Ovechkin won’t go quietly, but will that matter with Laine charging at him so hard? The goal-scoring crown may change hands.
Every time we declare Alex Ovechkin’s goal-scoring reign over, he shoves it down our throats. A year ago, he was about to turn 32, fresh off a 33-goal season and the target of a public call-out from Washington Capitals GM Brian MacLellan. A year later: Ovie has his seventh Rocket Richard Trophy, a Conn Smythe Trophy and a Stanley Cup. He was motivated to silence the haters. He did that and then some.
“The media says he has an off year, but it’s still 30 goals, still a lot of goals, and in the summertime he probably gets a little mad,” Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom told me shortly before the playoffs last season. “Everyone who plays with him knows how much he loves to score. He gets mad and refocuses.”
One of these years, age will finally kick in, but until then we need to forecast Ovechkin as a legit threat to win his eighth goal-scoring grown. He’s tied with Bobby Hull for the most times leading the NHL in goals. An eighth win would give Ovie the sole possession of the record.
That said, through no fault of his own, he may not win the Richard simply because one particular youngster looks poised to snatch it away. Here are my top 10 Rocket Richard Trophy candidates for 2018-19.
1. PATRIK LAINE, WINNIPEG JETS
It’s not just a matter of Laine progressing and Ovechkin regressing in his early 30s. It’s a matter of understanding just how sneaky-amazing Laine has been so far in his career. He debuted in the NHL at 18. Ovechkin did so at 20. So before we declare Laine off Ovechkin’s trajectory, let it soak in that Laine got 80 career goals before his 20th birthday. Ovechkin lost what could’ve been a teenage season because of the 2004-05 NHL lockout, so Laine is 80 goals ahead of this generation’s greatest goal scorer.
Laine’s production as a teenager has been historic. Jimmy Carson’s 92 goals are the most by a teenager in NHL history, followed by Dale Hawerchuk’s 85, but it doesn’t take a hockey trivia virtuoso to know Carson and Hawerchuk toiled in the league’s peak offensive years. If we adjust for era with hockey-reference.com’s formula, Carson’s goal total slips to 77, while Hawerchuk’s shrinks to 65. That puts Laine on top at 85 era-adjusted teenage goals. It’s no stretch to call him the best teenage goal-scorer in NHL history.
Natural progression and comfort with the NHL game already provide reason to expect Laine’s 44 goals from last season to swell. And what happens if he shoots the puck more? Ovechkin averages an incredible 4.88 shots per game in his career, scoring 12.4 percent of the time. He is a volume machine. Laine shot the puck just 2.87 times per game across his first 155 contests, with an incredible 18.0 percent success rate. Laine is a much more accurate shooter, so if he can make even incremental increases in his shot total, it will combine with his eagle-eyed accuracy to produce some truly prolific numbers. We’re talking 60-goal potential.
There’s reason to expect Laine will indeed shoot the puck more going forward. His shots per game rose from 2.79 to 2.94 last season – even though his ice time decreased from 17:55 per game to a paltry 16:29. Laine averaged 0.16 shots per minute as a rookie versus 0.18 as a sophomore. Laine did a better job firing the biscuit in Year 2, so isn’t he a strong bet to keep improving in Year 3? If his shots per minute increases modestly to, say, 0.20 and we assume coach Paul Maurice ups Laine’s ice time to, say, 18 minutes a night, you get a 53-goal season. Sounds about right.
2. ALEX OVECHKIN, WASHINGTON CAPITALS
Ovie remains an annually elite goal-scoring threat who peppers goalies with pucks, having led the NHL not just in goals but also in shots last season. He’s accomplished the latter 11 times in his 13 seasons. We know he’ll shoot more than anyone, that he’ll get oodles of power play time and that he’ll likely keep playing with prime-years beast Evgeny Kuznetsov as his center.
But will Ovie, turning 33 next week, suffer a literal and metaphorical Cup hangover? He (justifiably) partied hard all summer and also became a first-time dad. It wouldn’t be utterly shocking if he opened 2018-19 a bit slowly.
3. AUSTON MATTHEWS, TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Matthews is almost the anti-Ovechkin in that Matthews has displayed sublime goal-scoring ability but just hasn’t had the same volume-based opportunities to win the Richard Trophy. Since Matthews debuted in 2016-17, he leads the NHL in 5-on-5 goals with 55, four better than Connor McDavid’s 51, and Matthews missed 20 games last year. All that’s holding him back: Leafs coach Mike Babcock plays Matthews 17:51 per game so far across his first two seasons. Last year, Matthews averaged 2:09 of power play time per contest, placing him an absurd 154th among all forwards. The leader in that category by a mile: Ovechkin, who played a whopping 4:12 per game on the power play and got 17 of his goals that way. If Babcock takes the training wheels off, Matthews becomes a serious challenger for the league’s goal-scoring title.
4. CONNOR MCDAVID, EDMONTON OILERS
I get the feeling McDavid has that ‘Sidney Crosby Switch’ allowing him to just “be a goal scorer” whenever he wants to. Seemingly sensing the help from teammates wasn’t coming, McDavid ripped 18 goals in his final 25 games last season en route to a new career high of 41. He’s the one player in the league capable of imposing his will and doing virtually whatever he wants on the ice. He’s a lock for the Art Ross if healthy but a sneaky-major contender for the Richard, too.
5. NIKITA KUCHEROV, TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
Among players with at least 1,000 minutes played over the past two seasons, Kucherov ranks sixth in 5-on-5 goals per 60 minutes. He’s a skilled, accurate shooter right in the middle of his prime, with an endless bag of deceptive tricks to fool goalies, probably McDavid’s biggest threat for the points crown and a bona fide Rocket Richard candidate, too.
6. NATHAN MACKINNON, COLORADO AVALANCHE
MacKinnon finally found a way to blow opponents away with his speed last year, and the result was a monster breakout for 39 goals, 97 points and a second-place finish in the MVP race. MacKinnon finally did what we expected him to do when the Avs took him first overall in 2013. He missed eight games, too, so his goal total pro-rated to 43. MacKinnon lit it up despite facing some of the league’s toughest quality of competition last year, so there’s no worry about “the secret being out” or teams keying on him and linemates Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen. Teams already did that and couldn’t stop them.
7. BRAD MARCHAND, BOSTON BRUINS
The NHL’s leader in 5-on-5 goals per 60 minutes the past two years: Mr. Marchand, who is somehow still underrated, with his pest status masking the fact he’s a truly elite player now. He’d be higher on this list if (a) he wasn’t a constant risk to miss time with suspensions, especially since the repeat offenses mean his bans could get longer and longer; and (b) he got more power play time. He’s a shorthanded dynamo, too, so coach Bruce Cassidy spreads out Marchand’s usage. He ranked 50th among forwards in power play time per game last season.
8. DAVID PASTRNAK, BOSTON BRUINS
‘Pasta’ is the sexy sleeper pick to win the Rocket Richard. The only player averaging more 5-on-5 goals per 60 minutes than Pastrnak last year was McDavid. Pastrnak enters his fifth NHL season yet is still just 22, younger than Brayden Point, William Nylander and Nikolaj Ehlers. The ascension isn’t done. We should fully expect Pastrnak to cross the 40-goal threshold if he stays on hockey’s best line with Marchand and Patrice Bergeron.
9. VLADIMIR TARASENKO, ST. LOUIS BLUES
Tarasenko feels like the forgotten man in the goal-scoring race. After finishing fifth, fourth and fourth in goals across three consecutive seasons, he dipped to 23rd last year with 33 goals. He scored on a career-low 10.8 percent of his shots, however. Since he’s still in his prime at 26, we can count on a positive accuracy regression. He set a new career high with 306 shots last year. Matching that total while scoring at his career-norm rate of 13.1 percent would jump him back to 40 goals in 2018-19. He also has much better lineup insulation after the Blues added so many forwards via trade and free agency this off-season. Tarasenko is a nice bounce-back candidate.
10. EVGENI MALKIN, PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
The talent and goal-scoring ability are never in question with ‘Geno.’ He’s a three-time 40-goal man, and his deadly release seems even deadlier of late, as he’s scored on more than 16 percent of his attempts three seasons in a row, creating a big enough sample size to constitute a “new normal.” But we know why Malkin only sits 10th on this list: health. His 78 games last year were his most in nine years. Thanks to his endless run of nicks and strains, he’s played in just 82.5 percent of Pittsburgh’s games over his career, an average of about 68 per year. So when we bet on Malkin’s goal total, there’s almost no point forecasting it across 82 games. Even 75 is typically a tall order for him. The contending Pens smartly rest him whenever he shows signs of breakdown, as they like him as fresh as possible for the playoffs, where he’s typically a wrecking ball.
Other Rocket Richard Trophy candidates to consider: Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning; Jamie Benn, Dallas Stars; Tyler Seguin, Dallas Stars; John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs; Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins; Taylor Hall, New Jersey Devils; Filip Forsberg, Nashville Predators; Rickard Rakell, Anaheim Ducks; Brock Boeser, Vancouver Canucks; William Karlsson, Vegas Golden Knights; Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets
Advanced statistics courtesy of corsica.hockey