We don’t know when the 2020-21 NHL regular season will begin. We don’t know how many games will be on the schedule. In fact, we don’t even know for sure whether there will be an NHL season at all.
But if there is, we could see an historical change atop the league’s all-time games-played list – Patrick Marleau, who recently returned to his longtime San Jose Sharks, is poised to surpass Gordie Howe for the career record. Marleau, who sits fifth all-time behind Howe, Mark Messier, Jaromir Jagr and Ron Francis, needs to play 45 games to take over the No. 1 spot.
Let’s take a look at the NHL’s top 10 all-time and top 10 active leaders in games played.
TOP 10 ALL-TIME NHL PLAYERS: GAMES PLAYED
Gordie Howe 1,767
Mark Messier 1,756
Jaromir Jagr 1,733
Ron Francis 1,731
Patrick Marleau 1,723
Mark Recchi 1,652
Chris Chelios 1,651
Dave Andreychuk 1,639
Joe Thornton 1,636
Scott Stevens 1,635
Howe now: ‘Mr. Hockey’ played in the NHL in five different decades, first suiting up with the Detroit Red Wings in 1946 and – many, many, many years later – playing his final game with the Hartford Whalers in 1980 at the ripe old age of 52. (He played all 80 games and had 15 goals and 41 points in that final season.) Howe retired for two seasons in the early 1970s before coming back to play six years in the WHA and then his NHL swan song with the Whalers. In all, Howe played 2,186 pro games between the NHL and WHA, plus another 235 games in the playoffs. It’s also worth noting that the NHL season was only 70 games long during most of Howe’s career.
Beware of Shark: Marleau missed a grand total of 28 games in his first 11 seasons – and then he didn’t miss a single game in the next 10 seasons. So, yes, he’s 41 and closing in on the end of his career, but he’s also been an ironman during his 22 NHL campaigns. Not to mention, the Sharks don’t exactly have a loaded lineup, so there should be a spot for Marleau on most nights if he can stay healthy. Which, as mentioned, has never been a problem in the past.
Say it’s so, Joe: Back in June, Joe Thornton had this to say about retirement: “I’ll probably play another 10 years. We’ll wait and see, but I’m thinking five to 10 (more years). I got nothing else going on.” He was joking, of course. Or was he? Newly signed to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Thornton is the only other active player in the all-time top 10, and he has a decent shot at becoming just the sixth player in NHL history to skate in 1,700-plus games. As a bonus, we get to see how big and bushy that greybeard can get for at least one more year.
On the move: None of the all-time top 10 players remained with the same team for the entire run of their prolific careers. The Detroit Red Wings’ Nicklas Lidstrom, who’s 13th all-time with 1,564 NHL games, holds the record for the most games with only one franchise.
Ring twice for Stanley: All of the retired players in the all-time top 10 won the Stanley Cup. In fact, with the exception of Dave Andreychuk, all of the retired players won the Cup multiple times. Marleau and Thornton, meanwhile, are still looking for their first ring. But they shouldn’t give up hope. Andreychuk won his first Cup with Tampa Bay in 2004 at age 40, which was also Howe’s age when he posted his one and only 100-point season in the NHL. Old guys can still do stuff. They just need to stretch a little first.
TOP 10 ACTIVE NHL PLAYERS: GAMES PLAYED
Patrick Marleau 1,723
Joe Thornton 1,636
Zdeno Chara 1,553
Eric Staal 1,240
Dustin Brown 1,183
Alex Ovechkin 1,152
Ryan Suter 1,142
Duncan Keith 1,138
Jason Spezza 1,123
Brent Seabrook 1,114
Big chance for ‘Big Z’: Like Thornton, Zdeno Chara is looking to land an NHL contract for the 2020-21 season, whether it’s in Boston or, gasp, somewhere else. There’s a few of big “ifs” here, but stay with us: if Chara finds a team, and if the NHL schedule is 82 games, and if Chara plays all 82 games…he’d be at 1,635 career games, which would put him in a tie for 10th all-time with fellow blueline beast Scott Stevens. If this rather unlikely scenario comes to pass, he’d still need 16 games to overtake Chris Chelios (1,651 career games) for first place among defensemen.
Mind the gap: Once you get past the 20-plus year careers of Marleau, Thornton and Chara, you find the relatively youthful Eric Staal in fourth place among active players in games played. Staal, who turns 36 on Oct. 29, could almost play four full 82-game seasons and remain in fourth place, even if the three guys ahead of him never play another game. Staal, picked No. 2 overall in the 2003 draft, was 11 years old when Chara went 56th overall in 1996, and 12 years old when Thornton and Marleau went Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in 1997.
Russian machine never break: Alex Ovechkin, with 706 career goals, needs 189 more to break Wayne Gretzky’s NHL record of 894. It’s crazy but he’s got a shot – four more seasons in the 45-50 range would do it. If it comes to pass, he’d be nearing 1,500 career games – and, assuming he’s still with the Capitals, he’d be within reach of Lidstrom’s all-time mark of the most NHL games with only one franchise. Ovechkin is 35 and has scored 48 or more goals in six of the past seven seasons.