NHL teams are jockeying for playoff position as we enter the final month of the 2016-17 regular season. While the playoff race will receive most of the hockey world’s attention, another fantastic race is quietly taking shape. Behold, the Art Ross Trophy. First awarded to Elmer Lach of the Montreal Canadiens in 1948, the Trophy has been presented to the NHL’s point leader in every season since its debut. The 2004-05 season, cancelled due to the NHL lockout, is the only exception.
This year’s race for one of the league’s most coveted pieces of individual hardware has the potential to come down to the wire and be decided in exciting fashion. Several of the NHL’s most renown offensive superstars sit within a few points of each other near the top of the leader board. Not only that, but a few of those in contention have the opportunity to accomplish feats that are rare in the world of Art Ross winners.
Patrick Kane (71 Points, T-2nd)
While Connor McDavid currently leads all NHL players with 75 points (more on the young superstar in a second) and has the inside track to capture the Trophy in 2017, Patrick Kane epitomizes rare, Art Ross-related accomplishments among active players. Kane left the field in his dust during the 2015-16 campaign, scoring 106 points en route to the scoring title. Jamie Benn, the defending 2014-15 Art Ross winner, and Sidney Crosby were the closest challengers with 89 and 85 points respectively.
However, the margin of defeat in 2015-16 is not what made Kane’s first scoring title so impressive. In the 68-year history of the Art Ross Trophy, Kane became the first America-born player to EVER capture the honor (in addition to the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP). And while it’s no secret that hockey has historically been and still is Canada’s game, Kane’s accomplishment remains astounding. Great American-born players such as Pat Lafontaine, Mike Modano, Jeremy Roenick, Phil Housley, Keith Tkachuk, and others were never able earn the elusive title. Prior to Kane, Lafontaine came the closest, recording 148 points during 1992-93 to finish second only to Mario Lemieux’s 160-point mark.
Kane may not be done etching his name in the Art Ross record book. A 2016-17 scoring title would allow Kane to accomplish something that has not been done in 15 years. The last player to repeat as the Art Ross winner was Jaromir Jagr, winning the Trophy four consecutive times from 1997-98 through 2000-01. Only eight players have been able to repeat as the league’s scoring champion since the award’s inception. Doing so would put Kane’s name along side some of the greatest hockey players the world has ever seen: Wayne Gretzky (ten-time Art Ross winner), Gordie Howe (six), Mario Lemieux (six), Phil Esposito (five), Jagr (five), Stan Mikita (four), Guy Lafleur (three), and Dickie Moore (two). Capturing the 2016-17 honor would also result in the Chicago Blackhawks being only the third franchise able to claim multiple back-to-back winners, joining the Pittsburgh Penguins (Lemieux and Jagr) and Canadiens (Lafleur and Moore).
Brent Burns, (70 Points, T-4th)
While Kane was able to accomplish a first in the history of the Art Ross Trophy, Brent Burns is pursuing a feat that is almost as rare. Bobby Orr remains the only defenseman in the history of the NHL to lead the league in points. Orr did it twice, in 1969-70 and 1974-75. His two scoring titles were part of a string of seven consecutive won by players in a Boston Bruins sweater. The other five were earned by Esposito.
Although Burns is a converted forward, tallying points on pace with the league’s most skilled offensive players is an impressive feat. Erik Karlsson has been the NHL’s most prolific offensive defenseman during recent years, leading all defensemen in points during the last three years and four of the last five. P.K. Subban accomplished the feat during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. Karlsson’s best showing was last year, racking up 82 points, good for T-4th in the league. Burns had a solid 2015-16 season in his own right, finishing with 75 points, 11th best in the NHL.
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Prior to Burns’ current campaign and Karlsson’s 2015-16 season, defensemen finishing in the top-10 in points has been a rarity. Outside of these two, Paul Coffey, during his time with the Detroit Red Wings, was the most recent to do so. Coffey finished T-6th with 58 points during the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season. Before Karlsson’s 2015-16 success, Brian Leetch of the New York Rangers was the last defenseman to earn top-10 honors over a full 82-game season. Leetch finished 9th with 102 points during the 1991-92 campaign. Leetch would go on to win the Stanley Cup with the Rangers two years later, during which he became the first American-born player to win another of hockey’s most heralded personal accolades…the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Connor McDavid (75 Points, 1st)
At barely the age of 20, Connor McDavid’s talent and already-growing list of accomplishments in the NHL have been well-documented. McDavid has a chance to add to that list by giving the Edmonton Oilers their first Art Ross Trophy winner since Wayne Gretzky won his seventh during the 1986-87 season. Most impressive is that Gretzky’s 1987 Art Ross Trophy was also his seventh in a row, allowing no other player to lead the NHL in scoring since Gretzky began the run during the 1980-81 season. To put “The Great One’s” stretch in context, his seven-consecutive Art Ross wins are more than any other player has won in totality (consecutively or not).
As it pertains to McDavid, a 2016-17 scoring title would make him the third youngest player to ever capture the honor. Gretzky had held that distinction for many years, winning the 1980-81 Art Ross Trophy at the age of 20 (born 1/26/61). McDavid, should he win, would narrowly miss supplanting Gretzky as the now second-youngest player to do so. Born on 1/13/97, McDavid would be only 13 days older than Gretzky relative to the respective years that each would have won their first Trophy.
Sidney Crosby ousted Gretzky as the youngest player to win the Art Ross Trophy, a distinction that Crosby still holds today. Crosby won the Art Ross during the 2006-07 campaign at the age of 19 (born 8/7/87).
Most would be hard-pressed to bet against Connor McDavid capturing the 2016-17 Art Ross Trophy. But he’ll have to earn it. Besides defending-winner Patrick Kane and Brent Burns, also the likely 2016-17 Norris Trophy winner, several other prolific players are in hot pursuit. A pair of Penguins and past Art Ross winners, Crosby (70 points, T-4th) and Evgeni Malkin (71 points, T-2nd) are driving the Pens in their defense of the Stanley Cup. Brad Marchand (70 points, T-4th) is having a career-year, already eclipsing the highest point total of his career with a month left to play.
Offense is alive and well in the NHL. And if you’re paying attention, this year’s race for the Art Ross Trophy should prove just that.