In this, the year of all things Patrick Kane, as far as offensive dominance goes, someone else—an old friend—is having a campaign that could shift historical perspectives regarding the most crucial element of hockey since kids first trundled out on newly frozen pond ice.
Barring something unfortunate or extremely strange, Kane is going to win the Hart Trophy, and his 2015-16 season will be seen as one of those classics where one dude was just way, way ahead of all the other dudes. But Alexander Ovechkin, who was lampooned a few years back for being a plus/minus joke, is on pace to score 50 goals again. Nice, 50 goals. The clearest benchmark, arguably, in all of North American sports, of being elite at a given thing.
Ovechkin is a mainstay at this particular lofty haven, with six 50-goal campaigns to date. Or as many as Hall of Fame legends Mario Lemieux, Marcel Dionne, Guy Lafleur had, one more than Phil Esposito, and three less than Mike Bossy and Wayne Gretzky, who are tied for the most (9). But here is why this season, for Ovechkin, matters as much as anything that’s happening in the league right now: If he hits 50—and he should—you can call him the greatest goal scorer in league history.
Let’s look at a few factors. Bossy, a guy who has long been cited as the best pure goal scorer the world has seen, broke in with the New York Islanders during the 1977-1978 season and scored a then-rookie record of 53 goals, the first NHL freshman to ever hit the 50 mark. He played only nine more seasons, and topped 50 in all but his final campaign (when he scored "only" 38), before retiring at age 31 due to a chronic back condition that forced him to sit out all of 1987-88. In addition to Bossy’s record nine straight 50-plus seasons, there were 63 others during that decade, some by some less-than-luminaries such as Mike Bullard, Bobby Carpenter, Wayne Babych, and Jacques Richard.
Bossy led the NHL in goals twice, a total that would have been higher had Gretzky not been a contemporary, though Bossy's .762 goals-per-game average still ranks at the all-time top. What’s weird with Gretzky is that we tend to think of him as a playmaker rather than a lamp-lighter, and when you flash your mind back on how he scored, you can be baffled.
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A lot of feints, ducked shoulders, and slap shots going across the grain come to mind, but with Gretzky there was always something alchemical. Seemingly bored of goal scoring after a point, he became ever more the God of Assists.
Bossy, who worked hard to round out his game at both ends of the rink, was mainly about goals, and he got most of them from what might be considered the factory: the slot. However the regular beatings he took while plying his trade surely hastened the early end of his career. Ovechkin’s age—he is 30—and style of play puts him in a bit of a difficult position as far as achieving nine 50-goal seasons. Which matters not a jot, if he finishes this one strong.
The 2015-16 season is Ovechkin’s tenth in the NHL. Same amount of years as Bossy played. And during that decade, there have been only 14 other 50-goal seasons by non-Ovechkins.
Think about that. In three of his seasons, he has been the only player in the league to score 50, including the last two, and he has a strong chance to add a third. But even this doesn’t quite speak to Ovechkin’s level of dominance, for there was also the strike-shortened 2012-13 season, which effectively negated the possibility of his scoring 50, but Ovechkin led the league in goals anyhow (32 in 48 games), and he has now done so five times.
The 50-goal thing is weird, in a sense. Totally random guys might hit the mark once. Pierre Larouche did so twice, abetted by his never bothering to enter his own defensive zone. Some of the greatest stars only did it once: Bryan Trottier, Mark Messier, Dale Hawerchuk. Mike Gartner ranks seventh all time in goal scoring, and he did it once. Messier ranks eighth.
Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby have both done it once, and neither looks capable of doing it again. Crosby will be a tough player to understand historically, because for the bulk of his time in the league with Ovechkin, he had the appearance of being the more generational player.
If Crosby wasn’t hurt, he’d lead the league in scoring, you figured. But when he kept going, and Ovechkin took a bit of a downturn for a couple seasons, it seemed that in the sum total of their rivalry, Crosby was in the Gretzky position and Ovechkin in the Lemieux spot.
Then we come to this season, in which Crosby is not an All-Star. Ovechkin has never done that. There has always been some metric in his stat line that was elite, even if other elements—like the aforementioned plus/minus—was lacking. Now, at age 30, his body of work is reaching Pantheon status, up in the penthouse suite.
But what makes Ovechkin the God of Goals is that he scores them every way possible. Most goal-slingers had a primary means of net-tickling. Lafleur’s was busting down the wing and uncorking a slap shot. Kane dekes and dazzles. Dino Ciccarelli parked himself in front of the goalie, used his stick to make a tripod of himself, took a beating, and deflected shots. Esposito cleaned up rebounds.
But Ovechkin has cornered all markets. He blows past defenders, cuts into the slot, and roofs it. He one-times with stunning regularity from the face-off dot. He bull rushes defenders like a 1950s halfback who appears to be half-crazed. And he's not afraid to deliver punishing hits while he's out there.
Tim Thomas, the former Bruins goalie, once relayed an anecdote about Ovechkin at an All-Star weekend breakaway skill competition. Ovechkin came in on Thomas and the goalie accidentally tripped him, causing the sniper to crash into the boards. While skating back, Thomas said he was sorry, to which Ovechkin replied, “Russian machine never breaks” (a classic line he also used to assure the media at an Oct. 2006 practice that he was fine after being nailed in the foot by a puck).
Playing the way Ovechkin does, he should have broken down by now, save that this is a 6' 3", 239-pound ox of a man who, while moving at close to 30 mile per hour, can freak out the other freaks of nature. And maybe he will break down soon, now that he’s on the other side of 30. Hopefully it won’t be this year, which might give him both his last and best chance to win the Stanley Cup. But even if his physical decline happens soon, it won’t matter so far as who the best of the best is among all the goal scorers. Ovechkin has leapfrogged them all. Yet another way to score.