Another Stanley Cup, or the Goal Record? What Would be Better for Ovechkin’s Legacy?

If Ovechkin catches Wayne Gretzky, how bright would the spotlight be?

Alex Ovechkin’s NHL career officially has a timer. Unless Ovechkin or the Capitals front office throw us a curveball, the 5-year $ 47.5 million endowment will be Ovi’s last before he either hangs em up, or heads to Russia for an encore to the greatest goal scoring career the NHL has ever seen. All that’s left in the NHL is to further glorify his legacy. But what’s better for Ovechkin’s legacy? Another Stanley Cup, or the all-time goal record?

The goal record. Allow me to explain why.

A collective sigh of relief passed through the homes of Caps fans in DC and around the world when the Capitals finally announced the details for Alex Ovechkin’s final NHL contract. During the press conferences, Ovi even acknowledged the goal chase as motivation for making it a 5-year deal.

It was a no brainer for the greatest goal scorer of all time, and with the thought of Ovechkin chasing Wayne Gretzky’s all-time mark in another team’s jersey firmly cast aside, Caps fans can now worry about the organization fielding a competitive team for the length of his contract. After all, the Chase for Wayne feels more fruitful if the Caps hang out at the top of the playoff tree instead of branching off towards lottery irrelevancy.

I know most Caps fans will think ‘why would we sacrifice another Stanley Cup for an individual record?’ Because that individual record is unique enough that I’ll argue it’s more memorable than a second Stanley Cup.

“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

Capitals owner Ted Leonsis was stringent on his teams’ motivations to award Ovechkin with another multi-year deal. Yes, a second Stanley Cup will always be the driving motivation, but the Gretzky chase isn’t exactly in the backseat either.

Ovechkin himself wanted to negotiate a short term contract – one that gives him virtually no shot at the Gretzky record. 

“I asked for three, but they said ‘Ovi we need you for five.’” Ovechkin revealed in his press conference – though General Manager Brian MacLellan quickly and playfully denied that claim.

Either way, the Capitals have implicitly acknowledged the significance and value in the goal chase, both for Ovechkin’s and the Capitals’ brand.

When GM Brian MacLellan signed Nicklas Backstrom and Ovechkin to their respective extensions in back-to-back off-season’s, he banked on the production of both players to remain consistent in their late 30s. If Ovechkin is to have a realistic shot at 894, you would think that remains the case. Ovechkin’s brand of hockey is one that the front office feels will age well.

Ovi dealt with injuries and pandemic related shenanigans (as all teams did) last season, so tough stretches saw the goal scoring king briefly vacate his throne. But a full offseason of recovery and a more balanced schedule (including lighter matchups against Pacific and Canadian teams) means it would come as a surprise if Ovechkin isn’t near the top of the league in scoring.

“We need to have a good team for him to accomplish his individual goals.”

Washington Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan

Management is committed to this by maintaining the core led by Ovechkin, Backstrom, and John Carlson. Production from key complementary players like Tom Wilson, TJ Oshie, and Anthony Mantha will likely decide if the Caps can reach the summit again – but it’s still on Alex to lead them there.

Ovechkin’s worst seasons still comfortably exudes elite production. 2021 was the first year of his NHL career that Ovechkin didn’t touch 30 goals. And yet he still would have been the top offensive threat on at least 25 teams in the league (and probably more depending on who you ask).

Even without beating Gretzky, most hockey fans tend to agree he’s the greatest pure goal scorer in the history of the game. His legacy isn’t dependant on beating Gretzky. In fact, the Stanley Cup win lifted his legacy more than any goal scoring record ever could, as it silenced the one ‘Ya but…’ argument Ovechkin haters would bring to parties. Now that he has his cup, his legacy is already solidified.

For Ovechkin, a second Stanley Cup puts him in an elite company of captains and future Hall of Famers that led multiple teams to championships – like Crosby, Toews, Lidstrom, and others. Nothing to scoff at, no doubt.

But you know what’s an even more elite company? Having more goals than literally everyone else in the history of the planet. This company is so elite in fact that Ovechkin would be the only one in it – crazy isn’t it?

It’s a simple way to look at it, yes, but having the definitive greatest scorer of all time spend his entire career with one franchise is iconic in a way winning the Stanley Cup isn’t. That’s not to downplay the silver grail. If Ovechkin wins two, he’ll probably cement himself as the greatest left winger of all time, the greatest overseas player of all time, and probably near the top of the top 10 greatest players ever list.

But beating Gretzky’s goal record would do all of that and more. It would put Ovechkin on a tier of athlete that puts him on a level above the NHL. That sounds elitist but think about it. Every hockey fan knows Ovechkin. But most sports fans don’t. Heck, most sports fans outside of Canada and hockey dominated markets in America don’t even know Crosby. But everyone knows Wayne Gretzky’s name. Even non hockey fans know Wayne Gretzky’s name and what he’s known for.

If Ovechkin beats that guy? The spotlight and attention would put himself and the Capitals on another stratosphere, especially when he gets closer.

Think about it. The Los Angeles Angels are a traumatizingly mediocre baseball team that isn’t remotely close to competing for a championship – yet everyone in the world knows Shohei Ohtani. It’s because he’s accomplishing things no one has ever seen.

Perhaps to the greater Capitals fan base, the team’s success is more important than an individual player. Fair enough. But if Ovechkin breaks the record in a Capitals jersey and subsequently retires with a majority of his goals in DC, the Capitals franchise will forever be engrained and associated with the once unbeatable record. There’s a certain charm that comes with the exclusivity of such a thing. That’s even more true for a fanbase that has been endeared with this player throughout his entire journey from wonderkid to superstar to hall of famer. Remember – Wayne Gretzky did not break the Gordie Howe’s all time record in an Oilers jersey (although the Oilers were indeed a part of that game).

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