Contender or pretender: Matthews’ challengers in goal scoring race

In today’s edition of contender or pretender we are going away from the team angle and focusing on an individual race.

Specifically the NHL goal scoring race.

For the better part of the past 15 years we have been conditioned to assume that Alex Ovechkin is going to finish at the top of this list because, well, more often than not he has. He has finished with at least a share of the goal scoring crown in nine of the past 13 seasons, and seven of the previous eight. He has owned this category. But with only eight goals in his first 20 games this season, and several other players around the league racing out to great starts, it seems that his reign is coming to an end. At least for this season.

For most of this season Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews has been running away with the goal scoring lead.

He enters the week with 18 goals in his first 23 games, and for a short period of time was making people ask whether or not he could hit the 50-goal mark in a 56-game season. A wrist injury that sidelined him for three games, as well as the fact that he has gone five consecutive games without a goal, has cooled that took considerably. Assuming he does not miss any additional games, he is currently on a 41-goal pace in 53 games.

It has also allowed some other players to gain some ground on him.

So the question today: Are there any serious contenders to overtake him, and who are they?

The Current Pace

As of Monday there are three players that have closed to within four goals of Matthews.

That seems close. But there is the whole games played and games remaining factor at play. DeBrincat for example has 14 goals in only 22 games played for Chicago, which would put him on a 36-goal pace in 56 games, which would keep him within striking distance. But you have to keep in mind that DeBrincat has already missed four games this season and can only play a maximum of 52 games. HIs current pace in 52 games: 33 goals.

There are currently only four players in the league on pace to score at least 33 goals at the moment: Matthews, Toffoli, DeBrincat and Stars forward Joe Pavelski.

Just for a quick reference point, here are the top-15 projected goal scorers at the moment based on current paces.

Separating The Contenders And Pretenders

• On the surface the best competition for Matthews right now would seem to be Toffoli.

He is the closest in terms of raw numbers, has not missed any games, has the next best pace, and is scoring the most goals. But there are two big red flags when it comes to him, and they are both somewhat related. The first is that he is riding a 20% shooting percentage this season, a mark that is double his previous career average. The driving force behind that is the fact he has scored eight goals in five games against the porous goaltending and defense of the Canucks. In his 16 games against non-Vancouver teams he has a still very strong, but hardly dominant seven goals. In short: There is probably a lot of small sample size randomness here. That shooting percentage is going to drop, and he is not going to keep feasting on Vancouver. I am leaning toward pretender here.

• Pavelski is an intriguing one because like Toffoli he is riding a shooting percentage well above 20%. The difference is that Pavelski has actually shot at that level (or close to it) over a full season several times, finishing above 17% four different times, including a 20 percent mark just two years ago. It would not be unheard of for him to maintain it. Maybe an outside shot at contender.

• DeBrincat could be a sleeper here, but his problem will be that he might simply run out of games. That makes him a pretender.

• Had he not missed 12 games the easy answer to this question would have been David Pastrnak.

• The player that is probably the biggest threat and contender here is also the most obvious answer: Connor McDavid.

McDavid is not that far off the pace, and his current shooting percentage is actually a touch lower than it has been in recent years. Matthews, on the other hand, has a percentage a little higher than it has been (even after going five straight games without a goal on 22 shots).

Goal scorers do not score goals on a schedule. A 40-goal player does not get to that point by scoring a goal every other game. They get there by riding a roller coaster that sees them be unstoppable for six or seven games, and then unable to buy a goal for the same number.

There is always some correction that takes place over the season.  Matthews went through his unstoppable stretch at the beginning and now things are leveling off a bit. The same will happen with Toffoli.

McDavid, however, has already gone through a few three-game droughts, including one eight-game stretch where he scored just one goal. His surge and hot streak might still be ahead of him. That is going to make him the biggest possible contender for Matthews the rest of the way.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

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