Ovechkin's next goal will make him hockey's greatest (era-adjusted) scorer
When the Washington Capitals open their season on Friday, you’ll be reminded of the hallowed number 894 throughout the broadcast.
It’s the famous number of red lights ignited by the stick of Wayne Gretzky – the most in NHL regular-season history. After 18 seasons of relentless sniping, Alex Ovechkin trails Gretzky by only 72 goals entering the 2023-24 season.
But when we consider the NHL’s ever-shifting scoring climate, it’s Ovechkin’s next goal that should bring hockey immortality. Forget 894. The now silver-haired 38-year-old winger’s first goal of the year will give him 925 era-adjusted goals, tying Gordie Howe – not Gretzky – atop the all-time list.
If the concept of era-adjusted goals is new to you, let me explain.
Goals are easy to count. At a game of shinny in Saskatoon, Sask., an OHL match in Sudbury, Ont., or Leafs versus Habs on Saturday night, we put one up on the scoreboard when the puck crosses the line. Clean and simple.
But we intuitively know that goals in the 1980s were as common as the moustaches and mullets peppered on the players. In fact, each of the 10 seasons of that decade remain the 10 highest-scoring years since The Second World War. If goals are hockey’s currency, then a 1980s goal logically has less value than one scored in the years before and after.
The chart below shows the offensive environments covering the careers of Gretzky (1979-1999) and Ovechkin (2005-2023). It provides a visual of the rapid mid-1990s tumble in offence. The dotted line represents a neutral scoring season – six total goals per game.
Gretzky vs. Ovechkin - GPG Yourk
How can we account for this seismic downward shift in scoring?
A method developed at the website Hockey Reference called adjusted statistics places everyone who ever skated in the NHL on a level playing field. Every player in NHL history gets access to 82-game schedules, 18-skater roster sizes, and most importantly, offensive output is normalized to an environment averaging six total goals per game. Regardless of technology, goaltending, playing style, or league rules, each season is placed in this neutral statistical setting to make comparing eras a fair fight.
For example, The Great One’s 73 goals in 1984-85 are the equivalent of The Great Eight’s 51 goals in 2013-14. In a neutral era, these are both 58-goal seasons. Why? In 1984-85, there were a scorching 7.8 goals scored per NHL game versus a measly 5.3 in 2013-14. “A goal is a goal” cannot be true when there is a 46 per cent difference in league-wide goal scoring between these seasons.
To further show why era adjustments are necessary, we can look at 50-goal seasons. Both Gretzky and Ovechkin share the record (nine) with Mike Bossy. But how common were 50-goal seasons during their careers? Gretzky’s generation smokes Ovechkin’s generation, 131 to 31 – a gap of an astronomical 100 such seasons achieved during their respective careers. Say it with me now: all goals are not created equally.
The adjusted leaderboard
Now that we understand adjusted statistics and the need for context, let’s check the adjusted goal scoring leaders.
Ovechkin - Career Adjusted Goals Yourk
Not only has Ovechkin passed Gretzky, but he did so years ago and in five fewer seasons. It’s not even close. By adjusted goals, the legend that Ovechkin has pursued all this time is Mr. Hockey. After giving Howe access to full 82-game schedules and accounting for playing in the stingy Original Six, his adjusted total jumps to 925. This excludes his six-year run in the WHA from age 45 to 50.
The third-best total belongs to Jaromir Jagr (841), despite a season lost to the 2004-05 lockout and three more spent in the KHL. Gretzky, long viewed as hockey’s greatest goal scorer, is 167 goals short of the crown, a distant fourth place.
Fresh faces in the adjusted top 10 that sit outside the NHL’s top 10 are Teemu Selanne (from No. 12 to No. 5), Jarome Iginla (No. 16 to No. 7), Brendan Shanahan (No. 14 to No. 8), and Maurice Richard (rocketing from No. 32 to No. 10), each having played part or all their careers in low-scoring environments.
Naturally, stars from high-scoring times tumble down the list. Marcel Dionne, Mike Gartner, Mark Messier, and Steve Yzerman slip from the NHL’s top 10.
In terms of active players, Sidney Crosby’s goal total blossoms from 550 to 614, which is 18th all-time in adjusted goals. Tampa’s Steven Stamkos is approaching 600 adjusted goals, his actual total of 515 ballooning to 590. Each of Evgeni Malkin, Patrick Kane, Joe Pavelski, and Eric Staal are members of the 500-adjusted-goal club, despite all presently falling short of the real-life 500-goal club.
Greatest of All Time
So, with the playing field leveled, who is the greatest goal scorer of all time? We know Ovechkin’s first goal of the season will tie him for the No. 1 spot by adjusted goal count. He’ll easily be the most productive.
When it comes to most efficient, Ovechkin (0.65 adjusted goals per adjusted game) is narrowly topped only by Mario Lemieux (0.67). However, Lemieux maintained this rate over 432 fewer games, hardly the same feat in sustainability.
Adjusted 50-goal seasons? Ovechkin’s 11 laps the field, followed by Richard’s seven, while nine more players are tied with five, including Gretzky and Howe.
Incredibly, Ovechkin has a case as the most productive scorer, the most efficient scorer, and the greatest number of peak scoring years in NHL history.
In terms of active players ahead of Ovechkin’s output at the same age, only Auston Matthews enters the chat. But while Matthews’ 331 adjusted goals edge Ovechkin’s 321 through their age-25 seasons, the Leafs’ sharpshooter trails Ovechkin by 593 career adjusted goals. That’s 11 years averaging 54 adjusted goals per year – a nearly inconceivable feat of consistency and durability.
By any possible objective measure, Ovechkin is the greatest goal scorer of all time. While the puck from his next goal won’t wind up in the Hockey Hall of Fame, it will secure Ovechkin’s status as the most prolific era-adjusted goal scorer in NHL history.
Follow Paul Pidutti and the Adjusted Hockey project at www.adjustedhockey.com and X (@AdjustedHockey)