Every year, before the NHL preseason and again before the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Alex Ovechkin‘s longtime trainer, Pavel Burlachenko, flies in from Russia to work with the Washington Capitals‘ captain at his home gym in Northern Virginia.
Burlachenko arrived in the U.S. shortly before the NHL paused its season due to the coronavirus epidemic. But he stayed, and each week, he has to push Ovechkin — at a time when it’s hard to drum up motivation.
“I am lucky enough to have my coach, my trainer with me; he’s helped me a lot, obviously,” Ovechkin said on a conference call with reporters last week. “Because you get used to being with the team, working out with the team all year, and right now, you are kind of by yourself. It’s kind of hard to push yourself. Sometimes I don’t want to do it, but he says, ‘OK let’s go, we have to work out.’ It is always a good time to sit on the couch and watch TV and play with [my son], but you never know when the season is coming back, and you have to be in shape. So I try to do my best. It is kind of hard, to be honest with you.”
The NHL is keen on resuming the 2019-20 season this spring and summer — if it’s possible, given the heath climate — which means players such as Ovechkin have to stay ready. The Capitals were atop the Metropolitan Division when the NHL stopped, and Ovechkin would be looking to lead Washington to its second Stanley Cup in three years.
Also at stake for the 34-year-old Ovechkin are personal milestones: Tied for the NHL lead (with Boston’s David Pastrnak) with 48 goals, Ovechkin is two shy from recording his ninth 50-goal season, which would tie Mike Bossy and Wayne Gretzky for the most in NHL history. Ovechkin had 13 regular-season games to get it done. He was also set to become the second-oldest player to score 50, following Boston’s Johnny Bucyk, who was 35 when he did it 49 years ago.
And then there’s the chase for Gretzky’s all-time goals record of 894. Ovechkin said, “My mind right now is not about 50 goals or catching The Great One,” but it’s definitely of interest to hockey fans. Ovechkin became the eighth member of the NHL’s 700-goal club earlier this season — “I’ve been told there are more guys that have walked on the face of the moon than scored 700 goals, and you’ve made it look easy!” Mike Gartner remarked in a video tribute earlier this season — and Gretzky’s record is well within reach, with Ovi currently at 706.
“Of course you want to score 50,” Ovechkin said. “But right now, the most important thing is to stay safe and make sure this thing is done. It sucks to not score 50 and to not get another milestone, but you have to think about your family, people and the fans to be more safe.”
If the NHL announced it had canceled the rest of the 2019-20 regular season today, it would take Ovechkin 309 games to top Gretzky’s record if he were to keep up his career 0.63 goals-per-game pace. That’s roughly four seasons. If Ovechkin’s pace was to dip to 0.50 goals per game, it would take Ovechkin 378 more games, which is nearly five more seasons.
This could potentially be the third time in Ovechkin’s career he lost an opportunity to gain ground on Gretzky that did not involve injury; that includes missing the entire 2004-05 season to lockout (assuming Ovechkin would have come over from Russia) and missing 41.5% of the season in 2012-13, again due to a work stoppage.
Around the league, players respect Ovechkin’s pursuit of history and recognize they are witnessing something special.
“Can Ovi catch The Great One in goals?” Devils defenseman P.K. Subban pondered during the NHL’s video conference call that also included Ovechkin. “Well, I’m confident that if we play another 13 games this season, and Ovi plays, that Ovi can get another 20 goals in that time. That’s a lot of goals, but I think he can do it. You aren’t playing us anymore, so I think you can do it.
“I think if he did catch Wayne, it would be great for the game. We see it in other sports, we see what LeBron [James] is doing in basketball, we’ve seen what Tom Brady has done; I think in hockey, we see it as the years go by that these legends, Hall of Famers, are getting older. We need to have people currently that you can touch and watch and talk to and see that are setting milestones, as well. I think it’s great for the game. … He scored No. 700 against us. I’m sick and tired of seeing it. But it’s good for the game.”
What’s interesting is how the conversation around Ovechkin has morphed over the past three years. After the 2016-17 season, Ovechkin’s ice time was shaved down to 18:22 per game, more than two minutes below his career average, and he scored only 33 goals. That led Caps general manager Brian MacLellan to publicly question whether Ovechkin needed to adapt his game.
“For him moving forward, he’s getting into the low 30s, and he’s going to have to think of ways that he can evolve into a player that still has a major impact on the game,” MacLellan said after the season. “The game is getting faster; he’s going to have to train in a different way, a more speed way than a power way. He’s going to have to make adjustments to stay relative in the game.”
But it doesn’t appear Ovechkin has changed much at all. This is a guy who lists “Deal or No Deal” as his favorite quarantine TV show and Eminem as his must-listen artist. Ovechkin is still known to drink Coca-Colas at the rink and eat heavy-cream pastas and chicken parmesan before games. He works with the same training staff, and while his body composition might have changed some, he is still as productive as he was earlier in his career.
“Ovi, I just can’t stand how you stay in that one damn spot and just score all those goals,” Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno said on a video conference call with the media that included Ovechkin. “It drives me crazy. You’ve done a great job for that team, obviously. I love the passion you play with.”