Can he catch Gretzky?
“I don’t think it’s possible,” Ovechkin said Wednesday afternoon following Capitals practice, maybe 14 hours after he finished off the 21st hat trick of his career. “I don’t see it. Maybe if you scored 100 goals in a season . . .”
Shoot. Ovechkin is on pace for just 68.
Maybe this is a silly exercise, but what else is left to say about Ovi in this town? He won the Stanley Cup. He increased his legend by the way he celebrated. He came back from the shortest summer of his hockey life, newly minted as a first-time father, and rolled into a season in which a letdown was not only understandable but all but assumed. And through 30 games, he has 25 goals, four more than any other player in the league.
How many Alex Ovechkin appreciation pieces is one too many Alex Ovechkin appreciation pieces?
Hold your answer because we have no idea how much longer he’s going to play. So for now, hit those same notes.
“O’s a freak,” right wing T.J. Oshie said.
“This is a player that’s reinventing himself,” first-year Coach Todd Reirden said.
He may be reinventing himself, but the results, with Ovechkin, always seem to be the same: The puck ends up in the back of the net with a regularity unmatched by anyone else from his era.
We will get to that in a minute. But first, let’s do the simple math.
Wayne Gretzky scored 894 goals in his 20 NHL seasons. Ovechkin, in the first half of his 14th season, has 632. That’s a big gap. Be conservative: If Ovechkin scores 25 goals over the Capitals’ remaining 52 games — which would give him his first 50-goal season since 2015-16 — he would finish this season with 657 in his career. That would mean he would have to average 40 goals over nearly six more seasons — until he’s 40 years old — to catch the Great One.
Not likely, right? Of course, his average output entering this season was 46.7 goals. So, um . . . how much longer are you going to play, Alex?
“I mean, it’s all about my health,” Ovechkin said. “I don’t want to be 35 years old and all my body is cracking. I want to play with my kids. I want to be able to do some different things. But right now, I don’t want to think about it, because it’s not the point.”
Right. The point is what he’s doing in the moment, which is remarkable. You know how old Gretzky was when he recorded the last of his 12 40-goal seasons? He was 30. Ovechkin is on his way to his third 40-goal season since he turned 30.
We have to acknowledge, too, that Gretzky played in an era so vastly different than Ovechkin’s, you might as well compare apples to porterhouse steaks. In 1981-82, the year Gretzky scored 92 goals, NHL teams averaged 4.01 goals per game. Last season, when Ovechkin led the league with 49, teams averaged 2.98 goals per game. That’s a stark contrast in style of play.
Maybe a better measure, even as we consider whether Gretzky is reachable, is comparing Ovechkin to his contemporaries. Over the 13-plus seasons since Ovechkin’s rookie year, Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, his old nemesis, has the second-most goals. Know how many more goals Ovi has than Sid? Just 206. The gap between Ovechkin and Crosby is the same as between Crosby and Paul Stastny, who sits in 66th place over that span. Amazing.
So going forward: Ovechkin probably could be limited to skating with a walker or a cane and still be able to shuffle over to the left circle and rifle home shots on the power play, say, 15 times a year between now and, oh, eternity.
“I’m sure he can stay over there as long as he wants,” Oshie said.
But the reinvention of himself includes a new arsenal: going to the net and scoring the ugly goals that never seemed to appeal to him, leading the league in even-strength goals rather than using the power play as a crutch, passing with both creativity and appropriateness, and a level of responsibility that has shown up in past playoffs but hasn’t been consistent in Novembers and Decembers past.
Some proof: Ovechkin is now playing in five-on-six situations — when the Caps are protecting a late lead and the opponent has pulled the goalie — which means he has to block some shots and dig in on defense but gives him the chance at some easy empty-netters. Why is he on the ice in those moments? Because he has shown he is more committed to two-way hockey. He has earned the right to be out there.
That fits, too, with another transformation, if you ask around the Capitals: Ovechkin, in what should be the latter part of his career, has changed his practice habits. When he once glided, he now tries. When he once sulked, he now celebrates. It’s not unusual for Ovechkin to score in practice and joyously signal to the video coaches — who record all these sessions at home — to mark that play so the coaches can review it later.
That joy marked Ovechkin’s play when he first arrived in Washington. Now he has found it again. Maybe it has something to do with being freed from the pressure that the Cup always carried. Maybe it has something to do with becoming a father. His son, Sergei, was born over the summer.
Come to think of it, might a longer career — a career in which the production level is maintained rather than dropped — allow young Sergei to see his dad score meaningful goals that the younger Ovechkin will remember and understand?
“I hope so,” Ovechkin said. “I mean, I don’t know till what age I’m going to play, but definitely a couple more years for sure.”
The facts are that he is closer to the end of his career than to the start. The numbers just don’t make it look that way.
“Of course you have to think about the future, what you have to do about it, what’s the next step after the hockey career,” Ovechkin said. “But still, it’s right now, I have three, four, five years left in my arsenal, and we’ll see.”
We’ll see, all right. Three, four, five years would not be enough to catch Gretzky. And that’s fine. What Alex Ovechkin is providing right now, on a nightly basis, is a reason to dream the biggest dreams of what he might accomplish when he should be slowing down but isn’t.