Resume: 14 years, 11 quality, 11 All-Stars … ‘06 Calder … First Team NHL 7 times (’15, ’13, ’10, ’09, ’08, ’07, ’06) … Second Team NHL four times (’16, ’14, ’13, ’11) … Hart Trophy 3 times (’13, ’09, ‘08) … Conn Smythe (‘18 Capitals) … Maurice Richard Trophy 7 times (’18, ’16, ’15, ’14, ’14, ’09, ’08) … 3-year peak/average per season: 57G, 53A, 110P, +27 … ‘18 Playoffs: 15G, 12 A, 27P, +8 … member of the NHL 100 Team …
When I went to Moscow in December for research on my sports marketing book, I discovered this: hockey fans in Russia revere three players: Slava Fetisov, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Alex Ovechkin. These three walk among the Hockey Gods, replete with wings, white shrouds, and halos. When the conversation turned to Ovechkin, the same thing was said over and over and over again: “Greatest Goal Scorer, EVER!”
Ever? I would ask.
Better than Bobby Hull?
Even Wayne Gretzky?
Da, even Great One! Ovi is greater.
It wasn’t until then when I began to full understand Ovechkin and how the Washington Capitals faithful viewed the Great 8.
Capitals fans hypnotized themselves into the Alex Ovechkin era. Everyone believed Ovechkin was the Evolutionary Gordie Howe, a devastating offensive force who would own the league one day soon. Only it didn’t happen … and soon it became next year … and then it seemed like it was happening, only it wouldn’t … and at some point everyone except for the sad sack Capitals fans comprehended that it was never going to happen.
It was very much like those old day time soap operas or every other Grey’s Anatomy episode where the wife in ICU flatlines and they unplug the patient and then their husband stands over her talking like she didn’t die. Everyone else in the hospital feels awkward, and then ultimately someone summons enough courage to go over and says, “I’m so so sorry Mr. X, she’s gone” and tries to pull him away, so he starts yelling, “Nooooooo! Nooooo, she’s fine! She’s going to be fine! She’s going to wake up!” and then he drops to his knees and cries inconsolably? Well, that was every Caps fan from 2006 through game two of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. When Crosby and the Penguins turned the Capitals into mince meat year after year, Ovechkin was officially taken off the respirator in an “Ovi’s carrying us to a Cup someday” sense. But the Capitals fans kept standing there outside the ICU praying for him to wake up.
Eventually they decided that Ovechkin’s career was either “cursed” (glass-half-full) or “he didn’t want it enough” (glass-half-empty). He peaked during the ‘09-10 season, posting 109 points (50G / 59A) and a plus 45 for a 121-point, President’s Trophy Capitals team. That was the first sighting of “This is the Caps year” mantra. It wasn’t to be as the No. 8 seed Montreal Canadiens—who sneaked into the last Eastern wild card spot by a single point—held the Capitals to three goals in the final three games to take them out.
With each year that passed and each early playoff exit the fan base would visit the hospital and proclaim “He’s going to be fine because everything is finally clicking because he’s playing for team honors and not individual honors.” But by the time Bruce Boudreau was relieved of his duties in 2012, dogging Ovechkin’s play became the drug of choice for NHL pundits and playoff failure becomes Ovechkin’s beast of burden.
Ovechkin prowled the ice like a lion, stalking the left wing circle, and one-timed his way into the record books. He perfected his “intense” game face, bellowed at the home Caps crowds, pounded the glass after big plays, hit like a steamroller, and played up the whole “I’m a warrior!” angle. All of it kind of worked … but not when it mattered in the playoffs. The sophisticated non-Capitals fans saw right through him, endlessly debating his virtues and repeatedly coming back to the same conclusion: As long as this is their best guy, they can’t win the Cup.
That’s when Barry Trotz entered the picture and salvaged Ovechkin’s superstardom, re-establishing him into a two-way force that would culminate in the 2018 Stanley Cup Championship that saw Ovechkin adopt shotblocking and forechecking to exact as much as he could from his hockey soul. It took Trotz four seasons and three aborted playoff runs to get Ovechkin to buy in. But once he did, it was infectious, spreading like a magic spell over his teammates.
All of this brings us back to the goal-scoring marvel that is Alex Ovechkin. He’s at the critical age of 33 when nearly all of the elite scorers in NHL history simply stop scoring.
My colleague and hockey buddy, Simon (Twitter handle: @zeMinimalist), assembled this scoring grid and broke it down by player age:
This year, Ovechkin is on a pace for 55 goals, which would eclipse Jaromir Jagr’s age 33 tally of 54. At age 34, everyone in the All Time Top 22 dipped below 40 goals scored. Everyone! Jagr dropped to 30 goals at age 34. Gretzky did the bulk of his damage in his twenties and never scored more than 41 after age 28. Bobby Hull went to the WHA. Phil Esposito went from 61 goals at age 32 to 35 goals at 33. Mike Bossy retired long before 33. Lemieux got sick and missed three seasons and never got over 35 after his return.
Now that Ovechkin has exorcised his playoff demons, we turn our eyes to his pursuit of that magical 894 posted by Gretzky. Can he do it? If he does, he’ll have to average 42 goals for the next six seasons in an era where’s it’s a lot harder to score that his contemporaries in the Top 15. His 647 goal total should be much higher. Don’t forget that he was robbed of what would have been his rookie season in that 2004-05 lockout. That missed year most likely would have netted him 45-55 goals and positioned him around 700 today.
But, I certainly wouldn’t bet against him because he’s endured. Ovechkin has charisma like few others. Unlike his comrades from Russia who preceded him, he’s embraced North America like no one prior. He does interviews in English and his binge antics with the Stanley Cup after Finals endeared him even further. He also has some legitimate strengths—tremendous hands, solid at crunch time, an awesome passer out of double-teams, makes his teammates better, and that shot from the left wing circle that no one can game plan around.
Will he do it? Check back with me around this time in in 2023.