How Alex Ovechkin got 700 goals – and how he can catch Wayne Gretzky, as told by NHL goal-scoring legends

Bossy, Hull, Esposito and Gartner share their thoughts on what makes 'Ovi' so elite and what must happen for him to reach 895 career goals.
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He enjoyed the hottest streak of his career. Then he was cold for a bit. That’s life as an elite goal-scorer. It’s more rollercoaster than straight line. It was never in doubt that Alex Ovechkin would score career goal No. 700 before this season was up.

And it finally happened in the third period of Saturday's contest against the New Jersey Devils. Lying in wait in the right wing circle after a scramble in front of the Devils' net, Ovechkin unleashed one of his patented one-time blasts on a low-to-high pass from Evgeny Kuznetsov that pinged iron and found twine behind New Jersey's Mackenzie Blackwood.

Now that he’s cleared that statistical hurdle, the focus shifts to Ovechkin’s ascension up the all-time goals list. Next up is No. 7, Mike Gartner at 708. If Ovechkin goes on another wild tear before the season is up, he has an outside chance to catch Phil Esposito at 717, though it’s more likely that happens early next season. Health permitting, Ovechkin should make another major surge up the all-time leader board in 2020-21. Marcel Dionne at 731 should be no problem, and odds are Ovechkin will also surpass Brett Hull at 741. That would place Ovechkin fourth in NHL history. If he finishes 2019-20 between 710 and 715 goals, he’d even start sniffing the No. 3 guy, Jaromir Jagr, who has 766. Within three seasons, Ovechkin will probably even surpass Gordie Howe at 801.

Then the Ovi Watch will shift to speculating on whether he can catch Wayne Gretzky’s all-time record of 894 goals. It’s a matter of whether Ovechkin can say healthy and productive into his late 30s. So far, he’s doing things no one else has ever done. The only players to record a 50-goal season at age 33 or older are Ovechkin, Jagr and Johnny Bucyk, and Ovechkin is on pace be the first to do it more than once. It’s thus tough to predict the rest of his career through the aging lens of any mortal human being.

In a recent interview with The Hockey News, Ovechkin said he felt like it was too early to think about Gretzky. Ovechkin added that he's more likely to soak in his accomplishments over a couple beers with buddies once his career is over. But that doesn’t mean we can’t think about the record. Same goes for the other all-time goal-scoring greats. Several of them talked to The Hockey News recently to share their thoughts on Ovechkin’s chase.

The next man for Ovi to pass is Gartner. He singles out Ovechkin’s hunger as his greatest trait. Gartner is the only man to record more 30-goal seasons than Ovechkin, and maintaining a high shot volume year over year was a distinct goal for Gartner. He sees a similar drive in Ovechkin, who has led the NHL in shots 11 times, and believes that quality, combined with his durability and raw shooting talent, make him one of the all-time great goal-scorers. Gartner sees Ovechkin’s team situation as crucial, too. That he’s still playing at an elite level on an elite team that needs him to be an impact player puts him in a prime position to keep scoring for years to come.

“What separates a 600-goal scorer and a 700-goal scorer, I think a lot of it has to do with a bit of genetics as far as how sturdy you can be and how much pounding you can take, and (also) who are you playing for, what kind of team are you playing for,” Gartner said. “Are you playing for a bottom feeder or you playing for a contender? Most players when they finish their career can still play, right? Very few guys can't play. It's just that they can't play at that same level. So can a guy stick around that was scoring 40 goals, once he’s scoring 20 or 25 goals? He probably could, but nobody's going to give him that chance, because they really don't want a guy like that scoring 20 to 25 goals. They can get a guy younger and cheaper that can probably do something close to that, so they do that. They have to do that.

“So you have to have a lot of things going for you. You have to be on a team that's willing to continue to put you on those top one or two lines, top-six forward positions. You're not going to have a guy limp over the 700-goal mark that's at the end of his career, that's playing on the third line. That's probably just not going to happen.”

Esposito is blown away by what Ovechkin’s able to accomplish in today’s NHL, when so many more shots are blocked and when goaltenders are so much harder to score on than in bygone eras. Phil recently picked up the old pads of his brother and fellow Hall of Famer Tony Esposito and couldn’t believe how heavy they were. So it’s a testament to Ovechkin’s shooting talent that he can overcome today’s challenges, albeit he’s equipped with far superior stick technology than the guys who shot on Tony Esposito.

“If you go back in history, of all the guys that scored 700, they usually hit the net a lot, and Alex is one of those guys that he puts it on the net and puts the onus on the goaltender,” Phil Esposito said. “That’s what I tried to do in my career is always put the onus on the goaltender. Maybe it's because I put it against my brother when we were kids. I always wanted to beat him. My feeling is, that's one of the things that makes Ovechkin a great goal-scorer.

“The other thing is his size, his reach, I think sometimes his wrist shot is as hard as his slapshot. I remember way back when I was a rookie, Bobby Hull taking a slapshot, and they timed it. I think it was the first time ever being timed in the early '60s. And then he took his wrist shot, and it was about the same. There wasn’t very much difference.”

The most devastating incarnation of Ovechkin’s shot, of course, is the power-play one-timer from the left half boards. When Brett Hull watches it, he’s reminded of his own heyday, in which he topped 70 goals in three consecutive seasons from 1989-90 through 1991-92, including 86 in 1990-91.

“It wasn’t magic out there,” Hull told Mike Keenan in a recent Hockey News podcast. “They knew exactly where I was going, they knew exactly how I played and what I was going to do, but they couldn’t stop it. And that’s Ovechkin. He’s bigger, stronger and faster than I ever dreamed of.”

If Ovechkin is to catch Gretzky, Esposito recommends he “Stay with the Washington Capitals.” While he was smashing records in the early 1970s with the Boston Bruins, Esposito was in hot pursuit of Howe’s all-time lead, but a 1975 trade to the New York Rangers meant a weaker supporting cast. Esposito never approached eye-popping goal totals again, though he was 33 at the time of the trade, so aging could’ve also been the culprit.

Another all-time legend who believes the supporting cast matters a ton in Ovechkin’s quest for goal 895 is Mike Bossy, the NHL’s all-time leader in goals per game at 0.76. As Bossy describes it, he had “an office” on the left half boards on the power play, just as Ovechkin famously does, and having great players feeding him the puck helped Bossy fill the net.

“One of the advantages that he has and that I had, and that Gretzky had, was that we played with guys that were also able to score goals,” Bossy said. “And Ovi’s not the only option on their power play, as I wasn't the only option, just as Gretzky wasn't the only option. There was Coffey, there was Kurri, there's Backstrom, there's Oshie, there's Carlson, there was Trottier, there was Potvin. What it does is…you just can't put a guy on Ovi in his office, because Carlson's going to get a one-timer, or Backstrom is going to get the puck to Oshie in the slot. And the same thing in Boston. You look at Pastrnak. If Pastrnak doesn't get you, it's going to be Marchand, it's going to be Krug or Bergeron.

“Playing with better players, like I did, and like Gretzky did, and Ovi does, there's a lot more opportunities for improvisation on broken plays. You watch power plays today, and they're basically standard where you know what the team's trying to do and who they're trying to get the puck to. And often it's on broken plays that everything breaks down on the defensive side, and that's where there's a lapse in coverage on guys like Gretzky and Ovi and myself. And that coincides with the talent that you're playing with.”

So will Ovechkin do it? Can he catch Wayne?

“If he stays healthy and he wants to, I think he can,” Bossy said. "His health is of the utmost importance. If Ovi wants to keep on playing, then I literally think he has a chance. And if they're able to keep that team together – Kuznetsov and Backstrom – you need a talented centerman to play with, and you need guys on the back end also who are able to get you the puck.

Absolutely,” Hull said. “He keeps getting 50 goals every year. It’s awesome. And he only needs (194) goals to catch Wayne. That’s not that many when you score like he does.”

Check out the newest edition of The Hockey News magazine for a larger feature and interview Ovechkin, including analysis from Ovechkin, Capitals teammates, legends and more.

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