Chasing Gretzky: Who Stands in Ovechkin’s Way?

On Saturday, Jan. 18, Alex Ovechkin continued to climb up the all-time goal list. He entered the game against the New York Islanders with 689 goals, one short of Mario Lemieux for 10th all-time. He went onto record a hat trick in the 6-4 win. Ovechkin opened the scoring in the game to tie Lemieux and passed him with his second of the game late in the third period. He then added an empty netter to secure the win.

Related: Ovechkin’s Road to 700 Goals

Ovechkin has already passed a lot legendary players in his quest to be the greatest goalscorer ever, and he will have to overtake a few more before his career comes to a close if he wants to stand all alone at the top of the all-time goals list. Today, I will look at who still stands in his way, what they did in their career, and when I expect Ovechkin will pass them to continue moving up the goals list.

9. Steve Yzerman – 692

Ovechkin scored the 692nd goal of his career on an empty netter to secure the win over the Isles on Saturday, tying him with Steve Yzerman for ninth all-time. Yzerman was an elite goalscorer when he first entered the league; in 9 of his first 10 seasons, he recorded at least 30 goals. From 1987-93, he scored 331 goals, second only to Lemieux in that time. His most dominant season came in 1988-89 when he registered 65 goals and 155 points in 80 games. At season’s end, he was awarded the Ted Lindsay Award (formerly the Lester B. Pearson Trophy) as the league’s most outstanding player, and that season is the 14th-highest scoring season in league history.

In 1993-94, Scotty Bowman became head coach of the Detroit Red Wings, and it was here where Yzerman’s numbers started to take a hit, not because he was playing bad, but because Bowman was trying to turn him into more than just a one-way elite goalscorer. Yzerman never put up another 100-point season again, but he did become a more well-rounded player and was part of three Stanley Cup winning teams in Detroit.

Steve Yzerman Red Wings
Steve Yzerman (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)

Yzerman added 70 goals and 185 points in 196 playoff games as well. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2014 and is the current general manager of the Red Wings. On top of being ninth all-time in goals, his 1,755 points ranks seventh all-time.

After Ovechkin serves his suspension for missing All-Star Weekend, he will return to the Capitals lineup on Jan. 29 vs Nashville, and I think this is where he will pass Yzerman for ninth all-time.

8. Mark Messier – 694

Next on the list at eighth is Mark Messier with 694 career goals. During his 1,756-game career, Messier was only able to reach the 50-goal mark one time, but he remained one of the most consistent scorers in the league throughout his entire time in the NHL, only failing to score at least 20 or more in a season eight times. He won the Stanley Cup four times with the Edmonton Oilers during the Gretzky era, and in 1989-90 he was able to captain the Oilers to their fifth Cup.

He then went on to captain the New York Rangers to a Stanley Cup victory in 1994. The moment he’s possibly most known for came during that run, when he guaranteed victory over the New Jersey Devils in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final. He was an incredible leader during his career, and in 2007 the NHL introduced the Mark Messier Leadership Award which is given to an individual who is a superior leader in their sport and a contributing member of society.

Mark Messier of the Edmonton Oilers
Canadian hockey player Mark Messier of the Edmonton Oilers (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)

He retired in 2004 with 694 goals and 1,887 points (third all-time), he also added 109 goals and 295 points in 236 playoff games. Messier is second all-time in games played (1,756), third in assists (1,193), and third in points (1,887). He’s also a two-time Hart Trophy, two-time Ted Lindsay Award, and a Conn Smythe Trophy winner. On top of putting up some of the best offensive numbers ever, he also racked up 1,912 penalty minutes over the course of his career, proving that not only could he hurt you on the scoreboard with a couple quick goals, but he also wasn’t afraid to get a little rough on the ice.

Messier’s time as the eighth leading goalscorer ever is coming to a close rather quickly, but thanks to the All-Star week break and Ovechkin’s suspension, he has a few more days to enjoy his time as No. 8. Ovechkin could pass him as soon as Jan. 31 when the Capitals take on the Ottawa Senators.

7. Mike Gartner – 708

Over the next few weeks we will see Ovechkin pass Messier, then he will be working his way towards the 700-goal marker. After, that he will have the chance to pass Mike Gartner for seventh all-time. Gartner was an elite goalscorer in his day, and still holds onto a couple of NHL records. He has the record for most 30-goal seasons (17) and is tied with Ovechkin and Jaromir Jagr for most consecutive 30-goal seasons (15). In 1984-85, he reached the 50-goal, 100-point marker for the first and only time in his career, finishing with 50 goals, 52 assists, and 102 points. Like Messier, he was a very consistent scorer, typically scoring around 30-40 goals, and having only five seasons of 20 goals or less. He finished his career 31st all-time in points (1,335), and 11th in power play goals (217).

Mike Gartner
Mike Gartner, Washington Capitals (THW Archives)

Gartner played his entire career in the Gretzky, Jagr, Lemieux era, so despite putting up some very impressive numbers in his his career, he was never able to win a major award. He did manage to win the NHL’s fastest skating competition thee times in his career, and he held the fastest speed for two decades until Dylan Larkin broke it in 2016. He also retired without ever winning the Stanley Cup in his career. In 1994, he and the New York Rangers were running through the league and were the favorites to win the Cup. They did eventually go onto win it, but Gartner was not part of the celebration — he was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs at the trading deadline that season. He was inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame (HHOF) in 2001, becoming one of just a few players in the HHOF without a Stanley Cup or a major league award.

Ovechkin has 34 goals on the season so far and needs another 17 to pass Gartner for seventh all-time. With over 30 games remaining in the regular season, Ovi has a great chance to surpass Gartner, and I think he does it with five or six games remaining and he will enter the 2020-21 season north of 710 career goals.

6. Phil Esposito – 717

After he passes Gartner and slides into the seventh spot, Ovechkin will be looking up at Phil Esposito who is in sixth place with 717 goals. Esposito started his career off as an average goalscorer, recording around 20 a season. But in 1968-69, he erupted with a 49-goal season — it was there where he became one of the league’s top goalscorers. Over the next six seasons, he reached the 60-goal mark four times, including a 76-goal season in 1970-71, that’s tied for the fifth-most goals in a season.

Phil Esposito, Boston Bruins
Tony Esposito (eBay front back) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

He is sixth all-time with 246 power play goals, fifth in hat tricks (32), and third in game-winning goals (118). Esposito retired in 1981 as a five-time Art Ross winner, two-time Hart winner, two-time Ted Lindsay winner, and a Stanley Cup champion.

It’s difficult to predict what Ovechkin’s numbers will be at as he enters the 2020-21 season, but assuming that he passes Gartner this season, he will be north of 709 goals. So, looking at that, I think Ovechkin will pass Esposito sometime around the middle of October next season.

5. Marcel Dionne – 731

We have officially reached the top-five goalscorers in league history with Marcel Dionne. After being drafted by the Red Wings in 1971, Dionne came onto the scene in his rookie season, recording 28 goals in 78 games. He produced two 40-goal seasons in Detroit, but it wasn’t until he was traded to the Los Angeles Kings that he really became elite in his goal scoring. In 12 seasons with the Kings, Dionne hit the 30-goal mark 11 times, 6 of which were 50-goal seasons.

By the time he was traded to the Rangers, he was on the back half of his career and wasn’t scoring at an elite rate anymore. He was able to pull off one more 30-goal campaign in 1988-89, but that was the end of his goal scoring days. Halfway through the following season, he decided it was time to hang up his skates.

Marcel Dionne
TORONTO, CANADA – NOVEMBER 14: Marcel Dionne #16 of the Los Angeles Kings skates up ice against the Toronto Maple Leafs in game action November 14, 1984 at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, Ontario Canada. (Photo by Graig Abel Collection/Getty Images)

Dionne ended his career with 731 goals (fifth), 1,040 assists (11th), and 1,771 points (sixth), His eight 100-point seasons rank third behind Gretzky (15) and Lemieux (10). He also won the Lady Byng Trophy twice, the Ted Lindsay Award once, and he tied Gretzky for the Art Ross in 1979-80, but was awarded the trophy due to having more goals than Gretzky. However, he retired without winning the Stanley Cup, making him arguably the greatest player never to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup.

This won’t be too far out of reach for Ovechkin after passing Esposito and he will take possession of fifth all-time in Nov. 2020.

4. Brett Hull – 741

Drafted in the sixth round in 1984, Hull is one of the rare late-round picks who ended up carving himself out an impressive NHL career. His career started off pretty slow, but by the time he was in his fourth NHL season, he was starting to establish himself as an elite goalscorer. He registered a new career high of 41 goals in 1988-89, but it was the following season where he really took off. He scored 72 goals in 80 games which is the ninth-most goals scored in a single season, he was just getting started though. The next season, Hull smashed his previous career high in goals and went on to register 86 in 78 games, the third-most goals in a season.

Brett Hull
MONTREAL 1990’s: Brett Hull #16 of the St. Louis Blues skates against the Montreal Canadiens in the 1990’s at the Montreal Forum in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Denis Brodeur/NHLI via Getty Images)

He notched 70 goals again the next season, followed by two seasons of 54 and 57 goals. After this, his goal scoring remained consistent but it wasn’t at the level that it once was. He scored at least 20 goals a season for the rest of his career before retiring in 2005. Hull accomplished 50 goals in 50 games two seasons in a row from 1990-92 — the first season he scored 52 in 49. Hull is the second-fastest player to reach 700 career goals, doing so in 1,157 games — only Gretzky has done it faster.

Hull is also tied with Teemu Selanne for fourth in all-time game-winning goals with 110, eighth all-time in goals per game (0.584), second in power play goals (265), and fourth in hat tricks (33). Despite having three of the highest scoring seasons ever, he never captured the goal-scoring title. However, he was able to take home the Hart Trophy, Lady Byng Trophy, Ted Lindsay Award, and the Stanley Cup during his days in the NHL.

By the end of Jan. 2021, I believe that Ovechkin will pass Hull and will sit all alone at fourth on the all-time goals list.

3. Jaromir Jagr – 766

Like Ovechkin is now, a few years ago it was Jaromir Jagr who was making his way up the all-time goals list. He worked his way up to third all-time with 766 goals, but that’s as far as he’d get on his quest for first all-time. In 2018, Jagr returned home to the Czech Republic after he and the Calgary Flames agreed to part ways, and although he is still playing professional hockey at 47 years of age, an NHL comeback is far from likely.

He started off his career by putting up some respectable numbers, but it wasn’t until his sixth season, where he put up 62 goals and 149 points in 82 games, that he really established himself as a star. He never reached those totals again, but he still went on to produce four more 100-plus point seasons. He departed to the Kontinental Hockey League in 2008, but found himself back in the NHL by 2011. When he returned, he wasn’t able to put up the numbers that he did pre-KHL, but he was still a dominant player in the league.

Jaromir Jagr
Jaromir Jagr (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)

Along with being third in goals, he ranks second all-time behind Howe for games played (1,756), fifth in assists (1,155), second in points (1,921), 11th in power play goals (217), and first in game-winning goals (135), and he is tied with Gartner and Ovechkin for most consecutive 30-goal seasons (15). Jagr was a major force in the postseason as well, registering 78 goals and 201 points in 208 games. He also collected an impressive amount of hardware during his 21-year career, winning five Art Ross Trophies, three Ted Lindsay Awards, the Hart Trophy, the Bill Masterton Trophy, and two Stanley Cups.

Jagr will be able to enjoy his time at number three for awhile still, as Ovechkin likely won’t be able to hit goal number 767 until the 2021-22 season.

2. Gordie Howe – 801

Gordie Howe was the first 800-goal scorer in the NHL, and he held the all-time goal scoring record for 26 years until Gretzky passed him on Oct. 15, 1989. When Howe played, the average goals per game in the NHL was roughly 2.8, compared to the majority of Gretzky’s career where the league average was closer to four goals per game. This makes it even more impressive that Howe was able to score at least 20 goals every season that he played, except for his first three seasons in the league. He also sits second all-time in game-winning goals (121).

Gordie Howe
While only recording two hat tricks of this kind during his career, the trifecta was named after Gordie Howe for his all-around abilities.

Howe went on to score 801 goals and 1,850 points in 1,767 games, but he is the only player in the top-10 that never recorded a 50-goal season. The closest he came was in the 1952-53 season where he finished with 49. He is second all-time in goals, and fourth all-time in points. He is a six-time Art Ross winner, six-time Hart Trophy winner, and led the league in goal scoring five times. On top of that, he was also a four-time Stanley Cup champion. He tragically passed away on June 10, 2016.

Ovechkin has a ways to go before surpassing Howe, but he will get awfully close during 2021-22 and could move up to number two late in the season or early into the following season.

1. Wayne Gretzky – 894

And last but not least, we have the Great One. Nobody in the history of the NHL has scored more goals than Wayne Gretzky, and it’s not even close. He scored 894 goals in 1,487 games, 93 more than second place Howe. He scored at least 50 goals nine times in his career, which is tied for the most all-time. His most memorable season came in 1981-82 where he set the record for most goals in a season after finding the back of the net a whopping 92 times! A record that will never get broken. Gretzky is also a member of the 50-in-50 club, accomplishing the feat three times. In 1981-82 it took him just 39 games to reach the 50-goal mark.

Wayne Gretzky #99
UNIONDALE, NY – 1983: Wayne Gretzky #99 of the Edmonton Oilers skates with the puck during an NHL game against the New York Islanders circa 1983 at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by B Bennett/Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)

To no one’s surprise, Gretzky is also first all-time in playoff scoring with 122 goals and 382 points in 208 games. Like Lemieux, he won basically everything there was to win. He has 10 Art Ross Trophies, nine Hart Trophies, five Ted Lindsay awards, five Lady Byng Trophies, two Conn Smythe Trophies, and four Stanley cups.

Ovechkin has stayed so consistent throughout his entire career, reaching the 30-goal mark every season that he’s been in the league so far. He’s had a very healthy career as well, only missing more than four games in a season once. Keeping that in mind, it should be a few more seasons before we really start to see him slow down. I think that we’ll see him pass Gretzky during the 2024-25 season.

It’s going to be an unreal ride watching him try to catch and pass Gretzky over the next few seasons, and even if he isn’t able to, he has already cemented himself as one of the greatest goalscorers in NHL history.