The great Wayne Gretzky leads all NHL players in all-time goal-scoring with 894 and Alexander Ovechkin, at just age 24, already has 263 goals (as of March 9th, 2010). Is there any chance he'll catch the Great One?
Wayne Gretzky 894
Gordie Howe 801
Brett Hull 741
Marcel Dionne 731
Phil Esposito 717
Wayne Gretzky was an extremely talented goal scorer, and he played on an explosively potent Edmonton Oiler team during a high-scoring era in NHL history. The league averaged 7.77 goals per game during the 1984-85 season when Wayne Gretzky was 24, over 2 goals more than today. Gretzky also enjoyed a one season head start over Ovechkin, leaving Gretzky with an astonishing 429 goals at the same point in his career. Given this huge head start, and Gretzky's long and relatively injury-free career, is there any hope Ovechkin can overcome the 156-goal deficit and catch up?
Taking a closer look at the Oilers legend, we see that he scored 92 goals at age 21, leading the league in goals for the first of four consecutive seasons where he would score 71, 87 and then 73 at age 24. He dropped to 52 the following season, then led the league one final time with 62 as a 26-year-old, and then enjoyed only one more 50-goal season the rest of the way. If Ovechkin is going to catch Gretzky he'd have to find a way to continue scoring at his current pace for several seasons longer than Gretzky could. Is that a realistic expectation?
To answer that, I studied 20 other historically great goal scorers, of all different styles and eras: Mario Lemieux, Mike Bossy, Gordie Howe, Maurice Richard, Jaromir Jagr, Bobby Hull, Teemu Selanne, Luc Robitaille, Steve Yzerman, Guy Lafleur, Marcel Dionne, Phil Esposito, Brett Hull, Jari Kurri, Pavel Bure, Alexander Mogilny, Cam Neely, Charlie Simmer, Mike Gartner and Michel Goulet.
Adjusting all of their goal-scoring to the modern-day scoring level, I plotted their goals-per-game on a graph, and made the following observations.
- Goals-per-game tends to rise dramatically until age 23
- Then it levels out until age 28
- At age 29, goal-scoring begins to drop dramatically for about 3-4 seasons
- Goal-scoring slips only very gradually from ages 32 to 35
- Only a few players could continue to score goals after age 35, and at a significantly decreasing rate
If we apply the curve created by these 21 superstars (including Gretzky) to Alexander Ovechkin, and scoring levels remained what they are today, he would score his 895th goal some time before his 36th birthday, assuming a complete absense of work stoppages and injuries.
Before we start planning a big party for the 2020-21 season, let's take a closer look at the assumptions. First of all, the data for this curve is based primarily on players that scored at a tremendous rate, but still lower than Alexander Ovechkin and Wayne Gretzky. It's a lot easier for Mike Gartner and Steve Yzerman to plug away at the equivalent of 0.4 goals per game into their 30s than it is for Ovechkin to continue to score at twice that level. The higher you are, the harder you drop, and Ovechkin has a lot more room to drop than all but a few of these legends.
Secondly, the assumption that Ovechkin can stay healthy is an awfully big one. In fact, he might not even be active in the NHL at age 35, since only 13 of these 20 players were able to do so. Ovechkin may be a brilliant hockey player, but he isn't completely immune to the types of injuries that affected Mike Bossy and Cam Neely, nor unable to resist defecting to a different league like Bobby Hull or Jaromir Jagr. We need to factor these into our estimates, and apply a games-played curve to our previous projection.
A Future Moment in Hockey History?
The arena erupts in ovation, for in early 2024 the day had finally arrived. On the ice, gloves and sticks are thrown in the air as everyone rushes to congratulate the 38-year-old Russian legend after he beat Eddie Mills of the Philadelphia Flyers for his historic 895th goal. You can feel the electricity in the air as everyone in attendance knows that they're witnessing a truly rare moment in hockey history.
Upon the game's conclusion the red carpet is rolled out for Wayne Gretzky, the 63-year-old Hall of Famer, as he presents Alexander Ovechkin with a golden hockey stick. With a smile forever immortalized in print, Ovechkin shakes Gretzky's hand, and makes some comment about he almost retired last season when he was still 16 goals shy of the record. His aging body, which had held up remarkably well in his career, had been starting to make the wear and tear of NHL hockey almost unbearable, but his fans wrote in and convinced him to play just one more season.
Wiping away tears, he thanked the fans to thunderous applause. Ovechkin would go on to reach #900 shortly before finishing what would be his final NHL season. History had been made!
*Thanks to Ryan Cleaver for submitting this week’s topic.
Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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