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Does Ovi Have a Shot at 894?

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I looked at Ovi’s legacy as a great scorer, and what it would take for him to pass Gretzky in the record books.

2018 NHL Awards - Press Room Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The following three things are almost universally believed to be true:

  1. Alex Ovechkin is the best goal scorer of his generation
  2. Goals are harder to come by now than they were in the high-flying 1980s
  3. Ovi is unlikely to surpass Wayne Gretzky’s record career goal total of 894.

The first two points are pretty obvious. Ovechkin has led the NHL in scoring a record seven times (tied with Bobby Hull), and it’s a verifiable fact that the average game in the 1980s was a lot higher scoring than an average game in this era.

The third point may not be something that every hockey fan has pondered, but some simple math will reveal that surpassing Gretzky is still a daunting task.

Ovechkin has scored 607 goals in the regular season, and he’ll turn 33 shortly before the start of next season. If he plays seven more seasons, that will put him at 20 for his career, and he would be retiring just prior to his 40th birthday. That’s a really good, long career for any player, even one of his elite caliber. Assuming that Ovechkin plays another seven seasons, he would have to average 41 goals per year to tie Gretzky’s record. That seems like to much to ask of any player in his age 33-39 seasons, doesn’t it?

Maybe. Or maybe it isn’t.

I decided to take a look at 20 of the greatest goalscorers in league history, through age 32, and after age 32, to try to get an idea of two things:

  1. Just how great has Ovechkin been thus far?
  2. Given how history’s greatest goalscorers have aged in the past, what can we expect of him going forward?

Methodology

I looked at the 20 players in NHL history with at least 600 career adjusted goals, per hockey reference’s formula. Adjusted goals is a stat which attempts to put goal scorers from different generations into perspective, by adjusting their scoring rate compared to the league-wide scoring rate from each individual season.

However, one can’t simply divide adjusted goals by games played, to determine adjusted goals per game. This is a mistake that I’ve often come across on Twitter. The reason that this doesn’t work, is because Adjusted Goals doesn’t just adjust seasons to a scoring environment of roughly 3 goals per game (per team, 6 goals total), it also pro-rates every season to 82 team games.

By ‘team games’, I mean that it adjusts every season length to 82 games. So, if a player gets hurt, but his team still plays 82 games, his season won’t be pro-rated. But, if the season is shortened, as it was in 2012 for example, it gets pro-rated to 82 games.

Because I wanted to look at these players’ per game scoring rates, I opted not to adhere to hockey reference’s exact specifications for scoring adjusted, after the initial list of 20 players had been compiled. Instead, I simply divided a player’s actual goals-per-game total by the league wide scoring rate of that season (data also courtesy of hockey reference), and multiplied that number by a constant of 3.08 goals per game (which was the scoring rate in 2005-06). Although the value of the constant doesn’t matter, as long as it’s consistent. This gave me an adjusted goals-per-game figure, which I could use on its own, or multiply by actual games played for each season. I could then add up all the seasons and divide the total number of goals by a player’s actual games played total, in order to determine who was the most efficient goal scorer of all time.

Results

Untitled

Player Adj. G srA Goals srA Goals (at 32) srA Goals/82 srA Goals/82 (at 32) Seasons GP G GP (at 32) G (at 32)
Player Adj. G srA Goals srA Goals (at 32) srA Goals/82 srA Goals/82 (at 32) Seasons GP G GP (at 32) G (at 32)
Alex Ovechkin 688 661.4 661.4 54.1 54.1 13 1003 607 1003 607
Wayne Gretzky* 758 756.8 623 41.7 48.9 20 1487 894 1044 765
Bobby Hull* 644 634.8 579.4 49 49.6 16 1063 610 958 554
Jaromir Jagr 841 816.1 567.8 38.6 45.3 24 1733 766 1027 537
Gordie Howe* 925 887.3 541.7 41.2 45.3 26 1767 801 980 469
Mario Lemieux* 616 620.2 533.4 55.6 58.7 17 915 690 745 613
Phil Esposito* 671 696.1 525 44.5 50.8 18 1282 717 848 527
Marcel Dionne* 610 627.7 508.4 38.2 41.6 18 1348 731 1003 583
Steve Yzerman* 644 640.6 494.2 34.7 36.9 22 1514 692 1098 563
Jarome Iginla 706 697.4 491 36.8 39.3 20 1554 625 1024 441
Joe Sakic* 643 637.7 481.8 37.9 38.9 20 1378 625 1016 483
Brett Hull* 738 723.9 476.3 46.8 53.1 19 1269 741 735 527
Luc Robitaille* 652 644.4 473.4 36.9 40 19 1431 668 971 517
Teemu Selanne* 741 727.8 460.1 41.1 47.1 21 1451 684 801 436
Brendan Shanahan* 672 670 459.6 36.1 36.7 21 1524 656 1028 466
Mike Gartner* 609 608.4 443.4 34.8 36.2 19 1432 708 1005 538
Patrick Marleau 602 592.8 428.6 30.9 31.5 20 1575 535 1117 387
Dave Andreychuk* 605 596.6 410.4 29.8 33.6 23 1639 640 1001 476
Maurice Richard* 653 587.6 402.8 49.3 50.3 18 978 544 657 384
Mark Messier* 628 630.1 369.5 29.4 30.1 25 1756 694 1005 452
Average 682.3 672.885 496.56 39.27297769 42.71259834 19.95 1404.95 681.4 953.3 516.25

* The first column that says adjusted goals is hockey reference’s method. My method (which is extremely similar in most cases) is labeled srA Goals, which means scoring rate adjusted goals.

My main takeaway from this table is that no one has ever been as prolific at scoring goals, as Ovi has been through age 32, after accounting for era adjustments. Based on this, I would be inclined to call him the greatest goal-scorer in NHL history.

However, Ovechkin is neither for the most efficient goal scorer, on a per-game basis, of all-time, or even through his current age. That distinction goes to Mario Lemieux. While Lemieux did begin his career in the high-flying mid-1980s, he continued to put up video game numbers through the mid-90s, when scoring rates began to drop drastically. Ultimately, it was Lemieux’s unfortunate inability to stay in the lineup, due to both injuries and serious illness, that kept him 204 goals behind Gretzky’s career total.

So, I have an answer to my first question. Ovechkin has either been the best or second best goal scorer of all-time thus far, depending on how much emphasis you put on durability. Next comes the hard part: Forecasting his future goal-scoring.

From the table above, we can see that elite goalscorers, such as these guys, age very well, in comparison to average NHL players, but they all do slow down eventually. These elite scorers (excluding Ovechkin) averaged 42.1 srA Goals per 82 games through age 32, and 38.7 srA Goals per 82 games for their entire careers. Meaning that their scoring rate through Ovechkins’ current age was 8.7% higher than their final scoring rate. If Ovechkin follows this pattern, his expected end-of-career scoring rate would be 49.8 srA Goals per 82 games.

That’s obviously fantastic, but would it be enough for him to break the record? To determine that, we need to estimate how many games he has left, and what the league wide scoring rate will be for those games.

First, we’ll look at games played. The 19 guys on that table, other than Ovechkin, averaged 950.7 games played through age 32, and 1426.1 total games played in their careers. Ovechkin’s ahead of pace right now, with 1003 career regular season games. In order to assume that his career scoring rate drops at proportionally the same rate as the other 19 guys, we should probably assume that he plays the same percentage of his career before and after age 32 as they did. Interestingly, the average player on this table (excluding Ovechkin) played almost exactly one third of their career games after the age of 32. If Ovechkin follows this trend, he’ll end up with 1505 games played.

If he does end up with that many games, it would take him at least seven more seasons, which would probably mean retiring just before his 40th birthday. But it would only require 71.7 games played per season. Ovechkin had averaged over 77 game per season thus far, and that’s including the lockout shortened 2012-13 season, when he played in all 48 possible games. He has averaged an incredible 79.6 games played per season in his other 12 seasons, but, that also means that he has a lot of miles on his body, and staying healthy will almost always get tougher with age.

Now that we have a games played estimate, we can come up with a total srA Goals estimate, based on his estimated end-of-career scoring rate. At 49.8 srA Goals per 82 games, and 1505 games played, Ovechkin would end up with 914 srA Goals. But, remember, that’s based on a league wide scoring rate of 3.08 goals-per-game, which is equivalent to the highest scoring environment Ovechkin has ever played in (his rookie season).

Last year, the average team scored 2.97 goals per game, which actually made it the highest scoring season since 2005-06. If we assume that 2.97 is the average scoring rate for the next seven years or so, then Ovechkin’s 914 srA Goals would be equivalent to 881 actual goals. Only 13 shy of the record!

So, to answer my original question, Ovechkin does have a pretty good shot at breaking Gretzky’s regular season goal scoring record. I would say it’s sub 50%, but it’s probably in the 40% range. If it was available as a futures bet at longer odds than +150, I would take it.