Gary Bettman must be rubbing his hands together with glee right now. Last season he got his dream Stanley Cup matchup when teams in the two biggest markets in the U.S. - Los Angeles and New York - reached the finals. Now this year he has three of the game's biggest stars - Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos and John Tavares - all healthy and poised to go head to head to head in one of the most compelling Art Ross Trophy races in years.
Now, that's not to say that these are the only three gentlemen with a shot at the scoring title this year. Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin, Ryan Getzlaf, Claude Giroux and even Tyler Seguin could conceivably have a shot at taking the prize. However, Crosby, Stamkos and Tavares are clearly in a class by themselves and the three former first overall draft picks, barring health problems, should separate themselves from the rest of the field in the weeks and months to come.
The majority of hockey pundits would no doubt give Crosby the edge in this battle. He is the only one of the three to have an Art Ross in his trophy case (two in fact) and he'd have at least a couple more if injury hadn't derailed him in seasons when he was off to an otherworldly start. He is off to another great start this season with nine points in four games and seems to have found great chemistry with new linemate Patrick Hornqvist. His on-ice vision continues to be arguably the best in the game, and he should pile of the assists. He also looks to be showing the goal scoring form that saw him net 51 goals in the 2009-10 season, driving the net hard and shooting more rather than looking for the pass-first option. So far he's got four goals in his first four games, and while he will obviously drop off that goal a game pace as the season progresses there is no reason why he can't hit the 50 goal mark again this year.
My prediction: 53 goals, 75 assists - 128 points for Crosby this season.
No one in the game trains harder than Steven Stamkos. His dedication to improving is awe-inspiring. It must have been soul-crushing when, following another off-season of grueling workout sessions Stamkos suffered a broken leg less than halfway through his season with Tampa Bay. Not only did he miss a huge chunk of time with his NHL squad, he also missed the Olympics and a shot at a gold medal. He returned in time for the playoffs, but was obviously still far from top form. He was a non-factor as Tampa was swept in the first round by the Montreal Canadiens.
This season he is back mostly healthy and hungrier than ever. Though Martin St. Louis is now a New York Rangers the Lightning look to be stronger than ever, featuring more balanced scoring that should relieve some of the attention that Stamkos receives from opposing defenders. He looks as fit as ever, and has been lightning quick on the ice so far, despite the fact that his leg probably won't be completely healed for a couple months yet. After a quiet first two games, Stamkos has really hit his stride in the past three, notching five goals in those three contests. Like Crosby he is currently scoring at a goal a game pace, and while he won't get 82 in 82, he should be able to come closer to maintaining that pace throughout the season. He should easily capture the Rocket Richard Trophy this season as the league's leading goal scorer, but will fall a bit short of nabbing his first Art Ross.
My prediction: 66 goals, 55 assists - 121 points for Stamkos this season.
Yes, John Tavares might be considered a dark horse in the Art Ross race, and with the pedigree of his main competition - Crosby and Stamkos - it is easy to see why this Islanders' superstar might get overlooked. Don't count Tavares out just yet though. He might have the best mind in the game, and his incredible anticipation allows him to see the game unfolding seconds in advance, allowing him to arrive at the right spot a split second before the puck gets there.
While he might not enjoy the same supporting cast that Crosby and Stamkos have on their respective clubs, Tavares is no longer laboring alone in Long Island. Kyle Okposo has emerged as a star playing on Tavares' wing and with Jaroslav Halak providing stability in goal Tavares and his teammates can afford to take more offensive chances knowing they won't be digging the puck out of their own net all the time if they make a risky decision.
In five games this season Tavares already has nine points, and his hot start has helped his club to first place in the Metropolitan Division thus far. Now, Tavares and the Islanders may be playing a little over their heads so far, but don't expect the wheels to fall off as the season rolls on. If they can get into the post-season with home ice advantage look for Tavares to be a very strong candidate for the Hart Trophy this year.
My prediction: 41 goals, 76 assists - 117 points for Tavares this season.
So there you have it. Yes, like the other pundits, I too think Crosby will ultimately capture the Art Ross this year, but the race won't be as lopsided as some think. It should be a very interest year indeed. Let's hope all three of these stars can play a full 82 game schedule and treat fans around the league to one of the most epic battles in years.