Saturday, August 27, 2011

50 goals

So…will Alex Ovechkin rebound with a 50-goal season in 2011-2012? Will he ever see the north side of 50 goals again?

It certainly is among the topics Caps fans are talking about lately. Perhaps it was the magnitude of the drop in goals Ovechkin experienced in 2010-2011 – from 50 to 32 – that lead some folks to think it was merely a hiccup on the way to many more 50-goal seasons. Then again, you have folks who have pored over the history of 50 goal scorers and concluded that the window on Ovechkin’s career as a 50-goal scorer is closing.

Well, we are going to add our two cents to the discussion of 50-goal scorers by borrowing (ok, stealing) from a couple of previous discussions of this topic. Quisp, at “Jewels from the Crown,” put together an impressive set of tables last summer (updated this past July) that provides a stunning visual cue as to the likelihood of players past their 27th birthday recording 50-goal seasons. And over at Russian Machine Never Breaks, Neil Greenberg looked at Ovechkin specifically and the possibilities of his topping the 50-goal mark in the context of 50-goal histories.

We took a look at every NHL player who has recorded at least one 50-goal season, and the 27th birthday really is a bright line as far as 50-goal scorers go. As Quisp points out, the age of 26 is the high for average and median goal scoring among the 50-goal scorers. Those players with at least one 50-goal season on their resumes (90 by our count) played a total of 1,333 seasons in the NHL, 626 of them before their 27th birthday, 702 seasons after. In those 626 total seasons played before their 27th birthday, the 50-goal scorers recorded 129 seasons of at least 50 goals – 20.6 percent of the seasons played. And in those 702 seasons played after their 27th birthday? 61 total 50-goal seasons, or 8.7 percent of the total number of seasons played.

And if you are thinking the “prodigies” such as Ovechkin have been spared the decline in production that comes after reaching the age of 27, think again. Other than Ovechkin, eleven players in NHL history have recorded at least three 50-goal seasons by the time they reached the age of 27. Those 11 players recorded at least 50 goals 45 times in 79 total seasons before reaching their 27th birthdays (57.0 percent). Prodigies, indeed. But after reaching the age of 27? A total of 13 50-goal seasons in 96 seasons played among them (13.5 percent). Four of the 11 failed to record a single 50-goal season after the age of 27 (Michel Goulet, Jari Kurri, Luc Robitaille, and Rick Vaive in 36 seasons among them).

If you are thinking that with age, like fine wine, quality manifests itself…well. A total of 32 of the 50-goal scorers played in at least 10 seasons following their 27th birthday. Those players account for a total of 387 seasons among them. And the number of 50-goal seasons? Thirty-one (8.0 percent). Fifteen of them did not record so much as a single 50-goal season in any of the 10-plus seasons they played after their 27th birthday. Almost a third of the 50-goal seasons by this group (10 of the 31 in all) were recorded by two players – Marcel Dionne and Phil Esposito, who had to be considered late-bloomers (one 50-goal season in 13 combined seasons before their 17th birthdays).

Alex Ovechkin is a generational talent. Four 50-goal seasons in his first six years, including a league record for goals by a left wing in a single season, attest to that. In a different era – the 1980’s, perhaps – he might have challenged the likes of Mike Bossy (nine times over 50 goals, five times with at least 60 in ten seasons) as perhaps the best natural goal scorer in NHL history and be a regular 50-goal scorer for years to come with several 60-goal campaigns on his resume. But this is not that time. In the six seasons since the lockout, the number of 50-goal scorers by season has gone: five, two, three, one, three, one. It has been a select group, and it bears noting that Ovechkin has four of the 15 50-goal seasons in that time. Only Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk have more than one of their own (two apiece). In fact, Ovechkin has five of the 51 total 40-plus goal seasons since the lockout. He has been the outlier that came back to the pack last season.

As Neil Greenberg pointed out, “even if Ovechkin posts a season under 50 goals– it is not a disappointment nor an indication he is any less spectacular.” History is not on his side in the pursuit of 50 goals, and the house – by virtue of the dropping goal totals league-wide in recent years – is stacked against him. Ovechkin might have another 50-goal season in him. Perhaps even more.

But it would not be the way to bet.

photo: Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images