- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Wayne Gretzky’s career total of 894 goals is supposed to be unreachable, but if Alex Ovechkin were to duplicate what he has accomplished in his first four seasons three more times, he would begin the first year of his new contract within reach of the Great One’s hallowed achievement.

History says not so fast, but is the Great No. 8 the guy who can defy it?

“I don’t think there is anything out of reach for him,” Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee said. “He’s got everything. He’s got ability, he’s got the drive and he’s got the strength. He’s got all the physical attributes, but he’s got all the intangibles as well.”

Ovechkin has scored 219 goals in his first four NHL seasons - nearly 55 a year. If he replicates those numbers for the next 12 seasons, it would leave him 18 shy of Gretzky when his 13-year, $124 million deal expires after the 2020-21 season.

Clearly, there are a multitude of hurdles for Ovechkin to clear before his chances of becoming the NHL’s all-time greatest goal-scorer are in focus. It might be a super long shot at best.

As Ovechkin begins his fifth season Thursday night in Boston, his place as the most prolific and dynamic offensive player in the sport is nearly unanimous. He is at the zenith of his prowess, so why not peek into the future to see where this amazing journey might lead him?

“He’s on course at some point in his career or after he retires to be viewed as one of the top players in the game to ever play,” Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford said. “As we speak, I think he’s the best player in the game.”

It is pretty implausible to believe Ovechkin will rack up goal totals in the mid-50s every year - just look at his first four seasons (52, 46, 65 and 56). For him to average that many in the next 10 to 12 years, he’s going to need a few more 60-plus campaigns to balance out either a) seasons cut short by injury or b) “off” years with goal totals in the 40s.

If Ovechkin played another sport, he still would be a couple of years from reaching the “prime” of his career. As a 24-year-old hockey player, though, history suggests Ovechkin is right in the middle of what should be his most prolific period.

Much like running backs in football, goal-scorers in hockey have typically done their best work earlier in their careers rather than later. A player has reached the 60-goal plateau 38 times in NHL history. A 21- or 22-year-old has potted 60-plus more times (eight) than someone over the age of 27 (seven).

Phil Esposito scored at least 60 four times after he turned 28, but only three others ever did it at all - and Gretzky wasn’t one of them. Not only did Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Brett Hull combine for one 60-goal season after turning 28 (Lemieux in 1995-96), none of them topped 50 more than twice in that time.

Most of the all-time great goal-scorers have followed the same career arc: collect their iconic seasons early and then string together a bunch of great but not historically great campaigns.

“The hunger to score all the time has to be there, and maybe guys get satisfied with a certain level of scoring, but I don’t think Alex is ever going to be a guy like that,” McPhee said. “When we signed him to that long-term deal, of all the things you have to think about and worry about, his drive and intensity to compete every night was not one of the things we worried about. I think he’ll have the ability to score for a long time and he’ll have the drive for a long time.”

As a pure physical specimen, Ovechkin represents the evolution of a hockey player. He is bigger, faster and stronger than all of the legends that came before him, so maybe he will balk at history and create a new career arc to define future stars by.

If not, the message is clear: Ovechkin needs to pile them up during the next four-year chapter of his career. The conditions couldn’t be more perfect for Ovechkin to do just that.

He will skate on a line with a world-class setup man in Nicklas Backstrom and (potentially) a rugged forward in Mike Knuble who will help create more opportunities by providing screens in front of the net and helping the unit keep possession of the puck in the corners. Toss in Ovechkin’s other young, high-flying teammates (Mike Green and Alexander Semin), and the power play should be among the league’s elite.

“When I was young, I wanted to be like Lemieux, [Jarome] Iginla,” Ovechkin said. “I can be at the same level, and it is all in my hands. I have to work, and I have to play well.”

There are a couple of potential issues that could derail Ovechkin’s march toward immortality. To this point in his career, Ovechkin has been incredibly durable, missing only two games because of injury (and two to spend time with his ailing grandfather).

While he has been durable, Ovechkin hasn’t always been healthy. All NHL players deal with various bruises and tweaks in the course of the season, but Ovechkin has consistently dealt with nagging problems.

He has proved he can still be the best in the world even if operating at 80 or 90 percent, but as his career progresses the minor issues could worsen. Guys like Lemieux, Mike Bossy and Pavel Bure have had their careers cut short by injuries, while Gretzky was able to remain remarkably durable.

Some of the wear and tear on Ovechkin’s body probably stems from his physical style of play. Not only is he the best goal-scorer in the NHL, he is also one of the league’s best hitters and he loves to set a physical tone.

Whether he can sustain that type of on-ice lifestyle for his entire career remains to be seen.

“It is learning when to conserve some energy every once in a while,” TV analyst Eddie Olczyk said. “Maybe not making that big hit when it is there - even if that is what separates him from other players - but I think as he gets older that would put less wear and tear on him and give him even more jump.”

Another potential pitfall would be Ovechkin not playing in NHL games for an extended period. Remember, he could have an extra season’s worth of goals already if it weren’t for the lockout that erased the 2004-05 season. Another prolonged labor strife - especially in the heart of his career - almost certainly would end any chance of catching Gretzky.

The other reason he could miss NHL time is the 2014 Olympics. Ovechkin is leading the cries from Russian players who want to play in the 2014 games in their native country, and he plans to participate even if the league doesn’t take a break to allow its players to do so.

There has been no decision made on the NHL’s participation, but there have been several reports that the league is leaning toward playing through. The threat of the game’s greatest player (and several of his world-class friends) skipping out on a few weeks (or longer) might be enough to sway the decision in their favor.

“I think it is too far ahead on the radar at this point,” Atlanta Thrashers general manager Don Waddell said. “I know our guy, Ilya Kovalchuk, wants to play in the Olympics in Russia as well. We have many things to attack as a league between now and then.”

Added Ovechkin: “I’m not surprised [at the media attention for his comments], but it really is a big deal. I think everybody understands that we want to represent our country. Everybody is going to be ready for this, and everybody would like to be there.”

Distractions aside, hunting down Gretzky’s goal record is not out of the question. It might take some adjustments here and there and a lot of good fortune, but Ovechkin has proved he can make the impossible, well, possible.

“He’s such a great player that he is always going to be able to adjust his game and be a great player,” Rutherford said. “Part of his success is that he can play the game several different ways. When you have a player with that many tools, he’s always going to be a great player.”

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