It's not a question of who dethrones McDavid. It's a question of how many points McDavid finishes ahead of second place.
Let’s not kid ourselves. Some of this season’s trophy races are tough to predict – but not the Art Ross. This is Connor McDavid’s award to lose and should be for the next decade. He won the 2016-17 scoring crown by 11 points. He’s the third youngest Art Ross winner in NHL history. It appears his floor is 100 points. So handicapping the points race is a matter of deciding who will come second – or who will win the Art Ross in the event of a McDavid injury.
1. Connor McDavid, C, Edmonton Oilers
McDavid got better as last season progressed. It didn’t look like 100 points were within reach, but he went gangbusters with 10 goals and 31 points over his final 20 games of 2016-17. When I interviewed him this summer, he admitted he became increasingly aware – nervous, even – about the chase for 100 points. He’s a proud kid who cares about milestones like that. We can thus expect him to keep pushing for more. Extrapolate his pace over those final 20 games and you get a 41-goal, 127-point output for 82 games. That’s definitely the ceiling, but it’s a reachable one for No. 97 this coming season. It would tie Jaromir Jagr’s 1998-99 effort for the highest total of the past two decades. A better bet would be something like 110 points for McDavid, but anything feels possible for him.
2. Mark Scheifele, C, Winnipeg Jets
I’m projecting a bit here, but Scheifele’s arrow points squarely north. He hasn’t reached his peak. His 82 points placed him seventh in NHL scoring last year and don’t tell the full story. Since he took over the Jets No. 1 center gig in February 2016 following a Bryan Little injury, Scheifele has 116 points in 105 games. He’s an top-drawer point getter, and he has room for more with some outstanding wingers at his disposal, likely Nikolaj Ehlers on the left and Patrik Laine or Blake Wheeler on the right. Scheifele has a real shot to break 90 points this season.
3. Sidney Crosby, C, Pittsburgh Penguins
Crosby is such a complete player, so devoted to every facet of the game, that he likely won’t crack 100 points again. He’s still an utterly dominant offensive weapon, fresh off leading the NHL in goals. He’s finished no worse than third in NHL scoring five consecutive seasons. He’s a lock to average better than a point per game. If we knew he’d play 82 games, he’d jump to No. 2 on the list. It still feels like 85 points is Crosby’s floor right now. I have Scheifele above him simply because Scheifele has the higher ceiling as the younger, healthier player still on an upward trajectory.
4. Patrick Kane, RW, Chicago Blackhawks
Kane is probably the best bet other than McDavid to score 100 points, as Kane did it the season before last, racking up 106 en route to Art Ross and MVP honors. Kane, though, won’t have Artemi Panarin as a linemate anymore, and even though Kane was the driver of that line, Panarin still added plenty of skill to it. Kane has also never cracked the 90-point barrier outside the one monster season. He’s a great pick to finish top-five in league scoring but likely to settle between 85 and 90 points like he did last year.
5. Nikita Kucherov, RW, Tampa Bay Lightning
Surely Kucherov has reached his ceiling…right? Maybe it’s time we stopped underestimating him and acknowledge him as one of the best five or six players on Earth. He averaged 1.15 points per game last year, with 85 in 74, and he closed with a whopping 19 goals and 35 points in 22 games, carrying the Lightning on his back. I want to say he’ll duplicate his 2016-17, but he’s still just 24 and has improved his numbers every season. Maybe he climbs one more level and becomes a 90-point man and true Art Ross threat.
6. Jamie Benn, LW, Dallas Stars
Only Kane and Crosby have more points than Benn over the past four seasons, though that’s partially because McDavid, Scheifele and Kucherov have just broken into the league over that stretch. Still, it’s a reminder of how dominant Benn can be. He won the Art Ross in 2014-15 with 87 points and actually topped it the next year, finishing second to Kane with 89 points. Benn’s production dipped to 69 points in an all-around bad year for Dallas, but it’s hardly a sign of decline. He’s 28, younger than Crosby and Kane. Benn also looks like he’ll get Alexander Radulov added to his line with Tyler Seguin. Benn should easily vault back into the top 10 scorers in 2017-18.
7. Auston Matthews, C, Toronto Maple Leafs
A lot of people didn’t believe us when we insisted Matthews was a generational talent, that we weren’t overusing the term, that it was a coincidence he and McDavid arrived in back-to-back seasons. Then Matthews sniped four goals in his first game and became the first teenager to score 40 since Rick Nash in 2003-04. Now it seems everyone gets it. Matthews is a superstar in the making. Can he challenge for the Art Ross as a sophomore? He only had 29 assists and 69 points, so doing it would require a huge improvement, but he should have great linemates in Toronto. It’s more likely Matthews jumps to 75 or 80 points, but he’s shown already he can blow the lid off our expectations.
8. Steven Stamkos, C, Tampa Bay Lightning
Stamkos’ 20 points in 17 games put him on a 96-point clip last year before a torn meniscus ended his season. He was new man after signing his long-term extension with Tampa. He showed that when he’s healthy he can still produce as one of the most dynamic offensive players in hockey, and he’s still just 27. If he gets hurt again this year, we can give up on the dream of him ever leading the league in points, but he’s a sleeper if he can play 75 games or more.
9. Nicklas Backstrom, C, Washington Capitals
More a floor play than a ceiling play. Evgeny Kuznetsov gets all the hype, but the criminally underrated Backstrom has finished top-10 in league scoring five times. He was in the hunt for the Art Ross deep into the winter last season before McDavid’s late binge separated him. Backstrom will always have good linemates, likely Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie, plus ample power play time. Backstrom will be a point-per-game guy again, and there aren’t many of those nowadays.
10. Brad Marchand, LW, Boston Bruins
‘The Nose Face Killah’ doesn’t feel like a scoring champion, as he’s such a good agitator, but Marchand has shown us just how talented he really is in recent years, using his speed and skill to become an elite scorer. Don’t forget, Marchand was tied with McDavid for the league scoring lead as late as mid-March last season. Marchand deserves Art Ross consideration.
Other Art Ross Trophy candidates to watch:
Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres; John Tavares, New York Islanders; Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers; Ryan Getzlaf, Anaheim Ducks; David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins; Tyler Seguin, Dallas Stars; Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins; Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues; Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators; Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks; Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals; Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames