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Handicapping the Rocket Richard Trophy

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Now that we're getting into the middle portion of the NHL Regular Season, it's time to take a look at the league's leading goal-scorers, and assess their chances of keeping up the pace in the battle for the Maurice Richard Trophy. All too often, we've seen players come charging out of the gate with monster numbers in October and November, only to fade in the winter as teams settle into their routines and learn how best to shut down thier opponents. For today, I'm including the current top 5 players in goal scoring, and will follow up over the course of the week with the rest of the top 24 (down to a seven-way tie at 13 goals). When I refer to Shot Quality here, I'm using my version of the stat (slightly cruder than Alan Ryder's, but good enough for our purposes here) as detailed here*.

Marian Hossa, Atlanta Thrashers: Hossa quietly leads a diverse attack that's tearing up the Southeast along with Slava Kozlov and Ilya Kovalchuk, and Kovalchuk's presence on this list bodes well for them both keeping the production up. His current shooting percentage of 15.87% isn't out-of-this-world (he notched a 19.65% clip in 2002-3), so it's not like he's on a particularly hot streak. The major factor working in Hossa's favor is the number of shots he's taking. So far, he's on a pace for 369 shots, which would mark a personal high, over last year's 341. Hossa typically plays 80+ games a season, so his durability is unquestioned. This is an elite player with great supporting linemates and a team that expects him to lead the charge - he gets over 21 minutes of ice time per game, with 6 of it on the power play (where half his goals are coming). The stars seem aligned for him to have an MVP-type season. Prognosis: The Favorite

Brendan Shanahan, New York Rangers: Shanny has taken Broadway by storm early on, scoring goals, blocking shots, and providing the vocal leadership that fans adore. As opposed to last season in Detroit, Shanahan is getting 4.5 more minutes of ice time per game in New York. As you'd expect, part of that is extra power play time (6:05/game this year, 4:05/game last), but surprisingly, the bulk of it is on the penalty kill, where he's logging 2:49 nightly in shorthanded duty. In the interest of preserving him for the playoffs (where his production has disappointed the last three years), I imagine that workload will be reduced, but the scoring opportunities should still be there at even strength and on the power play. He's taking almost 5 shots a game this year (up from 3.5 last), and although his overall Shot Quality is merely 9.17%, his shooting percentage is an admirable 15.15%. This confirms the notion that Shanny is one of the league's better shooters. He's able to score more goals than you'd expect, given the shot type and distance. For example, a wrist shot between 11-20 feet typically scores 18% of the time, but Shanahan's rate is double that. Prognosis: Prime Contender

Thomas Vanek, Buffalo Sabres: This second-year sensation is lighting up the scoreboard, all while getting less playing time than the other contenders here (16:42/game, 2nd lowest among the top 24 goal scorers). Power play time is also relatively scarce for Vanek, as he gets less than four minutes of it per game - again, 2nd lowest among the top 24. What jumps off the page with Vanek is his shooting percentage of 20.99%, a huge jump over last year's 12.25%. His Shot Quality is a respectable 13.08%, so he's taking decent shots, but you just get the feeling here that a fall back to earth is in order for the young winger - over the course of the season, I'd expect that shooting percentage to come down closer to his Shot Quality. There's nothing wrong with taking 240 shots, shooting at a 15% clip, and racking up 36 goals in only your second NHL season. I just don't see this current level of sniping continuing all year. Prognosis: Expected To Fade

Ilya Kovalchuk, Atlanta Thrashers: While everyone obsesses over the hot rookies and second-year players in the NHL (the Post-Lockout Generation?), King Kovalchuk is back at the top of his game. Getting almost 8 minutes on the power play per game with the likes of Hossa and the unselfish and gifted Slava Kozlov (where, like Hossa, roughly 50% of his goals are coming), Kovalchuk has as good a chance as any at taking the Rocket Richard Trophy home for a second time. He's durable, takes a ton of shots, and is scoring at a reasonable pace (13.82% Shooting Percentage with a Shot Quality of 10.53%). His ice time is trending pretty similarly to last season, when he fell just 4 goals short of the prize, so you can bet he'll be in the running again this spring. Prognosis: Prime Contender

Alexander Ovechkin, Washington Capitals: The best news for Ovechkin's chances is that he didn't get suspended for his recent hit on Daniel Briere - with this competition, any missed time is hard to make up. Ovechkin's advantage in this race is his prodigious shooting; he led the league last year with 425 shots, and is on pace to fire 419 this year. His Shot Quality is 12.29% and his Shooting Percentage 12.78% (very close to last year's numbers), so across the board, he's scoring at an average rate, but just taking more shots than anyone else. There's no particular reason to believe he won't continue at his current pace, and in fact he could get hot - so far this season, his snap shots just aren't going in (2 for 40), while the rest of his breakdowns are either average, or in line with what he did last year (his wrist shot continues to outperform). Prognosis: Prime Contender

*Basically I don't get into rebound opportunities, and look at shots grouped by ranges (1-10 feet, 11-20, etc.) rather than getting more granular. The end result is an estimate of how dangerous the shots are that a player is taking. Since, on average, about 10% of NHL shots go in, a player with a Shot Quality of 12% is taking higher-than-average quality shots, and a player with SQ of 8% is taking poorer shots. A large part of that can be due to position, since defensemen are expected to take lots of long slappers, so keep that in mind.

Edit: Thanks to Logan for pointing out corrections to my Hossa/Kozlov/Kovalchuk line comments.