Chasing Gretzky

A decade ago, if we squinted hard enough and tilted our heads far enough, we could see a scenario where a talented 25-year-old Alexander Ovechkin already averaging 50-goals per year challenges Wayne Gretzky’s silly career goals record. With each passing season, our squint steadily relented to the point that entering the 2019 NHL season, the buzz had changed from if Ovi would do it to when. Then COVID-19 hit.

Although the pandemic has produced far worse effects than impacting athletic achievement, our little insignificant world of sports was turned upside down, nonetheless. Many of the impacts have been well-documented including the never-to-be March Madness 2020, the delayed Tokyo Olympics, two-thirds of the MLB season, and home-field advantage in every spectator sport. The macro impact has received most of our attention, but the micro impact is real, and it could be more punitive than we imagined.

While LeBron got the fully intact NBA playoff season he badly needed for his legacy, it is the truncated 2020 and 2021 NHL regular seasons that could prove troublesome for Ovechkin. When Rudy Gobert’s test heard round the world brought social life to a screeching halt, Ovechkin was 188 goals shy of The Great One’s record. The NHL was forced to cancel the last 13 games of Washington’s 2020 regular season and then implemented a 56-game regular season for 2020, resulting in 39 total games that Ovechkin will not get back. That might not sound too problematic, but, at 35, time is Ovi’s nemesis. 

On March 12, 2020—the day the outbreak went viral (in the pop-culture sense)—Ovechkin was on pace to eclipse Gretzky by the 50th game of the 2024 regular season. When we add in the 39 deleted 2020 games, the post-Covid projection date moves to the 7th game of the 2025 season.

The impact of those 39 games can’t be understated. They are the difference between Ovechkin needing to play 19 and 20 seasons for glory. We are being a little generous with our projection since it assumes Ovechkin continues to score at his career .61 career goals per game rate. That’s probably too optimistic as he approaches 40. As it turns out, we have two pretty good careers to model what we can reasonably expect from Ovi moving forward. Gordie Howe and Brett Hull—#2 and #4 on the all-time goals list—both saw a 20% reduction in their goals per game rates after age 35. If we apply this to our projections, the clock starts ticking even faster.

With the more reasonable goals per game rate, our pre-COVID-19 projection would’ve given us the 45th game of the 2025 regular season. That jumps to the 2nd game of the 2026 regular season after factoring in the missed 39 games. Ovechkin has already missed four games in 2021 due to COVID-19 protocols, pushing our projection date to the 6th game of the 2026 regular season.

Regardless of the goals per game rate we use, we see the pandemic moving the projection date to the next regular season. With a 20% reduction in scoring rate, Ovi would need to play until he’s 41. Whether he chooses to play until he’s 41 is one thing; whether he’s capable of playing that long is another story. Hull was cruising at a respectable .39 goals per game at age 39 and seemed poised to make a run at Howe for 2nd all-time. When he returned after the 2004 lockout, he lasted five scoreless games before abruptly retiring. No matter how much we’re convinced that this party is different than all the others, it always ends, and it always ends the same: quickly and unforgivingly.   

Fortunately, modern advancements in technology and training may save us yet. Tom Brady just won his 7th Super Bowl and 5th Super Bowl MVP at the infantile age of 43, with no sign of slowing down. It also doesn’t hurt that Ovi’s size and skill set should help stem the effects of aging—at least for a little while. Ultimately, this could end up becoming a case of motivation. When a player reaches the point of diminishing returns, one more season might as well be 10. We only need to listen to the words of Dirk Nowitzki and David Ortiz to understand this. Both willingly retired despite productive final seasons. If Ovi is content with waging a battle of attrition against time, we can start making DC hotel reservations for the second week of October 2026. Otherwise, Gretzky’s mark will end up being the rare thing actually preserved by COVID. 

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