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Can Alex Ovechkin top Wayne Gretzky’s record of 894 goals?

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Alex Ovechkin scored goal No. 600 against the Jets, and now sets his sights on Jari Kurri (601), Dino Ciccarelli (608) and Bobby Hull (610) on the all-time list. But there’s a name a bit higher on the list that piques our interest a bit more: Wayne Gretzky, who holds the career goal-scoring record, with 894 tallies.

Will Ovechkin top the Great One before he hangs up his skates? Our experts weigh in:

Greg Wyshynski, senior writer: When I was a younger hockey fan, Wayne Gretzky’s record of 894 goals always felt like a record that was formidable but not unbreakable.

This was mainly because I figured the NHL would find a way to overcorrect for improved defensive systems with, like, soccer-sized nets that would create more asterisks in the record book than the shift key. But it was also because I had seen players who would have legitimately threatened Gretzky’s mark were it not for external forces: Mario Lemieux‘s tragically truncated career and Jaromir Jagr losing games to both labor stoppages and his KHL sabbatical.

Alex Ovechkin is one such player. And if those external forces don’t screw it up, he’s going to break Wayne Gretzky’s record.

If he scores 50 goals this season, he’ll be at 608. Let’s assume he plays the last three seasons of his current contract and then five more NHL seasons after that on a new one. Let’s also assume an average of 36 goals per season in that span; this would put him at 896. This isn’t that outlandish at all when you consider he has been below 36 goals in a season only twice in his NHL career during a full season. Meanwhile, he has popped 50 goals in three of the past four seasons — and probably will again this season.

Scoring more than 30 goals into your twilight years isn’t unheard of, at least for durable players. Martin St. Louis (39) and Teemu Selanne (40) did it. Selanne, Jagr (43), Daniel Alfredsson (39), Shane Doan (39) and Brendan Shanahan (38) all had 27 goals or better later in their careers.

But again, we come back to those external forces. Ovechkin has shown a startling durability during his career, to the point where it almost has become a meme: “Russian Machine Never Break!” Will that machine be as fine-tuned when he’s 37? And as Lemieux will tell you, there’s no accounting for unforeseen health calamities.

The other external forces are the ones Jagr faced. The NHL and the NHL Players’ Association seem to be headed to something less than collective bargaining Armageddon in a few years, but there never has been a CBA negotiation in the past 30 years without a work stoppage. Then there’s the KHL question: There has been speculation for years, mostly from the KHL side, that Ovechkin would like to finish his playing days in Russia. Would he leave before the pursuit of Gretzky’s record is complete?

Barring those external forces, Ovechkin can break Gretzky’s record. But don’t take it from me.

“If he can sustain his pace, there’s no question in my mind that he has the ability and the talent and the work ethic to be able to do it. And if he does it, I’ll be the first guy there to shake his hand. If there is one guy out there that can do it, there’s no question it’s him,” Wayne Gretzky told NHL.com in 2016.

It won’t be easy. “The first 500 are the easy ones,” Gretzky said. “It’s the next 500, when you’re getting a little bit older and your body is a little bit worn down — the travel and physical part of the game catches up to you.”

Emily Kaplan, national reporter: If you had asked me this summer, I likely would have said no way. Ovechkin’s 33 goals in 2016-17 were his fewest in a non-lockout season since 2010-11, and his ice time was shaved to a career-low average of 18:22 to preserve him for the playoffs. By the end of the Pittsburgh series, Barry Trotz had moved Ovechkin to the third line, and the winger finished the playoffs with five goals and three assists in 13 games as he battled knee and hamstring injuries. “I think [Ovechkin is] going to have to think of ways he can evolve into a player that still has a major impact on the game,” GM Brian MacLellan told reporters in May, publicly challenging his star. It felt like all signs pointed to regression. Ovechkin’s dominance in the NHL felt tenuous at best.

This season? Ovechkin is the one laughing now. At 32, he’s proving that not only does he still have it, but also we should probably stop preparing for his imminent demise. Another 50-goal season is well within reach. He is the leader for (yet another) Maurice Richard trophy. The only question here is durability. Ovechkin doesn’t have the benefit of playing in the wild-scoring ’80s — for a four-season stretch between 1981 and 1985, Gretzky averaged more than 80 goals per season. That allowed Gretzky to reach his gaudy goal total in 20 seasons, even with a few dud seasons toward the end. Say Ovechkin ends up with 50 goals this season. That puts him at 608, just 286 shy of Gretzky. If Ovechkin is still averaging about 47 goals per season, he’d need to play six more seasons to reach Gretzky. We need to assume Ovechkin might tail off a bit in his late 30s, just as Gretzky did, so it could take eight or nine seasons for him to reach that total.

In training camp, I asked Ovechkin how long he’d like to keep playing. He told me, “I still have lots of time to set up my legacy and how I want to be remembered. I still have time to make history. I’m 32 only. [For] a couple more years, I am going to be at a high level. You never know when your career is going to be done or what’s going to happen in the future. But I need to win a Stanley Cup.” That’s the thing; the goal for Ovechkin is always the elusive team hardware. If the Capitals can’t get over the playoff hump, Ovechkin’s legacy will be cemented by individual achievement. And that probably means surpassing Gretzky’s goal total — and, well, I’m done with the business of counting Ovi out.

Chris Peters, hockey prospects writer: This is a tough one, but the fact that this isn’t a crazy question to ask at this point is incredible in itself. There are so many factors to consider, and as Emily noted, durability is one of them. We know that Ovechkin typically plays a full season, rarely missing a game. Then come the playoffs, and then the World Championship. He has put a lot of miles on his body, but he just keeps coming back and looking at least close to the same player we know. These next two to three years should tell us a lot about the level he is able to maintain.

The biggest thing I’m going to be watching the next few years is Ovechkin’s ability to maintain his shot volume. With a shot such as his, as long as he keeps getting himself in position to get it on net as much as he does, the goals are going to keep coming. Last season was the lowest shot total of his career, and now he’s trending back up this season. It’s so simple, but shooting a bunch obviously helps. There is not yet a noticeable trend in the way his shot volume fluctuates to expect a massive drop-off anytime soon.

Here’s where things get tricky, though. The Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold medal are two major driving forces for Ovechkin, there’s no doubt. The Caps always seem so close and yet so far from Cup contention, but if they manage to win it, how much longer does Ovechkin stick around after that happens? Especially if there’s still an opportunity for him to win gold with Russia and the NHL decides not to go to the 2022 Olympics in Beijing? There are a ton of what-ifs in there, but I think the Olympics discussion is one worth having, considering that his contract runs out after the 2020-21 season. It could, at the very least, interrupt his path to setting the new standard.

Selfishly, I hope Ovechkin plays in the NHL deep into his 40s like Jaromir Jagr, even if there ends up being a KHL/Olympics interruption in there. There is no one like him, and there never will be again. I have just enough doubt, however, to say he’ll fall just shy of the Great One’s record, but I’ll be watching as intently as anyone else wondering if he can do it.

Sean Allen, fantasy analyst: Yes. As much as I hate to see the Great One’s record fall, I believe Ovechkin is going to do it.

Let’s extrapolate with a comparable player from a comparable era. Teemu Selanne played the bulk of his career in an era with similar NHL scoring as Ovechkin. In fact, if anything, Selanne got a couple of years of an advantage prior to the dead puck era for his total, but I’m focused here on Selanne’s totals from 2003-04 forward.

Ovechkin and Selanne have a similar offensive skill set based on their sniping ability. I won’t go so far as to suggest that Ovechkin has the skating ability of Selanne or that Selanne has the physical presence of Ovechkin. This isn’t apples to apples. But it’s not hard to envision either player in the offensive circle blasting a one-timer into the back of the net. Assuming Ovechkin finishes this season with 50 goals, he would have 608 goals through his age-32 season. If he matches Selanne’s career goal-for-goal following Selanne’s age-32 campaign, Ovechkin would retire at the age of 43 with 856 goals.

Oh, just shy of the record, right? What if I told you that Selanne had only 16 total goals in his age-33 and age-34 seasons combined? He tallied 16 goals during his failed tenure with the Colorado Avalanche and then lost the following season to the lockout.

Now, 33 and 34 aren’t prime ages by any means, but 16 goals total for the next two seasons sounds crazy low for Ovechkin, no? Let’s say he gets only a combined 55 total goals in 2018-19 and 2019-20 (which, again, is a lowball estimate); if he does that and then matches Selanne’s twilight from age 35 to 43, all of a sudden that puts him on pace for 895.

Selanne was a special player, but Ovechkin is no less special himself. Boil it down to this: Do I believe Ovechkin can score 38 more goals than Selanne did between the ages of 33 and 43? Maybe. Do I believe he can do it with the knowledge that Selanne played only 72 percent of his potential total games in that span? I do.

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