Alex Ovechkin caught legend Maurice Richard in career goals Monday. Is it fair to compare their careers? Or has Ovie already surpassed The Rocket?
We’ve approached a fun stage of Alex Ovechkin’s career. Well, his entire career has been almost non-stop fun, but we’ve entered a celebratory phase. Now 31 and 879 games into his NHL existence, he’s begun smashing records and reaching milestones again and again.
His three points Monday night brought him to 999 for his career. His goal was his 544th, tying him with a player to whom he’s often compared: Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard.
The men share some easy-to-spot parallels. Ovie is best known for piling up Rocket Richard Trophies as the league’s top goal scorer, and the very fact the award is named for Richard tells us The Rocket’s calling card was similar. Ovechkin’s known for his animated, relentlessly attacking style of play, and anyone who followed Richard’s career describes him similarly, albeit the similarities between their styles end there.
Ovie and Richard are tied in goals and share many career highlights. I thus understand why it’s a natural time to evaluate both careers side by side and surmise who had the better one.
What I don’t understand, however, is the sacred-cow opinion that Ovechkin can’t touch Richard. Sure, the Rocket has the championships, and he’s been perched on the NHL’s unofficial top-10 players list so long he’s left an imprint. But to automatically assume Ovechkin belongs in a lower tier is to brush aside one of the most accomplished resumes in hockey history.
Where to begin with Ovie? He’s one of three players in NHL history to score 50 goals seven times. Ovechkin has won the NHL’s goal-scoring crown six times in his 11 completed seasons. Only Bobby Hull has led the league in goals more times. Ovie has also led the league in goals the past four seasons. The only other players to win the goal crown four straight seasons are Hull, Wayne Gretzky and Phil Esposito, who did it an amazing six consecutive times from 1969-70 to 1974-75. Ovechkin is a three-time Hart Trophy winner as league MVP, which ties him with Bobby Clarke, Mario Lemieux, Howie Morenz and Bobby Orr for fourth-most all-time. Ovie owns an Art Ross as league scoring champion and has won the Lester B. Pearson/Ted Lindsay Award for MVP as voted by the players three times, tying Sidney Crosby, Jaromir Jagr and Guy Lafleur for third-most in history. Richard never had a chance to win that ward, of course, as it didn't exist until 1970-71.
Ovechkin has also led the league in shots in 10 of his 11 completed seasons and is a five-time first-team all-star. His list of individual accomplishments at the forward position rivals that of every forward in league history except for Gretzky and Lemieux. And Ovechkin theoretically has time to amass more accolades. The lack of championships obviously stands out as the glaring need but, Cups or no Cups, he’s one of the most decorated players ever. We should be asking whether Richard measures up to Ovie – not the other way around.
The Rocket was the first player to score 50 goals in 50 games. He led the NHL in goals five times over parts of 17 seasons. He’s a seven-time first team All-Star. He cleans Ovie’s clock in the championship category, having won eight with the Montreal Canadiens between 1943-44 and 1959-60, though each came in a six-team league. One of my favorite Richard stats: he led the playoffs in goal scoring four times in his career. Only Jari Kurri has matched Richard in that stat.
We also should adjust Richard’s stats for era. The remarkable hockey-reference.com can help with that. Applying the adjustments to account for changes in the league’s scoring trends and number of games per season, Richard would become a seven-time 50-goal man himself, joining Ovie, Gretzky and Mike Bossy in that elite club. Richard’s career goal total would skyrocket to 653. He’d rank ninth in NHL history in adjusted goals.
On the other hand, Ovie plays in a low-scoring era, too. Adjustments would also favor him. He’d gain an extra 50-goal season since the stat adjustments pro-rate lockout-shortened seasons, giving him eight total. His career goal mark would swell to 645, keeping him hot on The Rocket’s trail. Richard blows Ovie away in anything playoff and “clutch” oriented, but the statistical superiority ends there. Ovechkin has simply done more.
A kneejerk reaction to that statement would be to laugh me off as a whippersnapper who “never saw Richard play.” This will happen on Twitter, no doubt. Fair enough. But you know who did see Richard play? award voters throughout his career. For what it’s worth, they only deemed him the league’s most valuable player once. The PHWA has deemed Ovie the top dog three times – while he played in league five times the size.
We can’t directly compare Ovechkin and Richard. They played far too many years apart. And while they share certain similarities, they weren’t clones of each other by any means. Richard played a speedier game. Ovie plays a heavier game. Still, we can judge them by what they accomplished relative to their competition during their own eras. By that measure, Ovie wins, Cups or not. To dismiss the idea as blasphemy against a Habs legend is, to me, deferring to a tired old bias toward Canadians and against Europeans. Richard is a legend – but so is Ovie already.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to thn.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin