- The Washington Times - Monday, October 10, 2022

Before last season, Alex Ovechkin’s chances to become the highest goal scorer in NHL history were far from a guarantee.

At 36 years old, Ovechkin was coming off arguably the worst season of his career. His goal-scoring was down compared to the previous three years, and he failed to receive an MVP vote for only the second time since arriving to the NHL in 2005. 

Still 164 goals behind Wayne Gretzky a year ago for No. 1 on the NHL’s all-time list, Ovechkin appeared to be slowing down as he entered the home stretch of his chase to be the greatest goal scorer in hockey history. 

Instead, Ovechkin bounced back with 50 goals and arguably his best season since 2009-10.

Today, the outlook on the Russian superstar’s pursuit of Gretzky is wildly different. It’s now almost an assumption that Ovechkin will get there. The question may not be about if, but when. 

“It’s not even a question that he will pass me, and I think that’s great,” Gretzky told The New York Times during Ovechkin’s reinvigorated 2021-22 campaign. “There is no doubt that ultimately, he will break the record.”

Of course, Ovechkin doesn’t want to tempt fate, whether because of superstition or his typical aversion to focusing on the record chase during press conferences. Now 37 years old, “The Great 8” enters his 18th NHL season with 780 career goals ­— 114 behind “The Great One.” 

Ovechkin obviously won’t pass him this season, but how he performs will determine the timeline for when the one-timer savant could catch up to Gretzky

“I’m at the age [where] personal goals is nice, but we understand every year you begin to [get closer] to end of your career,” Ovechkin said on Capitals media day to open training camp. “I want to win, I want to be in the playoffs and fight for a Cup.”

Before he catches Gretzky, he still has one other hockey legend to pass up: Gordie Howe. Ovechkin will enter Wednesday’s opener against the visiting Boston Bruins 21 goals behind “Mr. Hockey,” who was regarded as the greatest player in the sport’s history before Gretzky came around and usurped that honor. 

If Ovechkin continues a 50-goal-per-season pace — something virtually unheard of for a player in his late 30s, but quite realistic for him — he would tie and pass Howe for second all-time in mid-to-late December, assuming he remains healthy. Last season, Ovechkin passed three Hall of Famers on the list: Marcel Dionne, Brett Hull and Jaromir Jagr.

“It’s one thing to lead the league in scoring year after year, but now it’s like, Jesus, we’re talking real stuff here now,” said defenseman John Carlson, who is entering his 14th year in Washington. “So, yeah, on one hand I think we’re blind and numb to just how high on that list he’s gotten and how tangible it is.”

Assuming full 82-game seasons (which is never a guarantee in the NHL) and good health for Ovechkin (who has only missed 27 games in his career due to injury), a 50-goal pace would have Ovechkin pass Gretzky in the first half of the 2024-25 campaign at age 39. A 40-goal pace — more realistic for a player Ovechkin’s age, but still a bullish projection — would put him at 895 goals near the end of the 2024-25 season. Only two players in NHL history (Brendan Shanahan and John Bucyk) have scored 40-plus goals in their age-37 seasons. 

However, a 30-goal pace is what would make the pursuit interesting. In that scenario, a 40-year-old Ovechkin would be in the final year of his contract with the Capitals — and possibly the last season of his career — and break the record near the end of the 2025-26 campaign.

But Ovechkin isn’t there yet. He’s reluctant to answer questions about catching Gretzky, let alone Howe. That doesn’t change the fact that for the rest of his career, especially if Washington can’t return to being a Stanley Cup contender, the most talked about part of the Capitals will be his record chase. 

“Let’s wait,” Ovechkin said with a laugh when asked about catching Howe. “I can’t score 21 goals in one game.”

• Jacob Calvin Meyer can be reached at jmeyer@washingtontimes.com.

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