in 2018-19 (Ovechkin led that year with 51 goals). And, since that lockout year, only one scorer has had more than one 50-plus goal season, and that’s the Great 8.
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Hockey Reference also accounts for adjusted goals, which accounts totals for “different schedule lengths, roster sizes and scoring environments” and adjusts the totals “to an 82-game schedule with a maximum roster size of 18 skaters and league averages of six goals per game and 1.67 assists per goal.”
Taking this into account, Gordie Howe is the all-time leader with 925 strikes. Ovechkin sits second with 897 and holds a 141-goal lead over No. 99’s 756.
In the end, Gretzky currently holds that place atop the NHL’s goal-scoring list. However, today’s league has become much harder to score in. And given Ovechkin’s shot, durability and consistency, as well as his ability to keep up with the speed of the game and improvement in goaltending, he holds the distinction as the best goal-scorer, all numbers aside, to ever lace ’em up in the Show.
“Every single night for 15 years, he’s the guy that supposed to score three goals every night, he’s the guy who’s supposed to carry the team. He’s a superstar. I don’t know if you can nitpick and say like one year is a little better than others,” Wilson said of Ovechkin. “He’s amazing this year, he’s been amazing for 15 years, and I think he just wants to keep going.”