Hall of Fame, Hockey, Sports

Is Alex Ovechkin the Greatest Pure Goal Scorer of All Time?

A few weeks ago, Alex Ovechkin joined some elite company, he became only the fifth player in NHL history to score 30 goals per season in his first 10 seasons. More recently, he joined even more elite company, he became only the sixth player in NHL history to score 50 goals six times. Now while the former is a more numerically exclusive group, the latter is obviously the more impressive feat.


Now, it’s notable with the six 50 goal seasons, as it was with the 10 straight 30 goals to start a career, that all the other players on the list played in the late ’70s, the ’80s and the early ’90s, i.e. the highest scoring era in NHL history. So, just like with the 30 goal post, I am going to compare the 50 goal seasons of these six players, using “adjusted” stats, which try to adjust for era, but which cannot take into account anything else (actual talent, linemates, changes in society and the league, health, improved training regimines, acts of god, and so forth). All six players achieved the feat in their first 12 seasons, so this list only takes into account their first twelve seasons.
Note: Bold means “black ink“, i.e. he led the league; “N/A” means ‘he didn’t make it to 50 goals’ (and so Ovechkin has one season where he did both, during the lockout shortened season).

Player Mike Bossy Marcel Dionne Wayne Gretzky Guy Lafleur Mario Lemieux Alex Ovechkin
First Season 47 N/A 43 N/A N/A 52
Second Season 58 N/A 42 N/A N/A N/A
Third Season 43 N/A 68 N/A 46 72
Fourth Season 52 N/A 57 45 59 59
Fifth Season 47 N/A 69 48 71 55
Sixth Season 48 47 58 50 N/A N/A
Seventh Season 40 N/A 41 54 N/A N/A
Eighth Season 46 50 52 44 N/A N/A
Ninth Season 48 44 N/A 42 56 58
Tenth Season N/A 44 45 N/A N/A 60
Eleventh Season Retired 36 N/A N/A 67 Not yet
Twelfth Season Retired 45 N/A N/A 52 Not yet
Average 48 44 53 47 59 59

Source
So, putting aside the problems with adjusted stats, once again Ovechkin comes off looking pretty good against his Hall of Fame competition. When adjusting for era, it seems clear that Gretzky, Lemieux and Ovechkin are on a bit of a different planet from Bossy, Lafleur and, particularly, Dionne (in terms of goal scoring; obviously point totals would be drastically different and would certainly put Ovechkin in a different light). It is particularly worth noting that Lemieux’s average rounds up to 59 adjusted goals per 50 goal season, whereas Ovechkin’s rounds down. And that means that, all other things being equal (which they are most definitely not), Ovechkin is a slightly better goal-scorer than Lemieux, and both of them are way better than the other four players and, presumably, everyone else ever.

But there is a massive problem with this, aside from the problems with adjusted stats. And that problem is that “50 goals” is a horribly arbitrary number and its achievability owes as much to injury luck as it does to talent. The important thing is actually Goals Per Game, not that anyone in the past would have ever admitted to that. The only time hockey traditionalists have ever really acknowledged that the rate at which a player scores is more important than the total number is the whole “50 goals in 50 games” accomplishment that got Cam Neely into the Hall of Fame despite other players being demonstrably better goal scorers. So let’s compare these guys again, but this time with the seasons all emphasized, rather than just the 50 goal seasons.

Player Mike Bossy Marcel Dionne Wayne Gretzky Guy Lafleur Mario Lemieux Alex Ovechkin
First Season 47 27 43 28 34 52
Second Season 58 37 42 26 37 48
Third Season 43 23 68 20 46 72
Fourth Season 52 40 57 45 59 59
Fifth Season 47 34 69 48 71 55
Sixth Season 48 47 58 50 38 35
Seventh Season 40 32 41 54 17 43
Eighth Season 46 50 52 44 39 62
Ninth Season 48 44 33 42 56 58
Tenth Season 32 44 45 20 15 60
Eleventh Season Retired 36 34 20 67 Not yet
Twelfth Season Retired 45 37 23 52 Not yet
Average
50 Goal Seasons only
48 44 53 47 59 59
Average after 10 Seasons 46 38 51 38 41 54
Average after 12 Seasons 46* 38 48 35 44 54*

So this is interesting:

  • Bossy’s average barely fluctuates at all, because he only played nine years;
  • Dionne’s drops rather a lot if we only look at his first ten, and improves barely if we include all 12;
  • Gretzky’s drops only a little for 10 seasons, but somewhat significantly for 12;
  • Lafleur’s plummets the 2nd most for both;
  • Lemieux’s numbers are hurt the most and we’ll discuss that below;
  • Ovechkin’s numbers are affected as much as Gretzky’s.

So comparing the first 10 years just makes Ovechkin look even better. Obviously his next two years may even things up a bit for the rest of them but there is no way of knowing just yet. But the one thing this exposes is the injury problems of Lemieux and Lafleur particularly (and it would for Bossy too, had he played after his 10th season). Despite adjusting for era, Lemieux was still hurt and missed lots of time. His averages get hurt as a result.
At the end of the day, none of this really helps us answer the question. I mean, we picked our list of great goal scorers based on achieving an arbitrary milestone six times, and this milestone was only truly achievable during a certain time period by healthy players (skill is also obviously a very important requirement).

So is this another way we can think about this? Sure there is! Hockey Reference lets us sort their database. So we can see who are the great goal scorers by rate (GPG). I chose my arbitrary cut off point at 500 games played. Here is the list. (They have a lot looser requirements for the list they maintain in the “Leaders” section of the site.)

So the list gives us Bossy and Lemieux as the only goal scorers to manage 0.75 per game or more, and Ovechkin, Bure and Gretzky as the only others to manage .6 or better. (Note: under Hockey-Reference’s own requirements, Cy Denneny and Babe Dye also make this list, but they played 328 games and 271 games, respectively. And that just isn’t very much compared to how much NHL players have to play these days.) A very exclusive club, no doubt.

The problem is that the list only looks at real goals scored, not adjusted for era. So it should come as no surprise to any of us that everyone to score .6 GPG or better, save Ovechkin, played at least part of their careers in the highest scoring era in league history. So we have to be at least a little dubious about these numbers. (Bure comes out looking pretty damn good though, knowing what we know about him scoring in both the highest scoring era in league history and one of the lowest.)

So how can we dig a little deeper? Well, I took the list of all NHL players to score at least .4 GPG while playing in at least 500 games and created a spreadsheet. I then added their adjusted numbers and figured out their adjusted per game rates. The results are interesting, to put it midly. Here is your Top 10 in Adjusted Goals Per Game (limited by players to have attained .4 actual GPG in a minimum of 500 NHL games):

Rank Player Adjusted
GPG
Career Unadjusted
Rank
1 Howie Morenz .91 1923-37 24
2 Nels Stewart .9 1925-40 18
3 Aurele Joliat .75 1922-38 79
4 Alex Ovechkin .72 2005-present 3
5 Mario Lemieux .67 1984-2006 2
6 Maurice Richard .67 1942-1960 11
7 Pavel Bure .66 1991-2003 4
8 Mike Bossy .61 1977-87 1
9 Bobby Hull .61 1957-80 7
10 Brett Hull .58 1986-2006 6

Now there’s an obvious problem here: Morenz, Stewart and Joliat – by this reconning, the greatest goal scorers in NHL history – all played at the same time (their careers started within 3 years of each other and ended within 3 years of each other). That says one thing very clearly to me: adjusted stats over-adjust for the pre-Original Six era’s very short seasons. (That’s right, all three players played prior to the Original Six’s proper existence.) When Morenz began his career the league played 24 games. When Stewart retired, the league played 48 games per season. Perhaps the math inflates the numbers a little too much. Or perhaps, because things were so different back then (equipment was shitty, facilities were shitty, talent might have been distributed differently, injuries were more threatening etc.), if you could excel within the confines of the system, you really could dominate at a level never seen since.  Perhaps these guys really were the greatest goal scorers of all time. But if that’s true, we should lower our games requirement even further to include other players from their era and earlier, such as Denneny and Dye.

So let’s avoid this sticky problem and start at the beginnin of the Original Six era, 1942. Here are our Top 30 since 1942 in Adjusted Goals Per Game.
(Note: I originally wanted to do a Top 25, but this includes Toe Blake, whose career spans the pre-Original Six era and Original Six era, so then I did a Top 26, but Mogilny is barely ahead of the other .48 GPG players so I decided to include them as well.)

Rank Player Adjusted GPG Career Unadjusted Rank Change in Rank
1 Alex Ovechkin .72 2005-present 3 +2
2 Mario Lemieux .67 1984-2006 2 No change
3 Maurice Richard .67 1942-1960 11 +8
4 Pavel Bure .66 1991-2003 4 No change
5 Mike Bossy .61 1977-87 1 -4
6 Bobby Hull .61 1957-80 7 +1
7 Brett Hull .58 1986-2006 6 -1
8 Ilya Kovalchuk .57 2001-13 15 +7
9 Sidney Crosby .54 2005-present 26 +17
10 Ziggy Palffy .54 1993-2006 30 +20
11 Eric Lindros .53 1992-2007 23 +12
12 Bernie Geoffrion .53 1950-1968 44 +32
13 Gordie Howe .52 1946-80 45 +32
14 Phil Esposito .52 1963-1981 8 -6
15 Toe Blake* .52 1934-48 77 +62
16 Evgeni Malkin .52 1986-2006 38 +22
17 Jean Beliveau .51 2006-present 42 +25
18 Jaromir Jagr .51 1990-present 34 +16
19 Teemu Selanne .51 1992-2014 37 +18
20 Wayne Gretzky .51 1979-99 5 -15
21 Peter Bondra .51 1990-2007 33 +12
22 Rick Nash .50 2002-present 58 +46
23 Cam Neely .50 1983-96 14 -9
24 Rick Martin .50 1971-82 10 -14
25 Keith Tkachuk .49 1991-2010 52 +27
26 Alex Mogilny .48 1989-2006 28 +2
27 Marian Gaborik .48 2000-present 61 +44
28 Pat LaFontaine .48 1983-98 13 -15
29 Jarome Iginla .48 1996-present 71 +42
30 Dany Heatley .48 2001-present 63 +33

*Sorry, I’m not going to take the time ot find out what is ’42-’48 average would have been. This has taken me long enough as it is.

Thoughts:

  • If this list is correct, then Ovechkin is the Greatest Goal Scorer in NHL History, though I can think of many reasons why we may think this list isn’t correct.
  • It’s important to note that though Ovechkin appears decisively ahead of Lemieux, Ovechkin is currently 29 years old and his GPG will drop with age.
  • Richard’s case is significantly helped by adjusting for era – on the Hockey Reference leader board, he is 14th.
  • Bure’s career is illustrative of the problems with adjusting for era: In 1992-93, one of the highest scoring seasons in league history if not the highest (league average was 305 goals for per team), Bure scored .72 GPG; in 1999-00, a year in which the league average was 225 goals for, Bure somehow scored an absolutely incredible .78 GPG, his second highest sustained pace for a season during his career (and the highest was in the lock-out shortened season). Why is this relevant?
  • Well, according to this list, Bossy isn’t the Greatest Goal Scorer in NHL History, rather he’s a much less sexy 5th greatest goal scorer in NHL history. But we have no way of knowing how he would have faired in any other era. Bure’s career suggests that individual talent can overcome league-wide scoring trends, when that talent is great enough. Surely Bossy’s talent was so great as to have transcended a low scoring era, had he played in one.
  •  We always forget about Bobby Hull, or at least I do. But until Ovechkin came along, he probably had the sole claim to Greatest Left Wing in NHL History.
  • His son’s career is barely affected by the change from actual to adjusted GPG, and the requirement for 500 games played – he drops one place. (Fittingly, his father appears slightly better.)
  • Kovalchuk and Crosby on this list should give us pause, though Crosby a little more than Kovalchuk. You may have noticed that I wrote the word “present” a full eight times for 30 names. Is it at all possible that, in coming up with the formula for adjusted stats, there is an accidental skewing towards today’s standards? (There is a rather obvious skewing towards an 82-game schedule, but I mean something more subtle than that.) This is not a question I care to try to answer at the moment, but I wanted to mention it.
  • Everyone who doesn’t remember Ziggy, or thinks he wasn’t very good, is stupid. He was amazing.
  • If we can take this list at all seriously, it should be another nail in the coffin of the ridiculous claim that Eric Lindros isn’t a Hall of Fame player. I can think of no reason why he doesn’t belong. “Arguments” about his character are not arguments.
  • I always forget about Bernie Geoffrion but apparently he was pretty good. (He goes from 44th to 12th.
  • Howe gets a little bit more of a boost in the Greatest RW in NHL History debate; his GPG average was amassed over a far longer period than pretty much anyone else (11 games more than Messier but over a way longer period of time, given his stint in the WHA). Also, this adjustment moves him from 45th to 13th.
  • Esposito isn’t hurt as badly by the adjustment as I would have thought.
  • Toe Blake is really problematic here, hence why I put the asterisk. The adjustment moves him up from 77th. On the other hand, his real world GPG was consistently higher in the Original Six era than before.
  • Malkin probably won’t be on this top list by the end of his career – that’s just a guess.
  • The Habs fans are right: Beliveau was amazing.
  • Is Jagr the Greatest Right Wing in NHL History? I don’t know.
  • Selanne comes out looking even better on this list; he moves up from 37.
  • Gretzky’s GPG is hurt rather drastically by the adjustment – I didn’t do the math but more so than many others. Of the greatest scorers in NHL history, Gretzky’s PPG is hurt the second most ever by the era adjustment. However, even with the era adjustment, he still supposedly scored 1.66 PPG, which is the second most since the Original Six era. (This is the topic of a Gretzky vs. Lemieux article I will perhaps never write.)
  • Bondra was underrated? Perhaps. He still never passed.
  • Rick Nash is either a lot better than a lot of people (me!) think he is, or this list is flawed. Talk amongst yourselves.
  • I need to stop bashing Cam Neely. (I don’t actually bash him, I just use him as a case where the Hall seems to have changed their standards for literally one player – prior to Bure’s induction, anyway.) When adjusting for era, he makes the decision to put him in the Hall over other seemingly more worthy players (cough Tim Kerr cough) the correct decision.
  • This list makes me think I am wrong to constantly harp about Kerr not being in the Hall of Fame. (Yes, he doesn’t meet the Hall’s games played requirement, but that’s a an arbitrary cut-off point.) But it does make me feel much more confident I was right to criticize them for not inducting Rick Martin before he died. For shame.
  • Keith Tkachuk?!?!?! What what?!?!?! This is something for me to look into.
  • Despite being ridiculously inconsistent, Mogilny was still totally awesome. Just imagine if he had cared all the time!
  • I think Gaborik will fall off the Top 30 by the time he retires. Just a hunch. (I don’t necessarily want him to. It would be interesting toget into debates with hockey traditionalists about how great Gaborik is.)
  • LaFontaine is, according to this, the second best American goal scorer in NHL history, and we know he was far better all around player than Tkachuk. So those people who think LaFontaine was the Greatest American in NHL History may be right.
  • Science Iginla was good. By the way, I feel very sad about the fact that this season, he missed becoming just the 10th player in NHL history to score 30 goals thirteen times. And he missed by 1 goal. 1 goal!!! Boo.
  • The longer Heatley plays, the more it will be easy to dismiss him once we’ve forgotten how good he was once upon a time.

So there you have it. This all boils down to whether or not we can take the era adjustment seriously. I think it’s the best approximation we have for the time being. Until we have something else, I think we can at least seriously think about the idea that Ovechkin is the Greatest Goal Scorer in NHL History.

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