By Eddie Melville
The scoring race in the NHL has always intrigued me. Granted, I am a Pittsburgh Penguins fan and we have won a ridiculous amount of Art Ross trophies in my lifetime; however, I often have found that the best players are those that stay on or towards the top of the NHL in points. It’s no mistake that legends like Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and Bobby Orr are ranked 1, 2, and 4, respectively, in points per game all-time (Mike Bossy ranks #3). Sidney Crosby, the man most experts consider to be the best player of his generation, ranks 6th all-time in points per game and has won 2 Art Ross trophies to go along with 2 Maurice “Rocket” Richard trophies awarded to leading goal scorer. Interesting enough, as we head towards New Year’s Day in this current NHL season, Crosby finds himself in unfamiliar territory–17 points back in the points race, ranking 25th overall at this time. Which begs a few questions: can the current leaders keep up their current paces? And if so, has someone else without a doubt surpassed Crosby as the best in the game? Let’s take a look at a few of the guys hoping to cement their claim as the best hockey player in the world!
Nikita Kucherov (24 goals, 27 assists (51 points) in 35 games)
Kucherov went from good to great player during the 2016-17 campaign, hitting the 40 goal plateau to go along with 45 assists, finishing with 85 points overall. Only Sir Sidney himself had more goals than Nikita, which definitely left everyone wondering if he could take his game to another level in 2017-18. Well, so far, he has. The 24 year old Russian is currently on pace for an insane 119 points (56 goals, 63 assists). He can score in multiple ways and has amazing chemistry with the now healthy Steven Stamkos. If Kucherov keeps this going, he would likely not only be bringing home the Art Ross and Maurice Richard trophies, but also the Hart for league MVP. With the Lightning showing no signs of slowing down, I wouldn’t put it past him. However, it is worth noting that no player has scored 119 or more points since Crosby finished with 120 in 2006-07, so it’s likely Kucherov will cool off some. Still, if he eclipses 100 points and wins the Art Ross, he has a legitimate argument for best in the game. That is, of course, if he isn’t eclipsed by his linemate.
Steven Stamkos (13 goals, 32 assists (45 points) in 35 games)
After tearing the lateral meniscus in his right knee in November 2016 and being limited to 17 games, many questioned whether Stamkos would be able to return to elite form. Always known as a great goal scorer, the 27 year old Canadian has recognized the amazing shooting ability of Kucherov and been content to dish more in 2017-18. Stamkos’ current pace has him finishing with only 30 goals, which would be the lowest for an 82 game season since his rookie year; however, his excellent job setting up teammates has him projected to finish with 75 assists, which would eclipse his best assist year by almost 30 (he had 46 helpers in 2010-11). History suggests Stamkos will start looking for his shot more, which will cut into his assist total; however, this guy is talented enough to keep the pace going and even to possibly jump Kucherov in the points race. However, since Stamkos and Kucherov do play together, it’s also possible they’ll only just keep helping each other’s cause, making it likely that younger Nikita will outscore veteran Steven. Lightning fans won’t mind, but it does make you wonder how Stamkos will feel if Kucherov continues to be viewed as the better overall player. If both players can continue to keep their egos in check and just play great team hockey, they’ll have a great chance of sharing the best trophy in sports come June.
John Tavares (21 goals, 25 assists (46 points) in 36 games)
The 2009 number 1 overall pick is playing the best hockey of his career so far. As highly skilled as Tavares is, he has only topped over a point per game once over the course of 82 games in his 8 year career (86 points in 82 games in 2014-15). At his current clip, he would finish with 48 goals, 57 assists for a total of 105 points for the surprising Islanders. Aided by fellow teammates Anders Lee (22 goals, 37 points) and Josh Bailey (36 helpers, 46 points), it’s quite possible Tavares could keep his great season going and finally put it altogether in a way NHL experts always predicted he eventually would. A scoring title and high playoff seeding for New York would almost surely give John the Hart Trophy. I do think Tavares will set a career high in points; however, I have a hard time seeing him keep up with the Tampa boys and another elite guy in Edmonton, because the Metropolitan Division is just too tough this year. Expect Tavares’ numbers to suffer as a result of the divisional battles that will almost surely be tight checking and lower scoring that the non-division games
Conor McDavid (14 goals, 29 assists (43 points) in 36 games)
When hockey experts did name someone other than #87 as the best in the business, their answer was typically McDavid and for good reason. Touted the best prospect since Sid the Kid, McDavid lived up to the hype in his second NHL season, scoring 100 points (30 goals, 70 assists) en route to leading the once laughable Edmonton Oilers to the playoffs. This year, Conor’s team is struggling, but he is still on pace for 32 goals, 66 assists for a total of 98 points, putting him right around last year’s success. The 20 year old prodigy will likely have to keep producing for the Oilers to even have a chance to get back into the playoff hunt. No one skates faster and few draw penalties as well as McDavid. He is still my favorite to win this thing at the end of the day, because with all due respect to Kucherov, this is the most talented player in the game. If Sid is going to pass the torch to anyone, it’s Conor.
Josh Bailey (10 goals, 36 assists (46 points) in 36 games)
A big surprise who is racking up assists like crazy; still, I won’t believe it until he sustains this kind of success over 82 games as his previous is 56 points.
Claude Giroux (13 goals, 29 assists (42 points) in 36 games)
The Flyers captain hasn’t been this high up in the scoring race in quite some time and will definitely have to keep producing to the keep the Flyers afloat; however, that same logic is why I doubt he even finishes above a point per game.
Sidney Crosby (14 goals, 20 assists (34 points) in 37 games)
You thought I wouldn’t mention this guy again? It’s hard to count out a guy that has finished no lower than 3rd in the points 5 seasons in a row. If Crosby got back to his career PPG average of 1.30 the rest of the season, he would finish with 92 points. While that probably wouldn’t be enough to win the scoring title, there is a great chance he’d be in the top 3 once again.
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