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Could Ovechkin Have Passed Gretzky Already?

...or at least be challenging for it this season? A look at games missed from factors not under his control to see where 8’s chase for history would be.

NHL: Washington Capitals at Chicago Blackhawks Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports

Alex Ovechkin is about to begin his final assault on the Mt. Everest of NHL records, the all-time goal scoring record held by Wayne Gretzky. As of Thursday morning, he had reached the 800-goal mark in his career and is poised to catch and surpass the number two leading scorer in NHL history – Gordie Howe with 801 career NHL goals.

It is appropriate to ask once more the question that has been asked and answered in a number of ways in recent years, “would Ovechkin already have the record but for factors outside his control?”

Those factors include the lockouts of 2004-05 and 2012-13 and the pandemic, interruptions that cost Ovechkin as many as 155 games – all 82 of the 2004-05 season, 34 games of the 2012-13 season, 13 games in 2019-20 season, and 26 games in 2020-21.

So how do we begin to account for these missing games? Rather than use Ovechkin’s career goals-per-game as a starting point for an analysis, let’s start by looking at the period covering the years before and after the two sets of interrupted schedules and those abbreviated seasons. That means looking at his goals per game over the 2011-12 through 2013-14 seasons, and the 2018-19 and 2021-22 seasons to get a contemporaneous perspective on his goal-scoring efficiency.

From 2011 to 2014, Ovechkin had 121 goals over 204 games played, an average of 0.59 goals per game. He missed 42 games over those three seasons, including 34 in the 2012-13 lockout, meaning that he lost, at his rate of scoring, 25 goals.

Between 2018-19 and 2021-22, he had 173 goals in 271 games played, an average of 0.64 goals per game. He missed 57 games over that period, including 14 in 2019-20 to COVID-related and other issues and another 37 in 2020-21 due to COVID-related and other issues (note: we do lump in games missed to injury to show the maximum effect of missed games on his total career goal estimate). At his scoring rate and 56 games missed, he theoretically could have had an additional 36 goals.

Taken together, the effect of these two in-career missed game blocks is that Ovechkin might have had an additional 61 goals if the games had been played, a total of 861. He would still be 33 goals short of Wayne Gretzky, but he would be in a position, with a big push over the remainder of this season, to reach that mark.

He currently has 20 goals in 31 games through Wednesday, 0.65 goals per game. At that rate, he would post an additional, yes, 33 goals, that would tie him with The Great One at season’s end.

And that leaves us with the big unknown piece in this review – the 2004-05 season. Does that count as a “missed” season for Ovechkin, who was at that time a drafted, but unsigned player, a year lost to a season-long lockout? It is easy to say that if he played, we would likely be having an entirely different conversation, all other things equal. But the 2004-05 season is a bit murky to evaluate.

Certainly, his Moscow Dynamo club did not want to lose him. That was the final year of a contract under which Ovechkin was playing, and upon its conclusion, when Ovechkin opted out of a new contract with Dynamo to sign a three-year contract with the Caps, Dynamo filed suit to prevent his moving to Washington (they lost). That matter was complicated by Ovechkin signing a contact with a rival KHL club that had an “out” clause if the NHL lockout situation was resolved in advance of the 2005-06 season - but the point is that an Ovechkin departure in 2004-05 while under contract might have been an ugly affair (or at least expensive) if the player wanted to leave. For this reason, we leave that season out, acknowledging that if included, Ovechkin would likely hold the scoring record today under this scenario.

As it is, though, Ovechkin almost certainly would be challenging the record this season had the other stoppages not under his control not happened. Alas, that’s all a game of “what if” and you can’t change the past - and so we’ll have to wait for what we hope will be a big celebration for Ovechkin a couple of seasons from now.