Can Ovechkin catch Gretzky? NHL’s new Mr. 700 has a chance

Alex Ovechkin is making the seemingly impossible appear to be not so far-fetched after all.

Wayne Gretzky’s 894 career goals has, for decades, loomed as one of hockey’s most untouchable records. The ”Great One” set the bar so high it appeared out of reach for even the NHL’s best scorers.

Ovechkin, on Saturday, became the second-fastest and second-youngest player to reach 700 goals behind only Gretzky. Because he’s only 34 and shows no signs of slowing down, belief is growing that Ovechkin can challenge Gretzky’s mark.

”Alex is going to score another probably 150 goals, maybe more, before he retires,” Hall of Famer and fellow 700 goal-scorer Phil Esposito said. ”He’s got a chance to catch Wayne. There’s no doubt about that.”

Gretzky scored his 894 goals in 1,487 games over a 20-year career with the Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues and New York Rangers. A vast majority of his goals came during the sport’s highest-scoring era, and Gretzky reached 40 in a season for the last time at age 30.

Ovechkin is in the midst of his fifth 40-goal season since turning 30. Last season, he became the oldest to win the goal-scoring title since Esposito in 1974-75, and he’s on pace for 57 this year.

”I think he’ll score 50 until he’s 50 years old it seems like,” Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon said. ”I never thought (catching Gretzky) would happen. I hope he can get close.”

Ovechkin is under contract through next season and would likely need to play four more seasons to take a legitimate shot at the mileston. Longtime running mate Nicklas Backstrom just signed on for five more years, so it’s not impossible to think Ovechkin stays around long term.

Asked what Ovechkin needs to do to approach Gretzky’s record, Esposito said: ”Stay with the Washington Capitals. Stay with a good team.” They’d sure like that.

”He loves to score and continues to bring that to rink every day,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. ”I think he’s energized by seeing where he can finish in the top 10, and it’s kind of fun to watch an older guy keep it going like he has.”

Gretzky recently told NHL.com he’s rooting for Ovechkin to break his record, with staying healthy and playing on a good team the two necessary ingredients. Ovechkin has been one of the most durable players in hockey during his career, and the Capitals could extend their run of contending for several more years.

”The guy’s missed 17 games in 15 years due to injury – that’s freaking incredible,” former player and executive-turned NHL Network analyst Brian Lawton said. ”They have a quality team that has staying power. He’s going to get three or four more years of being on an elite team.”

Backstrom, center Evgeny Kuznetsov and defenseman John Carlson are all signed long term after winning the Stanley Cup with Ovechkin in 2018. Wrapping up his playing days back home in Russia could be alluring to Ovechkin, so it’s unclear how many more years he wants to remain in the NHL.

”It just depends on how long he wants to play,” said Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, who allowed Ovechkin’s 600th goal. ”You know he’s going to put up anywhere from 40 to 50 goals a year, and he’s going to be dangerous no matter what his age is or what his team’s like. You know he’s got a phenomenal team around him, and you know he’s just going to continue to beat goalies.”

Ovechkin wasn’t always scoring at this pace. At the low point of his career, he scored 32 goals in 2010-11 and 38 in 2011-12 before Washington bowed out in the second round of the playoffs.

An elite NHL goal-scorer’s prime usually ends in his mid-20s, and doubt crept in that the same would happen to Ovechkin. Not so fast.

”I think everyone halfway through his career would’ve said, no, he’s going to tail off at some point,” Calgary Flames captain Mark Giordano said. ”But he hasn’t stopped, so he has a chance.”

Two-time NHL leading scorer Connor McDavid grew up watching Ovechkin play plenty against his idol, Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, and has been impressed with the consistency of the goals piling up.

”He just seems ageless and just keeps on scoring goals,” McDavid said. ”I don’t see any reason he can’t keep doing that.”

The desire is still there. Veteran coach Todd McLellan enjoys watching Ovechkin’s excitement for scoring goals – except against his own team – and because of that is hoping he cracks 894.

”It’s great for our game to see him,” McLellan said. ”As long as that excitement stays there, he’s still going to have the skill and the shot. He’s going to have a great team around him. I think he can do it.”

Lawton has run the numbers and can’t imagine Ovechkin not breaking Gretzky’s record. He’s conservatively predicting a 55-goal season, which would mean Ovechkin at his career rate needs to play roughly 300 more games to get close.

”Alex is in a completely different position (than Gretzky),” Lawton said. ”Back then, players, we didn’t know and understand as much about nutrition and training as we do today. … Overall, looking in the future, I just don’t see there’s any way how he doesn’t break it.”

Boston’s David Pastrnak, who is currently neck-and-neck with Ovechkin and Toronto’s Auston Matthews in the goal-scoring race and might one day be the NHL’s next 700-goal scorer, ”can’t really see” Gretzky’s record being broken. Pastrnak thinks Ovechkin will join Gretzky and Gordie Howe by surpassing 800, though Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy wonders about the goals beyond that.

”I think health-wise will determine that,” Cassidy said. ”If he can stay healthy to at least 38, 39, 40, I don’t see why he won’t at least push up against it.”

Ovechkin is already in elite company in the 700 club with Gretzky, Howe, Jaromir Jagr, Brett Hull, Marcel Dionne, Esposito and Mike Gartner. He recently climbed past Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman and Mark Messier on the all-time list.

Yzerman closed a video message for passing him to Ovechkin by saying, ”If you ever do break Wayne Gretzky’s all time record for the most goals in the league, after watching your Stanley Cup celebrations, I want to be invited to your party.”

Perhaps Ovechkin would party like it’s 2018, and it would possibly be an accomplishment that’s never matched again.

Stars’ Polak, Canucks’ Baertschi won’t report to NHL camps

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Dallas defenseman Roman Polak and Vancouver forward Sven Baertschi on Saturday joined the list of players who won’t be reporting to training camp for the resumption of the NHL season.

Baertschi told the Canucks he’d be opting out of participating in the expanded 24-team playoffs, following Calgary defenseman Travis Hamonic informing the Flames he won’t be playing because of family reasons. Polak is not on the Stars’ roster for the start of training camp Monday, and a team spokesman said the 34-year-old veteran won’t be attending at this time.

Polak is a pending free agent who last month agreed to a deal in his native Czech Republic next season and told reporters there he wasn’t planning on returning to the NHL if play resumed. Baertschi, who spent much of this season in the minors, is under contract through 2020-21.

”Sven informed us late yesterday that he has chosen to opt out of the NHL return to play program,” Canucks general manager Jim Benning said. ”It was a difficult decision but ultimately one we respect and understand.”

The Tampa Bay Lightning won’t have captain Steven Stamkos at 100% for the opening of camp because of a lower-body injury, but they’re optimistic he’ll be ready when games get under way in early August. GM Julien BriseBois said Stamkos fully recovered from core muscle surgery in early March but was injured again during voluntary workouts.

”We don’t have a specific timeline for when he will be a full participant in camp, but we expect he will be ready in time for games,” BriseBois said. ”He’s here, he’s skating, he’s been getting treatment, he’s been coming to Amalie (Arena) doing his dry land work. But he will not be a full participant on Day One of training camp.”

While Stamkos has a better chance of being ready for Tampa Bay’s next game than he would have after surgery if the playoffs had started in mid-April, the Flames will have to cope without Hamonic when they open their series against Winnipeg on Aug. 1.

Hamonic became the first player to publicly choose not to play in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hamonic’s daughter was hospitalized last year with respiratory issues, and he and his wife also have a baby boy. Their health concerns, not the soon-to-be 30-year-old’s impending free agency, led him to opt out.

”I wish I could lace up my skates and be out there battling, blocking a shot and helping my team win, but my family has and always will come first,” Hamonic said. ”Being my little kids’ dad every day is the most important job I have. I love this game and by team. This is a decision that is extremely hard for me to make.”

Flames general manager Brad Treliving said, ”While we will miss Travis in our lineup, we understand and respect his decision.”

The Lightning already got a pandemic scare when three players and additional staff tested positive for the novel coronavirus last month. The positive test results forced the team to close its facilities for a brief period of time.

The Minnesota Wild, who face the Canucks in the qualifying round, ruled out defenseman Greg Pateryn indefinitely with an upper-body injury. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said Saturday the league will be taking over injury and illness disclosure from teams as a way of protecting player privacy.

Lightning’s Stamkos injured again at start of training camp

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Captain Steven Stamkos will be limited at the start of Tampa Bay Lightning training camp because of a new lower-body injury.

General manager Julien BriseBois said Saturday that Stamkos fully recovered from core muscle surgery in early March but was injured again during voluntary workouts. Stamkos is expected to be ready for the start of the NHL’s expanded 24-team Stanley Cup playoffs in early August.

”We don’t have a specific timeline for when he will be a full participant in camp, but we expect he will be ready in time for games,” BriseBois said. ”He’s here, he’s skating, he’s been getting treatment, he’s been coming to Amalie (Arena) doing his dry land work. But he will not be a full participant on Day One of training camp.”

Unlike Stamkos, the Calgary Flames won’t have defenseman Travis Hamonic for the resumption of the hockey season after he decided to opt out for family reasons. Hamonic on Friday night became the first player to publicly choose not to play in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hamonic’s daughter was hospitalized last year with respiratory issues, and he and his wife also have a baby boy. Their health concerns, not the soon-to-be 30-year-old’s impending free agency, led him to opt out.

”I wish I could lace up my skates and be out there battling, blocking a shot and helping my team win, but my family has and always will come first,” Hamonic said. ”Being my little kids’ dad every day is the most important job I have. I love this game and by team. This is a decision that is extremely hard for me to make.”

Flames general manager Brad Treliving said, ”While we will miss Travis in our lineup, we understand and respect his decision.”

The Lightning already got a pandemic scare when three players and additional staff tested positive for the novel coronavirus last month. The positive test results forced the team to close its facilities for a brief period of time.

Flames’ Hamonic is first player to opt out of NHL’s return

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Flames defenseman Travis Hamonic has been the first player to opt out of the NHL’s Return to Play program.

“Earlier this evening Travis called me to inform us that he has decided to opt out of the NHL Return to Play Program,” said Flames general manager Brad Treliving. “Travis explained that due to family considerations, he has made the difficult decision not to participate in the Stanley Cup Qualifier and Playoffs.

“While we will miss Travis in our line-up, we understand and respect his decision. Our focus remains on preparation for training camp and our upcoming series in the NHL Qualifying Round.”

[Full Stanley Cup Qualifying Round schedule]

As part of the RTP plan that was ratified Friday evening, any player can opt out without penalty by Monday’s 5 p.m. ET deadline.

In a statement posted through his agent’s Twitter account, Hamonic cited a respiratory virus his young daughter battled last year and the recent birth of his son as the reasons why he will not be joining the Flames.

“My family has and always will come first,” he said. “Being my little kids’ dad every day is the most important job I have.”

The 29-year-old Hamonic, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent this off-season, played 50 games for Calgary this season. He recorded 12 points and was second the team in average ice time per game (21:12) behind Mark Giordano.

The Flames will face the Jets in a best-of-five Stanley Cup Qualifier series in the Edmonton hub

MORE:
NHL, NHLPA ratify CBA, return to play agreement
NHL salary cap to stay flat at $81.5M

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Hockey is back: NHL, NHLPA ratify CBA, return to play agreement

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The NHL and NHLPA made the return official: hockey is back.

Remarkably, the NHL and NHLPA also extended the Collective Bargaining Agreement through at least 2025-26, ensuring almost unthinkable labor peace for fans. None of this means that COVID-19 won’t wreck the party, but the NHL and NHLPA cemented those return details on Friday.

The timetable for the NHL return won’t leave much room to breathe. Players can opt-out of a return-to-play plan for a variety of reasons, but must make such decisions by Monday, July 13 at 5 p.m. ET.

This comes shortly after the two sides announced a memorandum of understanding earlier this week. The NHL attempting a two-city, 24-team playoff plan is bold enough; extending the CBA through at least 2025-26 makes this an incredible achievement. For hockey fans who’ve grown accustomed to lockouts, lasting labor peace feels almost unthinkable.

If hockey fans need more reasons to be ecstatic, consider this. The CBA extension sets the stage for NHL players to participate in the 2022 and 2026 Winter Olympics. That decision hinges on an agreement between the league and the International Olympic Committee, but this is a landmark day for the future of the NHL.

[Full schedule for 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers]

Read more about the NHL return via this official document:

NHL playoff hubs in Edmonton and Toronto; 2020 Stanley Cup Final in Edmonton

After many twists and turns, Edmonton and Toronto were named as the two hub cities. Each city will host 12 teams (limited to 52 personnel apiece). Edmonton will hold the 12 Western Conference teams, and is also the planned spot for the 2020 Stanley Cup Final. Meanwhile, the 12 Eastern Conference teams will play in Toronto.

With COVID-19 spikes in areas like Las Vegas and protocol stumbles in Vancouver, it’s been difficult to forecast which cities would serve as the two hubs. Now we know. Edmonton, in particular, has avoided the worst of COVID-19 outbreaks. Toronto’s dealt with more struggles (see: the outbreaks in Ontario in the map below), but brings some strengths for the NHL while not being hit as hard as many problem areas in the U.S.:

Alberta with 8,482 cases; Ontario with 36,178 as of Thursday (via the Canadian government)

[More on Edmonton and Toronto serving as NHL playoff hubs.]

Now, for the when: Key Dates for 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, NHL Free Agency, Draft

So, we just covered the “where” for the NHL’s playoff return to award a 2020 Stanley Cup. Let’s cover the “when.”

July 13: Training camps open (Phase 3) and 5 p.m. ET deadline for players to opt out
July 26: Teams report to their hub city
July 28-30: Exhibition games
Aug 1: Stanley Cup Qualifiers begin (Phase 4)
Aug 10: Phase 2 of NHL Draft Lottery to determine No. 1 overall pick
Aug 11: First Round begins
Aug 25: Second Round begins
Sept. 8: Conference Finals begin
Sept. 22: Stanley Cup Final begins
Oct 4: Last possible date for Stanley Cup to be awarded
Oct. 9-10: 2020 NHL Draft (must follow end of Cup Final and take place before free agency)
Mid-Oct.: free agent period opens
Nov. 17: Training camps open for 2020-21 season
Dec. 1: 2020-21 NHL season begins

All of dates listed are, of course, tentative.

[Want even more details on critical dates for the NHL return? Click here.]

CBA extension keeps NHL salary cap flat for at least 2020-21

NHL, NHLPA hammer out a CBA extension, including flat salary cap and return to Olympics

Again, these agreements don’t just cover a playoff format where the 2020 Stanley Cup would be awarded. The CBA extension means lockout prevention through 2025-26, and possibly even 2026-27. That CBA extension sets the stage for the NHL’s return to the Olympics, pending an agreement with the IOC.

Consider some of the high points. You can read more about the flat cap and other financial details here.

  • It’s possible that the two sides could extend the CBA for one additional season (through 2026-27).
  • The two sides agreed to a flat $81.5 million salary cap for 2020-21.
  • That $81.5 million mark could also stick for multiple seasons. It all hinges on whether or not revenue bounces back — and when.
  • Players hate escrow, so limiting its impact was key. There will be a 20-percent cap on escrow for 2020-21. From there, escrow will scale down until it drops to six percent.
  • The two sides agreed to bring NHL players back to Olympic competition — pending negotiations with the International Olympic Committee. If that goes through, NHL players would participate in 2022 Winter Olympics (in Beijing) and the 2026 Winter Olympics (in Milan).
  • Players will defer salary to account for the financial impact of COVID-19.
  • The CBA extension accounts for certain salary cap loopholes. In short, contracts won’t be as front-loaded, salary bonuses won’t be greatly changed, and no-trade clauses will be honored more faithfully.

So, again fans: rejoice, and hold your breath. Maybe cross your fingers, too — especially in hopes that this process happens as safely as possible. This is huge stuff, and PHT will cover the developments as they unfold.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.