Despite having been retired for 16 years, Wayne Gretzky still owns more than 50 NHL records - and it's fair to say that most of them are safe.
But "The Great One" may one day cede one of his most impressive marks - the league record in goals - to "The Great 8."
With his next tally, Washington Capitals uber-sniper Alex Ovechkin will move into a tie with Pat LaFontaine for 53rd on the NHL's all-time goals list. And considering Ovechkin won't turn 30 until September, it's time to ponder whether he has a legitimate shot at becoming the league's all-time goals leader by the time his career is done.
Where He Stands
Entering Friday's tilt with the Dallas Stars, Ovechkin has 467 goals in 746 career regular-season games. He won't get to 500 by season's end, but with 14 games remaining, he should find himself somewhere near the 475 range. (Then again, the way the Stars defend, he could get there Friday.)
More significantly, Ovechkin averages 0.626 goals per game over his career - the fifth-highest rate of all-time, and 0.25 goals ahead of Gretzky himself, who set the standard with 894 goals. Two guys ahead of Ovechkin - Cy Denneny and Babe Dye - played at a time when 24-game seasons were the norm, while the other two - Mike Bossy and Mario Lemieux - saw their chances at the goal-scoring crown curtailed by injury.
Based solely on goals per game, Ovechkin has an excellent chance at racking up enough scores to pass Gretzky. But with Ovechkin going into Friday still 427 goals behind "The Great One," it'll take some work.
What He Needs
Ovechkin has had the good fortune of remaining relatively healthy over the course of his career, which is by far the biggest contributing factor to his run at the crown. He credits a thorough training regimen with helping him stay on the ice, but every fan knows it doesn't take much for a player to wind up on the sidelines. Ovechkin needs to stay healthy - not just for now, but into the twilight of his career.
It's one thing to look at Ovechkin's goals-per-game output and extrapolate future production based on that number. But it isn't always that simple; Gretzky averaged an absurd .823 goals per game over his first 10 seasons before the goal-scoring eventually dried up. Ovechkin is a born goal scorer, and should stay productive for several more seasons. But projecting a 0.626 GPG pace for seven or eight more years is optimistic.
Ovechkin seems satisfied to be playing in the top hockey league in the world. Then again, so did Jaromir Jagr before he stunningly bolted for Europe, spending three seasons overseas and effectively taking himself out of the running for the goal-scoring crown. There's no indication Ovechkin would do the same - but it has happened before. And if he did, he'd have virtually no chance of catching Gretzky, even if he did return.
What Will Happen
Assuming Ovechkin stays reasonably healthy, maintains a decent level of production even into his late 30s and remains in the NHL the entire time, he has an outside shot of catching Gretzky:
- At his current GPG pace, Ovechkin would tie Gretzky's mark in 682 games, or roughly 8 1/2 seasons.
- At a slightly reduced pace of .575 goals per game, Ovechkin would tie Gretzky's mark in 742 games, or roughly 9 1/2 seasons.
- At a more reduced pace of .500 goals per game, Ovechkin would tie Gretzky's mark in 854 games, or roughly 10 1/2 seasons.
He may need to play into his early 40s, and it won't hurt to have a playmaking center attached to his hip at all times. But if everything goes right, one of the greatest records in NHL history will one day belong to Alex Ovechkin.