The Washington Capitals’ captain, Alexander Ovechkin, recorded the 28th Hat Trick of his career against the L.A. Kings on February 4th. This feat placed him ahead of the legendary Mark Messier as the No. 8 goal scorer in NHL history with 698 career goals. With the 700-milestone around the corner, Ovechkin is asserting himself as THE greatest goal scorer of all time – ahead of Wayne Gretzky, otherwise known as the “Great One”.
Pass, Shoot, and Score… Minus the Pass
When you picture the Great Eight, Mr. Alexander Mikhailovich Ovechkin, you rarely visualize him passing the puck, as he’s too busy leading the league in goals in eight of the 15 years he’s been in the NHL – with a career high of 65 goals in the 2007-08 season. The aspect of his game that gains the most notoriety is his goal scoring ability, specifically on the power play. As a matter of fact, they have coined the top of the left face-off circle as “Ovi’s Office” on the power play – a specific spot on the ice in which the right-handed shot has totaled 259 career power play goals, standing at No. 3 all-time. Ovechkin is the only active player, among the 25 players leaderboard provided by pro-hockey-reference, with the No. 1 spot held by Dave Andreychuk with 274 career power play goals. In each of his 15 NHL seasons, Ovi has yet to score fewer than 30 goals in a single season, which includes the 2012-2013 NHL lockout when he scored 32 goals in 48 games. In total, the Russian superstar has tallied 698 goals and 570 assists in 1,139 career NHL games. Even at the age of 34, Alex Ovechkin shows absolutely no signs of slowing down. After finally winning the Stanley Cup, he now has the ‘monkey off his back’ and is able to focus on surpassing Wayne Gretzky’s scoring record of 894 career goals.
“Pull Up—[Train]” ~ Kendrick Lamar
The skill of the NHL from the 1980’s is incomparable to today’s NHL. From top to bottom, players today are faster, stronger, and smarter than every single player during the peak of Wayne Gretzky’s career. If Paul Bissonnette, co-host of the popular Spittin Chiclets hockey podcast, were to play at the same time as the “Great One”, he would score at least 60 points in a season without any issue. This is a guy that totaled 22 points in 202 career NHL games. If you were to place Wayne Gretzky, from his prime, in the league today, I would be impressed if he scored more than 30 goals in a season. The reason why the skill gap of the two generations is so drastic is due to the difference in training the players do on and off the ice today. The average Joe in the NHL will likely partake in a morning skate that will last at least two hours, with a 2 1/2 hour gym session afterwards, followed by a team meal and film for several additional hours. At the conclusion of the film session, it would be followed by another on ice practice. Joe will probably do some extra cardio or weight lifting before going back to his apartment to sleep so that he can start the process all over again the next day. NHL players don’t believe in the concept of free time. If there is extra time in their schedule, which is highly unlikely, they will dedicate it to spending time with their significant other before going back to the rink for another practice. In Gretzky’s era, players would usually conduct an on ice practice, followed by basic weight training. If you were to take the current Alex Ovechkin and place him in the NHL during the 1980’s, he would shatter any goal scoring record Gretzky would set, and would triple it. That’s how drastic the skill gap is.
Right Foot In a Left Skate
The most significant factor that supports the fact that Ovechkin is the greatest goal scorer of all time is the skill comparison of goaltenders from Ovi’s era to Gretzky’s. NHL goaltenders are some of the most athletic human beings on this planet and are the most conditioned and physically fit players on any given team. The difficulty with shooting against them is not only their athletic abilities, but their sheer size; Ben Bishop is the tallest starting goalie in the NHL, standing at nearly 7’0” on skates… When he collapses into the butterfly position, he eliminates 85% of the net with his body alone. The difference between the NHL then and now, is that you can’t score on a goalie straight-on today. 90% of goals in the NHL today are the result of a screen or tipped shot. Watch a highlight reel of some of Gretzky’s goals, and I guarantee you that even you could score on those goalies. They treated the butterfly position like it was a suggestion. In the season that Gretzky recorded 215 points in 80 games, the best goals against average for a goalie in 1985-86 was 2.55 goals against – held by Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Bob Froese in 47 starts during the season. Froese was the only tendy in the league who averaged fewer than three goals against per game, as the next best was a 3.19 GAA by Al Jensen of the Capitals. In 2019, Tuuka Rask of the Boston Bruins recorded a 2.11 GAA in 33 starts. Across the league in the 2018-19 season, there was an additional 32 goalies (starting a minimum of 24 games) who recorded fewer than three goals against per game. Statistically, it is remarkably harder to score in the NHL now than it was 25 years ago.
It’s Ya Boy
The only one who can stop Ovechkin from surpassing Wayne Gretzky on the all-time scoring list, is Ovechkin. He is best described as an NFL linebacker on skates; he stands at 6’3” 235 lbs. and is one of the fastest players in the league. His physicality is his identity, as he draws everyone’s attention each shift because you never know if he’s going to score a highlight-reel goal or throw a bone jarring body check. Unlike Wayne Gretzky, the Great Eight doesn’t need protection because he’s his own bodyguard. Having a Dave Semenko on his line is like actor Jason Momoa having bodyguards – their mini-bosses you have to fight before you get to him. Unfortunately, the downside of the physicality is that if he continues to dish out big hits every night, he will force himself into retirement within the next three years. The only way that he will be able to take the torch from the Great One is to drop 10-20 pounds, while reducing his aggressiveness in order to prolong his longevity. Gretzky played in the NHL for 20 years because he never played the body. If Ovi wants to officially be the leading goal scorer, he needs to sacrifice his physical dominance in order to do so. Otherwise, there will never be another player in NHL history to surpass a Wayne Gretzky record, as he is the world’s last chance to do so.