NHL Record or Not, Alex Ovechkin Is the Greatest Goal Scorer of All Time

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Posted December 6, 2021

(Caps Outsider)

Alex Ovechkin is the greatest goal-scorer of all time, whether or not he has Wayne Gretzky’s National Hockey League record. That said, it’s useful to explore how the record 894 got to be what it is.

In just about every sport, the all-time leader in any given category had certain advantages over other all-time greats. Barry Bonds is the all-time home-run king in baseball because steroids boosted his already-high totals. Babe Ruth didn’t have to face players in the Negro Leagues, which gave him an edge because he didn’t compete against some of the other better players of his time. Gretzky set his records during an era of the worst goaltending in the history of hockey. Ovechkin has scored on 152 different goalies, some of whom wouldn’t have made the NHL in other eras.

Meanwhile, many players had hurdles and disadvantages to overcome en route to being an all-time great. Bobby Hull and Rocket Richard played during the Original Six era, not during the expansion era when players of lesser talent made the NHL. Back then, they also played with heavy wooden sticks that didn’t shoot as fast and certainly didn’t have the flex of the $400 sticks that players have today. Brett Hull who Ovi recently passed on the all-time goals list didn’t play a full season until he was 24. Many hockey players in past decades took between-period cigarette and beer breaks, likely to their own detriment, as teams didn’t emphasize proper diet and nutrition.

We’re all aware of the disadvantages that Ovi himself has had, which have cut into his career goal totals. Being born on Sept. 17 cost him a year of play, as he had to be 18 on Sept. 15 to be eligible for the 2003 draft (though he would not have been a Washington Capital in that circumstance). Ovi lost 116 games to two lockouts and 39 to Covid-shortened seasons, when, based on his 50-goals a season average, he could’ve scored an extra 90 goals (Gretzky and company missed only 34 games due to NHL labor issues). Even when Ovi was playing, certain coaching decisions cut into his potential. Dale Hunter emphasized defense, limiting Ovi to 38 that year. In 2016-17, Barry Trotz cut Ovi’s minutes in an attempt to keep him “fresh” for the playoffs, and he only netted 33 goals.

While believing that Ovechkin is the best goal-scorer of all time, it’s still useful to understand why the record isn’t much higher.

Alex Ovechkin is the greatest goal-scorer of all time…

Even though Gretzky set the all-time goal records while looking to pass first. Would Ovi be the same goal-scoring threat if he was constantly trying to set up teammates? Doubtful, even as his assist totals have climbed after a mid-career dip. Gretzky also routinely killed penalties (and became the greatest short-handed goal-scorer of all time), minutes that cut into his five-on-five, and maybe even power play time, also known as minutes he was more likely to score. Just as Ovi’s totals could have been higher, Gretzky’s record could have been 1,000 goals in other circumstances.

Alex Ovechkin is the greatest goal-scorer of all time…

Even though the World Hockey Association a league that was a competitor to the NHL, with NHL-caliber players, and eventually became part of the NHL had goal scorers whose goals don’t count toward their NHL totals. If they did, the all-time record would be 975 by Gordie Howe, followed by 940 by Gretzky and 913 by Bobby Hull. Gretzky started his career in the WHA, scoring 46 goals with the Indianapolis Racers and Edmonton Oilers. Unlike the hypothetical goals Ovi could have scored during the lockouts and Covid, these players actually scored these goals in the deep-pocketed WHA.

An aside here… An odd NHL record is one set recently, when Patrick Marleau passed Howe on the all-time games played list. But Howe actually played 419 games in the WHA and retired from his second stint in the NHL at age 52. Marleau may have the NHL record, but unless he plays another decade, he’s no Howe (in more ways than one).

Alex Ovechkin is the greatest goal-scorer of all time…

Even though the rules changed to make goal scoring easier in his era, as the NHL eliminated the two-line pass rule, added the no-goalie-zone, and added new overtime rules which helped him to become the all-time leading goal-getter in overtime, with 24 (Gretzky only has two. Seriously.). Even the high-flying 1980s didn’t have this, as the league bent the rules because the Dead Puck era in the mid-1990s made the game duller and led to three Stanley Cups by the New Jersey Devils. It’s odd to say, but new league rules boost scoring now, though these same rules didn’t exist when teams scored more overall.

One modern rule, however, removes some goals from scoreboard: Replays and coach’s challenge. Ovi has had a few called back because of this, and who knows how many goals Gretzky scored that should have been called back because someone was an inch offside.

Alex Ovechkin is the greatest goal-scorer of all time…

Because he hasn’t suffered many injuries during his career, having only missed 42 games so far. This was a huge problem for a couple of the best players ever, notably Mario Lemieux and Bobby Orr. Mike Bossy, who averaged 57 goals a year, retired at 30 due to back problems. Each of these players did phenomenal things, and a full career at their skill level would have placed each one of those players much further up the chain of all-time leaders. Regardless of Ovi being the best goal-scorer of all time, becoming the all-time NHL leading goal scorer may have been out of reach had these players met their full potential.

Another thing I’m hopeful about with Ovi is that he becomes the all-time leading goal scorer in the same number of games as Gretzky (1487). I cringe to think there will be a player some day, who, while certainly a star, ends up breaking records in far more games and seasons than others. This is partly why Dave Andreychuk became the all-time leader in power play goals he was great, sure, but he also played 1,639 games, hundreds more than Ovi. That could happen again by future star players with the skill and endurance of Joe Thornton or Jaromir Jagr (who cut into his own high totals by leaving the NHL for several seasons).

In an imaginary world without these advantages and disadvantages, where the greatest players ever line up against other greatest players ever, where there are no career-ending injuries, and no multipliers for era-adjustment, we would get a completely level playing field of who is truly the greatest player. I’d wager that, even without the NHL record, Ovechkin is the best goal scorer the league has ever had.

If Alex Ovechkin Played in the 1980s

Alex Ovechkin’s All-Time NHL Goals Countdown