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21 Questions: Can Alex Ovechkin break Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goal record?

Welcome to 21 Questions, an off-season series in which we look at some interesting Oilers- and NHL-related questions heading into the 2021 season. 

Wayne Gretzky has arguably the most impressive trophy case in all of professional sports.

Four Stanley Cups, a couple of Conn Smythe Trophies, nine Hart Trophies, 10 Art Ross Trophies, and a laundry list of NHL records that appear to be unbreakable, like most points in a career, most goals and points in a single season, most consecutive scoring titles, 50 goals in 39 games, and so on and so on.

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But there’s one record that Gretzky might be at risk of losing — the all-time goal record.

After a 48-goal season in 2019-20, one that was enough to net him his ninth Rocket Richard Trophy, Alexander Ovechkin became just the eighth NHL player to eclipse the 700-goal plateau. At 35 years old, The Great Eight is within striking distance of The Great One’s record of 894 goals.

What will it take for Ovechkin to break Gretzky’s all-time goal record? How realistic is it?

Gretzky himself believes that Ovechkin can and will break his goal record and is even rooting him on to do so…

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“I can’t help but cheer and root for him each and every day,” Gretzky said back in April. “I hope I’m the first guy who’s able to shake his hand when he does break my record.”

But scoring 189 more goals is no easy feat, especially after part of the 2019-20 season was derailed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and it’s looking inevitable that a good chunk of the 2020-21 season will also be wiped out.

After a bit of a lull in 2016-17 in which he scored just 33 goals over 82 games, Ovechkin has roared back into the limelight with three-consecutive Rocket Richard-winning seasons. Over the past three years, he’s scored 49, 51, and 48 goals respectively, an average of just under 50 goals per year.

If he can average that production for four more seasons, he’ll shatter the record.

But that’s a big if. As I said, COVID has thrown a wrench in Ovechkin’s pursuit of Gretzky’s record. Had last season not been cut short, he realistically could have finished the year with 60 goals. And then there’s the 2020-21 season, which could be chopped as short as 42 games. It’s obviously pretty unreasonable to expect Ovechkin to hit the 50-goal plateau again in a 40- or 50-game season.

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When it’s all said and done, external factors beyond his control could be what keeps Ovechkin from breaking Gretzky’s goal record. Beyond the 40 or so games he’ll miss due to COVID, Ovechkin also lost 34 games due to the 2012 lockout and he lost what should have been his 19-year-old rookie season back in 2004-05 because of that year’s full-season lockout.

On the other hand, though, maybe this year’s extended break could be a blessing for Ovechkin. It isn’t the same situation by any means, but Jaromir Jagr left the NHL at the age of 35 to spend a few seasons playing in the NHL, and then returned to North America at the age of 39 and went on to score 322 points in 460 games.

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That unexpected late-career spurt moved Jagr all the way up into second in all-time NHL points. Again, it’s obviously a very different situation, but maybe a short break will allow Ovechkin to come out guns-a-blazing next season and he averages a goal per game. Who knows.

Ultimately, for Ovechkin to break Gretzky’s record, it comes down to his health, his willingness to keep playing in the NHL, and Washington Capitals’ willingness to continue to base their offence around him.

The thing Ovechkin has going for him is that he’s a physical freak and his style of play caters to having a very long career. Over his 15 years in the league, Ovechkin has hardly missed any time due to injury. If you take away the COVID-shortened 2019-20 season and the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, the fewest games he’s played in a season was 72 back in 2009-10.

The majority of Ovechkin’s goals at this stage of his career come from waiting around in his office, taking a pass, and wiring a wicked shot through the opposing goaltender. This is something he should be able to do well into his late-30s and perhaps even early-40s.

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So if health isn’t a major concern, it ultimately comes down to his willingness to continue chasing the record by playing in the NHL and the Capitals’ willingness to keep him around.

Back in early-November, Ovechkin said that he wants to finish his career where it started — playing for Dynamo Moscow of the KHL. That doesn’t mean he’s going to pack up and leave the NHL any time soon. It just means that he’s only interested in playing for Moscow and Washington.

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“There are certain goals that I want to achieve after my career,” Ovechkin said in Russian during an interview with Russian Television International. “But my career is not over yet. I’m still in my prime. I think I will definitely play for a few more years, God grant that my health is good. I would finish in Russia at Dynamo Moscow.

It is clear, in two, three, four years, maybe five, I will end my career in Washington. I want to end on a beautiful note – to play my last match for Dynamo Moscow.”

It seems as though Ovechkin is confident in his ability to play a few more seasons in the NHL. What about the Capitals?

Ovechkin is set to become a free agent next summer as the 13-year deal he signed all the way back in 2008 comes to an end after the 2020-21 season. The Capitals have all of the team’s core — Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, Evgeny Kuznetsov — locked up for the foreseeable future, so it would be pretty shocking if they didn’t re-sign their captain to a multi-year deal this off-season.

With all that in mind, it seems as though there’s a clear path for Ovechkin to break Gretzky’s record. He seems to have to desire to do so, he clearly has the ability, and the Capitals more than likely will actively try to help him achieve it.

I wouldn’t say it’s an automatic, but I wouldn’t bet against Alexander Ovechkin.