“Never forget that what becomes timeless was once truly new.”
-- Nicolas Ghesquiere
The longer Alex Ovechkin plays for the Washington Capitals, the more one might be inclined to think back to the beginning. That opening night against the Columbus Blue Jackets, coached by Gerard Gallant, who would be on the opposite bench almost 13 years later when the Ovechkin and the Capitals won their first Stanley Cup in Las Vegas. That first shift, when 40 seconds in, he plastered defenseman Radoslav Suchý into the glass behind the Columbus net, popping out a stanchion holding the glass in place and delaying the game for several minutes while repairs were made. That moment in the eighth minute of the second period when he took a pass from Dainius Zubrus between the tops of the circles and one-timed the puck past goalie Pascal Leclaire for his first NHL goal.
Well, here we are more than 15 years, more than 700 goals, more than 1,100 games later, and Alex Ovechkin continues to be not an elite goal scorer, but the elite goal scorer in the NHL. If anything, he is improving with age. Consider that in 2016-2017 he posted 33 goals in 82 games, averaging 0.40 goals per game. The following season it was 49 goals in 82 games (0.60), and then it was 51 goals in 81 games in 2018-2019 (0.63). Last season it was 48 goals in 68 games, his 0.71 goals per game his highest since 2008-2008 when, as a 23-year old, he had 56 goals in 79 games (0.71).
One noteworthy aspect of his goal scoring last season was the improvement in production as the season wore on. Yes, he did average 0.70 goals per game in five of his seven ten-game splits, but breaking it down a different way, he averaged 0.60 goals per game over his first 25 games, but he averaged 0.77 goals per game over his last 43 games (a 63-goal pace over 82 games).
Odd Ovechkin Fact… If only his even-strength goals were counted, Alex Ovechkin would still rank second in the NHL (442 goals) in the NHL since he came into the league, and he would be only 20 behind Sidney Crosby.
Odd Ovechkin Fact II… Since the NHL began recording missed shots in 2005-2006, Ovechkin has precisely 1,000 more missed shots (2,423) than the second-place player on the list (Jeff Carter: 1,423).
Anyone who works with data knows there are an almost unlimited number of ways a large enough body of data can be sliced, diced, and massaged to make a point. So let’s take a shot at this. It’s hard to compare eras in any sport, and hockey is no exception. Players are bigger, faster, better conditioned, with the technology of equipment maximized to enhance performance. Alex Ovechkin, 6’3”/235 pounds, using a state of the art stick, wearing lighter equipment than did Wayne Gretzky, 6’/185 pounds, using (for the most part) a wooden stick. But players can be compared to their own cohorts to get a feeling for how they dominated their peers.
Looking at the first 15 years of Ovechkin’s and Gretzky’s careers, Gretzky had 803 goals in 1,125 games to 706 goals in 1,152 games for Ovechkin. Score one for Gretzky on raw numbers. And, Gretzky averaged 0.71 goals per game over his first 15 years to 0.61 for Ovechkin. But here is the thing. Ovechkin was a more dominating force among his cohort. Over his first 15 seasons, his 706 goals were 244 more than the second-place player on the list over that span (Sidney Crosby: 462), 52.8 percent more than Crosby. Over Gretzky’s first 15 years, he posted 186 more goals than the second-place player over that span (Mike Gartner: 617), 30.1 percent more. And, looking at players who appeared in at least 500 games over Ovechkin’s and Gretzky’s respective 15-year spans, Ovechkin has a 0.61 to 0.53 edge in goals per game over the second-place player (Steven Stamkos), while Gretzky (0.71) is no better than fourth among his cohort (Mario Lemieux: 0.82; Brett Hull: 0.76; Mike Bossy: 0.75). Gretzky, at the top of his game, might have been more dominant, but it would be hard to find a player in any era as dominant in goal scoring as Alex Ovechkin has been over 15 years.
Yeah, yeah, Ovechkin scores goals, water is wet. But as time goes on, it is more and more becoming the only dimension to his game. There are 24 instances in NHL history in which a player posted 45 or more goals and 30 or fewer assists. Alex Ovechkin has four of them (no one else has more than two), and all four were recorded over the last seven seasons. Last year, Ovechkin became the first player in NHL history to record at least 45 goals (48) and fewer than 20 assists (19). Remember, this is a player who four times in his career recorded more than 50 assists (but none since 2010-2011).
Potential Milestones to Reach in 2020-2021:
- 16th 30-goal season (would break tie with Jaromir Jagr for second all-time; Mike Gartner: 17)
- 12th 40-goal season (would tie Wayne Gretzky for most all-time)
- 16th 30-goal season in first 16 seasons in NHL (would first player to achieve this feat; Jagr and Gartner did it 15 times in first 16 seasons in NHL)
- 1st all-time in power play goals (he currently has 260, needs 15 to pass Dave Andreychuk (274))
- 600 career assists (572)
- 1,300 career points (1,278)
- 500 career power play points (260-222-482)
- He needs three goals to take over seventh-place all time in goals (Mike Gartner: 708)… 12 goals to take over sixth-place (Phil Esposito: 717)…26 goals to take over fifth-place (Marcel Dionne (731)… 36 goals to take over fourth-place (Brett Hull: 741)
- He needs two empty-net goals to pass Marian Hossa (40) for second-place all time (Wayne Gretzky: 56)
The Big Question… Will Alex Ovechkin ever get old?
That question has more than one layer. At the most superficial of them, watching him on a rush, or firing a one-timer, or punishing an opponent with a big hit never gets old. But on another level, age seems to have had little effect on Ovechkin’s ability to score goals. Since turning 30 years old, Ovechkin has 231 goals. Only one player in NHL history has more goals in five seasons starting with his 30-year old season (Phil Esposito had 253 goals from 1972-1973 through 1976-1977).
But 35-years old might be a different matter. Eighteen players have combined for 25 instances of scoring 35 or more goals starting with their 35-year old season. Only five of those players (Teemu Selanne (twice), Brendan Shanahan, Bill Guerin, Joe Sakic, and Daniel Alfredsson) did it since the 2004-2005 lockout.
On the other hand, only once in the last eight full seasons has Ovechkin posted fewer than 35 goals, and in the abbreviated 2012-2013 season he still managed 32 goals (league leader) in 48 games. Even with a 56-game schedule ahead this season, betting on Ovechkin failing to hit the 35-goal mark (a 51-goal pace over 82 games) might be a fool’s errand.
In the end…
Fifteen years into the career of Alex Ovechkin, one must dig deep to find a superlative that has not been uttered about his performance on the ice. He is one of the most skilled, most entertaining, most fun to watch players to have pulled on a sweater in the NHL. Even at age 35, with his hair having turned mostly gray, and having settled down into a family life, he seems as energetic and as thrilled at his own and his teammates’ successes as he was back in the fall of 2005 when he first stepped on the ice for the Caps. He is far closer to the end of his NHL career than he is to its beginning, but time has not diminished his prodigious goal scoring skill or dimmed his infectious personality. In that respect, he is as “timeless” a player as exists in the NHL, and it is the good fortune of Capitals Nation to see him adding triumphs to his amazing career.
Projection: 55 games, 35-20-55, plus-1
Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images North America