Ovechkin on Ovechkin: why goals are his passion and where he stands on the hunt for Gretzky's record

He just keeps scoring and scoring and scoring. At the rate he’s going, Ovechkin has Gretzky’s all-time goal record – which until recently was considered to be unfathomably unbreakable – within shooting range.
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Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports

Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports

It's Alex Ovechkin’s doppelganger. Has to be. The man stealthily gliding through the lobby of Ottawa’s Brookstreet hotel looks enough like the Ovechkin we’ve come to know as the best goal-scorer of his generation. He sounds like him. He moves like him. But everything feels slightly off. This isn’t the exact Ovechkin we’ve fallen in love with over the past 15 years.

We don’t see the warm, gap-toothed grin that inspired comparisons to Jaws from the James Bond movies, or the goofy persona who begged to be picked last in an all-star fantasy draft so he could win a car, or the weary warrior who screamed like a triumphant barbarian lugging the Stanley Cup around D.C. in a summer-long pub crawl. The dark brown hair has faded to a wolf-like gray, too.

This Ovechkin, unassumingly clad in a black blazer, white shirt and gray slacks, seems more interested in blending in than standing out. He speaks softly enough that you have to lean close to pick up every word. His stillness doesn’t make him bad company, however. He isn’t rude or aloof. He’s the real Ovechkin, but he’s guided by something other than his famously rambunctious energy. Sitting in the hotel’s cocktail lounge, his posture attentive, his gorilla-sized hands on the table, he emotes pure focus.

During this late-January Washington Capitals road trip in Canada’s capital, coach Todd Reirden explains that Ovechkin “stepped away from the all-star game,” something he’s done four times in his career, “to make a run in the second half.” A run at what? Sure, there’s the Stanley Cup. As most NHLers say, winning it once doesn’t satiate the appetite. It whets it. But the scoresheets this season, particularly since the calendar flipped to 2020, suggest Ovechkin is making a run at far more than a Cup. The bananas scoring binge started with a two-goal game on Jan. 7. By the end of it, Ovechkin had scored 16 goals in a 10-game stretch. It was the hottest streak of his career, which says something for a 34-year-old who is already the only player in NHL history to lead the league in goals eight times. The twine-bulging blitzkrieg rocketed him into the league lead. As part of a Feb. 4 hat trick, he became the second player in history to score 40 goals in a season 11 times, trailing Wayne Gretzky’s record of 12.

The 2020 version of Ovechkin, more so than he’s ever been, seems hellbent on devouring every last goals record he can get his paws on. Perhaps that’s where the quiet, laser-like focus comes from.

“Goals are my passion,” he said. “As a forward, you always have to be hungry for a puck, for shooting. Since Day 1, my parents told me, ‘If you’re a forward, you have to get ready for everything, tough games, rough games. And since I was maybe 11, I realized, ‘I can score goals.’ I never thought I would be getting these numbers since I came to the NHL. But I scored 50, and I scored 46, and I scored 65, and I was like, ‘OK, I can do this.’ ”

He’s still doing it at an age when most players, even the greats, wind down. He entered 2019-20 with 658 career goals. Since then, Ovechkin has passed Luc Robitaille (668), Teemu Selanne (684), Mario Lemieux (690), Steve Yzerman (692) and Mark Messier (694) on the all-time goals list. That placed him alone in eighth place.

As of the March-12 NHL shutdown, Ovechkin's 48 goals tied him for the league lead. He had become the 700-goal club's eighth member and was two snipes away from catching Mike Gartner (708) for seventh all-time.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Capitals defenseman John Carlson. “We’re kind of immune to a lot of it. It might take until the end of your career to really realize how special being a part of it was in terms of his success, because we hear about it every single day, new stats or new records he’s broken. You become numb to the magnitude of those achievements.”

This doppelganger version of Ovechkin almost comes across as numb to the achievements, too. That could be because his life is so full that he can’t worry too much about statistics right now. On top of captaining a Stanley Cup contender, he’s a relatively new father, with baby No. 2 coming later this year. His son, Sergei, turns two in August. He’s a normal kid who already loves to play sports, which isn’t too surprising considering dad is the offspring of a two-time Olympic gold-medallist basketball player for a mother and a footballer for a father.

So far, Ovechkin believes communication is the greatest challenge in parenting a toddler. He wishes he could know exactly what Sergei is thinking, but his son is still too young to express himself verbally. Ovechkin seems giddy imagining the day Sergei grasps the idea of a pro-athlete parent.

“When he realizes who his dad is, he’s going to be really excited,” he said.

Most people mellow out from the cumulative everyday fatigue of new parenthood, so that could partially explain this relatively muted version of ‘Ovi.’ But his aversion to celebrating all his milestones comes from another place, too: he has no plans to stop at No. 8 on the all-time list. The question on many a hockey historian’s mind is whether he can catch Gretzky’s leading mark of 894, and Ovechkin is quick to shoot down the idea – for now.

“It’s still too far,” he said. “It’s almost 200 goals away.”

Ovechkin wants to be crowned the all-time goals king, of course. But it’s a matter of maintaining the ambition required to get there. He doesn’t want to get caught daydreaming.

“You have to work every day to get better,” he said. “Sometimes you don’t feel the stick, you don’t feel the puck. Then you have to do something else. You have to play physically. You have to work more on the ice to create moments for your partners. Then, dirty goals come, and that monkey jumps off your shoulder, and you feel the puck again. You feel the stick, you feel good, and everything goes your way.”

Some great goal-scorers carry around the reputation of being scoreboard-watching cherry pickers. That’s not Ovechkin, especially not at this juncture of his career, where he’s developed a new level of maturity. He’s egoless, so he’s willing to score in any way possible. As Reirden suggests, he’s a player who couldn’t necessarily be trusted to do the right thing with the other team’s net empty in years past – but now can be sent over the boards for 6-on-5 situations without any hesitation, because he’ll “make the right play.”

Ovechkin is the most well-rounded player he’s ever been. He’ll never be mistaken for Selke-caliber good defensively, but his impact on possession is positive. The Caps generate far more chances than they allow when he’s on the ice. For only the second time in the past seven seasons, he’s starting less than 60 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone, and he’s averaging his fewest offensive zone starts per 60 since 2011-12, suggesting the Caps are relying on him in all situations.

Yet he’s also averaging his most shots per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 in four years, so he’s not sacrificing offense for the sake of better 200-foot play. If anything, being more into the game, no matter where it goes, seems to be helping Ovechkin maintain the type of elite goal production typically reserved for a player’s mid-20s prime.

“He hasn’t lost a step,” said Caps right winger T.J. Oshie. “He hasn’t gotten slower. His shot hasn’t gotten softer. He doesn’t have any less drive. If anything, more drive. So it’s going be fun to watch his career and see how many people he can climb past on that goals ladder.”

We know the numbers, both surface-level and advanced, tell us Ovechkin is as deadly a scorer as ever. The stats tell us what he’s doing, but how is he doing it? There’s nothing in hockey history to suggest he should be able to do what he’s doing. Gretzky’s final 40-goal effort came at age 30. Brett Hull, fourth all-time with 741 goals, never finished top-five in the league after he turned 30. Since turning 30, Ovechkin has won the Rocket Richard Trophy three times and averaged 48 goals per 82 games. He joins Jaromir Jagr and Johnny Bucyk as the only players to top 50 goals at 33 or older, though Selanne deserves an honorable mention for scoring 48 as a 36-year-old.

The only superstar whose feats relative to age rival Ovechkin’s in sheer improbability is Gordie Howe, who led the league in goals and points as a 34-year-old and turned 41 the day after finishing with 44 goals and 103 points in 1968-69.

How is Ovechkin able to stay so good at an age that signals decline for almost every other player? It’s a matter of four key elements: genetics, desire, craftsmanship and teammates.

The genetics factor is the simplest, and it is Ovechkin’s first answer when asked why he’s still so good.

“Maybe it’s just natural,” he said. “That’s all, you know? Everything I have, it’s my parents. My parents are big.”

He has a point. His durability, knock on wood, borders on freakish. At 6-foot-3 and 236 pounds, he’s simply the heavier man whenever he collides with an opponent – 99.3 percent of them, to be exact. Of the 883 other skaters to play in the NHL this season, only six weigh more than Ovechkin. “You should see the other guy” applies almost every time he crashes into another player. Perhaps that’s why he has missed just 31 of 1,183 possible games in his career – 2.6 percent. Factoring out 10 games’ worth of suspensions, he’s been healthy enough to play 98.2 percent of his team’s games when eligible. One reason he says he maintains good health: he keeps himself almost exactly the same size every season.

“I don’t use any diet,” he said. “A couple years ago, I tried to diet, and it didn’t help. I just want to be myself. If I’m too light, I don’t feel good. If I’m too heavy, I don’t feel good. At my weight right now, I feel pretty good.”

The desire element is probably the trait more associated with Ovechkin than with any other player in history. No one visibly enjoys scoring more than he does. It’s an intangible greatly admired by the next man on his hit list: Gartner, the only player with more career 30-goal seasons than Ovechkin.

“You can’t just accidentally score that many goals,” Gartner said. “You have to be on a mission to score goals. And Alex, I think, when I watch him play, when I watched him play junior hockey and then as he started to come into the NHL, he’s always struck me as someone who is a hungry goal-scorer. Now, you take that and you combine it with his attributes. A lot of people could be a hungry goal-scorer and not score goals. But he’s a big, strong man. He’s not the fastest player in the league, but he’s extremely quick. He’s got a hard shot, he’s got an accurate shot, and he’s got a quick release.”

Gartner, the consistency king, set a goal of getting 300 shots every year. He figured if he could score 15 percent of the time, that meant 45 goals a year. He surpassed 300 shots six times and topped 250 shots 15 times. And if 250 to 300 shots represent the hallmark of a hungry scorer, what Ovechkin has done is astounding. He’s surpassed 300 shots in all 14 of his non-lockout seasons – and 400 shots three times. He’s led the NHL in shots 11 times. No other player has done it more than seven times since the NHL started tracking individual shots in 1959-60. Ovechkin owns three of the top six single-season shot totals and joins Phil Esposito as the only players to crest 500 shots in a season. So ‘Ovi’ checks the hunger box and then some. He was in the hunt to lead the NHL in shots again this season, so the volume isn’t going anywhere.

Esposito, sixth on the goals list at 717, says one reason he was such a successful scorer is he made a point of getting every puck on net, “to put the onus on the goaltender.” He developed that mentality competing with his brother, Hall of Fame goaltender Tony, as a kid, and he recognizes it in Ovechkin.

It’s not just about quantity, of course. It’s also quality. Ovechkin’s release remains as deadly as ever. “Of course,” Ovechkin said, when asked if he still works on honing it daily. Evidence to support that theory: his two highest career shooting percentages are this season’s and last season’s. Maybe he’s getting luckier, or maybe he’s actually improving his shot, which is a terrifying thought. And he’s just as stick-obsessed as one might imagine.

“I think the stick is the most important thing,” he said. “A couple days ago, I tried to use a different stick, and it was light. It was good for stickhandling, but if it was a hard pass, it just goes under your blade. Then I used another stick, and my curve was too heavy, and I couldn’t feel the puck handling it. All the sticks are different, and they try to make them better, lighter, fashionable, but I think all the sticks I used before were the best sticks. They were light, good balance, great whip. Right now I have a pretty good stick as well. Everything is changing. In two years, I’m pretty sure, something is going to be crazy. But a lot of guys are going to use the same sticks.”

As Vegas Golden Knights left winger Max Pacioretty, another of the game’s most prominent goal-scorers, opined during all-star weekend, Ovechkin has inspired a generation of players who follow his tendency to use bendy, whippy sticks and essentially let the tool do the work or, as Pacioretty puts it, “just put your head down and blast it.” And nowhere is that more apparent than on the power play, where Ovechkin has spent year after year setting up on the left half-boards for his patented one-timer.

At this stage of his career, that play is practically a parody. Everyone in the building knows the shot is coming, from the fans to Ovechkin’s teammates to the checkers to the goalie. It’s reminiscent of peak Brett Hull, whose devastating one-timer helped him go supernova with seasons of 72, 86 and 70 goals from 1989-90 through 1991-92.

“It wasn’t magic out there,” Hull said. “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.”

The Capitals spend much of their power-play time funnelling the puck to Ovechkin, trying to make the set play happen. Opponents know that, and it goes in anyway.

“I believe he’s played that spot for so many years that he knows pretty much where he has to shoot on every goalie,” said Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov. “I believe he’s always ready for that pass. Sometimes he doesn’t get the chance for maybe a minute, a minute 30, and then he does get that chance.”

One reason why Ovechkin’s trademark play works so well is the team puts so much work into practising it. Without that preparation, Ovechkin, says, he could receive 10 passes and convert none of them. It’s a real art form. Kuznetsov believes every little detail matters – even the quality of the ice surface.

“Sometimes you spin a puck where it’s a little bit harder, and it’s not good for him,” Kuznetsov said. “You have to give it to him right in the wheelhouse, because he’s going to deliver it. It’s not about how he wants it. It’s about how we’re going to deliver it, how quick and on time and depending on what their coverage is.”

The homework Kuznetsov and other Capitals players do just to make the Ovechkin one-timer happen is a testament to their dedication and ability as players. And that ties into another crucial element of Ovechkin’s success: the company he keeps.

“Stay with the Washington Capitals,” said Esposito when asked how Ovechkin can catch Gretzky. “Stay with a good team. Trust me, I went through that when I got traded from Boston to New York. New York was a bad team, and I certainly didn’t score like I did in Boston, which was a great team. You don’t do it alone in the NHL. You better have good teammates with you if you’re going to be a good scorer.”

If anyone doesn’t yet believe Ovechkin is the greatest sniper of all-time and doesn’t see Gretzky as the best who ever was, chances are they sit in the camp of a third man: Mike Bossy. Many consider him hockey’s greatest pure scorer ever. He topped 50 goals in nine of his 10 seasons before retiring at 30 due to a chronic back injury, and he remains the league’s all-time leader in goals per game at 0.76, which translates to 62 goals per 82 games. When he reflects on his own success, he humbly acknowledges he couldn’t have scored so many goals without elite teammates, and he sees a parallel with Ovechkin’s career-long situation.

“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 and as Gretzky wasn’t the only option. There was (Paul) Coffey, there was (Jari) Kurri. There’s (Nicklas) Backstrom, there’s Oshie, there’s Carlson. There was (Bryan) Trottier, there was (Denis) 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.”

Ovechkin, then, still has every club in the bag working for him in his quest for Gretzky’s record. He’s remarkably durable, he yearns to score and shoots the puck as frequently as ever, he hasn’t stopped perfecting his craft, and he continues to play with highly talented teammates. Is he thus perfectly equipped to get goal No. 895 someday?

Let’s play a game. First, we pro-rate the rest of his 2019-20 numbers and assume he plays through his age-40 season, still armed with all the advantages listed earlier. His current pace says he finishes this season with 715 goals, assuming the NHL resumes play. Even though he seems indestructible, we’ll factor in a physical decline, so let’s say he plays three fewer games each season: 79, 77, 74, 71, 68 and 65, meaning he has 434 games to climb from 715 to 895 goals. We’ll assume his ice time stays relatively stable because of his huge power-play presence but his shots per game decline by five percent each season and his shot power weakens to the point he scores on 10 percent of his shots over those final six seasons rather than his career mark of 12.7 percent. That gives us an estimate that would be pretty conservative considering he could easily be a 50-goal guy again next season.

With the admittedly non-scientific “aging formula” factored in, we get the following goal totals over his final six imaginary seasons: 35, 33, 30, 27, 25, 22. Add that to the 715 and we get – gasp – 887. Surely a rickety old Ovechkin could return the next season at 41 to pot eight more goals? A lot has to go right for him to catch Gretzky, but considering how few signs of decay he’s showing right now, it’s not impossible. Far from it.

Not that Ovechkin is even remotely ready to entertain the idea. It’s best tucked away in a back corner of his brain, lest it interfere with his focus. Someday, however, if he does it, he’ll soak in the glory of the accomplishment, and the toothless grin will return.

“I think when I’ll be retired, I’ll sit at a bar with my friends, and then I’ll say, ‘Can you imagine? I beat those guys?’ ” he said. “Because I was a little kid, and of course I knew who were the best: Messier, Gretzky, Lemieux, Yzerman. Those names were pretty big. Being in the same company is huge.”

THE GREATS ON THE GR8

We asked some NHL scoring legends about Ovechkin’s place in hockey history. Here's what they had to say.

Is Ovechkin already the greatest goal-scorer of all-time?

Phil Esposito: “I’m not gonna say he’s the best of all-time. Wayne is. Wayne is No. 1. When I retired, I was No. 2, and Gordie was the best. So, until you can beat the best, you’re not the best. Period.”

Mike Gartner: “Right now, he ranks probably No. 3. And here’s why: because Wayne Gretzky is the greatest goal-scorer. Until somebody scores more than 894 goals…that’s a pretty big number. Mike Bossy is the greatest pure goal-scorer that I have ever seen.”

Can Ovechkin pass Gretzky in career goals?

Brett Hull: “Absolutely. He keeps getting 50 goals every year. It’s awesome. And he only needs 188 goals to catch Wayne. That’s not that many when you score like he does.”

Mike Bossy: “If he stays healthy and he wants to, I think he can. His health is of the utmost importance. If he wants to keep on playing, then I literally think he has a chance.”

This is an updated version of a feature that originally appeared in The Hockey News 2020 Superstar Issue. Want more in-depth features, analysis and opinions delivered right to your mailbox? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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