Believe it: Alex Ovechkin is on track to break Wayne Gretzky's career goals record

Can Alex Ovechkin catch Wayne Gretzky's career goals mark? ESPN Illustration

Editor's note: This column was originally published on Nov. 29, 2016. Dates and stats have been updated.

More than eight years ago, I first wrote that I thought it was possible/plausible that Alex Ovechkin could one day pass Wayne Gretzky's 894 career goals total, which was previously thought to be unreachable. Ovechkin was 24 at the time.

Ovechkin was at ESPN to film his "This Is SportsCenter" Russian spy spot in late 2009, and I asked him about the possibility of catching Gretzky. He was surprised at the question and didn't know what to say. I don't think he had been asked about it before, which is understandable. I also think he was nervous about working with Steve Levy (he's only human), and he was a tad rattled.

Ovechkin told Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet in Canada in September about the possibility of passing Gretzky's total: "In this hockey right now, in this league, I think it's impossible. I don't think somebody will beat this record."

Back in that January 2010 blogumn, I projected Ovechkin would finish with 51 goals in the 2009-10 season. He finished with 50. That gave him 269 goals through that 2009-10 season. So, back in early 2010, I laid out a blueprint for Ovechkin to reach 895 career goals, one better than Gretzky's record.

The first part of my hypothesis was that Ovechkin would have to be largely injury-free and play until he was 40. Also, as I wrote back in 2010, "Players who have booming shots age slower in terms of goal totals. So does playing on good teams."

Except for Ovechkin's first two seasons (both of which were exactly 70-point seasons for the Washington Capitals), his teams have been good. And remember, Jaromir Jagr played until age 46. Ovechkin, like Jagr, has a giant butt and good genes and, so far, good luck with health.

So what follows are my Ovechkin goal projections and his age (conjunction junction) at the time I wrote them in 2010. Included are comments from 2010 in parentheses and updated comments, along with a running tab on how the projection is going against 894.

Ovechkin was at 269 career goals when I began the following theory:

Age (Season): Projected goals total

25 (2010-11): 71

(Comment from 2010: He's got to have one more monster year.)

Ovechkin would go on to have his worst season to date: 32 goals in 79 games. The projection is now a minus-39 against the 894 projection! As I wrote then, now he needs a monster season.

26 (2011-12): 66

Another down year: Ovechkin had 38 goals in 78 games. I'm now a minus-67 against the projection. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea.

27 (2012-13): 60

Lockout. A really good season for Ovechkin that will cost him about 20 goals in his career total. Ovechkin had 32 goals in 48 games, a 50-goal-plus pace. He's now a minus-95.

28 (2013-14): 51

I had this season right on the money. Ovechkin scored 51 goals in his 28-year-old season and won his fourth Rocket Richard Trophy for most goals in the league.

29 (2014-15): 55

Close again. I had him with 55 five years into the future, and Ovechkin posted 53 to win his fifth Rocket Richard Trophy. He's now minus-97 against the 894 projection.

30 (2015-16) 48

(From 2010: Gretzky's last 40-goal season -- 41 goals -- was at age 30.)

In his 30-year-old season, Ovechkin hit the 50-goal mark for the third straight season, his fourth straight Rocket Richard Trophy and sixth overall. He's minus-95 against the projection.

Once Gretzky hit 30, his shots per game, and thus his goals per game, dropped considerably. After Gretzky's first full season as a 30-year-old (1991-92), he didn't score 40 goals again and had just two 30-goal seasons. I don't think Ovechkin will have the same erosion.

31 (2016-17): 52

After a hot start, Ovechkin cooled off and finished with 33 goals in 82 games, one more than his lowest total for a full-length season (32 in 2010-11). That left him with 558 career goals as he finished his 31-year-old season. Ovechkin would need 337 goals to pass Gretzky's record of 894.

32 (2017-18): 45

Forty-five goals did not seem like an outlandish estimate for Ovechkin's 32-year-old season, and after scoring his 600th goal, he's currently at 42 through 69 games.

33 (2018-19): 55

This might be a little bullish, but it is the final season I have Ovechkin with a 50-goal-plus season, and it is only a year away. Some years, everything can go your way when it comes to scoring. Having one more big season from Ovechkin would help his chances.

34 (2019-20): 40

(From 2010: Steve Yzerman had his last 30-goal season at age 34, when he had 35 goals.)

I have Ovechkin's goal erosion beginning two years from now, during his 34-year-old season. I am curious if, at any point in the coming years, Ovechkin will try to play 15 pounds lighter to counter losing speed in a league going almost exclusively with players who can wheel. If Ovechkin is going to break Gretzky's record, he needs to keep that childlike enthusiasm he has brought to the game since he first arrived.

35 (2020-21): 37

This would be Ovechkin's first season without at least 40 goals (in a full season) in nine years.

36 (2021-22): 32

This would tie Ovechkin's career-low for goals.

37 (2022-23): 40

(From 2010: Phil Esposito and Brendan Shanahan both had 40-goal seasons at age 37)

Another factor to consider in the coming years is how expansion could help Ovechkin. Bobby Orr and Gretzky benefited from expansion. In Orr's first seven seasons, the NHL went from six teams to 12, to 14, to 16, constantly spreading out the talent. The NHL went from 17 teams to 21 teams for Gretzky's rookie season.

Expansion generally spreads out the talent pool, thus weakening certain teams -- although the Vegas Golden Knights are on their way to winning the Pacific division crown in their inaugural campaign. With expansion to Seattle potentially on the way, this could further thin the waters.

38 (2023-24): 32

(From 2010: Brett Hull had 37 goals at age 38.)

I feel Hull, Esposito and Shanahan (and Jagr, from a body standpoint) are decent comparables to Ovechkin. Thick bodies, and in Hull's and Shanahan's case, a big shot that age doesn't diminish as much as it does speed.

39 (2024-25): 28

Mark Recchi scored 18 goals as a 41-year-old, so 28 goals in Ovechkin's 39-year-old season is doable.

40 (2025-26): 27

Here we arrive at 40 years old.

These projections over nine seasons seem rather reasonable to me, using historical precedents of players with similar attributes. Of course, multiple events can change things. But, after this season, I have projected Ovechkin with only one more 50-goal season, and four 40-plus seasons (two of them with exactly 40).

What total do we get when we add up these eight-plus years of projections? 296 goals. Add that to his 603 goals we projected after a 45-goal season in 2017-18, and that gives Ovechkin exactly 899. Good lord, that's a lot of goals.

The insurance for Ovechkin on breaking Gretzky's record is that if he is short of the 894 mark after the next eight full seasons, he has time in his 40s to break the record if he is close -- and has the appetite and health to eclipse it.

With a dedication to fitness, diet and making the proper adjustments (hanging out closer to the net), Ovechkin could add two to three seasons, play until he is 43 (Chris Chelios played until he was 48) and score another 40-50 goals.

Is it still a long shot? Ovechkin scored his 600th career goal this season, when he is 32. He'll likely get his 700th goal when he is 35, and he should get 800 by 38 or 39. If he can get to 800 by 39, then four more years should get him 95 more goals.

It would be a fascinating time. Arguably the greatest record chase in the history of the NHL, similar in stature and, somewhat, in tone to Hank Aaron chasing Babe Ruth. The Russian bear chasing Canadian royalty.

We will be watching. Goals are fun.