The race to the Art Ross Trophy is looking to be the closest and lowest and one of the most international in NHL history. Never before have so many players been so closely knotted atop the leaderboard so late in the season, and never before by so few points. Further, some five nations are currently represented.
To understand the significance, a little history would be helpful.
The first time a European appeared in the end-of-season top 10 was 1980-81 when Sweden’s Kent Nilsson and Czechoslovakia’s Peter Stastny both finished among the leading scorers (although, like everyone else, they were massively in arrears behind Wayne Gretzky).
Jari Kurri, Mats Naslund, and Hakan Loob were the only other Europeans to finish in the top 10 in the 1980s, and it wasn’t until the lockout-shortened season of 1994/95 that a European won the Art Ross Trophy. Jaromir Jagr won with 70 points, the same number as Eric Lindros, but the Czech forward won because he had more goals (32 to 29). Jagr won four more titles between 1997 and 2001.
The closest race of the modern era came in 2002/03. Heading into the final day of the season, Sunday, 6th April, Vancouver’s Markus Naslund had 104 points, followed by Peter Forsberg (Colorado) with 103. Boston’s Joe Thornton had 101, but the Bruins had played their final game of the season the previous night.
On that Sunday, the Canucks were shut out, 2-0, by Los Angeles, so Naslund finished the year with 104 points. But the Avalanche beat St. Louis, 5-2, at home. Forsberg got his 104th point in the first period to tie Naslund, but Naslund had 48 goals to Foppa’s 29, so the tie would favour Naslund.
The Avs were shut out in the middle period and Forsberg failed to get a point through the first half of the final period. It didn’t look good for the IIHF and Hockey Hall of Famer. But, at 14:22 he assisted on Milan Hejduk’s 50th goal of the season, giving Forsberg the first Art Ross Trophy for a Swede. He added a goal later in the game to win the scoring race by two points over compatriot Naslund.
Europeans have won five of the last seven races for the Art Ross, but what is intriguing this year is how close the top 10 currently are. Between 1999 and 2004, the leading scorer in the league failed to record 100 points three times in five seasons. These were the days of the “dead puck era”, an era that seems to be back if the current race is examined.
Consider the top-10 scorers right now are separated by only six points, a preposterously close race (actually, it’s the top 11 because of a tie). There is currently a two-way tie for first between linemates Alex Ovechkin (Washington/RUS), and Nicklas Backstrom (Washington/SWE), both with 67 points.
Two points in arrears of the leaders are John Tavares (Islanders/CAN), Yevgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh/RUS) and Jakub Voracek (Philadelphia/CZE). Two players are a single point behind them—Patrick Kane (Chicago/USA) and Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh/CAN).
In eighth place is the surprising Tyler Johnson (Tampa Bay/USA) with 62 points, and three players have 61 points: Vladimir Tarasenko (St. Louis/RUS), Jamie Benn (Dallas/CAN), and Ryan Getzlaf (Anaheim/CAN).
Incredibly, the top 10 are averaging only a point a game, so it’s well within the realm of possibility the leading scorer in the NHL for 2014/15 will fail to reach even 90 points. The last time that happened in a full season (discounting the lockout years of 1994/1995 and 2012/13) was 1967/68, the first year of expansion (Stan Mikita, 87 points).
The most international top-10 ever was 1998/99 when an incredible seven countries were represented: Czech Republic (Jagr), Finland (Teemu Selanne), Canada (Paul Kariya, Joe Sakic, Eric Lindros, Theo Fleury), Sweden (Peter Forsberg), Russia (Alexei Yashin), United States (John LeClair), and Slovakia (Pavol Demitra).
Between 1995 and 2003, the top-10 had at least five countries represented every year, but since the lockout of 2004/05 ended and the shootout was introduced, Canadians have dominated once again and only twice have five nations been represented in the top-10 (2009/10 and 2011/12).
The point spread between first and tenth in the scoring race has generally been significant. When Number 99 won his many Ross Trophies in the 1980s, he often was 100 points or more ahead of the 10th man on the list, utterly preposterous numbers, to be sure.
Only twice in the nearly one hundred years of the NHL has the gap between first and tenth been less than ten – 1923/24 (8), and 1935/36 (9). Yet here we are, late in the current season, and that gap is a mere six points.
And so, 2014/15 promises to be one of a kind, a year on which five countries will again be in the top-10, the top scorer will almost certainly have the fewest points in nearly half a century, and the point spread between the first and tenth place player will be the smallest in some eight decades.
The only question left to be answered is... who will finish in top spot?