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Alex Ovechkin is in a hurry to reach Wayne Gretzky’s scoring record

Can Alex Ovechkin catch Wayne Gretzky?

Can Alex Ovechkin catch Wayne Gretzky?
Image: Getty Images

One of the pleasures of getting back to a normal NHL schedule is that we pick up perhaps the biggest record chase in North American sports, and that’s Alex Ovechkin’s quest for 895 goals. He seems to recognize the urgency, as he’s scored five goals in five games so far this season. But if you’re Ovechkin, you probably realize that you’ve lost enough time that what you have left becomes as precious as can be.

Let’s be clear: Ovechkin doesn’t need to reach 895 goals to be the greatest scorer of all time. He already is. When you weigh how the game has changed, and realize that had Ovie played in the 80s like Gretzky, he would have killed a handful of goalies, it’s easy to see. Gretzky played in an era when teams averaged nearly four goals per game. Ovechkin has played his entire career in an environment where teams averaged either below three goals or barely above that number per game. Throughout his career, the league scoring average has been 2.86 goals per game per team. Ovie has put up 0.61 goals per game, or 21 percent of his team’s goals per game. Put that into 1987, and he’d be scoring 0.77 goals per game. If that’s what he would have averaged already, he’d be at 925 goals. So again, greatest scorer of all time.

But there are some who will not bestow that label upon him until he holds the title of most goals scored, and in that sense, Ovechkin has been handicapped. He’s lost a full season and a half to labor strife. He lost another 50 games to COVID stoppages. That’s 166 games Ovechkin didn’t get to play for reasons out of his control, which at his rate of scoring cost him 100-101 goals. Throw in some games missed due to injury, and maybe that’s 90-95 goals. Those numbers would put him somewhere around 830 now and looking to break Gretzky’s record next season.

But we can’t cry over spilled lockouts, so now the question is can Ovie get 160 more goals before he calls time on his career? There’s no hint that Ovechkin won’t play until he’s 40 or beyond, so it seems elementary to say yes.

If you’re looking for signs this season, and doing so after just five games is always folly because anything can happen in just five games, there are positives and negatives.

Perhaps Ovechkin’s greatest skill has been the volume of shots on goal that he has generated throughout his career. He’s averaged 4.77 shots per game, trailing only Phil Esposito all-time amongst the league’s legends. And Ovechkin doesn’t make his living in fart range of the opposing goalie like Esposito did. Ovie does get to the net, but his game is mostly mid-range jumpers.

This year, he’s not getting the number of shots he normally does. He’s had just 20, but luckily he’s buried 20 percent of them. That’s not going to continue, obviously, as his career shooting percentage is 12, and he’s never topped 15 in a season.

On the plus side, Ovechkin’s individual expected goals per game so far is the highest it’s been in five seasons, as is his individual scoring chance per game, according to NaturalStatTrick.com. This means he may be taking fewer shots, but he’s getting them from better spots than he normally does. Per IcyData.com, Ovie has cut his shots out beyond the circles in half and has focused on getting chances from between the rings and below, which is where you want to be.

Make no mistake, Ovechkin catching Gretzky at 894 would be the biggest record in sports. Ovie never got to collect 92 or 86 in a season like Gretz did, given the era he plays in. Meanwhile, Barry Bonds could collect homers at a greater rate than Hank Aaron, for whatever reasons that may be, and however you feel about them. This is about Ovechkin being metronomically great for two decades in a much harder scoring era, not binging in an easier homer era (not that Bonds isn’t one of the greatest players ever, because he is).

Still, Ovechkin is 36. And he’s going to need probably four more seasons of scoring at near his usual rate. If his shots trending down is actually the norm, and not just a five-game drop, that’s going to be an issue. As he gets older, can he still get to the middle of the ice consistently, can he score off the rush as regularly? We won’t know for a while.

Also, the NHL should already be pushing the shit out of this chase, but now I’m overdosing on logic.

Next up are the Senators, Wings, and Coyotes. Hull might fall by next weekend.

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