Alex Ovechkin: will he be the all-time goal-scoring leader?

If I had a statistical question, would I email it to John Buccigross? Well, someone did:

"John, What do you think are Alex Ovechkin's chances of breaking Wayne Gretzky's career goals record?"

John does a little thought experiment and comes up with this progression for Ovechkin:

Age Season Total
20 52 52
21 46 98
22 65 163
23 56 219
24 51 270
25 71 341
26 66 407
27 60 467
28 51 518
29 55 573
30 48 621
31 52 673
32 45 718
33 55 773
34 40 813
35 37 850
36 32 882
37 40 922
38 32 954
39 28 982
40 27 1009

In other words, not only can Ovechkin score that 895th goal to pass Gretzky, but he could also plausibly score another 114 goals after that! Let's look at that progression in another way - where Ovechkin's annual goal total would rank all time at each age: (projections in bold)

20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40
Rank 4 19 5 8 17 1 1 3 12 7 7 3 2 1 2 2 12 2 1 3 2

So Ovechkin, whose seasonal goal total has ranked an average of 10th at ages 20-24, will post totals in the top three by age in 12 of the next 16 seasons. Not surprisingly, this is unheard of in the history of the NHL - players get injured, decline, or play in other professional leagues. Let's look at how some top scorers ranked at various ages:

20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40
Gretzky 2 1 2 1 1 16 3 50 4 36 16 48 215 10 185 48 26 14 47 62 35
Lemieux 7 4 3 2 31 446 35 3 442 1 5 9 141 9 100 62 18
Br. Hull 108 47 1 1 1 4 6 86 11 6 46 18 44 3 7 1 5 35

Basically, careers are incredibly unpredictable - nobody plays 82 games a year from age 20 to age 40. And players who play at a very high level at a young age tend to not sustain that level of play until they're 40: at age 24 - Ovechkin's current age - Dale Hawerchuk ranked 3rd in goals, Michel Goulet 6th, Pierre Turgeon 7th, Jimmy Carson 8th and Pat Lafontaine 10th. In fact, nine of the top ten goal-scorers through age 24 had already scored 50% of their career goals (Jaromir Jagr being the lone expection.)

So, to answer the reader's question: I believe that there is presently no significant likelihood that Alex Ovechkin finishes his career with 894 goals. He needs to display an uncommon level of durability for the next decade, and not just lead the league in goal-scoring, but do so by such a wide margin that he scores as much as Gretzky, Hull or Lemieux did in an era with vastly higher offensive levels. No player has ever dominated the NHL in that way - even Gretzky's peak lasted only six years, and by age 27, he was no longer durable, and he was no longer guaranteed to lead the league in scoring. Clearly 650 goals is not out-of-the-question - just not 900.

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