Analysis: Capitals’ Ovechkin set to join elite company

Alex Ovechkin has reached the point in his career when comparisons and context on a generational level can give way to a much bigger range of time.

Ovechkin’s next goal, which he could score as soon as Saturday afternoon, when he and the Washington Capitals visit the Montreal Canadiens (1 p.m. ET; NHLN-US, SN, RDS, CSN-DC), will be his 30th this season. It will also be the 10th time he’s reached 30 goals in his first 10 NHL seasons.

Four players in the history of the NHL have accomplished that: Mike Bossy, Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri and Mike Gartner. It is a feat of ability, consistency, durability and longevity. It is also an accomplishment that will buttress the case for Ovechkin in any discussion about the greatest goal-scorers of all time.

Alex Ovechkin

To score 30-plus goals 10 straight seasons to start a career, a player must make an instant impact. Jaromir Jagr would be on the list, but he fell just short in his first season, when he scored 27 goals on a loaded Pittsburgh Penguins roster in 1990-91. The only active players to score at least 30 goals in their first NHL seasons are Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jeff Skinner.

Ovechkin has been incredibly consistent. He led the League in shots on goal in eight of his first nine seasons, and scored on at least 10.6 percent of those shots in eight of nine.

Known as a volume shooter, Ovechkin has had at least 367 shots on goal in seven of his eight full seasons and is trending toward an eighth in nine. Since the start of the 2001-02 season, two other players have surpassed 367 shots in a season: Jagr, who had 368 in 2005-06, and Eric Staal, who had 372 in 2008-09.

“I saw an Ovechkin goal [Wednesday] against Pittsburgh, and it seems to me that every goal or highlight of his I see is him scoring the same goal,” Bossy said. “So he’s scored a lot of those this year. I don’t know how hard that shot was back then, but [Ovechkin’s] was a lot harder than my one-timers back then. The equipment has changed; I don’t care how big the goalies’ equipment is, when you’re taking a shot like Ovechkin took [Wednesday], it’s going to go in.”

Ovechkin has also been incredibly durable, something that derailed Crosby’s and Malkin’s chances of joining him on this list. He has missed 10 games or fewer in each of his first nine seasons, and four or fewer in all but one.

He has proven his ability to be an elite goal-scorer for a long period of time. Barry Trotz would be the fifth Washington coach under which Ovechkin has scored 30-plus, and it hasn’t mattered when the Capitals changed systems and tried to alter their identity.

A “down” year for Ovechkin was 32 goals and 85 points, or 38 goals, 65 points and 303 shots. There have been a total of 64 times when a player had at least 38 goals, 65 points and 303 shots in the past 20 years; Ovechkin has seven of them, and no one else has more than four.

So where does Ovechkin currently stand in the company of the all-time great goal-scorers? He has a chance to break into the top 50 in goals in NHL history by season’s end, though he’d need 24 more to do so.

He is sixth in goals per game at 0.62, and fourth among players who didn’t retire before the end of the Great Depression. Bossy, Mario Lemieux and Pavel Bure are ahead of him, with Gretzky, Brett Hull, Bobby Hull and a tie between Steven Stamkos and Tim Kerr rounding out the top 10.

Goal-scorers typically follow a similar aging curve, and the majority of the greatest seasons in NHL history were had by young men. Ovechkin has 80 goals since the start of last season; he was 28 in 2013-14 and is 29 in 2014-15.

Only seven players have scored at least 100 goals in their combined age-28 and age-29 seasons. If Ovechkin gets to 101, that would mean another 50-goal season, and it would be his second with at least 50 since he reached 28 years old. The only players who have more than two after turning 28 are Phil Esposito, Bobby Hull and Marcel Dionne.

“I see goals that are scored now, I used to score all the same type of goals,” Bossy said. “I honestly don’t think that players look at the 50-goal mark as one of those plateaus anymore. They may look at 40 goals or 35 goals as being their 50-goal season. That’s just a result of … a lot of different factors. I don’t think management expects players to score 50 goals anymore. There are a few players that I see that would like to score 100 goals, but for the most part, I don’t see it. I look at Crosby play, and John [Tavares] and I look at Ovechkin, those players, they want to score every shift they are out on the ice, and it shows.”

Getting to 50 would likely mean another milestone for Ovechkin that would further cement his place in hockey history. His 29 goals lead the League. Should he finish the season with the most goals, it would be the fifth time he’s won the Rocket Richard Trophy in his career.

There hasn’t always been a Richard Trophy to award, but there has always been someone who led the League in goals, or tied for the lead. If he wins another, Ovechkin would become the fifth player in NHL history to lead the League in goals outright at least five times.

Gretzky and Gordie Howe did it five times. Bobby Hull and Esposito did it six times, with Hull tying for the League lead on a seventh occasion.

For now, Ovechkin is poised to join one exclusive club, and he’ll work on earning admittance to that other one at the end of the season.

Gretzky is the most prolific goal-scorer of all time, but a case could be made for Bossy or Lemieux as the best. Each was derailed by injury. Kurri is one of the two greatest players in Finland’s history, but he did get to play with The Great One. Howe, Richard, Esposito and Bobby Hull are also part of this conversation, and it is fair to say Ovechkin belongs as well.

Ovechkin’s final placement among the sport’s great goal-scorers will be impacted plenty by what happens during the back half of his NHL career, but the first half has put him in incredibly select company.

Article source: http://www.nhl.com/ice/news.htm?id=751141

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