NHL Mailbag: Will Ovechkin pass Gretzky for the all-time goals mark?

Will Oveckin pass Gretzky for the all-time goals mark? (Getty)
Will Oveckin pass Gretzky for the all-time goals mark? (Getty)

After a few weeks of big headlines, it seems like everyone is getting back to the business of hockey before the Christmas roster freeze.

Just normal, regular hockey stuff is happening now and frankly it’s a nice change of pace. We’re 30-plus games into the season for most teams at this point and we’re starting to get a pretty clear picture of who teams “are,” so that’s cool. People have nice, regular questions this week and I appreciate that.

Let’s get right down to it:

Brodie asks: “Will Ovi pass Gretzky in all time goals?”

This question comes up because Ovechkin has opened the season scoring at his fastest pace ever: 25 goals in 30 games, albeit through more than 1 in every 5 shots he takes going in the net.

What you have to keep in mind is that a lot of people are saying he could pass Gretzky is that he’s 33 years old and 262 goals behind Gretzky. He’s also got a lot of goals so far this season but is shooting the puck at a lower rate than any season of his career except his age-31 campaign.

At this point, it would be surprising for Ovechkin not to keep scoring at a high rate even if he slows down a bit. He hasn’t scored 50 in a season since he was 30, but let’s say he gets to 650ish by the end of the year. That puts him 244 away entering his age-34 season.

Three of his four lowest shot-rate seasons have been in the last three seasons and that seems like it’s going to continue, right? Ovechkin has a great shot, obviously, but he used to hit 50 every year on sheer volume, and he doesn’t seem to be able to do that anymore, though of course he’s still an elite goalscorer.

But even if you’re saying “He’ll never not average a goal every other game,” you’re saying he’ll keep up that pace and basically never miss a game for another SIX seasons, AFTER this one, to pass Gretzky. I’d be shocked if it happened.

David asks: “Which NHL team is currently the biggest surprise, either good or bad?”

I’ll give you one of each because I’m insanely nice.

I think the pleasant surprise team has to be Calgary. There was a lot of reason to be pessimistic about them coming into the year: Mike Smith’s continued employment, the likelihood that the Travis Hamonic trade was blowing up in their face, the Dougie Hamilton trade being an ugly loss, and the new coaching hire being not particularly inspiring.

And yet, as of Dec. 12, they sit tied for fourth in the league. And unlike Buffalo, another team tied for fourth in the league as a total surprise, Calgary is doing so with great underlyings and a huge goal difference.

Even if you don’t totally believe in the Smith/Big Save Dave Rittich combo, the Flames look legit, is what I’m saying.

Bad surprise? I guess I’d go with Florida or St. Louis. Most everyone expected LA or Chicago to be bad, but maybe not this bad. Meanwhile, both the Panthers and Blues looked like they could/should be playoff teams, but they’re close to the bottom of the league. The Panthers is probably down entirely to goaltending, while the Blues just seem regular ol’ bad. Oh well.

Michael asks: “Being a Devils fan, can you talk me off the ledge?”

No. Sorry.

Like I said last week, this team tricked a lot of otherwise smart people into thinking they were for real. But remember all the stuff around the Taylor Hall MVP candidacy? “His team sucks when he’s off the ice!” was basically the entire point.

Well, once they stopped getting unsustainable goaltending from Keith Kinkaid — and really, who didn’t see that coming? — it didn’t matter how good Hall was. Which, for the record, he’s still been pretty good, but he’s not scoring goals like he did last season (1.61 per 60 versus the current 0.84).

Losing three-quarters of a goal every 60 minutes from one player will make a lot of flaws very apparent very quickly.

Christopher asks: “How likely is it that the Seattle expansion team does anywhere near as well in its expansion draft as Vegas did?”

Not very.

I think a lot of GMs were rightly humbled by how well Vegas did with players they gave away for free, or even better, in addition to other assets. Fleury, the Florida guys, Theodore; these are all high-end players acquired via the expansion draft with enticements from their previous employers. Didn’t make sense day-of, and certainly made less sense at the end of the year.

For their own sake, I imagine GMs will be less likely to do that sort of thing, just because of the high likelihood they end up looking bad as a result. Plus, I think there will generally be a push to Be Smarter about who gets protected and who doesn’t.

We’ll see how it goes but Seattle’s GM has a tough job ahead of him: downplaying expectations relative to Vegas. He probably isn’t gonna get the PDO to make him look like a genius, y’know?

BorealNinja asks: “Is Louis Domingue actually good or is it just Tampa doing Tampa things?”

I mean, you know the answer to this. Domingue entered the season with a career save percentage of .907 (in 96 games from 2014 to the end of last season), but this year he’s at .905. Both are below the league average for their respective timeframes.

But if you really wanna drill down on this, based on the quality of shots he’s faced in all situations behind that elite Tampa team, he’s actually allowed six more goals than an average NHL goaltender would have.

Which is to say, he’s cost them two standings points in 18 games. Doesn’t much matter when you’re the best team in hockey, but Vasilevskiy can’t get back soon enough.

Brandon asks: “Who is the worst best player on a team right now? (i.e. the best player on the Oilers is McDavid, Devils is Hall, Islanders is….?)”

This is the kind of question that’s sure to piss people off. Everyone is gonna say, “You think HE’S worse than this other guy who also is perfectly good?”

I think you can look at probably about eight teams and say, “Ah yeah, their best player isn’t that great.”

If we’re not counting goalies, probably chief among them is the Rangers, because I’d say Mika Zibanejad (who’s pretty good!) is their best skater. But if you are counting goalies, and why wouldn’t you, obviously Lundqvist is having a great rebound year so that’s kinda disqualifying for “worst best player” consideration.

If we’re looking at it holistically, let’s stay in New York: Who’s the best player on the Islanders? Josh Bailey? Mat Barzal? Anders Lee? None of them seem particularly great.

Maybe you make the same argument for Montreal, because Max Domi probably isn’t a point-a-game guy at the end of the year, Carey Price might be cooked, Jonathan Drouin is perfectly alright but nothing super-inspiring, and Shea Weber is… exactly what everyone thought he would be when they made that trade.

But I think in terms of being the lowest-level “best player on a team” in the league, I gotta go with Arizona. It’s either Clayton Keller or Oliver Ekman-Larsson as their best player, and neither one looks particularly good this year. At least, not if you take the year as a whole. Maybe that changes by the time we get to Game 82, but for now that’s where I’m at with it.

Andrew asks: “How much of good shot metrics/underlying numbers is good coaching and how much is individual talent?”

The NHL is probably the league where systems matter least and talent matters most, but even still, you can be a great coach and get poor results if you don’t have depth. The number of guys who couldn’t win with certain groups but immediately found success where others hadn’t once they got a different job is significant. Joel Quenneville is a perfect example.

That said, I think I’d probably say it’s 55-45, or thereabouts, for talent over coaching as the big driver of underlyings at this level. Connor McDavid is always gonna make his coach look like a genius, but coaches still need to be able to get more from less talented players.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats via Corsica unless noted otherwise. Some questions in the mailbag are edited for clarity or to remove swear words, which are illegal to use.

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