The forward has scored 730 goals in 1,197 regular-season games in 16 NHL seasons, all with the Capitals, and acknowledged Thursday that having a chance to score the 165 goals he needs to surpass Gretzky’s total — an average of 33 per season — factored into the term of his new contract.
“That’s why I want to play five more years,” Ovechkin said. “To have a chance to catch The Great One, why not? If I’m going to be second, you know, it’s a pretty good number as well.”
After often downplaying his chances to break Gretzky’s record in the past, Ovechkin, who will turn 36 on Sept. 17, is close enough to it now that he’s embracing the challenge. After scoring 24 goals in 45 games last season, Ovechkin is sixth in NHL history, one behind Marcel Dionne, who is fifth with 731, and 11 behind Brett Hull, who is fourth with 741.
If Ovechkin scores 37 goals next season, he’d move ahead of Jaromir Jagr, who is third with 766, and trail only Gordie Howe with 801 and Gretzky. If Ovechkin stays healthy, he could score the 72 goals he needs to pass Howe — an average of 36 goals per season — before the end of the 2022-23 season.
That’s when the countdown to Gretzky’s record would really begin.
“It’s going to be tough, but you never know,” Ovechkin said. “So I just want to do my best to be in history. I have the pleasure to play with great players, a great team, a great organization and I just want to put myself on the top and we’ll see what’s going to happen.”
Being able to play his entire NHL career with the Capitals, who selected him with the No. 1 pick in the 2004 NHL Draft, and having the chance to add a second Stanley Cup title to the one they won in 2018 were priorities for Ovechkin.
“This is our goal and we’re going to try to do it next year,” he said.
The Capitals have not won a series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since winning the title in 2018, but the Capitals said they believe Ovechkin can help them win again. But the pursuit of Gretzky’s record was part of Washington’s motivation in contract negotiations as well.
“Obviously, the goals are win another Stanley Cup and if he could catch Wayne Gretzky that would be kind of the joyride of a lifetime for the fans because you’re winning a Cup and you’re having the greatest individual achievement,” Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said. “That’s very motivating for the players, that’s very motivating for the organization and the fanbase and it’s important to the League. You want to be able to have a great team in a big market with a once-in-a-generation player who has a chance to break a record that, to be honest, I thought was unbreakable. As you break that down, 33 goals a year and he’ll stay healthy, it is a doable achievement.”
Ovechkin mentioned multiple times last season that not knowing for much of last offseason when the games would begin (the season was delayed until Jan. 13 because of the coronavirus pandemic) impacted his offseason training and he didn’t feel like was able to best prepare.
He missed an NHL career-high 11 games last season (four in NHL COVID-19 protocol, seven with a groin injury).
Now with the Capitals’ opener against the New York Rangers scheduled for Oct. 13, Ovechkin has returned to his usual offseason routine with his personal trainer and is determined to return his level of 2019-20 when he tied with David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins for the NHL lead 48 goals in 68 games.
“We’ve seen athletes in the past that’ve played until they’re 40 and there’s probably a couple guys that are doing it now,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “Conditioning plays a big part in it in how you get through the year. I think it’s important that he’s on a good team, that it’s not all on him to score goals, that he’s getting a lot of help, that we have a good power play. I think that’s a key.
“We need to have a good team for him to accomplish his individual goals.”
Ovechkin and the Capitals left open the possibility of him signing another contract after this one, which carries an average annual value of $9.5 million. But it’s not difficult to envision him breaking Gretzky’s record and retiring after this contract expires. Ovechkin, who negotiated without an agent, joked that he initially asked for a three-year contract and the Capitals wanted a five-year deal.
MacLellan said that, ultimately, the length of the contract was up to Ovechkin.
“We talked shorter term a few times, the idea of playing a shorter term and seeing how he’s doing health-wise and then re-signing again after that,” MacLellan said. “In the end, I think he came up with the number. In his mind, that’s as long as he wants to play, for now. He thought, ‘I can play till I’m,’ what is he going to be, 41 years old? I would imagine that he’s, over in his mind, how he could best chase the goal-scoring record.”