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Top 10 Art Ross Trophy candidates for 2018-19

McDavid’s vice grip on the award continues to tighten, but there’s a huge field of elite players vying for second place in the scoring race.

Let’s be honest with ourselves: forecasting the 2018-19 Art Ross Trophy winner is a suspense-free exercise. The era belongs to Connor McDavid, who has captured the league scoring crown two consecutive years, with totals of 100 and 108 points, winning by margins of 11 and six points. His 2017-18 total was the highest by any player in the past six seasons, and his 1.32 points per game was the best average in five years. McDavid now has two Art Ross trophies by 21. The only other player to accomplish that: Wayne friggin’ Gretzky.

McDavid’s reaction two months ago when I told him that Gretzky stat should give goalies night sweats.

“I’m only 21,” McDavid said. “I’m still very young and believe I can get much better and continue to grow my game just like everyone can in this league. If you’re not getting better, you’re standing still, and everyone else is getting better, so you’ve always got to continue to build your game and find different ways to improve. I think, being young, I still have an opportunity to get better.”

Get better? A terrifying thought for someone already scoring at a generational-talent level. And it’s all the more reason to predict he wins a third straight scoring title in a walk. The more interesting race is to claim second place. But, hey, you never know what can happen. Several players flirted with McDavid’s points per game last season, and injuries can strike anyone, so forecasting the top 10 Art Ross threats remains a worthwhile exercise.

1. CONNOR MCDAVID, EDMONTON OILERS

McDavid’s 3.2 points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 didn’t just lead the NHL last year. That’s the highest average by any player with 50 or more games since Evgeni Malkin’s epic 2011-12 season, which netted him 50 goals, the scoring title and the MVP. McDavid simply exists in a different stratosphere than any other player right now, and, as he said, he’s not done improving.

McDavid doesn’t turn 22 until January. Looking at other generational talents, Gretzky’s peak seasons came between the seasons he started at age 21 to his age-25 year. McDavid is the same age Gretzky was for his 92-goal season, and Gretzky’s arguably-better effort, in which he notched 87 goals and 205 points in just 74 games, came in his age-23 year. Mario Lemieux went supernova at 22 and 23, Alex Ovechkin at 22 and 23, and Crosby’s best production came at 23 in his concussion-shortened 2010-11 season. So we can legitimately expect McDavid to keep ascending, making him even harder to catch in the scoring race. He may win this thing by 15 points.

2. NIKITA KUCHEROV, TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

Kucherov cracks this list for the same reasons he did my Rocket Richard list: elite player, arriving smack in the middle of his prime, elite linemates, elite team. Everything works in Kucherov’s favor. He got his first 100-point campaign last year, and while that’s a difficult peak to summit again, there could be one more rung on the ladder if Kucherov can extend one of his patented, god-like hot streaks longer than usual. This guy had 17 goals and 33 points through 19 games last season, let’s remember.

3. NATHAN MACKINNON, COLORADO AVALANCHE

MacKinnon’s 97-point explosion may look like the outlier compared to his previous career stats, but with each season going forward for the next several years, bet on ‘Nate Dogg ‘to show the world last year was the real him. The mental side of his game finally caught up with his tremendous physical tools, he found amazing chemistry with Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, and the trio blew away opponents even when faced with their toughest checkers. MacKinnon missed eight games, so is a 100-point effort within reach? Maybe, but it won’t be easy. His shooting percentage destroyed his career high last year, so will it regress, or is it a reflection of him further honing his skill? It’s not like 13.7 percent is an impossible number to repeat like William Karlsson’s 23.4. And MacKinnon is just 23, not just in his prime window but in his peak-seasons window. He finished second in primary points per 60 at 5-on-5 last year, one slot ahead of McDavid.

4. SIDNEY CROSBY, PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

Crosby is 31. Only six players in NHL history have won the scoring crown starting a season 31 or older, and two of them, Martin St-Louis and Roy Conacher, did it in seasons of 48 and 60 games, respectively. But the four who won it in seasons of 70 or more games are Gordie Howe, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Phil Esposito. Crosby belongs with that group in the pantheon of all-time dominant players, so if anyone can win the Art Ross as a greybeard, its Sid. He hasn’t won it since 2013-14 but has been a top-10 scorer six consecutive years. His goal total should also climb north of 29 again this year as he posted the second-worst shooting percentage of his career. He’s young enough for it to normalize.

5. BRAD MARCHAND, BOSTON BRUINS

Still feels weird to see agitator extraordinaire Marchand on lists like these, doesn’t it? But he really is that good. Only McDavid, MacKinnon and Evgeni Malkin bested Marchand’s points per game last season, and he’s one of the most productive 5-on-5 players in the league on a per-minute basis. With linemate David Pastrnak still ascending, too, it’s possible the entire trio, including Patrice Bergeron, hasn’t enjoyed its best season yet, which is scary considering they already form the NHL’s top all-round line.

6. CLAUDE GIROUX, PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

Hopefully Flyers fans don’t consider this rank an act of disrespect toward their captain. Giroux finished second in the NHL only to McDavid in points with 102 last season, after all. But Giroux is 30 and less likely than Crosby to buck the trend of scoring champions typically being in their 20s considering Giroux, while still a great player, is not a legend of the game in the vein of Crosby. Sorry if that angers you, Flyers fans, but go look at their trophy cases. Giroux also just smashed his career high in goals the same season he smashed his career high in shooting percentage, so a goal regression might suck 10 points off his total even if he remains an all-world puck distributor. Giroux earned his success last year, but I’d bet on 2017-18 going down as his high watermark.

7. EVGENI MALKIN, PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

I don’t want to repeat my explanation for his low-ish rank from the Rocket Richard contenders list, but I really have no choice: the only thing preventing Malkin from winning more scoring titles is the fact he so often misses chunks of the season with nagging injuries. His 78 games last year were a nine-year high. He’s one of the most underrated players in hockey history – remember when he got left off the NHL’s top 100? I still can’t believe it – and he probably has at least one more year left as one of the league’s very best per-game scorers, but we have to slide him out of the top tier because he’s so much more likely than anyone else on this list to miss time.

8. AUSTON MATTHEWS, TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

Relative to the 2016 draft hype, which practically labelled him as McDavid’s peer, you could make a case Matthews has fallen short of expectations. I’m sure the legions of Leaf haters would. But Matthews, on a per-minute basis, has been pure magic. Matthews, not McDavid, had the most primary points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 last year and, as I pointed out in the Rocket Richard rankings, has the most even-strength goals in the league since debuting. Matthews is a juggernaut masquerading as a “just” a star, and he’s only 20 years old. Ice time, especially on the power play, is the reason for his modest rank. Coach Mike Babcock continues to hold his youngster back and, with John Tavares now 1B to Matthews’ 1A or vice versa, we can’t be absolutely certain Matthews will get the massive spike in minutes he deserves. If it happens, this rank will end up way too low.

9. EVGENY KUZNETSOV, WASHINGTON CAPITALS

Kuznetsov is the least predictable player on this list. He’s a truly special talent, a jaw-dropping puckhandler, and he appears to have permanently surpassed Nicklas Backstrom as Washington’s No. 1 center and the man feeding Ovechkin. After a career-best campaign of 83 points, Kuznetsov reached a new level in the playoffs with 12 goals and a league-best 32 points across 24 games en route to the Stanley Cup. Does that mean he’s broken through to the elite tier and will hit the 90-point mark for the first time? It’s possible, but Kuznetsov is 26, having come to the NHL later than most high-end prospects, so it’s more likely he’s completed his rise and this 80-point range becomes the consistent baseline for his remaining prime years.

10. JOHN TAVARES, TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

The kneejerk reaction may be to peg Tavares for his greatest season yet now that he’s playing on a winning team, sharing a line with Mitch Marner and enjoying insulation if teams decide to key on the Matthews line. But Tavares had great insulation with the New York Islanders last year, too, courtesy of the Mathew Barzal line. Babcock also doesn’t tend to play his stars as much as most coaches. Tavares averages 20:01 of ice time per game in his career, but no Leaf forward in the Babcock era has eclipsed 18:16. It wouldn’t be surprising to see an established veteran star like Tavares change that, but he’s still a decent bet to play the fewest minutes of his career on a deep team. Tavares will also be 28 when the season starts. He’s more likely to maintain his current production in the 80- to 85-point range than explode and win a scoring title. Unless, of course, Marner goes nuts and the two hike each other’s point totals on account of their chemistry.

Other Art Ross Trophy candidates to consider: Johnny Gaudreau Calgary Flames; David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins; Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets; Taylor Hall, New Jersey Devils; Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets, Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning; Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders; Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres; Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks; Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings; Artemi Panarin, Columbus Blue Jackets; Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers; Jamie Benn, Dallas Stars; Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs; Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets; Tyler Seguin, Dallas Stars; Phil Kessel, Pittsburgh Penguins; Ryan Getzlaf, Anaheim Ducks

 

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