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Why Alex Ovechkin is surpassing Crosby, Lemieux to be NHL’s best player since Gretzky

Alex Ovechkin belongs among the NHL’s all-time greats. (Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports)

Alex Ovechkin is at it again. He scored his 51st and 52nd goals of the season Thursday night, passing Peter Bondra to become the Washington Capitals’ all-time leader with 474 goals. He joins the Sharks’ Patrick Marleau and the Devils’ Patrik Elias as the only active career goal-scoring leaders for their current team.

It has been a record-setting season for the Russian superstar. Ovechkin became the sixth player in NHL history to reach the 50-goal plateau six times or more, joining Wayne Gretzky, Mike Bossy, Mario Lemieux, Guy Lafleur and Marcel Dionne. He is the fifth player to score at least 30 goals in each of his first 10 seasons. The others: Gretzky, Bossy, Mike Gartner and Jari Kurri. However, his goal-scoring peers played in a time when goal scoring was plentiful.

Teams are scoring 2.74 goals per game this season. When Gretzky scored 87 goals during the 1983-84 campaign, teams averaged 3.94 goals per game. Ovechkin’s 65-goal season in 2007-08 was produced when teams averaged just 2.78 goals per game. If you adjust these performances to account for different schedule lengths, roster sizes and scoring environments, Ovechkin’s 65-goal season is the second most prolific goal-scoring output in NHL history. This year’s output ranks 27th and rising.

But Ovechkin provides more than just goal scoring. Goals created per game, more so than raw points produced, paints a broader picture of offensive impact, since it takes into account the team’s performance relative to a player’s. And by this measure, Ovechkin’s career impact (.49 goals created per game) is the 10th best of all time. In fact, his adjusted goals created has always been in the Top 10 every season since he entered the league, and has typically been one of the two best performances of the year. He is also the 12th player to amass 400 goals and 400 assists in his first 10 years — and all 10 that are eligible have been enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Teemu Selanne, the lone outlier, is sure to follow them when he gets on the ballot.

Per Hockey-Reference’s point shares, an estimate of the number of points in the standings generated by a single player, only Gretzky has been more important to his team’s wins than Ovechkin over the first decade of a career. Lemieux, Bossy, Lafleur and even Sidney Crosby all take a back seat to the Great Eight. And it is Ovechkin’s defense — yes, defense — that pushes him ahead of Super Mario on the leaderboard.

“Obviously from the outside, it looks like [Ovechkin’s] matured (playing a 200-foot game) and yet he’s still scoring as many goals as he’s always scored,” Gretzky told ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun. “It just shows you, that you can be attentive to what you need to do for your team and yet you can still produce offensively. I think it’s remarkable what Ovechkin has done this year.”