Hats off to Patrick Marleau, who is about to pass Gordie Howe for the NHL’s all-time lead in games played with a new record of 1,768. How rare of a feat is it? According to the NHL, Marleau is the first athlete in any major men’s pro sport to usurp the all-time games leader since kicker Morten Andersen did it in the NFL in 2004. Of the 863 skaters who have played NHL games this season, 163, or 18.9 percent, weren’t yet born when Marleau debuted in the NHL Oct. 1, 1997. Seinfeld was still on the air during its original run when Marleau was a rookie.
So Marleau will be rightfully honored this week for a remarkable career that includes not missing a game since April 2009. Howe’s reign as the games leader lasted almost 60 years, as he’s held the lead since Nov. 26, 1961.
Will Marleau’s reign be as long? Given the toll the game takes on the body today, it may feel like Marleau will never be passed. Then again, a few other players are within shouting distance of Marleau in games, and there's a good chance he retires after this season.
So who might have a shot to pass Marleau in games someday? Picking the best candidates first requires us to consider the criteria that made Marleau the all-time endurance king.
1. Starting young. Debuting in the NHL at 18 years and eight days, Marleau is the youngest to play in the league in 76 years.
2. Playing at a high level into your late 30s. Even in his age-38 and 39 seasons, Marleau scored 27 goals. So anyone threatening his lead will have to stay relevant and worthy of an NHL roster spot into his 40s.
3. Durable. That’s the obvious correlation. Marleau has played every regular-season game 12 times in his career and never missed more than eight games in a year.
4. Already a good sample size. If we’re projecting out the best threats to Marleau, we can’t bet on a current 19-year-old. Which candidates are already on trajectories that put them at a Marleau-like pace?
5. Fuelled by desire. Marleau never won a Stanley Cup, and that presumably kept him competing until he got close enough to Howe that the games record became the carrot. When looking at the older Marleau challengers, we have to ask if they have motivators pushing them to stay in the game.
With those criteria in mind, here are some candidates to take the torch from Marleau someday.
Joe Thornton, 1669 games
‘Jumbo,’ drafted one pick before Marleau in the 1997 draft’s top spot, sits 99 games back. To pass Marleau, Thornton would need to play two more full seasons and for Marleau to retire after this one. Thornton’s tank isn’t quite empty, but he’d have to play through an age-43 season to claim the games mark.
Zdeno Chara, 1,598 games
Chara would have to flirt with 200 more games to leapfrog Marleau and Thornton and become the games-played G.O.A.T. With one more healthy season, however, Chara, 44, would pass Ray Bourque, Larry Murphy, Scott Stevens and Chris Chelios to become the all-time games leader among defensemen.
VETERANS ON A GOOD PACE
Alex Ovechkin, 1,194 games
Ovechkin is synonymous with goals, but he’s also synonymous with being pretty much indestructible despite playing such a heavy-forechecking game. Ovechkin continues to pass legends on the all-time goals list. He’s two away from besting Marcel Dionne for top-five status and should catch Brett Hull and Jaromir Jagr to crack the top three next season assuming NHL teams play a full schedule. After that, 'Ovie' will need another season to pass Howe’s 801 for second all-time and several more to summit the Wayne Gretzky mountain of 894. If we’re thinking of the games-record challengers in terms of which ones have the most appetizing carrots to chase, Ovechkin’s pursuit of the goals mark will keep him hungry and puff up his career games total.
Still, if we assume Marleau plays all San Jose’s remaining games to finish up at 1,779, Ovechkin would have to play the Caps’ last 10 games of this season, plus seven more seasons, plus two more games in an eighth season – without missing a game.
Anze Kopitar, 1,115 games
Kopitar debuted in the NHL as a teenager and has rarely missed a game across his 15-season career, so he’s already past the 1,100-game mark by just 33. Because he plays such a sound two-way game and doesn’t rely on blazing foot speed to be effective, he could remain a useful player into his late 30s even if his scoring touch abandons him. If he maintains his durability, he’ll cross the 1,600-game mark before turning 40.
Patrick Kane, 1,018 games
Kane, an easy first-ballot Hall of Famer in the making, jumped directly to the NHL in his draft year just like Marleau did. By his age-32 season, Kane has already crested 1,000 games. Marleau did so in his age-31 season, so Kane is not too far off. He’d be right on pace if not for a couple injuries that cost him double-digit game totals in his mid-20s. Small players are often the most durable, and Kane has only missed one game in the past six seasons. He’s still playing at an elite level and, with his generationally great puckhandling ability, could still be putting up points on the power play by his late 30s or early 40s at this rate.
DURABLE STARS IN THEIR PRIMES
John Tavares, 859 games
Tavares is one of the more durable players of his era. He’s played every game in six of his seasons so far and leads all NHLers in games played among those born after 1990. He’s on track to reach 1,000 games by his age-32 season.
John Carlson, 803 games
He’s a stalwart on the Caps’ blueline. In his 11 full seasons, he’s played in every Capitals game eight times, and he’s missed two total games in the past four years. Don’t be surprised if Carlson starts to mount a legitimate ironman streak in the seasons to come. He’d still have to more than double his career game total to challenge Marleau’s record, meaning Carlson will have to play into his 40s for it to happen.
ONE TO WATCH
Leon Draisaitl, 465 games
We should check back on the Oilers’ superstar in another half decade. He’s played every game in four of his past five seasons. He’s on pace to reach 1,000 games by his age-32 season, putting him on a similar pace to Kane’s, and Draisaitl’s immense skill will keep him in the league for as long as he wants.