Did any projection, even the most optimistic, expect this from Alex Ovechkin five years ago?
Sure, he was the greatest goal-scorer on the planet at the time. He tallied a league-best 49 goals in 2017-18. He had cleared 600 career goals by the end of that season. Talk of the chase to catch Wayne Gretzky’s 894 started to bubble up. It felt especially relevant because ‘Ovi’ had just won his first Stanley Cup, crossing off a crucial bucket-list item, theoretically allowing him to focus more on stat accumulation going forward.
Projections were out there five years ago. I certainly made some. But Ovechkin was already 32 at that point. Anyone forecasting his quest for 895 factored in the idea that he would, you know, age like a mortal human being. The idea of catching Gretzky felt far-fetched.
But what’s happened since has blown up the very idea of projecting the decline.
Ovechkin in his age-33 season: a league-leading 51 goals
Ovechkin in his age-34 season: a league-leading 48 goals (in 68 games)
Ovechkin in his age-35 season: 24 goals in 45 games, a 43-goal pace
Ovechkin in his age-36 season: A record-tying ninth 50-goal season
This season, he reaches the 800-goal summit: 20 goals in 32 games, good for a 51-goal pace.
Simply absurd. Only Johnny Bucyk (40 goals at age 37) and Gordie Howe (44 goals at 40) have even come close to that scoring rate at 37 or older.
In other words: nothing about Ovechkin’s aging process makes sense. Now factor in that the Washington Capitals are gradually sliding out of perennial playoff contention, with no series wins since 2018 and thus will be increasingly motivated to prioritize the chase for 895. What matters more: limping into an annual first-round exit or bragging eternally that your franchise has the all-time goals leader? They’re already bending over backward to craft him extra opportunities. His 5:31 of power play time per game this season is almost a full minute more than second-place Nikita Kucherov at 4:32.
Ovechkin is signed for three more seasons after this one. He’s 95 goals away from 895 and appears to be on track to reach it sometime in 2024-25, the season after next. It feels like a foregone conclusion at this point that Ovechkin will catch the Great One. But why stop there? What if, say, he has a year and a half left on his contract by the time he reaches 895 goals? Once he’s at 895, 900 will be easy enough.
But can Ovechkin become hockey’s first 1,000-goal scorer?
For fun, let’s project out the possibility. For starters, we’ll grant that his body holds up this season. So he continues converting at his current scoring rate, finishes with a 51-goal season, and heads into next year sitting at 831 goals.
What if we apply an arbitrary “aging formula” and assume that, somehow, his body finally starts to decline in 2023-24? Say, for instance, his goals per 60 and his ice time drop by 10 percent every season for the rest of his career. What type of goal production pattern would we get?
While it optimistically projects Ovechkin to play every game over the rest of his contract, the 10 percent aging factor creates a decline that would look pretty realistic, no? He’d be 40 by the end of that contract and sitting at 934 goals.
Would he be willing to stick around long enough to get 1,000? Let’s apply the 10 percent decline factor again on a new imaginary contract…
That would get Ovechkin to 974 goals through his age-42 campaign. And, again, that’s with a projection that he gets 10 percent less effective and plays 10 percent fewer minutes per game every season. That doesn’t factor in what lengths the Capitals would go to feed him the biscuit.
And if you’re at 974 and you’re the player who gets more joy out of scoring than any player in NHL history…you can’t squeeze 26 more goals out at that point? He’d get there late in his age-44 season. If Howe and Chris Chelios and Zdeno Chara and Jaromir Jagr can play that long, so can Ovechkin.
It would qualify as a mild upset now if Ovechkin doesn’t catch Gretzky and eventually hit 900. But don’t rule out 1,000. He’s the only human being in history we can bet on to do it.