Sorry, Mr. Ovechkin. I’m done doubting you. You turn 34 in a matter of days and, at 33, became the oldest NHL goal-scoring champion since Gordie Howe in 1962-63. Theoretically, the odds of you winning a ninth Rocket Richard Trophy and seventh in the past eight years should be low, but you defy logic. The time to predict some whippersnapper stealing your goal-scoring mantle is over. I’ll believe it when it happens at this point.
That said, one of these years, Ovechkin will relinquish his crown as hockey’s most supreme twine bulger. Even if it doesn’t happen in 2019-20, some players sit on the precipice of truly challenging him. Leon Draisaitl came within a goal last year, after all, while Auston Matthews’ per-60 production tells us better health and more minutes would vault him into the race.
Who has the best chance to lead the NHL in goals this season? Here are my top 10 Rocket Richard candidates for 2019-20.
1. ALEX OVECHKIN, WASHINGTON CAPITALS
Ovechkin broke free of Bobby Hull last season to set a new NHL record for most times leading the league in goals. Ovie’s done it eight times, and it’s remarkable that he’s done it in six of the past seven seasons considering the year before that run started, 2011-12, was the ‘Dale Hunter Year’ in Washington, during which a slew of hot takes questioned whether Ovie’s prime had ended. With one more 50-goal effort, Ovechkin will tie Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy for the most with nine. Many people already consider Ovechkin the greatest goal-scorer ever, factoring in the era and the consistency with which he’s been the best on Earth at his craft. But even objectively, any remaining Ovie detractors are running out of reasons to doubt his claim to the all-time throne. No one has led the league in goals more, and, health permitting, he might still threaten No. 99’s all-time record of 894 goals.
So does Ovie show any signs of decline at the moment? Maybe a little. His 11.97 shots per 60 minutes last season marked the second-lowest rate of his 14-year career. On the other hand, that number still ranked him third in the NHL among all players with 500 or more minutes played, so he’s declined in shot volume from godlike to “merely awesome.” He did post the highest shooting percentage of his career at 15.1 percent last season, meaning we could expect a mini regression in luck toward his career average of 12.6, and aging could shrink his shot volume a bit. Offsetting those factors, though, is Ovie’s incredibly generous power-play usage. Last season, he led the NHL with a hilarious 4:25 per game. That was the highest mark for any qualified forward in the past five seasons, and Ovechkin owns the three highest average power-play TOI marks over that stretch. His Washington Capitals ranked 16th in power-play chances last season so, with a little luck, Ovie’s time with the extra man could actually increase further in 2019-20.
Even if 50 goals will be tough to achieve again, Ovie’s floor still looks like 40 to 45, making him the safest pick for the Rocket Richard.
2. LEON DRAISAITL, EDMONTON OILERS
The big, uber-skilled German was right there last year, notching his first 50-goal and 100-point efforts. He’s 23, situated in his prime and slated to play on Connor McDavid’s left wing. The conditions mostly ideal for Draisaitl. The only reason for trepidation is the arrival of Dave Tippett as head coach. The fact Tippett is a defense-minded guy isn’t really the problem, as Ken Hitchcock was, too. But ‘Hitch’ has always leaned on his stars in all situations, hence McDavid and Draisaitl finishing 1-2 in the league in ice time among forwards last season. Tippett has already talked about playing his alpha dogs less on the penalty kill, so we could see McDavid and Draisaitl at 21 minutes a night instead of 22. Draisaitl also led the NHL in shooting percentage at 21.6 last season. Considering only two players in league history have career marks higher than 21.6, and both played the bulk of their careers in the 1980s, it’s safe to say that number comes down for Draisaitl.
Regardless, he’s a beast with a goal-scoring floor as high as anyone’s. We can’t rule out even more progression for McDavid as a player, which could mean additional pucks on Draisaitl’s stick. So even if we factor in a puck-luck regression, Draisaitl is an elite Richard contender.
3. AUSTON MATTHEWS, TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
The ranking seems aggressive, I’m sure. But 802 players have logged at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey since the start of Matthews’ career in 2016-17, and he ranks first in goals per 60 minutes among that entire group. No one puts the puck in the net more often than Matthews relative to ice time, period. What he needs are an increase in minutes and a healthy season, and “healthy” for him could merely mean 75 to 78 games or so.
The ice-time dilemma sits in coach Mike Babcock’s hands, and we spoke about it last month. Babcock’s thoughts seemed to generate a storm of Twitter negativity but, for what it’s worth, I took what he said as an indication Matthews will indeed play more in 2019-20.
“Each guy should manage his team the best way he can, but there’s no question, I think he and John (Tavares), to be as good as they’re capable of being, should be right around the 19-minute mark,” Babcock said. “Some nights they’re going to be 18, some nights they’re going to be 20, but I think that’s where (Auston’s) the best, for sure. He’s an important part. He’s earned the right over time as he’s gotten better and better to earn more and more. A big part of the game is earning what you get. Your teammates respect that, and I think Auston’s done a real good job in that area.”
Across his three seasons, among forwards with at least 50 games played, Matthews ranks tied for 78th in minutes per game at 18:04. If Babcock can hike that average up even a minute and Matthews plays close to a full slate of games, he’ll push for the Richard. At 18:33 last season, he was already at a 45-goal pace in 68 games.
4. DAVID PASTRNAK, BOSTON BRUINS
Pastrnak is a top-tier offensive player who was on his way to top-tier numbers before a freak thumb injury in an off-ice incident cost him the last 16 games of the 2018-19 regular season. His goals, assists, points and shots per game all hummed along at career-best rates, and his pace extrapolated to a 47-goal campaign. He ranked 16th in goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 last season but is an absolute assassin on the power play, where he led the NHL in goals per 60. In his case, the power-play minutes aren’t going anywhere. The injury was so fluky last year that we shouldn’t expect many if any missed games this season, so we should get a full dose of Pastrnak, resulting in 45 goals at minimum and the upside to crack 50.
5. CONNOR MCDAVID, EDMONTON OILERS
Sometimes, when a player is so good at everything and makes others around him so much better, we think of him as a playmaker and forget how good of a goal-scorer he is. Sidney Crosby, for instance, quietly owns two Rocket Richard Trophies. Maybe McDavid gets to that stratosphere this season. He’s certainly gifted enough. With consecutive 41-goal efforts, he’s scored more than all but two players over the past two seasons. To reach the next level, he’ll have to shoot more, however. McDavid ranked just 234th in shots per 60 minutes among forwards with at least 100 minutes played last season. Offsetting that is the fact McDavid played so many minutes, of course. Even if Tippett reduces his ice time, he’ll play more than most forwards in the league, so a slight spike in his shot rate could produce a career high in goals.
6. STEVEN STAMKOS, TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
It was strange two seasons ago when Stamkos, one of the best pure goal-scorers of his generation, became a playmaker. His 27-goal output was his lowest on a per-game basis since his rookie year, and he set a career high with 59 assists. He regained his vintage deadly form last season, as expected. His shooting percentage corrected from 12.7 to 19.2 percent, resulting in 45 goals, Stamkos’ highest total since he scored 60 in 2011-12. The shooting percentage would appear unsustainably high – but not for Stamkos. He’s always possessed pinpoint accuracy. Since his rookie season, 2008-09, 305 skaters have played at least 500 games, and Stamkos ranks first among them in career shooting percentage at 16.9.
Translation: last season’s return to glory was the norm, not the anomaly, so we can expect Stammer to fill the net again, especially with all the talent surrounding him. Anything less than 40 goals would qualify as a surprise.
7. JOHN TAVARES, TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Tavares was always one of the league’s best net-front presences and took that skill to a new level in his first season as a Leaf. But it’s not like he got each of his 47 goals parked out front on the power play. He led the NHL in even-strength tallies with 37 and ranked first in 5-on-5 goals per 60 minutes among 131 forwards with 1,000-plus minutes. It’s difficult to imagine him topping last season’s effort, however. It’s rare for any player to set a career high in goals in his 11th season. We also don’t know yet if Tavares will have his right winger Mitch Marner, still unsigned as an RFA, ready to start the season. Tavares should be one of the league’s premier goal-scorers again, but it feels like last season was the peak. He turns 29 before the season starts, and the only players to win the Richard that old this millennium are two pretty-good hockey players named Ovechkin and Crosby.
8. ALEX DEBRINCAT, CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
The dazzling little waterbug is still just 21, and the jump to 41 goals as a sophomore showed a natural progression after he finished third among rookies with 28 goals the season prior. DeBrincat’s shooting percentage was high at 18.6, but he looks like one of those goal-scorers who will post top-notch accuracy marks his entire career, so we can’t say for certain that number will drop, especially since he was excellent as a rookie at above 15 percent as well. The situation for DeBrincat remains cozy, as he’ll likely play with puck distributor Dylan Strome again and get power-play duty alongside Patrick Kane as well. DeBrincat played 14:48 per game as a rookie and 17:42 last year. He likely won’t see another three-minute increase but, as the Hawks rely on him more and more, coach Jeremy Colliton might tack on another minute, inflating DeBrincat’s ceiling even more. He’s not done progressing. A climb to 45 goals feels more likely than not.
9. JAKE GUENTZEL, PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
We’ll all remember 2018-19 at the season Playoff Jake Guentzel and Regular-Season Jake Guentzel finally merged into one great player. He was a consistent force as Crosby’s trigger man, scoring at least five goals in every month aside from a three-game April. Among forwards with 1,000 or more minutes at 5-on-5, he trailed only Tavares in goals per 60. Can Guentzel improve on last season’s 40-goal breakout? It might depend on power-play usage. He averaged the 147th-most PP TOI among forwards last season and ranked fifth among Penguins forwards. With Phil Kessel off to Arizona, however, Guentzel should see more opportunities. Giddyup.
10. PATRIK LAINE, WINNIPEG JETS
The truth: Viktor Arvidsson probably deserves this last spot. He had 34 goals in just 58 games last season. Among forwards with 500-plus minutes, he led all NHLers in goals per 60 last season. If not Arvidsson, reigning MVP and scoring champion Nikita Kucherov would have a strong case.
But I can’t quit Laine, assuming he signs a contract and starts the season on time. Consider all the flak he took for such a down 2018-19 season. Now consider that he’s a 21-year-old and that a 30-goal effort has been established as his absolute rock bottom. He was maddeningly streaky last season but nevertheless went off for 18 goals during a 12-game stretch last season. There may not be another player on the planet right now, Ovechkin included, capable of scoring 18 goals in 12 games. The upside remains firmly intact for Laine, who is younger than DeBrincat and Matthews or even 2019-20 rookies Drake Batherson, Sam Steel and Alexander Nylander. Laine is still a kid – a kid with 110 career goals. He has plenty of time to mature and discover his consistency. If 30 goals qualifies as a hellishly bad effort by his standard, what’s the ceiling? I’d say it’s still 50-plus goals if he can get his head on straight.
Other Rocket Richard Trophy candidates to consider: Nikita Kucherov, Viktor Arvidsson, Patrick Kane, Brayden Point, Nathan MacKinnon, Sidney Crosby, Timo Meier, Evgeni Malkin, Jeff Skinner, Mark Scheifele, Brock Boeser, Elias Pettersson, Mark Stone, Tyler Seguin, Filip Forsberg, Kyle Connor, Vladimir Tarasenko, Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk, Taylor Hall, Sean Monahan
All advanced statistics courtesy of naturalstattrick.com