The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can Alex Ovechkin catch Wayne Gretzky? ‘If anyone can, he’s the only one,’ Brett Hull says.

Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin celebrates after scoring during the first period Thursday night in St. Louis. (Jeff Curry/USA Today)
Placeholder while article actions load

ST. LOUIS — Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin had his tongue out and his right leg in the air as he unfurled a wrist shot that fluttered its way into the net, carving out another slice of history for himself with his 30th goal of the season. Way above Ovechkin in Enterprise Center, Hall of Famer Brett Hull was standing in the press box minutes later, marveling at the player who has already joined him as one of the greatest the NHL has ever seen.

“Everyone thinks he’s always over here on his off side; well, he just scored over there from the right wing,” Hull said. “He got it, corralled it and fired it. There aren’t a lot of guys who have that ability.”

Ovechkin has arguably been compared to Hull most throughout his career, given their elite goal-scoring ability. Hull finished with 741 goals in his career, and he played until he was 41, last appearing in five games in the 2005-06 season. That was Ovechkin’s rookie year, and at 33, he’s on pace to become the first player since Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos in 2011-12 to post a 60-goal campaign.

And because Ovechkin has finally added a Stanley Cup to his impressive résumé, the question surrounding him now is whether he can catch Wayne Gretzky’s record of 894 career goals. Ovechkin has 637.

Alex Ovechkin to skip NHL All-Star Game, will be suspended one game

“All it depends on [is]: Does he stay healthy? Does he want to continue to play that long?” Hull said. “That’s an awful lot of goals. I remember when I hit 700 and I was like, ‘I’m still almost 200 away?' I mean, it seems like you’re close, but you’re really not. If anyone can, he’s the only one.”

Ovechkin has dismissed the thought that he could catch Gretzky. Before the season, he was asked about how long he might play — after this season, he has two more left on his contract with the Capitals — and he referenced wanting to retire feeling well enough that he could still play with his son, Sergei, who was born in August. “The most important thing is I want to be healthy; I want to play with him when he’s going to be 10 or 12,” Ovechkin said.

Capitals owner Ted Leonsis also said recently that he couldn’t envision Ovechkin continuing to play once his production and role has started to diminish.

“The thing that I know intuitively about Alex is that he will only play if he’s great,” Leonsis said. “Alex is not going to be one of these players who, ‘I’m playing 11 minutes a game and I’m on the third line and I can get power-play time.’ He just has too much pride.”

But while most players are well past their prime in their 14th season, Ovechkin is averaging 1.18 points, on pace for his best season since 2009-10, when he was 24. The league was more physical when he entered it, and that suited his hulking, 6-foot-3, 235-pound frame. But even as it has changed to speed and shiftiness with the new generation of talent, Ovechkin’s shot has remained just as powerful. Other aspects of his game could slow down, but his shot is unlikely to.

Capitals fall flat in St. Louis, lose to the Blues

“The way he shoots it, it can carry him until he decides to hang them up,” Hull said. “It’s awesome how good he shoots it. You look at these goalies now and how big they are, he still beats them. And it’s not just the shot; it’s his ability to know where to go to score. . . . When you get to continuously play with [centers Nicklas] Backstrom and [Evgeny] Kuznetsov and guys like [T.J.] Oshie, who are who are smart, good, playmaking people, you get open and can shoot it like that. There’s no reason why he can’t be scoring forever. I played very similar to him, except I didn’t hit anybody like he does.”

With that 30th goal of the season Thursday night, Ovechkin became just the second player in NHL history to have scored at least 30 in each of his first 14 seasons, joining ex-Capitals star Mike Gartner. Including this season, he has been the first player to reach 30 goals in a season five times. But after Washington’s 5-2 loss to St. Louis, Ovechkin was in no mood to celebrate his latest milestone. He’s had so many of them that he’s developed a stock answer.

“It’s nice to be in elite company,” Ovechkin said. “But still a long way to go.”