COLLEGE PARK, Maryland — With his third hat trick of the season Saturday, Alex Ovechkin is quickly climbing the list of all-time hat trick leaders. But the NHL’s premier goal scorer of the 21st century is unlikely to ever top that list because of the era he plays in.
With seven goals in the Capitals’ first two games and Saturday’s three-goal performance against Toronto, Ovechkin brought his career regular season hat trick total to 20, the most among active players. The next closest active skater, future Hall of Fame forward Jaromir Jagr, has 15 but has played in 779 more NHL games than the 32-year-old Russian.
“Sometimes you are just feeling it,” Ovechkin told the Associated Press after Saturday’s victory.
Practically peerless when it comes to three-goal games among current players, Ovechkin still remains well behind the league’s all-time leaders. Wayne Gretzky sits atop the list with 50 regular season hat tricks, with Mario Lemieux (40), Mike Bossy (39), Brett Hull (33) and Phil Esposito (32) rounding out the top five. Ovechkin is in a three-way tie for 14th.
“Typically, the amount of hat tricks a player has is going to fairly closely track how dominant of a goal scorer they were,” hockey historian James Benesh said. “The ones who were consistently the best goal scorers of their time are going to be the ones who rack up the most goals and sometimes three of them are going to come in one game.”
Unlike Gretzky, Ovechkin has played his entire career in an era where scoring goals is much less common. As a result of larger goaltender equipment, refined defensive strategies and improved physical conditioning, players in today’s NHL have to work harder to find the back of the net.
Gretzky, widely considered the greatest player ever, played his prime years in the high-flying 1980s, where the style of play favored high-powered offenses. During the decade, smaller players took up less space and less athletic goaltenders wearing smaller pads offered skaters more net to shoot at. And more relaxed coaching strategies resulted in more goal scoring.
During Gretzky’s first 12 NHL seasons (1979-1980 to 1990-1991) the average number of goals scored in a game fluctuated between 6.92 and at 8.02, according to Hockey Reference.
The goals per game rate took a significant dip in the latter half of Gretzky’s career. It dropped exactly two goals per game between 1993 and his final season in 1999, signaling the start of the NHL’s Dead Puck Era. By the 2003-2004 season, the goals per game rate registered a 42-year low at 5.14.
At the beginning of Ovechkin’s rookie season in 2005-2006, the league enacted rule changes to increase league-wide scoring. It eliminated the two-line pass rule, which prevented players from receiving passes from their own defensive zone past center ice. It introduced the trapezoid behind the net to restrict goalies’ puck-handling capabilities. And it strictly enforced holding infractions.
As a result, the goals per game average rose to 6.16 in 2005-2006. The changes failed to have a permanent effect on scoring rates. The average goals per game rate has failed to exceed 6.0 since, fluctuating between 5.42 and 5.90.
This graphic shows the decrease in goals scored in modern years compared with Gretsky’s years in the league
“You could say one goal today is like one-third of a win,” Benesh said. “Sometimes in the [1980s] a goal was one-fifth of a win. So, it’s definitely different. It made it a lot easier to score goals, it made it a lot easier to get more hat tricks in a higher scoring environment too.”
Ovechkin has led the NHL in hat tricks just once, racking up two during the 38-game lockout-shortened 2013 season. But he has scored multiple hat tricks in six seasons, including this year.
Twenty-five games into the 2017-2018 season, Ovechkin has three, already matching last year’s season high set by Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets. With three goals against the Maple Leafs on Saturday, he passed Peter Bondra to become the Capitals franchise hat trick leader.
Despite Ovechkin’s impressive start, he still remains well behind Gretzky, who reached 20 hat tricks at the age of 22, putting Ovechkin far behind the Great One’s scorching pace.
While Ovechkin will probably not surpass Gretzky’s career hat trick record, the data suggests that Ovechkin has been hampered by lower scoring rates during his career. The Capitals winger has fallen one goal short of a hat trick 95 times in 13 seasons, with opportunities likely waning as he ages.