One of the most pleasant developments in the NHL recently has been the collective decision to finally pull up our pants and stop defecating on the Washington Capitals.
It’s as if the majority of hockey culture – save for those who have a rooting interest to see them fail – has decided that seeing the best team in the Eastern Conference actually play like it through at least three playoff rounds is more enjoyable than seeing them, yet again, crash and burn in a plume of disappointment. So we're hopeful.
Part of that change in mindset is an overdue reconsideration of Alex Ovechkin’s greatness, which has unfortunately been seen through the prism of his teams’ shortcomings – both in the NHL and internationally.
It seems like there’s much more attention placed on the player Ovechkin is, rather than what he should be. (Maybe seeing Dale Hunter’s bizarre recasting of Ovechkin as a shot-blocking forward defused that.)
There’s much more consideration of the great things he’s accomplished rather than conversation about what his teams haven’t. We’re bowing in the presence of greatness more than we’re finding what we don’t like the most.
The kind of conversation Billy Jaffe and John Shannon had on Sportsnet last night – correctly identified as “narrative bingo” – has become rare:
Ovechkin scored his 500th and 501st goals against the Ottawa Senators on Sunday. become the fifth-fastest player in NHL history to reach the milestone. Statistically, he’s the best goal-scorer of his generation, and it’s not even close: He has 184 more goals than the next-closest player from 2005-16, Patrick Marleau (317).
From a goals-per-game perspective, Ovechkin is at 0.625, which is a good distance away from the only other player that belongs in the “best sniper alive” conversation for the last several years: Steven Stamkos (0.551).
Overall, Ovechkin’s goals per game average ranks fourth in NHL history among players with a minimum of 300 games played, behind Mike Bossy (0.762), Cy Denneny (0.755), who played from 1917-29 with Ottawa and Boston, and Mario Lemieux (0.754).
Missing from that list? Wayne Gretzky, who has a goals-per-game average of 0.601, which ranks sixth all-time behind these four and Pavel Bure (0.623, and arguably the last great sniper before Ovechkin arrived).
We’ve reached a new level in the Ovechkin greatness debate, in which his place among the best goal-scorers of all time can legitimately be considered.
It’s hard imagine a scenario that doesn’t involve swapping out limbs for robot parts in which Ovechkin or anyone else gets to 894. So the alternative is to make an argument based on era: That Ovechkin doing what he has in the aughts is more impressive than Gretzky doing what he did in the 1980s.
During Gretzky’s rookie season in the NHL, teams were scoring 3.51 goals per game. When he scored 92 goals in 1981-82 the average jumped up to 4.01. Ovechkin, by comparison, has skated in a league whose highest goals scored per game average was 3.08, back in his rookie season of 2005-06. And since then, it has trickled further downward.
However, if we adjust those goals to account for different schedule lengths, roster sizes and scoring environments — normalizing everything to an 82-game schedule with a maximum roster size of 18 skaters and league averages of 3.0 goals per game per team — the results are much different.
So much different that Ovechkin has already overtaken Gretzky during their age-30 season, 595 adjusted goals to 579. And that includes Gretzky playing an extra season in the NHL as a 19-year-old — Ovechkin didn’t make his NHL debut until he turned 20.
Of course, if you’re going to make the era argument, then you have to consider the era in which Mario and Brett Hull played as well. From John Coppinger of Puck Drunk Love:
Mario Lemieux’s seasons which saw his first 500 goals featured a low goal scoring average of 2.99 in ’94-’95 during the height of the trap era. Hull played many of those same seasons, and scored his 500th during the ’96-’97 season, where the NHL was averaging 2.92 goals a season. Bossy scored his first 500 goals between 1977 and 1986, and his rookie season of ’77-’78 saw a league average of 3.30, the lowest league average season Bossy would ever play in.
I don’t think there’s any question that Ovechkin is playing in an era with the best goaltending the NHL has ever seen across the board, thanks to a confluence of coaching, technique and equipment. He faces much better defensive systems than Gretzky did, although less constricting ones than Mario and Hull and Jagr. (And let’s not get into the “lost time” aspect of Mario and Jagr’s careers.)
He’s also playing in an era with rules that were created to encourage offense. The 4-on-4 and 3-on-3 overtimes have been kind to him: His 16 overtime tallies is second only to Jaromir Jagr all-time (19); Gretzky only had one overtime goal in his career, as overtime was instituted in the 1983-84 season. (Crazy stat, I know.)
In the end, this becomes a debate between an era many of us didn’t completely get to see, either due to age or the relative difficulty in watching the Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s for Americans in particular. (Thanks, SportsChannel!) and an era that we’re witnessing now. The advanced stats through which we can measure these players, and the impressions we have of the 1980s – those were considered pads? – make the debate all the more interesting.
In the end, it’s just refreshing to be able to have this Ovechkin all-time great debate without it deteriorating into the typical “individual achievement vs. Stanley Cup rings” trope.
Well, at least until the playoffs, that is.
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