If you polled hockey fans on December 1st about who they thought would win the Rocket Richard trophy at season’s end, you’d likely get an overwhelming amount of support for David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins. Through a third of the season, Pasta had a total of 25 goals through 27 games, an outstanding pace that looked to be a runaway candidate considering he had a 5-goal lead on arguably the league’s greatest goal scorer in Alex Ovechkin. However, as all NHL fans know, hockey is a brilliant and unpredictable sports that can change in the blink of an eye, especially with so much time left in the season. Four months later, David Pastrnak is still your NHL leader in goals scored, but the race has become much more competitive.
Given the length of the NHL season, it’s no surprise to see Pasta’s 0.93 goals per game pace on December 1st take a dip, although his 0.7 rate (good for 48 goals) on March 9th is still remarkable and made goalies around the league fear that Bruins top line every time the puck touches his stick. However, Pasta’s got some pretty noticeable company now with Ovi trailing him by only one goal and Leafs’ sniper Auston Matthews right behind with 46. While we’ve come to expect this year after year from Ovi, Matthews is showing his deadly scoring prowess in his fourth season. If I had to put my money on one horse, it’s hard not to side with Ovechkin given his history and his incredible ability to put together spurts of multi-goal games over a three or four game span. I mean, he pulled off the same feat earlier this year prior to the all-star break, tucking 8 goals in only 3 games, including back-to-back hat tricks.
Matthews certainly has a case as well, especially when you look at his game splits before and after the firing of Mike Babcock. While Matthews was still a massive threat prior to the firing, scoring at a 0.61 goals/GP clip with 14 goals in 23 games, his numbers seemed to have increased since the coaching change to the tune of 0.7 goals per game, good for 2nd in the league in that time span. Additionally, his shot rate has risen by roughly 20% after the coaching change. These numbers may simply be a result of increased opportunity afforded by Sheldon Keefe or a better fit in a new offensive-minded system but it’s made it abundantly clear the Matthews belongs in this race and certainly has the skillset to rise to the top.
It seems the three players above have been on everyone’s radar for quite some time, especially post-all-star break. However, there are a couple more names that have worked their way into the conversation following some incredible performances in recent months. Firstly, we can look at the likely Hart favourite in Leon Draisaitl, who has raised his goal scoring efforts recently to compliment his eye-popping assist figures. This should be no surprise considering the guy just buried 50 last season, but he hadn’t quite captured that same goal-scoring magic until recently. The German phenom lunged back into Rocket conversation following back-to-back multi-goal performances last week, including a 4-goal effort against the Nashville Predators. What’s even more impressive is Draisaitl’s shooting percentage of 20%, which ranks 2nd in the league amongst players with at least 30 GP. It should be noted that he only trails Zach Hyman, who has scored nearly 20% of his goals on empty nets this year. Nonetheless, the past season-and-a-half have shown us the goal scoring ability that Draisaitl possesses and certainly makes him a candidate to make a run at the top dogs.
The final player that we absolutely need to mention currently sits 5th in total goal scoring but ranks 1st in goals/game. If you didn’t notice before his 5-goal performance less than a week ago, then you’re certainly aware now – Mika Zibanejad is a stud. Although he has missed 13 games this year, he is still able to keep pace with the game’s elite stars and he’s become a star in his own right on Broadway. Much like the trade between New York and Ottawa back in 2016 that brought Zibanejad to the Rangers, what he’s accomplishing is completely unfair. Outside of his injury riddled season with the Rangers back in 2016-2017, his goal totals have risen every year. He’s become an elite player with top-level speed and a deadly shot, as evidenced by his 19.7% shooting percentage. It’s a shame has hasn’t been able to stay healthy this year, but it seems we’re finally seeing the elite player that was once pegged as a top-5 draft talent by several scouts.
As we stare down the Stanley Cup playoffs and the final month of the regular season, the Rocket Richard has become one of the most intriguing storylines in the NHL. With the level of skill in the league today, we’re lucky to be able to watch some of these elite scoring talents. It looks like it’ll come right down to the last week, especially at the rate these guys are scoring. So, who ya got?