If Alex Ovechkin Played in the 1980s

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Posted May 26, 2020

(Caps Outsider)

Caps fans like to daydream about how many goals Alex Ovechkin would have scored in the high-flying 1980s, when Wayne Gretzky set the single season mark with 92 goals and many teams had multiple 50-goal scorers in one season.

More importantly, it was a time when “goaltenders” – I use the word loosely because we’ve since learned that flailing like an inflatable tube man outside a car dealership wasn’t an optimized netminding strategy – gave up more goals per game than in any other decade.

We’ve all seen what Ovechkin has done in an era with better overall goaltending and defense, so it’s easy to think that Ovi would have scored far more goals had he played in the 1980s.

That said, he wouldn’t have been exactly the same player back then for a few reasons.

While on a call with Gretzky a couple of months ago, Ovi mentioned the weight of the older stick that Gretzky had given him, acknowledging that it would’ve made it more difficult for him to shoot as hard as he does today. As we know, Ovi’s slap shot hits the net even though the goalies know it’s coming. The wooden stick would’ve taken at least a few MPH off of Ovi’s shot, giving the goalies perhaps an extra eighth of a second to slide over and make the save. Of course, a slower shot might have gone in anyway, as those goalies had Swiss cheese holes in them back then. But a heavier stick would’ve changed Ovi’s shot quite a bit.

Secondly, today’s rules have actually opened up the modern game compared to the 1980s. The two-line pass, the lack of a trapezoid, and 5-on-5 overtime hindered offensive output back then compared to today. The current rules have helped Ovi score more in this era, particularly in overtime, where he’s the all-time leading goal scorer.

If Ovi was born in 1960 (Gretzky was born in 1961), he would have spent many of his prime years during the worst decade of goaltending in NHL history, statistically. But he might not have started in the NHL. Instead, like Gretzky, he might’ve spent a year or two in the World Hockey Association (WHA), on a team that would eventually become part of the NHL after the merger.

But more realistically, Ovechkin would not have been allowed to leave the Soviet Union to play abroad. So, here is a more realistic scenario of what would’ve happened had he been born in 1960 in Moscow:

Trained under the Soviet Union’s Red Army team (just like his mother in basketball), Ovi wouldn’t have been the flashy, hard-hitting, tongue-wagging player that we all know and love. The Soviets didn’t exactly have patience for that. Also, they played a style that utilized all five players, passing and sling-shotting each other, entering the zone and even retreating with the puck if nothing opened up. Have you ever seen Ovi retreat? The Soviets weren’t big hitters, and Ovi wouldn’t have been able to develop that famous aspect of his game.

Ovi still would have thrived in this system, but he would have been a different player. He’d pass first and shoot less (as teammate and fellow Russian Evgeny Kuznetsov claims he himself was taught), and some of the bad habits he’s been accused of over the years would’ve been nipped in the bud. If anything, he might have been a more complete player earlier on in his career. We can easily imagine him having more goals against 1980s goaltenders, but he definitely would have had far more assists by playing this style, too.

He also would’ve spent his prime years dominating other countries, instead of scoring goals in the NHL. He would’ve been on the 1980 Soviet Olympic hockey team, scoring a couple of goals against the United States amateurs and potentially depriving the USA of the Miracle on Ice in Lake Placid. He would have won gold medals again in Sarajevo and Calgary. He would have won multiple world championships, including the 1981 Canada Cup against NHL All-Stars.

Later in his career, after glasnost, he would have asked nicely to leave the Red Army team to play in the NHL. The Red Army would have led him to believe they would allow him to leave, but would have stalled each time they said it. If he protested and didn’t play, they would threaten to send him to Siberia. Basically, Ovi’s story would’ve mimicked Slava Fetisov‘s life before the NHL. Maybe Ovi would have defected, like a young Alexander Mogilny, only to be hunted by the KGB.

Ovi, and other 1980s Russian All-Stars, would eventually make it to the NHL, but not until his 30s when the Iron Curtain fell. Perhaps Ovi would’ve even won the NHL’s Rookie of the Year as a grown man, like 31-year-old Sergei Makarov did in 1989. With new teammates and a new style of play, Ovi might’ve found himself struggling to adapt, just as other older Russians did when they came over. Let’s not forget that scoring also plummeted during this time, as teams implemented a trap defense and goalies adopted the butterfly technique.

In the mid 1990s, the Detroit Red Wings would sign Ovi, along with his buddies Fetisov, Sergei Fedorov, Slava Kozlov, Igor Larionov and Vladimir Konstantinov. The Russian 6!

In his late 30s, Ovi would finally win a couple of Stanley Cups, one against the Flyers in 1997, and again in 1998 against….the Washington Capitals.

So, while it’s fun to imagine Alex Ovechkin playing for the Washington Capitals in the 1980s and breaking goal-scoring records, it would take more than just time travel to work out the way we dream of.

Thanks to Jason Rogers for contributing to this post.