Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine. Image by: Getty Images
Alex Ovechkin's vice grip on the goals crown is no more. It’s a wide-open race to lead the league, with some young stars ready to take over.
Predicting the league’s goal-scoring leader used to be the easiest task in the world. Alex Ovechkin had done it four straight years before 2016-17 rolled around, and we could always count on him to score 50 or more, even if no one else in the league did.
Last year, though? Ovie, 31, slipped to 33, averaging the fewest goals per game of his career at 0.40. League leader Sidney Crosby had 44. Not only does Ovie no longer own a monopoly on the Rocket Richard Trophy, but the field is also tighter, with no sniper towering over the pack like vintage No. 8 did…
…Probably. The young stars at the top of my Richard challengers list could pop off into the 50-goal stratosphere for the first time. Here are my top 10.
1. Patrik Laine, RW, Winnipeg Jets
At 18, Laine finished seventh in the league with 36 goals despite playing just 73 games. His league rank in shots on goal: tied for 54th with 204. Goodness, imagine the possibilities if Laine can start shooting more. He may already have the league’s heaviest, most deceptive goal-scoring release, and I don’t expect his 17.6 shooting percentage to regress, as elite shooters can maintain marks that high.
For perspective, Ovechkin registered more than double Laine’s shot total as a rookie. If Laine scores at the same rate as last year, but plays 80 games can even increase his shots by 25 percent…he’d finish with 49 goals. He could run away with the goal-scoring crown with a modest uptick in shot output and injury luck.
2. Nikita Kucherov, RW, Tampa Bay Lightning
The dynamic 24-year-old hit the 40-goal plateau for the first time despite missing eight games last season. His absolutely bananas home stretch included 19 goals and 36 points in his final 23 games. Kucherov barely gets acknowledged as a star – even though he’s a superstar. He’s a crafty, smart player with an accurate shot. He should begin duelling with Laine for the league goal-scoring crown every year.
3. Auston Matthews, C, Toronto Maple Leafs
Matthews joined Mario Lemieux, Sylvain Turgeon and Dale Hawerchuk as the only official (sorry, Great One) NHL rookies to score 40 goals as a teenager. See? We weren’t exaggerating when we said Matthews would join Connor McDavid as a generational talent. Matthews’ 40 snipes tied him with Kucherov for second in the league, so it’s no stretch to imagine Matthews leading the league. That said, he set the goal-scoring bar so high that it’s tough to imagine him topping it in Year 2. It’s more likely Matthews’ assist total of 29 spikes significantly.
4. Vladimir Tarasenko, RW, St. Louis Blues
Only Ovechkin has more goals than Tarasenko’s 116 over the past three seasons. He’s been a top-five goal scorer three consecutive years, and he’s the only player with at least 37 goals each of the past three seasons. Tarasenko is remarkably consistent year to year, and he’s smack in his prime at 25. He’s probably the safest pick in this top 10, as he’s a virtual lock to finish no lower than fifth. If he finds some chemistry with Brayden Schenn, expected to get a shot to play center in St. Louis, maybe Tarasenko sets a personal best.
5. Sidney Crosby, C, Pittsburgh Penguins
A bit low to slot the reigning Richard winner at No. 5? Yes and no. Crosby is a borderline top-five player of all-time and still a top-two player in the game today. But what makes him so special is his versatility. He’s a playmaker when he needs to be, a shutdown center when he needs to be and a goal scorer when he needs to be. ‘Sniper Crosby’ doesn’t come out every season. He’s twice won the Rocket Richard, with totals of 51 and 44 goals, but he hasn’t crested 40 in any other season. He’s also good to miss half a dozen games per year. Crosby is still an excellent pick to contend for the league’s goal scoring crown, but he’s more likely to slip back to the 35-goal range than stay in the 45-goal range.
6. Steven Stamkos, C, Tampa Bay Lightning
The sample size was small, but Stamkos had nine goals in 17 games before tearing his meniscus last November. That pro-rates to a 43-goal campaign. He told me after a game last year he felt a weight off his shoulders once he signed his long-term deal in Tampa Bay and that it seemed to positively affect his play. A healthy Stamkos should shoot the puck a ton and challenge for the league lead in goals, no doubt. He’s a two-time Richard winner. But can we trust him to stay healthy?
7. Brad Marchand, LW, Boston Bruins
How much better than this can Marchand get? That’s the big question. He’s playing the best hockey of his career, on what is arguably the best line in hockey with Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak. It’s tough to see that trio dominating possession any more than it already does, though, so can we expect Marchand to keep climbing after breakout 37-goal and 39-goal campaigns? It’s more likely he replicates those performances, which would be highly impressive but would likely keep him just behind the NHL’s leading goal getters.
8. Alex Ovechkin, LW, Washington Capitals
I have no qualms with anyone angry to see Ovie this low. One strike and he’s out? He led the league four years in a row before last year’s dip! Yes, I know, but keep in mind his age is advancing. He turns 32 next month. The last time someone 32 or older led the NHL in goals: 1974-75, when Phil Esposito had 61. Ovechkin is one of the greatest goal scorers, if not the greatest, ever to walk the Earth, so if anyone can defy the age trends, it’s him. But he can no longer be considered the favorite.
9. David Pastrnak, RW, Boston Bruins
It took Marchand until his age-27 season to hit 30 goals for the first time. Pastrnak did it in his age-20 season. He’s a purer raw talent than the scrappy-yet-still-very-skilled Marchand. Pastrnak, in other words, hasn’t hit his ceiling yet. If he could snipe 34 and finish top-10 in the league in shots as a 20-year-old…heck, I probably have ‘Pasta’ far too low on this list, don’t I?
10. Patrick Kane, RW, Chicago Blackhawks
Like with many point-scoring champions, Kane is more associated with all-around offense than pure goal scoring. But he’s quietly finished second and 10th in goals the past two seasons and smashed his career best in shots on goal with 287 and 292 over those two campaigns. He’s adopted more of a goal-scorer’s mentality, and we know he has the tremendous raw puck skill to make every shot count. Two years ago, Kane’s highest career goal total was 30. Now 30 looks like his absolute floor.
Other Rocket Richard Trophy candidates to watch:
Jamie Benn, Dallas Stars; Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers; Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres; Tyler Seguin, Dallas Stars; Jeff Skinner, Carolina Hurricanes; Max Pacioretty, Montreal Canadiens; Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers; Filip Forsberg, Nashville Predators; William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs; Viktor Arvidsson, Nashville Predators
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