Alex Ovechkin closing in on Marcel Dionne for fifth on the all-time NHL goals list had Dionne pondering the natural question about how high the Washington Capitals forward can climb.
“The big talk, and it’s going to be very interesting, he’s 35 years old, is if he’s going to catch (Wayne) Gretzky,” Dionne said earlier this month. “… Brett Hull is just ahead a little bit and then you look at Gordie (Howe). But the challenge is Gretzky.”
With 730 goals in 1,194 games in 16 NHL seasons, Ovechkin is one away from Dionne heading into the Capitals’ game at the New York Islanders on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; MSG+, NBCSWA, NHL.TV). Ovechkin has passed Mike Gartner (708 goals) and Phil Esposito (717) to climb from eighth to sixth this season by scoring 24 goals in 42 games.
After Dionne comes Hull with 741 goals, followed by Jaromir Jagr with 766, Gordie Howe with 801 and Gretzky with 894.
Can Ovechkin reach Gretzky’s number?
“Records are made to be broken,” said Dionne, a forward who played 18 NHL seasons with the Detroit Red Wings, Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers. “People say, ‘Well, he’s not going to pass Gretzky.’ Well, guess what? When I started in the NHL in Detroit, a few guys told me, ‘Nobody will ever, ever beat Gordie’s record.’ But there’s Wayne.”
Gretzky broke Howe’s record when he scored his 802nd goal March 23, 1994. Only Howe had scored more goals than Dionne when he retired in 1989. The native of Drummondville, Quebec heard all the stories about Howe when he joined the Red Wings and scored 28 goals in 78 games as 20-year-old rookie in 1971-72.
During his climb up the goals list, Dionne remembers passing Montreal Canadiens legends Jean Beliveau (507 goals) and Maurice “Rocket” Richard (544), as well as friends such as Gilbert Perreault of the Buffalo Sabres (512) and Guy Lafleur (560), who was selected by Montreal with the No. 1 pick in the 1971 NHL Draft, one spot before Detroit selected Dionne.
“They were all my idols.” Dionne said. “I sort of never accepted that. It was Beliveau and the Rocket and my very good friends and competitors, Lafleur and Perreault. I like to tease them too. I smoked by them.”
Dionne didn’t get a chance to make a run at catching Howe after he was released by the Rangers following training camp in 1989. But the 1992 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee believes he’d be higher than fifth in goals had he been eligible to play in the NHL at 18 instead of 20, which was the League’s minimum age when he was drafted.
“Give me two seasons of 20 goals,” said Dionne, now 69. “That’s 40 goals, so I’d be up there. But you don’t look at that. I was very fortunate. I was selected in the (100 Greatest NHL Players in 2017). That was incredible. There’s been thousands and thousands of players that have played.”
With Ovechkin, another of the 100 Greatest NHL Players, about to knock him out of the top five in goals, Dionne can appreciate the skill and consistency it takes to join that elite group.
Dionne was one of his era’s most prolific scorers despite being one of its shortest players at 5-foot-9, 190 pounds. With his powerful legs and core, Dionne darted in and out of traffic and among taller players to score with his hard, accurate shot and on deflections and rebounds.
“I was not small,” Dionne said. “I was strong.”
Ovechkin (6-3, 238) is strong too, much bigger than Dionne, and plays with a physical edge. He also has a lethal shot and a flair for scoring highlight-reel goals.
“Each player that gets to that level has got certain qualities and ‘Ovi’ is a pure, pure goal-scorer,” Dionne said. “He’s probably scored the top 25 or top 50 goals of all time. He’s scored goals falling down. … He might not score for two or three games and then he goes on a rampage.”
Ovechkin is on one now with six goals in his past nine games. With 10 games left in the regular-season, catching Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews, who leads the NHL with 33 goals this season, appears unlikely, but Ovechkin has led the NHL in goals a record nine times and has eight 50-goal seasons.
The Capitals captain was within reach of tying the NHL record of nine 50-goal seasons, held by Gretzky and Mike Bossy, when he scored 48 goals in 68 games before the 2019-20 regular season ended March 12, 2020, because of concerns surrounding the coronavirus. This season being abbreviated to 56 games because of the pandemic also will reduce Ovechkin’s chances to add to his goal total.
“That’s 26 games missing,” Dionne said. “So let’s give him another 10 goals there. … If he ever passes Wayne Gretzky? I think the numbers are there. If he played four or five (more) years, that’s 150 goals. Where does that put him to?”
Another 150 goals would move Ovechkin within 14 of tying Gretzky with 880. Dionne doesn’t see a reason why Ovechkin can’t keep playing for at least that long.
“He’s been fairly healthy. That’s a good thing,” Dionne said. “You’ve got to be lucky, but you have to be healthy. You have to learn how to play with pain and things like that. But he’s an incredible specimen, no doubt about that.”