While the romance of numbers left us a long time ago in other sports for various reasons, the 500 goal mark in hockey is still special. Perhaps more special now than it has ever been.
Alex Ovechkin reached the magic mark in Washington against the Ottawa Senators on Sunday night, and he became the fifth fastest in NHL history to do so, reaching it in his 801st game. Considering the era that he had to play in, this achievement puts him up there with the elite of the elite. Consider the four players who reached the mark faster than Alex … you might have heard of them: Wayne Gretzky (575), Mario Lemieux (605), Mike Bossy (647), and Brett Hull (693). A total of 801 games puts Ovechkin a safe distance from those four. But how fast would Ovechkin have reached this mark if he had played in the same era as these four goal scoring giants?
During the seasons that Gretzky scored his first 500, the league scoring average never dipped below 3.51 goals per game in a season, and that mark was during Gretzky’s first year in the league. Mario Lemieux’s seasons which saw his first 500 goals featured a low goal scoring average of 2.99 in ’94-’95 during the height of the trap era. Hull played many of those same seasons, and scored his 500th during the ’96-’97 season, where the NHL was averaging 2.92 goals a season. Bossy scored his first 500 goals between 1977 and 1986, and his rookie season of ’77-’78 saw a league average of 3.30, the lowest league average season Bossy would ever play in.
In Alex Ovechkin’s rookie season, the league was averaging 3.08 goals per game. That’s the most prolific goal scoring season he has ever played in. Ovechkin’s second season featured a league scoring average of 2.95 goals per game, and that’s the only other season in Oveckin’s playing career that the league topped 2.92 goals per game, which was Hull’s league low mark. Now in no way, shape, or form am I trying to belittle the accomplishments of four of the greatest to ever play the game. Gretzky, Lemieux, Bossy and Hull could have been Hall of Famers in any era. I’m only trying to put Ovechkin’s achievement in perspective. Ovechkin is doing this in the era of the goalie. To go in 10 year increments: League wide goalie save percentage in ’85-’86: .874 … in ’95-’96: .898 … in ’05-’06 (Ovechkin’s rookie season): .901 … and this season it’s at .916, which is incredible. That Ovechkin is scoring at this rate in this era is akin to the numbers Pedro Martinez put up in the A.L. East during the steroid era.
Add to that the more advanced defensive schemes that Ovechkin had to face up through the removal of the center red line, and the hard hitting style that has to have taken a toll on his body which most over 500 goal scores never had to deal with. Then consider that the faces on the Mount Rushmore of fastest to 500 rarely, if ever, had coaches impressing upon them to backcheck or be complete players as Ovechkin has had … sometimes criminally so. Ovechkin, from Bruce Boudreau to Dale Hunter and on through Adam Oates has constantly had coaches tinkering with his game to try to make him a complete player. It has clicked under Barry Trotz as Ovechkin went from a -35 two seasons ago to a +19 halfway through this season, while still putting up his recent pace of 50 goals and 80 points. To put in perspective, Steve Yzerman went from a 50-60 goals a year player to a 20-35 goal a year player in his late 20’s in the name of being a complete player. Ovechkin is starting to round out his game at about the same time and is still a good bet for 50 a year.
So give Ovechkin his due, love him or hate him. Because he’s a 500 goal scorer in the toughest era to do it. And while he still has plenty left to give us at the age of 30, let’s remember how special the first 500 have been.