Alex Ovechkin is great at scoring goals. How great? His 19 goals in 26 games this year puts him ahead of last year’s pace (he finished with a league-leading 49 goals scored) and puts his end-of-season projected total at 60 goals based on his goals-per-game pace.
If the Great Eight tops the 50-goal mark in 2018-19 he becomes only the fourth player in NHL history to have at least two such campaigns after the age of 30, putting him alongside Hall of Famers like Phil Esposito, Marcel Dionne, Bobby Hull and Mario Lemieux. Not even Wayne Gretzky was as prolific as Ovechkin has been at scoring goals later in his career, which is why Ovechkin has improved his chances at catching The Great One for the all-time goal scoring mark of 894 goals.
On the Ides Of March I did some mathematical gymnastics and found Ovechkin had a 34 percent chance to surpass Gretzky’s legendary record, provided he stayed healthy and not see his role change significantly with the team. Since then he has been healthy and his role has changed: he’s skating over 21 minutes a night, the most since his 2010-11 campaign, increasing his odds of setting a record.
To determine how likely Ovechkin is to become the all-time scoring king, we are again going to take a two-step approach. The first step is to project the next three years of Ovechkin’s career with the Capitals, which coincides with the end of the 13-year, $124 million extension he signed in 2008. By this method, Ovechkin projects to score 128 goals over the next three years, including this one, with simulations ranging from a low of 101 to a high of 162 goals over that span. That puts him between 708 to 769 career goals by the end of the 2020-21 campaign. The 700-goal mark is significant: only seven NHL players have ever scored that many in an NHL career and just Gordie Howe reached the mark scoring all those goals for the same franchise.
The next step is to estimate how many goals Ovechkin will have for the rest of his career. For this stage, I used the favorite toy, a formula created by Bill James that calculates the probability a player achieves a cumulative statistical goal, with an arbitrary career-ending point at 40 years old. For Ovechkin’s “established level” of goals scored, we are going to use the weighted average of each simulated year as the input, thus giving us a range of possibilities, from a simulation in which he scores 36, 32 and 33 goals in each of the next three seasons to one which has him scoring 50, 63 and 49 goals from 2018-19 to 2020-21. Average all those thousands of simulations together and Ovechkin’s chances at reaching Gretzky’s all-time goal mark is 39 percent.
Gretzky wasn’t as good at this stage of his career as Ovechkin is, which is a big reason behind the notable improvement in odds. For example, Gretzky scored 126 goals in 278 games from his age-30 to age-33 season; Ovechkin has 151 goals in 269 games played over that same time frame with 56 more games to play in his age-33 season (2018-19).
The fact we are talking about Ovechkin increasing his chances at this stage of his career is amazing -- the amount of 30-something skaters that reach at least the 30-goal plateau, widely considered to be an above-average total, wanes every year they add another candle to their birthday cake. For example, there were 26 30-year-old skaters, since 2005-06, who scored 30 or more goals in the NHL. That dropped to 17 players at 31 years old, 15 at 32 years old and 12 at 33 years old, Ovechkin’s age this season. It continues to decline after that, too. In his age 30-32 seasons, Ovechkin not only topped 30 every season, but rather tallied 50, 33 and 49 goals respectively. As mentioned earlier, he’s on pace for 60 this season.
Looked at another way, since 2005-06, the average winger that is age 30 or older scores between 0.19 and 0.21 goals per game, which translates to a 15 to 17 goal season. In fact, after accounting for players that are not even in the league anymore after turning 30 years old, the average winger loses almost eight percent of their goal-scoring production from age 29 to 30, whereas Ovechkin has held steady at an elite level, making him the goal-scoring equivalent of Benjamin Button.
By comparison, Gretzky’s goal scoring -- though still strong -- waned down the final portion of his career. He scored 176 goals from his age 31 season until his retirement following his age 38 season. Ovechkin has shown no signs of slowing down and has already scored 101 over that same time span and figures to eclipse that 176 mark sometime next season, assuming he remains healthy. While it’s still unlikely Ovechkin catches Gretzky, it’s now a distinct possibility.
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