Next up, Wayne Gretzky.
Alex Ovechkin on Friday surpassed Gordie Howe for second place on the N.H.L.’s career goal-scoring list. With 802 goals, he now trails only the Great One.
Ovechkin moved into second place after scoring two goals in the Washington Capitals’ 4-1 win over the Winnipeg Jets.
Ovechkin, a 37-year-old left wing, is a lifer with the Capitals, who drafted him with the first overall pick in 2004. “If you go first, you are the best,” he said at the time. “I always want to be the best. Yes, I can play in the N.H.L. I can score goals.”
That turned out to be an understatement. While hopes were high for Ovechkin, “scoring as many N.H.L. goals as Gordie Howe and maybe as many as Wayne Gretzky” was not one of the hot takes.
In 18 seasons, Ovechkin has won three Hart Trophies, awarded to the league’s most valuable player, and in the 2017-18 season he lifted the Capitals’ only Stanley Cup. He has played for Russia at three Winter Olympics, but has never won a medal.
And throughout it all, he has scored loads of goals. He has led the league nine times, as recently as the 2019-20 season, which was shortened by the coronavirus pandemic, when he tied with David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins with 48 goals at the age of 34.
He has long since left the current crop of players behind. Next on the active goal-scoring list is the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby, who began his career alongside Ovechkin (Crosby was the No. 1 pick in the 2005 draft, but the season-canceling N.H.L. lockout the previous season delayed Ovechkin’s start).
Crosby, a 35-year-old center who is more of a playmaker than Ovechkin, has 536 goals.
Ovechkin is in the company of the immortals. Gretzky finished with 894 N.H.L. goals, and Ovechkin now looks down the list on goal scorers as great as Jaromir Jagr (766), Brett Hull (741), Marcel Dionne (731) and Phil Esposito (717).
And Howe, the man Ovechkin just met near the top, scored his 801 goals in an insanely long career that amounted to 1,767 N.H.L. games — with Detroit and Hartford — more than 400 more than Ovechkin. And he scored another 174 during six seasons in the World Hockey Association.
A year ago, Ovechkin’s catching Gretzky seemed like a good bet but not a sure one. After all, age might be expected to slow Ovechkin’s scoring rate and injuries to his older body might cost him appearances.
But he has looked ageless in his last season and a half. In both last season and the current campaign he is averaging just over 0.6 goals a game, right at his career average. He played in 77 of the Capitals’ 82 regular-season games last season and hasn’t missed a game so far this season even as the Capitals (19-13-4) have struggled.
Amazingly, Ovechkin is averaging more than 20 minutes of ice time per game, among the top 20 forwards in the league. Only one — Mats Zuccarello of the Minnesota Wild — is older than 30.
Let’s say Ovechkin roughly maintains the 0.6 rate this season and does not get hurt: He could well pick up 30 more goals. If he slips to, say, 0.5 next season, that’s still 40 more goals. Then he would be within 20 or so of Gretzky and ready to break the record in the 2024-25 season.
Earlier this season, Gretzky acknowledged that it was a question of when, not if, Ovechkin would surpass his record. Given that in 2021 Ovechkin signed a five-year, $47.5 million contract that will take him through 2025-26, you would have to agree.
Don’t weep for Gretzky though. His assist record of 1,963 is more than 700 ahead of second place (Ron Francis, now the Seattle general manager) and more than 1,000 ahead of Crosby, who has 916 assists. Ovechkin, whose primary talent is scoring goals, has 649 assists, and there are a handful of active players ahead of him.
Still, with the latest milestone, Ovechkin continues to ascend into the upper reaches of hockey’s pantheon and it does not look like he is planning to stop any time soon.