Top 10 Art Ross Trophy candidates for 2019-20

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The highest single-season point totals among NHL players in the past decade:

Nikita Kucherov, 128, 2018-19
Connor McDavid, 116, 2018-19
Henrik Sedin, 112, 2009-10
Patrick Kane, 110, 2018-19
Sidney Crosby, 109, 2009-10
Evgeni Malkin, 109, 2011-12
Alex Ovechkin, 109, 2009-10
Connor McDavid, 108, 2017-18
Patrick Kane, 106, 2015-16
Leon Draisaitl, 105, 2018-19

Four of the top 10 point totals, including three of the top four, came last season. Two key changes to game have brought back an era of explosive individual offense: the slashing crackdown, which began in 2017-18, and the reductions in goalie equipment size, rolled out over the past few seasons. The past two NHL campaigns averaged the most goals per game since 2005-06 and the most shots per game since 1970-71. We can thus expect another bushel of players exceeding 100 points. The past two seasons yielded nine 100-point efforts. The previous five non-lockout seasons yielded four.

It’s pretty obvious we’ll see Nikita Kucherov and Connor McDavid battle for the Art Ross Trophy again. They belong in their own tier, having combined for the past three scoring titles. Despite playing in different conferences, the two counterparts are aware of each other. At least, that’s how Kucherov explained it when we spoke this past June at the NHL Awards in Vegas, the day before he took home the Art Ross and Hart Trophies and Ted Lindsay Award.

“You definitely look at the stats and look at the TV,” Kucherov said. “You know what happens in the games. It’s nervewracking sometimes. Sometimes you see he has three points, and you’re like, ‘Agh, I’ve got to do better than him next time.’ It’s nice. It’s a competition. I’ve been waiting to compete against these types of guys. I’ve been getting better, and they make you a better player for sure. He’s an unbelievable player, so much fun to watch. What he’s done for the past three or four years is remarkable. I’m just really excited playing him.”

It should be a joy to watch the two superstars compete again in 2019-20. McDavid and Kucherov are the clear favorites, but who else has chance to win the Art Ross this season? Here are my top 10 candidates.

1. NIKITA KUCHEROV, TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

Kucherov’s 128 points were the most by any player in the salary-cap era, eclipsing Joe Thornton’s 125 in 2005-06, and the most by any NHLer since Mario Lemieux dropped 161 in 1995-96. Kucherov’s situation could not have set him up better. He was in the middle of his prime at 25, on the NHL’s best, most talented team, with the league’s No. 1 power play. Kucherov was the primary reason for the Lightning tying an NHL record with 62 victories, of course. He was the league’s best driver of offense. Among the 389 skaters who totalled at least 1,000 minutes of hockey last season at all strengths, Kucherov led the NHL in first assists, total assists and points per 60 minutes. He lapped the field with 4.69 points per 60. Second place was 3.95.

Kucherov averaged almost three fewer minutes per game than McDavid in ice time, but Kucherov was so productive every time he took the ice that it didn’t matter. It helps that he has such a fantastic group of teammates, which included two other skaters who topped 90 points: Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point. Including power-play time, the forwards Kucherov played with most in 2018-19 were Point, Tyler Johnson and Stamkos.

Kucherov has proven durable during his career, averaging 79 games across his past five seasons, and he maintains the glorious teammate configuration he had last year, assuming RFA Point signs before the season starts. We can thus expect another eye-popping performance from Kucherov.

2. CONNOR MCDAVID, EDMONTON OILERS

As great as Kucherov is, the plan wasn’t to rank him first on this list. McDavid had the inside track. Kucherov’s 128-point explosion came in his age-25 campaign. Considering McDavid already has three 100-point seasons by age 22, it’s safe to say his career trajectory points even higher. We haven’t necessarily seen the best of No. 97, as terrifying as that sounds. He has absolutely lived up to his generational-talent billing. He and Wayne Gretzky are the only two players to win multiple scoring titles by age 21. McDavid is the 19th player in NHL history to record three straight 100-point seasons – but did it in his first four seasons. If we look at other generational talents peaking, Gretzky had 87 goals and 205 points in 74 games – not his record-breakers, but his best pace ever – in his age-23 season. Alex Ovechkin scored 65 goals at 22. Mario Lemieux had 199 points at 23. So we might see McDavid’s offensive summit this season.

So why, then, have I ranked him No. 2? Blame his PCL, which he tore last April. He did not require surgery but has needed the entire summer to rehab the injury. His agent Jeff Jackson spoke this week about it and wouldn’t commit him to suiting up for the season opener just yet. Considering how much McDavid relies on his peerless speed, the Oilers need him at 100 percent, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he missed a few games to start the year. With such a game Art-Ross rival in Kucherov, even missing a few games could make the difference between first and second place. If McDavid suits up for Game 1: bump him back to first on this list.

3. PATRICK KANE, CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS

We may not look back at Kane as a generational talent, but he sure has forged an outstanding career under the shadow of McDavid, Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. Kane has three Stanley Cups, an MVP, a scoring title, a Conn Smythe and a Calder Trophy. He’s also topped 100 points twice in the past four seasons, including 2018-19, when he set a new career high with 110.

Kane’s current setup in Chicago couldn’t be more conducive to offense. The Blackhawks aren’t nearly as good – especially on defense – as they were in the peak Cup-winning heyday of Joel Quenneville, meaning they have to play “loose” more often as they try to catch up and stay in games. The slashing crackdown has been particularly helpful to smaller players, who have been freed up to dangle around slower defenders. We’ve seen the likes of Johnny Gaudreau, Mitch Marner and Brayden Point light it up in recent seasons, and the 5-foot-10, 177-pound Kane has a lot more room to move around as well. It hardly feels like a coincidence that he smashed his career high in shots on goal last season, racking up 341 after never even cracking 300 before.

And with Dylan Strome and Alex DeBrincat emerging as an exciting new generation of scoring threats in Chicago, opposing checkers can’t key on Kane the same way anymore, particularly when coach Jeremy Colliton puts him on a separate line with Jonathan Toews. The only thing holding Kane back from the top two in the Art Ross rankings is the fact he’s 30. Even if we give him the benefit of the doubt and say he’s not declining yet, the players above him may still be ascending. Kane’s ceiling is lower.

4. JOHNNY GAUDREAU, CALGARY FLAMES

The modern game is tailored to favor Gaudreau’s skills. He’s on the shortlist of the game’s most creative danglers, the hockey equivalent of a slippery, impossible-to-tackle running back like Alvin Kamara. Elias Lindholm joined up with Sean Monahan to give Gaudreau the best linemates of his career last season, and the result was magical, especially in the first half. By the 41-game mark, Johnny Hockey’s 59 points put him on a 118-point pace. He seemed to run out of gas in the second half, especially after the all-star break, but he still wound up with a career-best 99 points and finished fourth in Hart Trophy voting. With just a bit more year-round consistency, Gaudreau can join the 100-point club. He’d be the first Flame to do so since Theo Fleury in 1992-93.

5. NATHAN MACKINNON, COLORADO AVALANCHE

When MacKinnon gets a head of steam, there’s almost no stopping him. He’s arguably the one player who can rival McDavid in pure fearsomeness when going right at a defender with the puck on his stick. MacKinnon forms one of the best two lines in the league with Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen. Because the Avalanche were so top-heavy last season, coach Jared Bednar occasionally experimented with splitting the trio up. Now that GM Joe Sakic has fortified the secondary scoring with center Nazem Kadri and wingers Andre Burakovsky and Joonas Donskoi, however, it’s more likely MacKinnon gets to play all year with his cronies. That should launch him toward another 95 points at minimum.

Factoring in Cale Makar’s arrival on the blueline, the Avs’ power play could become even deadlier after ranking seventh in the NHL last season, leading to even more points for MacKinnon. He’s posted seasons of 97 and 99 points over the past two years, but he missed eight games in 2017-18, so he’s actually averaging 103 points per 82 games over that stretch. He isn’t truly elite in terms of efficiency, having ranked 56th in points per 60 minutes among skaters with 1,000-plus minutes last season, but his heavy usage offsets that. Expect his first 100-point campaign.

6. MITCH MARNER, TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

At 5-on-5, Marner led the NHL by a mile in first assists per 60 last season and finished second to Kucherov in total assists per 60. Only Kucherov and Crosby averaged more points per 60 minutes. Marner’s 94 points were the most by any Leaf in the past 22 years. He’s locked onto a line with John Tavares and, not turning 23 until May, Marner is the youngest player in my top 10 and theoretically has the most room left for ascension. The per-60 production suggests he’s a 100-point scorer waiting to bust out. He has a case to rank as high as fourth, but coach Mike Babcock’s conservative usage of all his forwards will continue to cap Marner’s upside, and there’s the not-so-small matter of Marner, an RFA, remaining unsigned. A contract and an increase of ice time could turn him into a top-three scorer.

7. SIDNEY CROSBY, PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

Crosby got my second-place vote for the 2018-19 Hart Trophy. Not only did he play the best defensive hockey of his career, but he also maintained elite offense, notching his first 100-point season since 2013-14. He’s shown few if any signs of decline, having just averaged his most minutes in five seasons. He did shoot the puck less than he ever has last year, but that was also because he had a 40-goal finisher to feed on his line in Jake Guentzel. Crosby has always shown the ability to adapt his game based on his role and teammates. We can thus expect another MVP-level effort from Sid. That said, he’s 32 now. Excluding lockout-shortened campaigns, no player since Wayne Gretzky in 1993-94 has won the Art Ross at 32 or older, and Gretzky is the only guy to do it since Gordie Howe in 1962-63. As sublime as Crosby was last season, he only finished fifth in points.

8. DAVID PASTRNAK, BOSTON BRUINS

As I pointed out in the Rocket Richard blog earlier this week, ‘Pasta’ is a sleeping giant, his epic production in 2018-19 masked by 16 missed games due to a fluke injury. He’s the best power-play weapon in the NHL, first in goals per 60 and second in points per 60 last season, and scored at a 100-point clip last season. At 23, he’s arriving at his peak age for point production. The only knock on his Art Ross chances: he was “merely great” but not elite in 5-on-5 offense last season. Teams’ power-play efficiency – and opportunities – can vary year to year, making power-play production a bit tougher to bank on. Still, a 45-45-90 line for Pastrnak should be a lock if he stays healthy, and he has the upside to break into the top echelon of point collectors.

9. ALEKSANDER BARKOV, FLORIDA PANTHERS

No one ever questioned Barkov’s tremendous talent. On top of being one of the best two-way forwards alive, he was blessed with great size and some of the filthiest mitts in the game. It was only a matter of time before he delivered a true powerhouse season. We got it last year thanks to a massive second half: 18 goals and 49 points in 34 games, hoisting his season line to a career-best 35-61-96. On one hand, Barkov’s massive defensive responsibility might hold him back from winning an Art Ross. No scoring champ has ever won the Selke Trophy in the same season (Sergei Fedorov won the Hart and Selke in the same season, however). Among skaters with 1,000 or more minutes at 5-on-5 last season, Barkov was 33rd in points per 60.

The flip side: Barkov’s huge role means huge minutes. He’s on the ice so much that he racks up a lot of extra points. He’s the reverse Marner in that sense and possesses a high offensive floor. Barkov’s second-half production extrapolates to a 118-point pace, reminding us what he’s capable of if new Panthers coach Joel Quenneville takes the reins off.

10. LEON DRAISAITL, EDMONTON OILERS

Draisaitl surpassed 100 points last season and finished higher than Gaudreau, MacKinnon, Marner, Crosby, Pastrnak and Barkov in the scoring race.. So why is Draisaitl lower than all of them on this list? Because he rides shotgun with McDavid. Remember, I’m not ranking the top 10 projected scorers here. I’m ranking the top 10 candidates to lead the league in scoring. If and when Draisaitl has another monster season, he’ll do so as McDavid’s left winger, and it’s difficult to imagine any scenario in which Draisaitl goes bonkers on the scoresheet and outscores McDavid. If Draisaitl bests his 50-goal, 105-point masterpiece of 2018-19, he’ll do so with McDavid setting him up – and outscoring him. Steven Stamkos just misses cracking my top 10 for the same reason. Given the power-play time he gets with Kucherov, the more points Stammer gets, the more Kucherov will get. That said, with Draisaitl’s odds of a top-five season in points so high, I can’t leave him off the list entirely.

Other Art Ross Trophy candidates to consider: Brad Marchand, Steven Stamkos, Mikko Rantanen, John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Claude Giroux, Mark Scheifele, Sebastian Aho, Jack Eichel, Blake Wheeler, Brayden Point, Mathew Barzal, Taylor Hall, Artemi Panarin, Evgeni Malkin, Tyler Seguin, Jonathan Huberdeau, Alex Ovechkin, Elias Pettersson

Advanced stats courtesy of naturalstattrick.com